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Africa’s community spirit remains
Another Generational Taboo?

Arya Jeipea Karijo (sitting) among some members of her LGBTQI+ family.
Arya Jeipea Karijo (sitting) among some members of her LGBTQI+ family. | Photo (detail): © Julian Manjahi/Goethe Institut Nairobi

Arya Jeipea Karijo (mid-30s), a transgender woman from Nairobi in Kenya, spoke on behalf of her “family by choice”- a 6-member group of queer persons and a heterosexual woman who met at a march in favour of LGBTQ+ rights. Arya is regarded as their “mother” and she regards them as her children after they collectively and individually endured discrimination, including forceful eviction and the denial of renting a home because they are of the LGBTQ+ community.

By Lendl Izaaks

A group of Goethe-Instituts operating in Sub Saharan Africa over the course of 2020 embarked on the journey of discovering the Familiensachen of their host countries and produced a multimedia exhibition. Advocating for the principle of Kulturaustausch, local producers of films, photographs, texts and audio interviews selected families to represent as much of their country’s cultures. The interviews, some conducted during the first Corona lockdown, explored various aspects including religion, finances, marriage, languages and other social aspects. One common thread running through all but that stands out in some interviews is how the understanding of marriage is changing, and the community spirit in the form of support for younger generations, particularly amongst marginalised communities like the LGBTQ+ and homeless. If the previous generations are not there to support, that role is quickly fulfilled by a friend. 

The variety of content availed through an exploration that for some countries started before 2020, is rich and are the reflections of personal conversations with one or more individuals of a family within a space they call home. Heimlich? Doch! The authenticity of the interviews has viewers, listeners and readers enter a realm that ignites their imagination because despite the many levels of boundaries and judgement upon speculation, every civilised human being has an understanding of the social family unit. Although not the focus, one family unfit’s relationship with their extended family surfaced through various aspects and by surprise or not, the frequency of the LGBTQ+ community in this study of family units was low. This community is contrary to the traditional and monotheistic belief systems that compel for a family to be established by the agreement between a man and a woman, monogamous our polygamous. Even if raised within those beliefs systems, an LGBTQ+ individual seldom resorts to support from that system or fellow believers.

After analysing and processing the information availed, it could be summed into one sentence that members of this community did not appear often, possibly because of taboo and shame. Bluntly put - the idea of appearing in a study of families while being a member of one of the most marginalised communities and excluded from mainstream media in Africa, does make your stomach churn. Nervous? Of course! It does not require formal education for a member of the community to be compassionate, as homosexuality remains a taboo and in some cases, irrelevant to the level of violating human rights with no repercussions.

Homosexuality is very often understood as a product of modernity and the former colonisers or 'the white man' is easily accused of bringing it to Africa.

Homosexuality is very often understood as a product of modernity and the former colonisers or “the white man” is easily accused of bringing it to Africa through religion. This short-sighted understanding is challenged by the existence of terms used to describe homosexuals in traditional African languages and belief systems. Exploring the terms is a topic on its own and more important is how these terms exist but are not used in public; homosexuality, for instance in Namibia’s Owambo culture, is blamed on the father and if a man produces homosexual offspring, discussing it in public or using the terms freely is shaming himself, his child and family. Homosexuality is a taboo, period, and if brought up it is followed by shame, discrimination and the violation of human rights, particularly from the elder generation upon the young.

Arya Jeipea Karijo (mid-30s), a transgender woman from Nairobi in Kenya, spoke on behalf of her “family by choice”- a 6-member group of queer persons and a heterosexual woman who met at a march in favour of LGBTQ+ rights. Arya is regarded as their “mother” and she regards them as her children after they collectively and individually endured discrimination, including forceful eviction and the denial of renting a home because they are of the LGBTQ+ community. Despite the challenges, they agreed to be a family and support each other. “The choice part is largely ignored. So, when if there is one, two, three human beings who choose to be together, then that then we should start thinking of it as family. And so that, the choosing, yeah… and there's a lot of relationships which people need to start seeing as possible families,” she said. They realised that coincidentally, they happened to live in the same neighbourhood and envisioned living together, something that was accelerated by the COVID19 pandemic that for many persons expanded the concept of a family to include close friends. “This kind of happened. It wasn’t like a conscious decision that, oh, I'm gonna have children, I'm gonna do this. It was kind of a process, because those first days there were people who I cared about who were in the activism spaces, you know, working for women’s rights and LGBT rights,” she said.

Religion, Christianity and Islam specifically, was a prominent topic and one that most family members felt comfortable to speak about, particularly in terms of expressing beliefs and belonging to the community by association. Families from Burundi and Rwanda spoke freely of how they live by and impart the same religious values on their children, while their parents live in remote areas and practice the traditional and subsistence way of life. Elders were not part of the immediate family and were being looked after by their traditional communities but were frequently visited by their offspring. Traditions were not questioned either and following customs were normal and standard; as is the comparative study of the relationship between religion and homosexuality. Contrary to what a viewer may expect, Lindie Blaauw-Petorius (30, Namibia) of the Afrikaans and traditionally Christian Blaauw family in Namibia was vocal about their stance. “Same sex marriage for me it’s, do what you need to do, be happy, it doesn’t matter,” she said. The Blaauw family are religious and deeply involved in church matters such as the band that performs on Sundays. Feeling the same, Bernarda Joaquina Kaculete (27) from Angola regards herself as a well-educated feminist with international exposure. She said that while she is a devout Christian, she defends the rights of homosexuals and denies the claim that it is something new to Africa because she knows of such family members. Bernarda studied in Norway and the US, two countries that are depicted as more liberal than Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda, for instance.
 

Same sex marriage for me it’s, do what you need to do, be happy, it doesn’t matter!

Lindie Blaauw-Petorius, Namibia

Not standard are Johann Potgieter (47, South Africa) and Daniel Digashu (30, South Africa) in Namibia. Johann and Daniel adopted Lucas (12, South Africa) when Daniel’s aunt passed away; they regard themselves as a family unit. They were in the process of moving to their farm during the interview that even though it was not focused on their extended family and previous generations, a viewer could immediately sense the importance when shown an image of two men and an adopted son from a close relative. Speaking for the family as the one who mostly looks after their son, Johann said he was raised Christian and they were surprised at the Namibian society’s acceptance of their family. “I think we fit in well into any kind of society and it has been proven to us moving from South Africa, which I thought was going to be a lot worse, and it was actually not,” said Johann. He is the “protector” of the family and is in charge of finances, residence, mobility and matters generally associated with the masculine gender. Complementing him is Daniel, who noted how their relationships with their extended families are cordial, despite their sexual orientation and while some boundaries remain. “No, financially we do not receive any support from either of our families,” said Daniel. The couple are part of the LGBTQ+ community in Namibia that is challenging immigrations for refusing to issue documents for twins born in South Africa by a surrogate mother for another same-sex couple in Namibia. The nonchalant approach of some African governments and the irrelevant and reserved approach to discussing something in the public spheres that is very often suppressed and avoided in traditional African cultures, creates silence that speaks loud.

It is spreading the Nutella thinner than one would like on a slice of toast to generalise and deduce that the relationship between generations is slowly diminishing as the younger ones travel to urban areas in search for education and employment. Exposure to other cultures, traditions and belief systems necessarily does not have an individual completely disregard the family values they come from and were raised under. Example being Mwami Kasereka Viro Katshiravweya (mid-30s) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who strongly believes in the traditions of the monarchy they are part of and how elders should be regarded as a source of wisdom and guidance. “The family is a band, that is, all the descendants of the royal succession. That’s what we call a family,” he said. Mwami explained who makes the decisions in the family - not a close friend or fellow member of the LGBTQ+ community. “The decision is made by the wise elder of the family. Only the royal family, which comprises many people make the function and take decisions for their execution,” he said adding there is a system of rankings and titles that determines which opinion overrides another. It is important to note that Mwami made it clear in the interview that they do not practice organised and monotheistic religions or pay for education at a school because they are royal and do not regard such western practices as part of their life.
 
The diversity of Africa delivered by the Familiensachen project and rich multimedia components were produced freely by independent producers of each country and every Goethe-Institut were given freedom of interpretation, as were the producers whose creativity was never limited. The collection of information provided by what curators have done their best to steer away from another ethnographic or cultural study, inadvertently reminds viewers that Africa is a continent and not a country as presumed by a few well-educated individuals around the world. Viewers are invited to delve into the online exhibition and follow the social media posts for not only Africans but also the whole world to rediscover the cultural diversity and post-colonial identity of Africa that in some countries does not meet the criterion of a ‘third world’ or that of previous generations who are now in remote areas and not directly involved in the social development of Africa. A snippet of the easily silenced and hidden LGBTQ+ community of Africa has under what some may regard as harsh social circumstances proven that under difficult times such as the Corona pandemic, one thing that will always be left standing is the community spirit of humanity. Let us not forget that.

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