The hopes and dreams of Africa’s queer activists

A recently released collection of stories by queer rights defenders across sub-Saharan Africa offers an intimate, hopeful look into their personal and political struggles and victories.

It took Dzoe Ahmad weeks of introspection and agonising over whether or not she was ready to share her story with the world. Ahmad, a young Zimbabwean trans woman, says: “I was still in Zimbabwe at the time … [and] I was going through an emotional breakdown … I was at a point where I was tired. Things were not working for me. Accessing hormones was not working. So many things were going on.”

After weeks of self-analysis, she came to the realisation that her hardships made it “the ideal time” to be penning her story. It is the opening chapter in the recently released anthology, Hopes and Dreams That Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

Undated: An illustration by Amina Gimba accompanies Dzoe Ahmad’s story. (Image courtesy of Gala Queer Archive)

In Ahmad’s story, we read of her struggle to access hormones in Zimbabwe and how that eventually led her to a place of self-acceptance. “When I did the story, I did it from the heart on to the paper,” she says. 

Ahmad is one of 20 queer rights activists from sub-Saharan Africa – from Sierra Leone to eSwatini, Mozambique to Rwanda – whose journeys as human-rights defenders make up the collection. 

“Some are deeply personal stories of self-discovery and acceptance. Others chart the challenges LGBTQI+ rights groups face in discriminatory environments. All carry messages of hope and dreams for a better tomorrow,” says the press release.  

‘Labour of love’

The anthology, which is available to read free online, is the result of a partnership between Taboom Media and the Gala Queer Archive. Brian Pellot is Taboom Media’s founding director. 

Pellot says the idea for Hopes and Dreams came about during a week-long media advocacy workshop facilitated by Taboom Media, the goal of which was to help human rights defenders create and implement their own media campaigns to advance LGBTQIA+ equality. 

“One of the exercises was storytelling,” says Pellot, “tell your story. We got some really interesting stories from the group and … thought, ‘There’s kind of something here.’ So after the workshop, we reached out to [Gala Queer Archive] and were, like, ‘We’re going to do this, let’s partner on it.’ And then they had the brilliant idea of commissioning original illustrations for it. We asked that the illustrations meet the theme of resilience and are, you know, uplifting.” 

3 June 2021: Brian Pellot, founding director of Taboom Media, collaborated with the Gala Queer Archive to collect stories and create original illustrations for the book. (Photograph by Barry Christianson)

With more than 40 people contributing to Hopes and Dreams, Pellot says creating it was “a labour of love”. 

“It was a lot of work,” he laughs. “As you can imagine, getting 20 stories together, all with original illustrations. And then we’re also creating videos [in which some] of the activists are reading their stories. So it’s … a lot of coordination. And a lot of editing and touching base, back and forth. But as we were editing and finding and commissioning the illustrators, we could tell it was just going to turn out to be this really beautiful thing.”

Moving parts

Karin Tan, Gala Queer Archive’s senior information officer, says the organisation “jumped at the chance” to partner on this project. 

“Personal stories and lived experiences are the moving parts that make up history,” says Tan. “Because queer narratives are generally so underrepresented, and the narratives tend to be very two-dimensional. We loved seeing the diversity of backgrounds each participant presented and the different motivations for their activism.”

Undated: Khanya Kemani’s illustration of Bulelani Mzila accompanies Story 4. (Image courtesy of Gala Queer Archive)

“David Larbi from LGBT+ Rights Ghana speaks about the defiance to stay anonymous in a very repressive country, risking arrest. You see Stephen Okwany using art and creativity to amplify queer voices in Kenya, spreading awareness that queer people are part of society. And then you have Pamina Sebastião in Angola, making space for other queer people to sleep.” 

In Sebastião’s story, we read about the highs and lows of working with queer feminist collective Arquivo de Identidade Angolano (AIA), which they helped establish. The 33-year-old says writing their story came during a time of introspection, following their having left the AIA.  

Undated: Mercy Thokozane Minah created the illustration for Story 5 by Pamina Sebastião. (Image courtesy of Gala Queer Archive)

“You know, when you leave something that you helped create … I was reflecting [on] the [previous] three or four years of giving,” says Sebastião.

“You know, we all give a lot to activism. And when I say a lot, I think the easy part is financially. But then the emotional and intellectual part always takes a toll. For the past years, I’ve been burning out and then, when I left, I was able to look back at my life for the past four years. And to be honest, it was so beautiful to see that everything that we’ve built is still here. For me, telling this story was a really cool way – an emotional way – to pay my respects to what activism meant to me.”  

‘Unapologetically us’

Having left the more structured activism that comes with working in a collective in favour of using art as a means of “criticising the coloniality of power”, Sebastião, a self-described “artivist”, says: “Writing our own stories and sharing our own stories is so powerful. If we look at the coloniality of power, we [as queer people] shouldn’t exist.

“Heteronormativity [would have us believe] that we shouldn’t exist. So, for me, creating space for our voices to be heard is subverting that structure, you know? It’s saying, ‘We are going to change you, no matter what.’ And for me that is the most important part, it’s being unapologetically us.” 

Pellot adds that central to the anthology’s ethos was that the difficulty of being a queer rights activist on a continent notorious for its seemingly unrelenting queerphobia should not take centre stage. 

May 2021: The Hopes and Dreams That Sound Like Yours book cover was illustrated by Naadira Patel. (Image courtesy of Gala Queer Archive)

“A lot of the stories have, I would say, difficult elements,” he says. “But we wanted, as a group, to focus on resilience. And to create something that is uplifting. [Because] I think we were all just so exhausted from the last year, in different ways and for different reasons, and we just wanted something beautiful and hopeful to give to readers, to queer communities and the communities we work in. Just some hope.” 

Now living in Cape Town, where she has recently started working for trans rights organisation Gender DynamiX, Ahmad’s days of being unable to access gender-affirming hormones are behind her for the moment. This, she says, makes having shared her story even more necessary. 

“For me, telling our stories is important because people will know the struggles [we went through]. They were documented and they were seen. You get my point? My hope is to touch hearts, to inspire people. And to change the narrative.”

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