On Holding Half the Sky: Stories of Resilience

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Illustration by Kashushu for GenderIT

Dedication

To Mama Afrika, and all her children. Everywhere.
To every inch of land violated by the patriarchy, extraction, industrial agriculture, wars and by being forced to bear witness to Mother Earth’s destruction.
To every body of water still healing us and our lands.
To every martyr and ancestor buried in pain, love and everything in between.
To every grandmother, mother, auntie, sister, daughter and unborn daughter of the Horn.
To all the tears, cries, dances, ululations and drums of life from Mother Nature felt by and for every daughter of the Horn of Africa.

Introduction: Our intentions

The Horn of Africa (the Horn) is a home to ancient civilisations and the trace of humankind origins. It is a home of multiple ethnic groups, nations and nationalities; and has a beautiful landscape, people, music, and traditions. Today, the Horn is unfortunately also primarily known for its political instability and fragile state formations that continue to threaten and endanger its citizens – and more particularly women. In different time periods of the Horn’s history, we have witnessed resistance movements that have impacted the political trajectory of countries such as Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. To that end, women as daughters of the Horn have transcended resistance and today invoke every spirit of resilience this continent, and indeed the world, has known. To every mispackaged media kit, littered in biased coverage, are endless stories of resilience weaved together in the chants, cries and ululation of women in and out of the Horn calling in our collective liberation. 

To our dismay, the region continues to be in a constant struggle with reshaping and more recently audaciously reimagining political systems that have a belligerent impact on the everyday lives of people on the ground. As we have expressed our intention in “the call for contribution”, beyond historically popularised and instrumentalised movements and incomplete narratives, we want to bear witness to stories that speak about everyday people, everyday protests and activism that have influenced and moved the centre into opening up to extraordinary actors. And with that the reimagining of all things from the margins to the centre and beyond. This radical possibility is nurtured by the growing access to multiple forms of counter-public spaces through social media platforms, small gatherings, creative activities, and so on. This has helped accelerate both scope and reach of mobilisation and campaigns through digital activism in a way that is beyond the control of governments. Of course we are not oblivious to the equal increase of control and repression from the nationalist and anti-feminist camp in the form of harassment, surveillance, mass arrest, internet shutdown, and online violence (particularly gender based violence). 

Still, it remains that women in the Horn continue to play a critical role in the political and economic development of their respective countries. However, as patriarchy and masculinist nationalism have it, their contributions are unrelentingly unrecognised. Women in the region, as it is true in the continent of Africa, are seldom considered as political subjects nor were/are they given equal access to public spaces to lead and participate in the complexity of countries and regional politics. Such deliberate or unintentional restrictions of women from the public space makes it difficult for them to become visible and challenge the system. It is in this complexity that we see courageous women coming forward with strategies of resistance and leading communities to revolution. Here, the recent revolutionary movement in Sudan and Sudanese women’s active participation is a good example. In other contexts, especially where there is war and conflict women use their voice and advocacy to speak against state violence and the plights of women as a result of these conflicts. In this case, increasingly the use of social media has become absolutely important to share stories of repression and violence, while at the same time producing inspiring and powerful stories of resistance, rebellion, resilience, survival, life, beauty, solidarity, community, femininity and ultimately, humanity. 

Our journey so far

We have started this conversation in 2021 in response to a much needed healing space for sporadically and divinely connected Daughters of the Horn at the 65th UN Commission on the Status of Women. This convening was necessary. We created it precisely because we have been and continue to be silenced by a global system designed to invisibilise African women’s work, voice, and knowledge. On a rare occasion when we are given the platform, we are confronted with on the surface and tokenistic engagements that are suited for “representation” of diversity. It is suffocating, to say the least, to be with a roomful of people that have little or no intention to let go of the western world's hegemony and allow reciprocal knowledge transfer. It has been almost a natural phenomenon to be positioned at the receiving end of whatever discourse is thrown at us, with the decorum of nodding and agreeing all the time. 

Our clearest outcome from the convening was that, contrary to widespread belief, we are not voiceless, powerless and simply agreeable too. We’ve recognised that despite our different fields, backgrounds, languages, taste in food, music or form of resistance we each have a story, without which the rest of ours are rendered incomplete. We have acknowledged that the questions we ask connect us far more than the answers we seek.

Increasingly the use of social media has become absolutely important to share stories of repression and violence, while at the same time producing inspiring and powerful stories of resistance, rebellion, resilience, survival, life, beauty, solidarity, community, femininity and ultimately, humanity.

Shortly after the convening, the editors of this edition started discussing how to continue on this collaboration and build on the momentum we had. The next opportune moment was the 2022 invitation from GenderIT to work with regional editors. This experimental structure of working with regional editors was extended to different regions, such as LAC, Asia, and Africa. Since Tigist is part of the APC WRP team, she introduced the idea and structure that GenderIT is experimenting on to Dimah. And with that we design together the call for contribution for “daughters of the Horn”. And here we are!

We have received applications from activists, actionists, civil-society organisations, creative writers, documentary producers, and artists who are located or identify as belonging to the Horn. Each contributor showed us their energy and willingness to participate in this edition and tell their own stories from their own perspective(s). Each story that we have selected for this edition captures a glimpse of our present life in the Horn of Africa entangled with its unforgiving past while aching to redeem and reimagine its future, however unpredictable that may be.

We recognised that reclaiming our stories is not just how but why we tell them. With this knowing in mind and heart, we had offered some thematic areas to explore and to be inspired by, but with no expectation or rule for writers to follow these suggestions. We hoped to cultivate spaces that provide home for difficult stories to move past the violence and oppression exerted by the state, by our society, and among each other. As you will discover, the content of this edition covers multi-dimensional presentations of stories ranging from research-based articles, creative writing, poetry, personal reflection, documentary, podcast, and music. Each piece has a unique texture with an incomplete representation of the landscape of the Horn of Africa. Yet, each piece presents an intention to move beyond the sensationalised political narratives and unveil the curtain by centering women’s life and experience.

Here we are reminded of the Ghanaian poet Ama Asantewa Diaka’s piece titled “women”: 

Woman (n): Pleasure valve
Woman (n): Manufacturing plant for babies
Woman (n): Involuntary carrier of a country in her womb
Woman (n): Armed fuselage
Woman (n): God with a big g
Woman (v): Malfunctioning clock
Woman (n): Borderless country
Woman (n): Ungovernable land
Woman (n): Third world country
Woman (adj): god with a small g
Woman (n): Developing country
Woman (v): A sea squirt eating its own brain
Woman (adj): Man’s leverage
Woman (n): Poorly paid demanding job

It matters to us that we talk about black women. It matters to us that we share some light into anti-nationalist African feminist discourses that recognise the complex and often contradictory nationalist revolutions that keep wiping out generation after generation. It matters that we prioritise African women rather than Western (aka International arena) priorities for the Horn of Africa. These contributions reveal such conflicting tensions and contradictions of discourses that are imposed by the tyranny. In doing so, these contributions become an act of rebellion against the state and all forms of repressive structures. 

This is also why the African edition is not totally centred on narratives of the digital world as it is experienced by women and marginalised communities. Instead, we opt to give the platform for storytelling with or without “the digital” in it. In some way, we wanted to shift the fixation on the digital as a requirement to cherry-pick stories. We have also recognised that the digital mobilisation of feminist movements in Africa is an important phenomenon that needs a radical attention, this means then digital platforms such as GenderIT can provide a space for publication of writings that otherwise will not get a medium to be in conversation with the global audiences; and that in itself is digital feminist mobilisation. 

Weaving Our Truths

As indicated earlier, the contributions in this edition by no means are representatives of the political realities of the Horn, nor do they bear enough witness to the complex everyday realities of our people. However, these contributions help us continue the conversation through the GenderIT platform. Similar to the Horn, these are stories that are filled with contradictions – stories of fear and courage, bliss and pain, oppression and liberation, quest for freedom and home, question of belonging, identity and migration. Still they only scratched the surface, like pointing at the “X” spot in a treasure map. We just started the collective journey. What a beautiful beginning it is though, each contribution gave us an excellent grounding into what is to be known and explored even deeper and beyond. 

These contributions reveal such conflicting tensions and contradictions of discourses that are imposed by the tyranny. In doing so, these contributions become an act of rebellion against the state and all forms of repressive structures.

Co-editor Dr. Dimah shared with us an existential piece she wrote, “The War on time”, that sets us free from slaving ourselves by the entrapment of time that we created with a flawed understanding of time, and what time is meant for. The piece is also meant to provide a reflective look into the journey Dimah and Tigist have had in this editorial process; and the conception of time as we have experienced it in different layers of relationships and commitments – friendship, institutional structures, coordinating with contributors, and with ourselves as individual beings.   

Saba Mah’derom and Alem Berhe in their writing “Tigray: Life Beneath the Sealed Skies” show us the impact of shutting down the internet and silencing voices. It has been documented that the experience of internet shutdown for over two years in Tigray has a multilayered impact that ranges from covering up unimaginable violences during the war, to disconnections of families, disconnection with the world in the midst of the war, and the impact it has on everyday health and economic struggles. Saba and Alem write, “The communication blackout in Tigray has brought forth the ‘social death’ of Tigrayans.” Being disconnected from the world, Tigrayans not existing on their own right, and their stories being told through the bits and pieces of information that surfaces, and that for multiple forms of political agenda and advocacy makes the community without power to claim ownership of their story, how it is being told, or if what is being told amounts to what has been experienced in Tigray. The internet shutdown indeed took away the agency of the people and their right to freedom of expression.   

Njeri Maina produces a documentary titled "RED." that speaks about the “Poverty Period” in Kenya. In her production, Njeri tries to build and weave a narrative that exposes the cultural stigma and stereotypes that are related to menstruation and how such socially constructed beliefs and ideas are used to discriminate against women and girls in public and private spaces. Njeri also explores how class status determines women’s pleasant and unpleasant experiences of care during the menstrual season. Pushing this analysis further, she makes the connection between the financial struggles of women and girls to buy a pad for menstrual care and its impact on the girl-child’s education as they are exposed to social stigma in school. The documentary finishes by highlighting progressive initiatives such as “Tampon Tax”, “Period Tax”, and local production of sanitary products in Kenya as a positive change toward eradication of the poverty period and equitable access to menstrual care for women and girls.  

In their article, “Resilience through Internet Research: Reflections on Conducting Research with Front-Line Defenders in the Horn of Africa,” Mardiya Siba Yahaya and Neema Iyer write an in-depth research analysis that explore the context in which Muslim women in the Horn of Africa challenge religious and authoritarian states. And how complex the nature of Muslim women’s active involvement; not only in the work they do to advocate for Muslim women’s human rights but also in the transnational feminist solidarity platforms that doesn’t pay attention to nuances and allow for different forms of resistance. Considering these complex issues, the research also explores alternative ways of improving technology that address the issues Muslim women activists face. The research shows the tightrope Muslim women human right defenders and activists walk through to critique, analyse and expose human right issues Muslim women continue to experience in the region. In expressing these tensions, in the critical methodological reflections, they ask, “how radical are we allowed to be to get this work done?”

In her essay, “Of the things war did to us,” Etenat Awol invites us to witness the ambivalent experience of belonging and identity in Ethiopia during and post the civil war in the past two years. Her work shows the impact of not having a space to grieve devastating loss in this war. She asks what it means to grief for a loss and destruction of a country beyond sensationalised stories that get into an immediate polarised political mobilisation and propaganda. Instead, Etenat writes, “This is war. And war does inexplicable things to people. It makes us an outsider to our own suffering. It makes us a thing, a term, an ideology, a collateral damage, a sacrifice.” Throughout the article, she shows complicated feelings and struggles of “being an outsider to one’s own suffering” as what citizens are left to sit with.  

In her Podcast, “Digital Dada,” on a special series called “Stories of Resilience”, Cecilia Maundu invites Shiko Kihika from Kenya. This conversation explores the experience of women journalists and digital advocates in the region. Shiko Kihika  shares with us her journey, the high and low points of her career, as a digital activist and how she empowers women activists to join the digital activism space.  

The heart wrenching and beautiful poems from poet and academic Dr. Ayak Chol are the pearls of this edition. Both poems “sad and lonely” and “the womb’s curse” grief the burden of being a strong black woman in the Horn of Africa.

Artist and Design Professor Dahlia revisited the award winning music, "RAPT", that was produced in 2002. In the short narrative that she provides us, she reflects on how static, to a great extent, the lives of women in the Horn of Africa are, asking the same question – “Why women, and why so violently obsessed with these bodies still? Which state will lead with education and equal pay, and how do we ensure equity?” On the other hand the video RAPT is a powerful performance with a critical social consciousness role. At the same time she plays with a split image of one person as she navigates being a “Muslim woman” and “a poet/rapper and musician Muslim woman”. In this video, audiences are invited to make their own reflection, judgement, and trace their work dis/comfort to the relationship they have with our patriarchal and gendered society. 

For too long, women of African ancestry have been guilted into shame and shamed into grief only to be given lines written by others for solace. We co-created this edition as a reflection of the ever-dynamic and actively resilient mosaic we know to be embodied in each daughter of the Horn. In the questions we’ve asked ourselves and each other, we find the answer always rooted in our untold histories, experiences and everyday realities. Both questions and answers always recenter the question of belongingness and identity in the form of - “I am because you are” - Ubuntu.  In the context of the ongoing war, displacement, and political chaos, these contributions in one way or another questioned what do internationally adopted institutional resolutions on “Women, Peace and Security” offer us – as women – when they engage us from a position of futile political equations and statistical information, that violates the spirit and essence of our human experience?  Until we, as African women, recognise that there is no postcolonial/ decolonial “women, peace and security” institution or practice from somewhere else, and begin to explore resources we have in our corner among Africans, any attempt at addressing our holistic healing or our collective liberation will be rendered obsolete. The journey of this edition is our reckoning with that recognition. We invite you to join the conversation and #AskMoreQuestions.