Three (and many more) online is not a crowd – neither online nor offline. That is what the multi-award-winning blog Adventures from the bedrooms of African women posits. In this interview, one of the blog’s founders and writers, Nana Darkoa from Ghana, talks about how this space started, what the boundaries are, and what it takes to build a safe and free space where African women can openly discuss a variety of issues related to sex, pleasure and sexuality – in spite of trolls and bad kissers.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah writes for the blog alongside her team mate Malaka and various guest contributors. Posts on the blog are generally based on the personal experiences of contributors, as well as random sources of inspiration including interesting articles, conversations with friends, books they have read, etc. GenderIT.org interviewed Nana during the Global Meeting on Sexuality, Gender and the Internet which took place in Malaysia in April 2014 and here is what happened.
Flavia Fascendini: You have a blog called “Adventures from the bedroom of African women.” How and why did you start it?
Nana Darkoa: Malaka, one of the co-founders of the blog came up with the name Adventures from the bedroom of African women. The inspiration for the blog basically started because I went on an awesome beach holiday in 2009 with a group of African women, and we found ourselves having literally, for me at least, the most open, frank and intimate conversation I ever had at that point about sex, sexuality and all these diversities. So when I went back home, I felt as I really wanted to continue this, to have a space where I could talk to other African women very openly, without fear of judgement and just to be able to dialogue. So I ended up oin the phone with one of my best friends called Malaka who lives in the United States. Part of how we had maintained our friendship over the years was to keep each other updated about our lives, even our sex lives, through these long letters. I told her about this amazing experience I had with other women talking openly about sex, and that I wanted to create a blog to write about the sex lives of African women. Malaka said she had been thinking about writing a book about African women’s sexuality which she was going to call “Adventures from the bedrooms of African women.” So I said “why don’t we start a blog, and then later we can turn all the content of the blog into the book?” That is basically how adventuresfrom.com was born.
FF: It called my attention that the sections are divided in between lesbian, heterosexual, and relationships. Is there any explanation for that?
ND: I did that because I was thinking that people might go to the site and they might only be interested in stories about lesbian experiences, so then it’s easy for them to get there. People may be interested in particular about stories around heterosexuals and they are easy for them to go to. But in reality most people who follow the blog, they follow it in the sense that they read every post that comes up, whether its about lesbian relationships, whether its about heterosexual relationships, whether it’s a rape petition, whether it’s a statement of support for women who are suffering sexual violence, so people tend to basically just read whatever post comes up next.
FF: Why do you have a separate Fiction section. Is that to make a clear difference between what’s a real experience and what’s not?
ND: That is the exact reason, because the whole idea of Adventures is to share personal stories, real stories. So where those stories are not real, or where for reasons of safety people do not want to say the story is real, they can make it fiction. They have the option. I think it’s about giving people space and freedom. In probably like the first three and a half years of the blog, everything I wrote was real. There was not a single fictional story written by me.
FF: Wow! That means you had a lot to say, all these stories…
ND: I had a lot to say. I think that was really effective, I think it really helped the blog to grow. I think it also helped people to trust me, because in revealing so much of yourself, people feel “OK, I know who this person is, she’s authentic, I can trust her with my stories.” But then I did a fictional writing course, and it made me want to also discover my voice as a fiction writer, so I’ve been experimenting more with fiction. And I’ve also found fiction incredibly freeing, because the challenge with writing personal stories is you have to write it exactly as it was, you can’t add, you can’t spice it up, but with fiction you can put salt and pepper on it and make it taste better. So I am finding the fiction liberating. And also there’s less pressure. But even still people say, “This happened! This sounds too good to be fiction.” And in response I say, Allow me to be, let my mind go free!
FF: Nana, which of the topics and issues that were discussed in this meeting are relevant for your work? Where there some revelations?
ND: So many of them, because for me this conference in terms of looking at the intersections of Gender, Sexuality and the Internet was really spot on where Adventures is concerned, because this is exactly what Adventures does. We are looking at issues around sexuality and gender, and we are located inside that space. For me, the sort of mind-blowing aspect of this meeting had to do with what I learnt about digital security. I feel a huge sense of responsibility and really grateful that people trust me with their personal stories, because people email me, tell me their personal stories so I can share them on the blog. Or they write their own stories and send them to me. And that is I think the other unique thing about Adventures, you know the idea is really for it to be a collective of African women’s voices around sexuality, so people write their own stories and send them to me. I am a curator, so I read it and if I like it enough I put it up. But I put up literally 97 percent of what gets sent to me. And those I don’t put up, I don’t because maybe they are focused on men, and the focus should be on women; or it’s reading more like a commercial, so I don’t put those kind of posts up. But very often I’ll put up a post as it is. So for me the whole issue of security was key, because I’ve realised that people are trusting me with this information, I need to be sure that I keep their information secure. And that’s one of my big takeaways from this meeting. I am really going to look at how I reinforce my security, in terms of the methods through which people communicate with me, and in terms of also ensuring that once people have communicated with me, their information is secure.
FF: That’s great! And what about the blog’s policy in terms of misogynistic comments or posts?
ND: It’s funny because we haven’t had an explicit policy, but there’s almost been an unconscious collective policy developed. So whenever trolls come to the site, literally the people who read the blog all just say, “If you don’t like what we’re saying here, get out.”
FF: So they respond.
ND: They respond. So it’s really good, because sometimes there are comments that urgh…
FF: Does responding work?
ND: It works! To be honest we have had very few trolls. We had one really really bad troll… and in the long run, some members were engaging with him and some people were saying don’t, people would try and pick him up on some of the ridiculous comments he was making but he was persistent, and then he got extremely abusive and was literally making threats, and writing comments like “I hope you all die of HIV/AIDS”, so then I thought, “You know what, I am marking you as spam, because there’s no point in communicating with you.” But on the other hand, what I have had sometimes, is people asking general questions. We have one regular contributor called Ekuba, and she blogs about her life as a queer woman in Ghana, and we have had someone say, “Oh I don’t understand this, can you explain this to me?” And she will write a whole post explaining from her perspective, and people go “Oh, I get what you mean.” So then there’s a respectful dialogue, communication, with people trying to understand issues, and we very much encourage that.
FF: The general question that has been floating around the whole meeting is: How do you imagine a feminist internet?
ND: I imagine the feminist internet to be a space where, first of all, women are actually active and claim their spaces on all aspects of the internet, not just as users of content but as producers of content, and where women will feel safe to have conversations they may not be able to have in private spaces, and where women would develop tools with other women in mind, and spaces that just enable us to also be more of ourselves.
FF: Nana, with your stories you go around all the issues that have to do with sexual rights. But how do you work that out, when people are not necessarily familiar with the language? Like, you can’t say “sexual rights” because people might not know what that is. So how do you approach that in your stories and your writing?
ND: I tend not to use – it depends between writer and writer, but most of the stuff is personal in the story form, so I try my best to use very simple language that’s easy for most people to understand. Unless I was writing a particularly polemic piece, which I tend not to write, I wouldn’t even speak about the issue of rights. But in describing the scenario you realise that this is about the person having a sexual life, having a right to pleasure, having a right to be able to control her own body, having a right to explore her own desires in a safe and consensual way. So I think you can talk about sexual rights without using the language.
FF: I want to ask you something else. The world is made in an effectively binary way, and the internet opens up a space for groups, interactions, multiplicity, diversity. Is three a crowd, on the internet?
ND: I am currently working on a series. The title is Three Is Definitely Not a Crowd, and it’s basically about a threesome. So in this story, I’m exploring how there can be more than binaries in a relationship. And that’s really interesting; actually, I am enjoying the process of thinking and unpacking that. Because one of the things that I actually do in my writing, or I try to do in my writing, is that writing helps me to think through an issue. You know sometimes I don’t even know what my thought processes are on a particular subject until I’ve written it down. So it’s interesting to unpack that, and at least in that story, the message that is coming out is: Three is not always a crowd. We may think it is, we may be used to binaries, twos: But threes can be fun, and who knows, I might write a story about fours or maybe fives. At this point in time, I say no, three doesn’t need to be a crowd.
FF: Does your blog post have any boundaries? What do you say no to?
ND: So far I haven’t said no to anything, but like everybody else I definitely have my own personal issues. So I would say no to stories around sexuality that involved minors. You know, I would say no to anything that was close to pedophilia; I would say no to anything that was violent against women; but at the same time, actually, sometimes I say yes to a controversial piece for the purposes of stimulating a dialogue. So there was one particular post like that, where a male guest contributor had written a story, and literally in the story the male protagonist had raped a woman. But there was nothing in the story where the protagonist seemed to be even aware that what he had done, what he had described as ‘sex’ was indeed rape. And there wasn’t a ‘narrator’ in the sense criticising the actions of the male protagonist. So I read it and thought, “Oh-oh” but still put it up on the blog.
FF: And how did people react?
ND: People were so upset. The interesting thing about that story was that it was classified as fiction. But the audience were like, “No, this is not fiction,” and they were really upset. And it was quite challenging because I as the curator, I have a responsibility to both the person who has written the story and to the audience. So in a way I have to try to reassure this guest contributor who is saying “No, no, no, this was purely fiction, but I am writing it from the point of view of being a man who has been brought up in a particular slum, and I know that this is the way the men in the community think. So I’m just trying to portray the story, from this fictional character’s point of view.” And then I have people who are reading the blog and then attack him for writing this. So it’s a really interesting position to be in, because on the one hand you don’t want your writer to be personally attacked for writing a story which is classified as fiction, but on the other hand it is ringing too true for people. On the other hand that is what good fiction does, right? Fiction, it shakes you, it disturbs you. So yes, I will sometimes post something that I am like, “Oh my God,” because I want us to talk about it.
FF: So there are some boundaries.
ND: Yes, there are boundaries. Anything that’s non-consensual to me would be a no-no, unless it is for the purpose of provoking a debate, and with that I would be very, very careful. Like, with that particular story we just discussed, the next story from that particular contributor was also on similar lines and I actually said “No, I’m not going to put that up,” for that reason, and it was just too close to when he had written the first piece, and he had already been attacked, I didn’t want another piece in a similar vein.
FF: And the blog won some awards, right?
ND: Yes, I am really excited. Last year at the very first ever Ghana Blogging and Social Media Awards, we won two awards: we won Best Overall Blog and Best Activist Blog. And this year, literally on the same day that I got here in the early hours of the morning, I was up till late checking Twitter, because right at that point in time the second Ghana Blogging and Social Media Awards were taking place, and again we had been nominated in the category of Best Overall Blog, and we won it. So we won that top award two times running. So for me it felt really affirming, because there’s nothing like getting recognition from your own home country, and also because in many ways it’s a scandalous blog, and it would be very easy for people to trivialise it and say, “Oh, you’re not talking about anything serious, you are only talking about sex.” So it was really nice to be recognised, as this blog is great in so many ways, not just in terms of the topic, in terms of the content, in terms of the visuals, in terms of the way it’s being managed. So I’ve been very happy myself, my co-blogger Malaka, all our contributors, they’re all very excited.
FF: It’s like a collective win.
ND: Exactly, that’s it, it’s a collective win. So that’s really nice.
FF: Thank you very much Nana.