Much has happened since the advent of the Asterix and Obelix cartoons of French cartoonists René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in 1959. Much continues to change in the genre, and the world of comics and graphic novels remains vast.
Today, Marvel and DC Studios constantly take over the cinema box office, and queer comics such Steven Universe are entering the mainstream. Some of the first graphic novels in Africa have so far leaned toward creating fascinating African superheroes.
Loyiso Mkize’s Kwezi features heroes with a variety of different African appearances. Eugene Ramirez Mapondera’s Umzingeli centres on a woman bounty hunter who slays political criminals in Zimbabwe, crossing over with one of the longest-running African comic series, Bill Masuku’s Razor Man, in strong themes of social justice. Others focus on the daily lives of their protagonists, like Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s Aya of Yop City, six volumes of life in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, set in the 1970s.
Meanwhile… Graphic Short Stories About Everyday Queer Life in Southern and Eastern Africa recently launched at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Beyond the rainbows of Pride Month, a new anthology rooted in the comic tradition is offering a fresh look into the lives of diverse queer and African identities.
Published by MaThoko’s Books, an imprint of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), the publication is composed by 18 young and queer creative people forming part of the Qintu Collab: a collective from Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe that comprises two academics, three artists and a journalist.
Realities beyond only violence
Meanwhile… was created to meet the need for content that expresses a full experience of African queer life, a life not solely enveloped in violence that shows the realities of these experiences across the continent, allowing us a glimpse into the powerful political and celebratory commentary of young queer people today. The anthology feels both light and heavy, with stories that borrow humour from traumatic experiences and reveal tinges of heartbreak as experiences that juxtapose reality with fantasy, defying how things are by imagining how they could be.
Reading through the anthology feels like being present in the conversation between a group of friends chatting and working through themes such as religion, rejection, masturbation, love and awkwardness. It is punctuated by striking imagery paired with words of comfort in Swahili, Shona and Setswana that utter phrases such as “It doesn’t invalidate me, it completes me”, “We are amongst you”, “The heart wants what it wants” and “Keep holding on”.
Every part of Meanwhile… feels rooted in “queerating”, a concept introduced by curator Binghao Wong, in acknowledgement of the “inescapable complications of queer life” while allowing art to act as a form of intentional collective care.
Queer care – the kind of care specifically required by LGBTQIA+ people that arises directly out of their experiences of a world not created for their diverse identities – is demanding, much like the process of putting this book together. Everything, down to the name of the collective, is a neologism, a newly coined word or expression. Qintu, a phrase imagined during its workshop stage, is the collective’s attempt to find a common word for “queer” across Swahili, Shona and Setswana.
“Across the three countries [of Kenya, Zimbabwe and Botswana] there aren’t really any positive words for ‘queerness’. With the history of colonisation and how it shaped sexuality in these countries … we just made our own,” said Talia Meer and Alex Müller from the University of Cape Town’s gender, health and justice research unit, which now forms part of the Qintu Collab.
Much like South African initiative Find New Words, which aims to create social change through indigenous language, it was Pepper, a content creator from Nairobi, Kenya, who said, “I don’t know what ‘qintu’ means but from now on ‘qintu’ means queer; ‘qintu’ is who I am.
“We’re reinventing queerness, thinking of new ways of identifying and making definitions in the absence of language,” said Meer and Müller. “So we put a spin on the word kintu,” a term borrowed from Kintu, the name of a mythological figure from Uganda’s creation myths. The Kintu character is almost a god. It’s clear that holding queerness close to godliness is an act of revolution in itself.
This revolution navigates religious families and attempting to heal from the trauma that comes with issues such as being kicked out of home, the constant need to apologise, gender roles in gay relationships and looking forward with 2070, a contemporary science fiction piece in Meanwhile… that is comparable to Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer album.
Meanwhile… follows in the footsteps of those who have been creating African graphic novels and creates a safe space for queer people to imagine themselves into the future, into an archive of experiences, into a form of therapy. The book has two very specific styles, credited to South African illustrators Kit Beukes and Nas Hoosen.
“Comics allow us to connect intimately with the lives of their characters in ways other mediums can’t. We get inside their heads, and are able to travel through their lives with the flipping back and forth of a few pages. In the context of queer people’s lives, we’re seeing things represented in a visual way that’s impossible to deny. It gives a face and a humanity to queer experience that the constant reiteration of old clichés and stereotypes can’t,” said Hoosen of his work in the anthology.
Meanwhile… is one of few, if not the first, collaborative graphic projects that tell the stories of young African queers via narrative methodologies reflecting social, political and economic processes. Together, they queerate a piece of work that moves “past the notion that ‘it gets better’, that we are each waiting for some rainbow-hued utopia, and to instead focus on the queerness of the imperfect present, even as we strive toward a more just future,” as Meer and Müller say in the anthology’s opening essay.
Created in collaboration
“If collaboration and collectivity are imperatives that strengthen our chosen queer families, how can we begin to practice together in our cultural work?” asks Wong.
One of the collaborators, Brilliant, who is the Botswana-based editor of Setabane.com, recalls that being in a room filled with conscious young people who know so much about their backgrounds made it easy for him to share his stories without thinking they were wrong or weird.
Pepper says she felt that one of the most important things about the book was that it “shares the lived experiences of queer African individuals through a medium that’s rarely used to share queer stories. That in itself is life-changing. This publication is affirming and necessary.”
The creation of Meanwhile… was sponsored by The Ford Foundation and researched with the Kenyan National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the Sexual Rights Centre in Zimbabwe and The Lesbian, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana.
A fully collaborative graphic anthology, it joins books such as Queer Africa and Proudly Malawian: Life Stories from Lesbian and Gender-Nonconforming Individuals under the umbrella of MaThoko’s Books.
Gala director Keval Harie spoke of the importance of the publication. “It ensures in both a symbolic and practical way that the narratives of LGBTQIA+ people are preserved, celebrated and publicly accessible.”