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Monday, May 30, 2011

Author of "Black Looks", Africa's foremost female blogger

Sokari Ekine


An iterview with Sokari Ekine by Zara Majidpour

“I have passed through many places, created many spaces, loved many people, made many wrongs but in all my life I do not know what I have done. This is me and with whom I must live with on the most intimate of terms- but I know with the certainty that night follows day that I am not alone in this.” Quote from Sokari’s blog.

Sokari Ekine is Nigerian social justices and human rights activist and an author. By combining her interest in technology and her desire to highlight and address human rights injustices in the Niger Delta, she founded a blog in 2004 which is called Black Looks.

Her blog covers a range of taboo topics in Africa that focuses on both political and social issues. She has also been involved in various campaigns in Africa.

I interviewed her recently and I ask these questions:

The articles in your blog focus on African issues from all over the continent. Some people say that you are the best female African blogger. why has your blog become such a strong voice from within Africa?

Sokari Ekine: I am not sure about being the "best African blogger" as I am not sure what "the best' means - there are so many contexts. I am probably one of the oldest bloggers as I started in June 2004 when there were very few Africans blogging. Most of those who started around the same time have stopped, some completely some have switched their online activity to Twitter and Facebook.

However there are hundreds of new bloggers and some of them are extremely informative and well written. What I do find though is people writing about issues that I raised four five six years ago. Sometimes I think I should go back to the beginning and start to repost material from 2004/5 because they would still be relevant today. I guess I also have a history of writing about less popular issues such as Queer stories and also my range of coverage is quite extensive.

Your mother is British, father a Nigerian and you lived in the UK, U.S.A and currently in Spain. Why you are interested in African issues and Why have you become a social justice on the continent?

There is a great deal of inaccuracies lingering on the internet and for some reason though I left at the end of 2006, the Spanish part of my journey lingers on and on. I spent the first 25 years of my life in Nigeria [though I had a brief term time sojourn at an English boarding school] with my parents and siblings.

We visited both my paternal family in Port Harcourt and my material grandmother for some holidays so I had the best of both sides of my family. Since then I have lived in the UK, then I spent a brief 3 years in Spain and 6 months in South Africa before returning to London. I am fortunate to have dual nationality Nigerian/British so I can pretty much travel and live in most places for at least a year without too much hassle.

I continue to visit Nigeria regularly sometimes up to twice a year. I should also point out that there is a huge number of Nigerians and West Africans in London where again I have many relatives so even there one is never that far from home. So my connection with Nigeria remains in tack even though I no longer live there and it makes perfectly good sense for that connection to extend to all aspects of my life. I believe for most Africans, in fact for most people who have migrated to another country for whatever reason, their home continues to be central to their lives. And of course this is made so much easier in the past 10 / 15 years with the internet, cheap phone calls and so on.

What kind of problems are human rights and social justice activists facing in Africa?

We are all facing similar problems its a question of degree and what mechanisms exist for struggles against human rights violations, against economic and social injustice etc. However I would say the problems we face on the continent can be placed under three interconnecting issues: - poverty, religious fundamentalism [particularly Christian fundamentalism] and a lack of democratic institutions and governance.
We need to address problems from a global, Pan African and local level.

It is important to have a critical voice but one which is contextual and takes into consideration local situations as well as the global. If you take climate change for example, the impact on Africa is already visible but it is also a global problem and one that is not of the continent's making so we cannot just address it locally.

So there are different levels of response, different ways in which activists can work locally regionally and with international allies depending on the moment and the issue - i think the uprisings in various parts of Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Uganda, Gabon are all indicative that people desperately want to change the course of history - to put an end to dictatorial undemocratic regimes. People want a different kind of economic and political system that meets their local needs and that they can have a real say. I don’t see that the traditional representative democracy which is what countries have been focusing on, can ever give people the participation they want or that is needed to ensure a more equitable society. Again it is not just in Africa that people are feeling the need for more local participation - it is across the world.

Homosexuality is taboo in African culture and some people believed that it is against nature. In some African countries homosexuality is a crime that faces very harsh penalties. Other countries, like South Africa, have progressive laws that protect homosexuals but lesbians especially still get attacked and are tortured, raped and killed. What is the solution to this problem?

First let me say this idea of homosexuality being taboo and against nature is not solely an “African” belief - there are people all over the world who believe this including in the west. The whole discussion around homosexuality is relatively new and I don’t think there is a single country where LGBTI people are not discriminated against and / or continue to struggle against homophobia.

I believe religion plays a huge role - especially evangelical fundamentalist Christianity in the present anti-homosexuality movement on the continent. It is also my belief that same sex relationships have always existed and the fact that some languages have names for homosexuality is evidence of this. At the same time I also believe that homophobia has always existed to some degree or the other.

Possibly in some societies / cultures deviant sexualities were permissible in certain spaces such as religious, warrior or even domestic but I doubt they were ever mainstream. What is different in the post colonial period and what we are experiencing now is the formal criminalization based on colonial laws and a particularly vehement and insidious religious bigotry that is intolerant of sexual minorities, that is misogynist, patriarchal and frankly fascist. It is really only relatively recently that homosexuality has even been discussed so openly and to the point when people could put a name on their feelings.

For example it wasn't until my early 20s that I became aware of the ‘naming’ of my feelings. Because you couldn’t name it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As I stated above, in my opinion, African countries are facing broadly three major issues - poverty, religious fundamentalism [particularly Christian fundamentalism] and a lack of democratic institutions. The anti-homosexuality movement is very much connected with all three of these.

Having said all of the above, laws against homosexuality are not routinely enforced and even when they have been this has not always been followed by convictions and prison sentences. One recent exception to this was the case in Malawi in 2010 when the couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga was pardoned after an intervention by the UN Secretary General and of course there have been other cases in Cameroon's, Senegal and Nigeria but without convictions. I am not saying the lack of application of the law and convictions means everything is OK. It is most definitely not and people live under extreme stress when they are in the closet or if they are out in a hostile environment.

Regards South Africa, there are people on the ground there who can speak with more understanding and knowledge than I can on how to reduce the level of sexual violence particularly against lesbian and trans people. Nonetheless, whilst the SA constitution suggests that power is being used properly the reality is just the opposite.

There is a clear disconnect between what is written in the constitution and how the SA government and the criminal justice system are implementing those protections through legislation, enforcing anti-discriminatory laws and through the courts.
There will always be people who commit acts of violence no matter what country. But being able to do so with impunity and the knowledge that it is not altogether socially unacceptable is a different level and I think to some degree that is the case in SA.

If you have religious leaders, members of government, politicians and the media making homophobic statements and keeping silent on hate crimes then of course the society at large will pick up on those messages. I think the solution is a mass uprising as there was during the apartheid era and similar to what is taking place in other parts of the continent and in the Middle East which are about changing the course of history. I recently listened to Harry Belafonte, the African American activist and artist speaking on social justice, changing the course of history and calling leaders to account. His point was that we as activists need to be more fully engaged with power. We must force power to the table, force them to listen to us.

Right now there is no threat to the South African government evidencing violence against women, lesbians and trans people. There is no threat to them from the marginalization and oppression of the poor, the landless, sex workers, unemployed and so on. We have to make that threat real so they will listen and we need to show how taking away the liberty of LGBTI people takes away the liberty for everyone. So we have to have mass protests.

Which call on other social movements, women, the land rights movement, trade unions, all to step up and stop being silent and to put the government on notice that this violence will not be tolerated any more than people were prepared to tolerate the racist violence of apartheid. It has to stop from now. As Belafonte said - we have to make power do what we think it should do.

You express some very strong and often controversial views in your blog. How do you deal with the backlash from your readers or other bloggers for that matter?

In the early days when I began to speak of LGBTI rights and against homophobia it was a problem. I also had racists leaving ugly comments as well. I don't know if the blogosphere has changed or these people are otherwise engaged but fortunately it hasn't happened much lately. When there has been abuse not just on my blog but on other blogs, bloggers have rallied together to support each other. For example when I was being harassed in the Nigerian blogosphere, Kenyan bloggers who had just started Kenya Unlimited invited me to be part of their community - I still am today which is quite amazing really.

Being involved in blogging can take up a fair amount of time, as a matter of fact, I would even go as far as saying that it can totally consume you, how do you maintain a “work, life” balance?

Yes this is absolutely true. When I first started in 2004 I had far more time to write. In 2006 I opened on my blog to 4 other bloggers to bring some diversity of opinion and issues as well as to take the pressure of my having to write consistently. The pressure I felt was wholly mind. Since then I have had a number of guest bloggers, some writing just one post, others contributing regularly. The whole online presence has changed so much in the past 2 years let alone 7 years and now there is Facebook and Twitter and hundreds of more blogs so one has to somehow decide what to write about, what to post about.

.There have been many times when I wanted to stop or at least take a break. Now I view the whole process quite differently. If I feel I have something to say then fine, if I don’t that’s also OK. I also write for New Internationalist and Pambazuka News and try to keep them separate from my blog. It’s too much work to keep up with an online presence and everything else. Keeping a blog can be a full time job. Facebook is a time eater so I have reduced my time there considerably. I used to Tweet a lot but again I have reduced that to a minimum. The problem really is when ones paid work and blog work merge into one and you find yourself having to be constantly online - its exhausting and I am trying to move away from it all.

In Africa people who express views that are in direct opposition to the Government of the day are often victimized and in some cases, even murdered, are you using your location in Spain as a safety net to express your views in an attempt to reach the people of Africa? Would you still blog about the same issues if you were a resident in Nigeria?

Once again I no longer live in Spain and haven't since 2006. I don't think countries in Africa are different in this way, in fact censorship and repression is far worse in many other places. Many bloggers whether in Africa or elsewhere blog anonymously so there would always be that option.

In fact I know many bloggers who are critical of their governments who do blog anonymously despite not living in the west or even saying anything particularly controversial. Still there are a few political bloggers living in Nigeria who are anonymous for their own protection and the protection of their sources. I understand the choice to be anonymous but I do get annoyed when people leave homophobic, racist, sexist and generally abusive comments anonymously - if you feel so strongly about something and you feel its right why do you have to do so anonymously?
It is easier if you are anonymous of course but since I am not and as I said earlier, I continue to visit Nigeria regularly, this hasn't as yet stopped me from speaking out not that I believe I have said anything that is especially dangerous.

So the answer is yes I would write about the same issues if I lived there on a day to day basis. If I felt my life was in danger then I would no doubt find a way to leave. I have never shied away from power though I think as an older wiser person I am more considered and less rash than in my youth.

This interview was translated into Persian (Farsi) and published in Shahrzadnews website

Saturday, May 14, 2011

زنان سرخ پوست آفريقايی

زنی از قبيله هيمبا در کشور نامبيا

نويسنده: زارا مجيدپور


٢٣ اردیبهشت ١٣٩٠
شهرزادنیوز: به هنگام ورود به يکی از روستاهای سياه پوست نشين قبيله ی "هيمبا" در کشور آفريقايی نامبيا، زنی خميری نرم و قرمز رنگی به روی پوست صورت زنان و دست مردان می مالد. راهنما قبل از ورود به روستا آگاهمان می کند که نه تنها مانع ماليدن ماده ی رنگين به پوستمان نشويم بلکه آن را تا زمانی که در روستا به سر می بريم از روی پوستمان پاک نکنيم. بنا به گفته ی او، مانع شدن و يا پاک کردن آن توهين به فرهنگ روستاييان محسوب می شود.
زنان قبيله هيمبا از نسل های قبل از خود آموخته اند که چگونه پوستشان را از گزند آفتاب و آب و هوای خشک و صحرايی مکان زندگيشان حفظ نمايند.
آنان با ساييدن خاک اُخرا، چربی حيوانی و گياهان خوشبو و ترکيبشان با يکديگر، خمير نرم و قرمز خوش رنگی به دست می آورند که از آن برای آرايش موها و پوست بدنشان استفاده می کنند. زنان هيمبا به خوبی می دانند که چگونه از خواص پوشانندگی ودرخشندگی خاک اُخرا استفاده نمايند.
آنان برای آرايش موهايشان، آن را به چند دسته تقسيم می کنند و سپس هر دسته لوله شده را با قشری از خمير رنگی به خوبی می پوشانند. آن چه که باعث تمايز زنان و دختران اين قبيله نسبت به ساير قبايل می شود، استفاده آنان از ماده ی رنگی بر روی پوست صورت و بدنشان است. اين کار نه تنها رنگ زيبا و درخشانی را به پوستشان می بخشد، بلکه پوست آنان را نيز از آفتاب سوزان آفريقا حفظ می نمايد


بنا به گفته ی راهنما، رنگ قرمز اُخرا سمبلی است از قرمزی خاک زمين و رنگ خون، که هر دو در نزد مردم اين قبيله از زندگی و حيات حکايت می کند. اگر چه راهنما، استفاده آرايشی و زيبايی از خمير اُخرا را ويژگی خاص قبيله ی هيمبا بر می شمارد، اما نگارنده ی اين نوشته با اين گفته ی او همراه نيست.
قبايل سياه پوست ساکن در کشورهای مختلف آفريقا، عليرغم اختلافات نژادی، فرهنگی و زبانی، مشترکاتی بسياری با يکديگر دارند. به عنوان مثال، استفاده از خاک اُخرا به همراه چربی حيوانی و گياهان خوشبو تنها به قبيله ی هيمبا در کشور نامبيا اختصاص ندارد، بلکه زنان قبيله ی "همر" در کشور اتيوپی نيز از ترکيب مشابه ای برای زينت و آرايش موها و نه پوست صورت و بدنشان استفاده می کنند.
دختران و زنان هيمبای ساکن در روستا، همچون زنان قبايل همر اتيوپی و دختران ازدواج نکرده ی "زلو" در آفريقای جنوبی نيمه عريانند و بالا تنه ی خود را نمی پوشانند. البته زنانی که در شهرها به سر می برند و يا دختران روستايی که به مدرسه می روند از لباس های بومی خود استفاده نمی کنند.
اغلب مردم روستا از پوست بز برای پوشاندن پايين تنه ی خود استفاده می کنند و استفاده از زيور آلات که معمولا از مس يا صدف تهيه می گردد، نزد دختران و زنان قبيله از اهميت زيادی برخوردار است. ساخت زيور آلات و عروسک های دستی توسط آنان و فروش آن به جهانگردان، منبع درآمد قابل توجهی برايشان محسوب می گردد. فروش صنايع دستی تنها به روستاها خلاصه نمی شود. در طول جاده های اطراف محل زندگی مردم هيمبا، زنانی با بساط کردن صنايع دستيشان دستفروشی می کنند.
مردم ساکن در روستاها، به علت آب و هوای خشک منطقه ی زندگيشان، از ميوه و سبزيجات استفاده نمی کنند و اگر چه صاحب گله‌های گاو و بز می باشند اما گوشت جای چندانی در رژيم غذايی آنان ندارد. گاو مبنای ثروت مردم روستا محسوب می گردد و بر همين اساس، داشتن گاو از اهميت زيادی نزد مردم قبيله برخوردار است.
جهانگردانی که به صورت تورهای دسته جمعی مسافرت می کنند معمولا حدود دو ساعت از يکی از روستاهای قبيله هيمبا ديدار می نمايند، اما چنانچه کسی تمايل داشته باشد روز يا روزهای بيشتری را نزد اهالی روستا به سر برد و با فرهنگ آنان بيشتر آشنا گردد می تواند با پرداخت مبلغی به يکی از اهالی روستا، در خانه ی او به سر برد که البته زندگی در آن شرايط ، چندان آسان نيست.
ختنه کردن دختران، يکی ديگر از ويژگيهای مشترک مردم قبيله هيمبا با برخی از قبايل آفريقاست. بنا به گفته راهنما، پيش از ختنه کردن پسرها، به آنان گفته می شود که هنگام ختنه کردن، درد ناشی از آن عمل را با سکوت و خودداری از سرو صدا پشت سر گذارند در حالی که بر عکس، به دخترها گفته می شود که تا جايی که می توانند فرياد بکشند. در فرهنگ قبيله هيمبا سکوت پسرها و فرياد دخترها به هنگام عمل ختنه، از آمادگی آنان برای ازدواج خبر می دهد.