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Connection and Colour: The African Feminist Forum 2010

FRIDAY FILE: The Third African Feminist Forum was held in Dakar in towards the end of October 2010. In this Friday File article we offer some reflections on the meeting.

By Kathambi Kinoti

The theme of the 2010 African Feminist Forum (AFF) was “connections,”but it could well have been “colour” because that was its unspoken sub-theme. The venue for the meeting was the Atlantic city of Dakar, the westernmost point of Africa. Here, almost 200 women from the second largest continent on earth converged to recharge their feminist batteries and discuss the state of their work and movements in the context of local, regional and global realities.

The colours of the AFF were in full display: the participants each received a deep purple scarf, and a violet and pale lavender tote bag. The diversity of the clothing styles and colours worn by women from many different African nations provided also provided flavour to the conference.

The visual array was just one aspect of the colourful character of the AFF. There was a mix of session formats: an open mic that showcased the best of African feminist poetry, song and dance; a closing gala dinner that made Senegal’s food and culture part of the AFF 2010 experience; the Great Debate and Great Trial: AFF trademark tools for interrogating the work of African feminists.Diversity was also evident in the mix of participants.

Creativity and Knowledge

Feminist creativity and knowledge production were highlighted at the forum. The first AFF gave birth to the African Feminist Charter, a set of principles and values that defines who exactly an African feminist is. The application process to the AFF requires all applicants to subscribe to the Charter.

At the AFF 2010, Sarah Mukasa of the African Women’s Development Fund unveiled a new instrument that takes the Charter and applies it to organisations, making the connection between conviction and policy making. What exactly is a feminist organisation? The Organisational Development tool helps clarify this and gives organisations suggestions to assist them to give life to the Charter in their policies and practices.

Throughout the Forum there was a recurrent call to action for African feminists to keep producing and spreading their own knowledge.Writing and photography-for-advocacy workshops gave participants practical tools to tell their stories. As Jessica Horn wrote in an article on the third AFF, an old proverb cautions that until lions learn to tell their own story, histories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. In a continent with strong oral traditions, often written “hunter’s tales” take precedence ina world where the written word is dominant.

Apart from the Charter and the Organisational Tool, AWDF contributes to knowledge production by publishing Voice, Power and Soul, a collection in pictures and words of portraits of a diversity of African feminists. At the Forum, Yaba Badoe told the stories of the The Witches of Gambaga by screening the troubling but fascinating film, which exposes tribulations of women in Northern Ghana who are forced to confess to being witches and then banished from their homes and villages.

In Voice, Power and Soul, Abena Busia, a scholar and poet says: “Our hope is to allow new readings of Africa’s history by shedding light on the things that women do and say.”

Subversion and solidarity

What African feminists do and say to challenge the status quo and to support each other is a key element of their feminist identity. Individual and collective accounts of subversion by women were shared: The women of Casamance , Senegal who demanded – and got - a space in peace negotiations; the mothers of Kenyan political prisoners who camped out for months at Freedom Corner in Nairobi until their sons werereleased; the organisers of the Vagina Monologues in Uganda who noted that ironically the government’s banning of the staging of the play meant that its message reached a wider audience because of the controversy.

The AFF 2010 itself offered opportunities for subversion and solidarity. A delegation of participants went to the embassy of neighbouring Gambia to present a petition protesting against the detention of two prominent women’s human rights defenders, Dr Isatou Touray and Amie Boujang Sissoho. Initially denied entry at the embassy gates, subversive action allowed them to enter and deliver the petition. During the final plenary of the forum, a basket was passed round and feminists raised funds for the Women’s Museum on Senegal’s Island of Gorée.

The motion for the 2010 AFF’s Great Debate was “Women are their own worst enemies,” an often-repeated phrase used to minimise women’s agency. Although technically the opposers of the motion lost the debate, the subversion and solidarity that generations of women have demonstrated prove that women are not their own worst enemies.

Money and Power

Individual and collective relationships to money and power were explored. Participants grappled with the concept of “attracting” money into their lives without exploitation and without ignoring the need to address the roots of poverty and inequality in the continent, which cannot be divorced from the larger neo-liberal global agenda. They were reminded of the need for African feminists to fund their own revolution, and they demonstrated their belief for this need by filling the basket for the Women’s Museum.

Feminists have long engaged with African states both from within and without. Margaret Dongo a former soldier in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and later a Member of Parliament, spoke about the expectation that women would go back to “their traditional roles” after freedom was won and they had laid down their guns. The former freedom fighters never imagined that they would have to fight for space in peace time after they fought alongside the men in the war.

Informal power was also very much on the minds of the participants at the meeting. Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, the outgoing Executive Director of AWDF announced that she was stepping down from the position in order to take up the role of First Lady of Ekiti State in Nigeria; after a lengthy court battle, the Supreme Court had finally declared her husband Governor of the state. She spoke of the need for feminists to recognise and occupy both formal and informal seats of power.

When poverty, inequalities and desperation converge,religious fundamentalisms tend to step in. Jessica Horn presented the findings of her research commissioned by AWID, which showed that the power of religious fundamentalisms is felt in every corner of Africa. The continent is seeing a surge of anti-secularism and homophobia. A prosperity theology that diverts attention away from the structural factors that perpetuate poverty is popular in many Christian churches, and women are being urged to return to domesticity. Islamic fundamentalists are also highly visible countries such as in Algeria, Nigeria and Somalia. Sylvia Tamale, a professor of law at Makerere University in Uganda said that religious fundamentalisms are finding their way into law and then becoming political fundamentalisms. To her, the solution lies in feminists engaging more with religions, respecting them as institutions where people anchor their beliefs and values, but reconstructing them so as to be relevant and liberating for women.

National and Regional

Members of the AFF are encouraged to organise national feminist forums and the AWDF plays an instrumental role in supporting national forums. Nigeria, Uganda and Senegal were the only countries that had held their forums since the last AFF in Kampala, Uganda and they gave impressive reports. One of the lessons from all three forums is the need to consciously and continuously promote inclusion and diversity. Democratic and inclusive country level mechanisms were shown to work best. The Uganda Feminist Forum (UFF) has developed guidelines to ensure that they get a good mix of participants. The mission statement of the Nigeria Feminist Forum (NFF) recognises the need to keep replenishing their ranks. And, in a continent known, particularly in the past, for military coups d’état, Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe of AMwA caused amusement when, as she handed over the secretariatship of the UFF to FOWODE, she emphasised that she was doing so “peacefully and in broad daylight.”

Although there were quite a number of young feminists at theAFF 2010, some participants felt that they were not adequately represented on panels. They expressed their desire to see more young feminist resource persons,not just speaking about what are considered young women’s issues but on other topics as well.

Bright future

African feminisms are not new: feminists have been resisting patriarchy for centuries even though they may not have called themselves feminists. What is relatively new is the effort to consciously create out a space for all those on the continent who explicitly name themselves feminists to learn and unlearn ways of doing things for greater local, regional and global impact. The knowledge and tools produced by the AFF are also useful for other regional and global feminist movements around the world the next step is to find ways of sharing the lessons learned with other movements.

Applicants to the AFF are required to sign a Feminist Undertaking that sets the climate for a truly feminist space. Participants pledge not to use or display any exclusionary, homophobic or discriminatory words or behaviour, among other things. They confirm that they have read and subscribe to the Feminist Charter. However, most session organisers and presenters needed to have done more to infuse a more explicitly feminist perspective as distinguished from a women’s rights advocacy perspective. Of course, the two are related, but for a space that is set up as feminist,feminism needed to have made a stronger appearance in substance.

Nevertheless, with the solid, conscious feminist foundation laid by the AFF, the future of feminism in Africa is, clearly, very bright.

The author would like to thank her colleague Massan d’Almeida for her contribution towards this article.