Brunel International African Poetry Prize: A Dialogue With Sahro Ali


Sahro Ali is a Somali-Australian hybrid. Her work explores ghosts of the diaspora, memories and trauma. She is a managing editor at Kerosene Magazine, a fledgling literary magazine created by and for marginalized artists. Her work is forthcoming in an anthology of anti-Trump work called CONTRA, which will be published by Kerosene. She is inspired by the women in her life who encourage and cultivate radical writing. She hopes one day to make them proud. She tweets @sahroaIi.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the vibrant Victoria in Melbourne, Australia by Email.

Gaamangwe: Sahro, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean for you to be shortlisted?

Sahro: Thank you! I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, there were so many amazing and talented poets who entered. I didn’t really think I’d make the cut. The literary community is huge and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you’re not really a poet / writer if you’re not churning out something every day. For me it’s acknowledging that I am actually a writer. It’s easy to get lost in your own head sometimes.

Gaamangwe: It’s really exciting to read all of these works. What inspires your poetry?

Sahro: I’m in that early-stage of being a writer where all I can write about is my past experiences and trauma. Which results in crude imagery and language, and I feel like it’s jarring in certain poems. I have a lot of ugly truths to write about and that’s what inspires me to write most of the time. Things that people tend to shy away from and/or are tentative when approaching them. Using soft language to talk about something that’s inherently evil and harrowing is powerful but so is using crude language. It’s like you’re meeting it face to face, and seeing it for what it is, if that makes sense. Other things that inspire me are my friends and how unafraid they are in everything they do.

Gaamangwe: It’s really inspiring and empowering that at the early-stage of your writing, you are already going deep in your traumas. That really takes courage. What traumas from your past experiences are important for you to write about? What do you hope to illuminate about your ugly truths?

Sahro: I’m a daughter of immigrants and watching my parents struggle and try to make a living when I was younger was difficult. Especially as I got older, my parents were convinced I was this Anglicized devil. That’s the subject matter for some of my poems–being stuck between borderlines. To answer the second part of your question, I really don’t know. Right now it’s just acknowledging them and accepting them as they are.

Gaamangwe: Is the conviction that you are an Anglicized devil because of your sexuality? Can you talk to me about existing here and how that conviction affected your personal reality?

Sahro: Yes, but it encompasses everything; me not wanting to adhere to Muslim dress codes, not knowing how to speak my native tongue, being bisexual. I was just constantly never meeting my parent’s expectations and their conclusion was ”Ok, you’re just Anglicized.” But in terms of my sexuality, that’s something that’s concealed in real life. I’ve only come out to my mum this year and before that I was closeted. I couldn’t even say the word ”gay” in real life. So I created my own space online and surrounded myself with other LGBT folk, it’s amazing. But once I go offline I’m hit with this toxic, homophobic environment where I have to control every word and movement. Even now, whenever I compliment women on TV, my mum side-eyes me and turns off the TV. Keeping to myself is something I’ve learnt in childhood, even if it’s the painful option. That’s the reality I live right now, to navigate this space as quietly as possible. Something I know I have in common with other young gay people.

Gaamangwe: That’s a really difficult reality to exist in. You captured this difficulty in your poems; “Daughters” and “Dear Mother”. There is this kind of erasure, where the mother forces or attempts to make the speaker become who she wants her to become. It creates a double-life kind of thing. Did that make accepting your sexuality difficult? What has empowered you to get to the point where you could come out to your mother?

Sahro: Oh yeah definitely, I went through that typical ”maybe I’m not gay, I’m just confused” stage when I was coming to terms with my sexuality. I had to unlearn so much internalized homophobia and it was a painful and uncomfortable process (which is common and inevitable when you’re unlearning anything). It was ten times harder because I’m Muslim and all my life I was fed these ideas that you couldn’t be both Muslim and gay. Once I gave myself a space, however small it was, I was able to explore my sexuality and think and reflect. And being around other like-minded young gay people was all the more liberating. Also, I’m a total coward and depended on twenty seconds of courage, which left me the instant I told my mum.

Gaamangwe: I do think that twenty seconds is all the courage you need. You are brave, because there was so much at stake here. Thank you Sahro, and all the best with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist



Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlists: A Dialogue With Rasaq Malik


Rasaq Malik is a graduate of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including Michigan Quaterly Review, Poet Lore, Spillway, Rattle, Juked, Connotation Press, Heart Online Journal, Grey sparrow, Jalada, and elsewhere. He is a two-time nominee for Best of the Net Nominations. His poem was among the finalists for the 2015 Best of the Net Nominations. Recently, Rattle Magazine and Poet Lore nominated his poems for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the dense, city of seven hills, Ibadan, Nigeria via Skype.

Gaamangwe: Rasaq, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?

Rasaq: I have been applying for the competition, every year since it started in 2013, and as a writer, you always hope that when you apply for a competition, you end up shortlisted or you win. So when I received the message that I was shortlisted, I was overjoyed. Being shortlisted means a lot to me, and my country Nigeria. We are pulling our hearts out and representing Nigeria in a big way, over there. So I am very happy, and truly grateful.

Gaamangwe: That’s interesting that you’ve been applying for the past five years. If you look back at your past entries, what do you think was different about this entry?

Rasaq: I believe that I got shortlisted because of the consistency, and the passion and just refusing to relent. There is a slight difference in a way—even though I have been exploring the tragic and gloomy aspects of what is happening in my country—in my past entries. I think with this application I was a bit advanced and effective with the language I used. I think it’s also because I have been reading new poetry collections and exploring poetry from other countries.

Gaamangwe: As you mentioned, the theme of your shortlisted poems are very haunting and dark themed. What inspired the poetry that you created with this entry?

Rasaq: I am passionate about the occurrences happening in my country. I think as a writer, you have to mirror society. So, I am interested in documenting the lives of the people that are helpless, especially people in the northern part of Nigeria, where you have Boko Haram killing people. I was doing research and watching documentaries concerning the Boko Haram’s attacks. And I wanted to interrogate and document; what it means to live in that part of the country, what it means to be a parent expecting your child to come back from school, only for them to go missing and never come back, and what it means to survive, live and die in that situation.

Gaamangwe: Have you personally experienced what you wrote about?

Rasaq: I believe that everywhere, there is some kind of war. In the South-west of Nigeria, we don’t necessarily experience war, but we have family, friends and our people living in the northern part of Nigeria. In this digital age, we now have easy access to what is happening in our country, and the world, and so, in this way, we are affected. As a writer, you have to write about what’s happening, especially because there are some aspects of what happens, that is not covered by the media. So what I do is; I read about these things, and if I have the chance and support I travel to that part of the country (because I value the need of going there, and seeing what people experience) and document those experiences. So my poems are imaginings based on real experiences.

Gaamangwe: I applaud you for deriving and humanizing other people’s experience with so much tenderness and believability. What kind of spaces and dialogues would you want your poetry to open up?

Rasaq: I think about the realities of my country and of the world, what we endure, through all the wars happening all over the world. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has infiltrated everywhere and it’s where one realizes; it could be you, it could be anyone that we know and love. Different people have travelled to this part of Nigeria, writing about these events, about the massacres happening in this regions and the abducted Chibok Girls. Of recent, we have not heard any news about Boko Haram. Things are getting better, and we are happy about that. So I think if we keep writing about these events, we reach other people, in the rest of the country and the world, and once people know, then change can happen.

Gaamangwe: You are right, because I am in Botswana and I learnt a lot from reading your poems. We need to humanizing war because a lot of people think of war as something that is outside there. Do you think that documenting and writing what happens in our communities and our realities can actually inspire change in some way?

Rasaq: Yes, I believe we can. I believe most human beings are sympathetic. The more we project and write about what’s happening, the more people can be inspired to reach out to people in war-torn places and refugee camps. We have to write about our realities and experiences because these things are happening to us, and we can’t hide that. Our writings can inspire others, even if that’s one person it doesn’t matter as long as one ponders on what we have written down, then that awareness is something. That awareness can lead to many things—some contribution, some development or some pro-activeness towards what’s happening.

Gaamangwe: That’s true. Can you tell me about the space you had to enter to write “We don’t know where we belong”?

Rasaq: I put myself in that position: what my life will be like if I lived in Borno or in Kabino or any other war-torn places. I imagined myself there in that particular state and experiencing this, people throwing bombs and people dying. So it wasn’t difficult for me to exploit that because I would be writing this as someone who was there. I said earlier that it could be anybody, just because I am not living in that state, doesn’t mean I haven’t been affected in my own way.

In the poem, I tried to talk about home, because this country is not the place to inhabit. A lot of people have died over the years and the only the thing we hear is rest in peace, and that’s about it. It keeps happening. So I could enter this space because not only have I witnessed this, I have been affected by these events for a long time now.

Gaamangwe: You did a really great job as a witness, as someone who is affected, as someone who comes from Nigeria, who lives in that world. What do you hope you would create with your poetry?

Rasaq: I believe that art is a continuous thing, you don’t stop living and you don’t stop writing. I am passionate about writing to document, to narrate and to talk about experiences of other people and my experiences. I want to explore the biographies of people of the world, especially those who are unknown by the world. I hope to create poetry that is a continuous portrayer of everything that happens. So I believe that the continuous portrayal and exploration of events will inspire other people to help in a positive way. People will be able to realise that these things have been happening for a long time and will be able to stand up and act. I believe that in this way writing is transformative as it steers people to reason and act, which is what this world needs right now.

Gaamangwe: I completely agree with everything you have said. Thank you Rasaq, and all the best of luck with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist



Our Everyday African Lives: A Dialogue With Stanley Gazemba

Stanley Gazemba

Stanley Gazemba (Kenya) is the author of three novels: The Stone Hills of Maragoli (winner of the 2003 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for fiction, published in the U.S. as Forbidden Fruit  in 2017), Khama, and Callused Hands. He is also the author of eight children’s books, of which A Scare in the Village won the 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for children’s fiction). A journalist by training, Gazemba has written for The New York Times, The East African, Msanii magazine, Sunday Nation, and Saturday Nation. He lives in Nairobi.

This conversation took place in a green sweet-spot in the cold city of  Gaborone, Botswana and temperamental, chilly ugali-starved Nairobi, Kenya by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Stanley, congratulations on the publications of  Forbidden Fruit. I really enjoyed reading the book. Even though the story is based in Kenya, I resonate with the lives and experiences of the characters in the book, perhaps because I have also lived in the rural parts of Botswana. The poetry and the vivid imagery is also quite incredible. What was the origin story of Forbidden Fruit?

Stanley:  Thank you. I am excited, especially to be published in the USA as an African writer because  I want to be read as widely as possible. I am glad that I have transported people to rural Kenya.  Its really interesting to hear readers from all over the world who also personally relate with the story.

When I started the story I was reminiscing on how Christmas was like when I was growing up. I was writing about things I remember from the Christmas time of my childhood. Christmas was the finest time of the year; there wasn’t much work to do, there was a lot of food and festivities because the harvest was just in. It was rather  a great spirit of celebration. I wanted to capture that. The fictitious village is crafted around a real village that I grew up in, and some of the characters are created around real people that I know. Of course overall the story is fiction. I created some aspects of the story as I saw fit.

Gaamangwe: I did feel that the story is written by someone who has probably lived a life similar to those of the characters or at least someone who has lived in a similar world. Was it easy for you to actually tap into your own experiences?

Stanley: I think that out of all the books I have written it was the most enjoyable and the easiest to write. I was basically immersing myself in a world that I know. So it was not challenging to write the book as compared to other books. Of course there were challenges like getting the plot to move properly and weaving everything together. But I think that is the sort of challenge that every author enjoys.

Gaamangwe: Yes. I also enjoyed how you created a slow-paced and detailed world, which was quite easy for us as readers to believe and immerse ourselves in. What was some of the tools that you utilize to create the book?

Stanley: I have always been the kind of writer who avoids what is taught in creative writing classes. The usual advice of plotting a story and having a skeleton of where and what you are working towards. I think sometimes when you approach writing in that way it becomes artificial, it doesn’t have that touch of something organic. Yes, there was planning but I didn’t do it in a structured way. At the time I was working as a gardener, so I had a lot of time to reflect on where I wanted this character to be, how I wanted the character to look like, what I wanted them to do in the story, and most of that stuff I was doing inside my head.

Previous to that I had been doing a bit of plotting and writing notes but I abandoned it because I realized it was interfering with my creative process. I would advise other writers to try this approach as it can help create a more smooth and natural story.

Gaamangwe: Was the main defining plot points also an organic, stream of consciousness creation or you planned them?

Stanley: I always find it mysterious how a story comes to be because when you are creating a story like that, most of the time the story happens in your subconscious. You are not even fully conscious of what is going on or that you are thinking about the story or the characters. You could be going about your daily job but at the back of your mind you are thinking. So when it comes to the actual writing, all these things start falling in place. How they come about, I think  it cannot be truly known.

I have come to a story before thinking that this is how I want my story to go, and then it never gets beyond the second paragraph. So sometimes you think you have everything figured out but it never gets beyond the first paragraph. So I have ended up abandoning some projects. But for this particular book I didn’t experience anything of that sort.

Gaamangwe: When you think about the aspects of human nature that came through in this story, and thinking about them now after finishing the book, how important are those themes to you as an individual?

Stanley: When you are creating a story you don’t just want to create a story, you want to educate, question and reflect society back to itself. I have heard a reviewer who suggested that the book was a feminist piece but I didn’t set out to write a book about feminism. I set out to paint a story about our everyday lives. So the themes that came out of the story, I didn’t dwell on them. I leave that to the reader to share what they think and what they take from the story. If a theme comes, it’s usually something that is in my subconscious.

Forbidden Fruit flat front coverCover Art by: Michael Choi

Gaamangwe: Is there a difference or some realizations that  you see in your story when you are writing it and when you re-read it after it’s been published? 

Stanley: Writing is strange in that every time you read your work there is always something you want to change or tweak in the story. It is definitely not the perfect book, there is always room to change something here and there. I think at some point during the editing process you learn to let it go. But given a chance yes there are certain things I will like to change for sure.

The thing that really moves me in any story is the humor. So sometimes when I read the parts in the story where Ombima is chatting with Ang’ote I am surprised by how spontaneous it was. The humor in the conversations between the characters was really surprising to me. Its very important to me to find the aspects of entertainment with what I have written before I can hand it over to the reader.

Here and there, I do find some stilted conversations mostly because I was trying to bring out Lulogooli expressions in English. Sometimes you find that some expressions sound too English if you try to look at it from the point of view of a native Maragoli speaker. It is kind of borrowed.  Given a chance, I would have wanted them to speak in Lulogooli but obviously that would have been restrictive because I wanted to speak to a wider audience.

Gaamangwe: I talked about this with  Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, on how because the wider audience are English speakers, we write stories about everyday Africans who are not English speakers. Meaning we write stories about people who will never access those exact stories. 

Stanley: Yes, it’s something that we have to live with. I will recommend that the African writer becomes a bit more bold in the sense that they shouldn’t just pick the medium they have been given and run with it as it is. African writers should try to bend the language and make it suit their needs, they should make their English written stories sound as African as they can.

I think Achebe achieved that. When you read his books, you know you are reading English but you aren’t quite sure if you are really reading english. You are almost reading Igbo! So it’s something that writers have to try to emulate. To write our stories in the english that is our own.

Gaamangwe: This is so true and important. I also think it’s important to tell our everyday lives, which is the essence of your book. What can everyday people teach us about ourselves?

Stanley: I have always been fascinated by ordinary people. Every time I visit a new city I want to live where ordinary people live. Because then I get a chance to experience the real lives of the people where they are in their most natural setting.

Everyday people are ignored all over Africa. In Kenya when you look at the politics; for as long as politicians have been in power, the ordinary people have not been in power. In the campaign period that’s when they realize the ordinary person is important. Only because they want to get their vote, so now they climb down from their pedestals and pretend that they are men of the people. But it’s all for show. Once they are elected they forget about the ordinary man once again.

So it is important to tell the story of the ordinary man because they are the majority, and these stories are important because there are the real experiences for a lot of people.

Gaamangwe: I agree. Writing these stories also reminds us that our everyday selves are important and matter. Thank you for joining me Stanley.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.


Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue With Leila Chatti


Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop and Dickinson House and prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, the 8th Annual Poetry Contest, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poems appear in Best New Poets, Ploughshares, Tin House, Narrative, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, West Branch, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she is a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the tiny, tourist beach town of Pronvincetown, USA by Email.

Gaamangwe: Leila, congratulations on being shortlisted for Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted ?

Leila: Thank you so much! It’s been a dream to be included on this list. I’ve made a point to always begin my bio with the fact I am both Tunisian and American, because it is very important to me to be recognized as both. I don’t want any part of my identity erased for simplification sake. Though I live most of the year in the United States, I also consider Tunisia my home, and it is important to me that I am seen as an African poet as well as an American one. I see this shortlist as a nod to my place in African poetry, and that means a lot to me.

Gaamangwe: How does belonging to two countries influence your sense of identity, and the poetry you write?

Leila: Having two homes has meant I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider—I’m too Tunisian to be a real American, and too American to be a real Tunisian. I think, of course, there are many ways to be both Tunisian and American, but it does complicate things to belong to more than one culture and place! In my work, I’ve noticed an obsession with longing and distance, which makes a lot of sense to me now that I’m aware of it—if ever I am in one place, I miss the other. I live in a perpetual state of longing. There’s a sense of loss in my work, as well as excess; I have two languages, two cultures, two parent faiths, and they all get jumbled up.

Gaamangwe: I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in that kind of perpetual state of longing. Because I wonder if it can ever be filled? Do you think the two will eventually be whole; not loss, not excess? What are the things that make you too Tunisian for American, and too American for Tunisia?

Leila: I think it is filled with the excess of joy I have; while it’s difficult to always be away from at least one half of my family at all times, I am lucky to have all that love to begin with. I don’t think the two will ever be able to merge—there’s the simple fact of geography, all that ocean between them—but I am happy enough, and wouldn’t trade it. I think, overall, it’s made for a full and interesting life.

As for what makes me feel like an outsider, there are lots of little things, and some big. Perhaps the biggest thing in Tunisia is language; while I understand Arabic fluently, I am shy about speaking, and as someone whose whole livelihood comes from words this is particularly challenging for me. I’m unable to express myself at the level I hold myself to in English. In the United States, my outsider status comes down to race and religion. I grew up in post-9/11 America, and so never felt fully embraced as American because I was Arab and Muslim. Those tensions are heightened now, with the recent presidential election and conversations about travel bans and registries.

Gaamangwe: I can’t imagine what that is like. To navigate the America of post 9/11 and post Trump as an Arab, Muslim and a woman must be very difficult. What do you want to illuminate about existing in the space you exists in, as these three forms of identity?

Leila: It’s a very strange time. In the months following the election, I sunk into a period of real mourning; I felt lost, adrift. I couldn’t focus. I was here in Provincetown, and had been working feverishly on my first book manuscript until that point, but the election derailed me for a good while. I hadn’t anticipated him winning, and so was thrown into a panic when he did. It took some time for me to process—I read only Arab poetry for the month following and struggled to write anything myself—and I was frustrated that I was unable to make progress on my manuscript. I realize now that I was growing and learning during that time (any time reading is time well spent), but also that self-care is part of progress, a necessary part. And during those bleak winter months, I felt so angry and trapped and erased that I felt I had to do something; I ended up putting together another manuscript, Tunsiya Amrikiya, a chapbook about being Tunisian and American and growing up Muslim and female in both contexts, and I found out recently it will be published by Bull City Press! So something good did come out of that time, as hopeless as it seemed to me.

Gaamangwe: I think a lot about this attempt to erase other people. I am always wondering where this much anger and hate towards other people stems from. Why the world keeps on insisting on “erasing” whole people, and countries, and cultures. And how also, someone can actually have that much power to be able to affect the lives of million people, and have the whole world watch by. How did we create such a world?

It’s wonderful that you will be published by Bull City Press. What meanings came up in Tunsiya Amrikiya?

Leila: I think that the answer to that is very long and very complicated and I don’t believe I have it. I do think there is a lot of hate and rage in the world, so much of it I have to regulate the amount of time I spend on the internet for my own emotional well-being. It’s disheartening, to say the least. I do try to wrestle with it often, both personally and in my work, and a fair number of poems from Tunsiya Amrikiya deal with violence and bigotry. But the manuscript is also celebratory; I wanted it to be a cry, of joy and pain, resisting erasure. I refuse to be silenced.

Gaamangwe: That’s true, we must keep resisting erasure. Find and create our own acts of defiance. Speak for ourselves and for those who can’t speak for themselves. But also, balance the dark with light, so yes to joy and celebration. The speakers in your poetry explore love; what are they discovering about it, and what does love mean to them?

Leila: I won’t be shy—the speaker is almost always myself, so I’ll speak to what love means to me. I believe, of course, that the world would benefit from more love. Though I write often about desire, I’m interested, too, in love outside of a romantic or sexual context, love that exists in small, brief ways and love that endures or resists definition. I once thought that love was responsible for a great deal of suffering (love of one’s country or God or race used as justification for violence, love of the self with disregard for all others), but I recognize those things weren’t rooted in love at all and are instead distortions, powerful feelings mistaken for love. Love is a gift. I’ll pursue it always.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful Leila! I totally agree. Thank you, and all the best of luck with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist


The Politics of Identity and Belonging: A Dialogue With JJ Bola

JJ-Bola-FB (1)

JJ Bola is a Kinshasa born, London raised writer, poet, and educator.  He has published three books of poetry Elevate (2012) and Daughter of the Sun (2014). His third, WORD (2015) is his most comprehensive poetry collection.

His debut novel No Place to Call Home (OWN IT, 2017) will be out this June. He is an MA Creative Writing student (Kit de Waal Scholar), Birkbeck, University of London (2017) and Spread the Word Flight 1000 Associate (2017).

JJ Bola’s work is centered on a narrative of empowerment, humanization, healing of trauma as well as discovery of self through art, literature and poetry. Creating the increasingly popular adage, ‘hype your writers like you do you rappers’, he believes that the true purpose of poetry (art) is to expose the reality of this world and how to, most importantly, survive it.

JJ Bola reads regularly at shows and festivals across London/UK such as  Tongue Fu, Vocals & Verses, Chill Pill, The Round House, Ventnor Fringe, Glastonbury etc as well as Universities; SOAS, UCL, Oxford, Lincoln, University of Birmingham, and a mini tour of the US West Coast in 2015/16, LA, Da Poetry Lounge, UCLA, Stanford University and Merrit College in the Bay Area, San Francisco and Oakland, where he won the Oakland Poetry Slam.

This conversation took place in a green sweet-spot in the cold city of  Gaborone, Botswana  and cold, wet, rainy London over a cup of tea by Skype.

Gaamangwe: JJ in an interview with Electric magazine, you said  “Our existence is political”, which I think is a powerful statement.  How has this statement been true for you? 

JJ: Here, the statement “our existence is political” is essentially an observation of how we as human beings fit the society that we are born into, in the world. We often only consider politics in terms of political parties or when it comes to voting and not necessarily; what schools we decide to send our children to, what areas we grow up in, what languages we learn or what music we listen to, but all of these are political decisions and we are influenced by that.

This has been true for me when I reflect on my own experiences in life.  Coming into the UK as a refugee, immediately from a young age, I was made aware that to be a refugee and not have status in a country or society that required you to have legal status, means that your existence is political. But also when you do get that status, that is also a political existence. There are a lot of political elements that exists that really sum up the reality of our day to day lives.

Gaamangwe: How has being a refugee throughout your lifetime influenced the experiences that you have experienced?

JJ: From as far as when I was in school, I was always aware that I had a different reality compared to my friends around me and those who weren’t refugees because of the kind of access that I had to certain spaces or certain opportunities.

So when kids talked about where they went for holidays on the summer or when it came to applying for certain opportunities to do with education, I was aware of the fact that I didn’t have a passport or status. This meant that I was restricted from access to a lot of thing. There was also how I felt; you are always reminded that you are on the outside, you’re always on the periphery and that you kind of carry that wherever you go. You carry that burden in so many other spaces beyond whether you are a refugee or not. It happens in so many other spaces and you’re a lot more aware and conscious of the politics of the world.

I remember being aware of the politics of the world at a young and these weren’t things that my friends at school were particularly concerned about. You look at the direction the world goes in, more so recently in the past few years’ people have been talking about a refugee crisis but for refugees around the world, there has always been a refugee crisis. To be a refugee is to exist in a state of crisis all the time because you’re not offered security. So that is really kind of the impact that it had on my life, my family around me and also the community that I grew up in, many of whom were also refuges.

Gaamangwe: How did you navigate living in that space where you are never sure what tomorrow is going to be like?

JJ: I just kind of followed my parent’s examples if I’m being honest. I am really fortunate because I think my parents had a really optimistic kind of approach. They instilled the ethics of  hard work in us, as a lot of immigrant and refugee parents do. They tell their children to work hard, be hopeful and optimistic for the future and that’s what we did. We never defined ourselves by our refugee status or by our political status. We were always aspiring and aiming to achieve our aspirations, our dreams and hopes. All of those things are things that went beyond any kind of label or stigma about being a refugee. We saw ourselves as human beings with value that we can add to the world and that is all that we were really trying to do.

Gaamangwe: Being a refugee means in some way you belong to different places and cultures. Do you identify as British-Congolese or just British or just Congolese?

JJ: That’s a really great question. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily identify as British. I grew up in London so I identify more as a Londoner that I do as British. Obviously there are places and times when I leave the UK or depending on where I am, where people say “oh you’re British”, so it’s something I have to navigate around. I also identify with my Congolese heritage through my parents and my family back home but often times, politically I am not necessarily allowed to identify with being fully Congolese.

I am not given certain access because of the politics of being a child of the diaspora, you are always kind of removed from your country of origin because the question of authenticity comes into place. How authentic Congolese are you or how much do you belong to that house when you don’t live in it, is often the question or the conflict. I think it’s important to acknowledge the root or the origin of where you’re from but also allow yourself to have the fluidity of being able to belong in different spaces at different times because as human beings we do occupy more than one space at one time. We are fluid in our identity, we are fluid in the way we see ourselves, we are not fixed at all. So I am able to belong to many spaces at the same time and also to no space at all. I think this are  some of the conflicts that come with belonging and being human.

Gaamangwe: I completely understand the complexity of this, especially because we live in a world that insists on labels and ideas of belongings that is tied to one country.  

For me, it is very simple; I am in Botswana, I’m from Botswana and I have lived my entire life here, so questions of identity and belonging are easy for me. Because I belong and understand the nuances of what is it to be a motswana. I am also able to navigate my world and sense of identity easily.

How does having two influences, two cultures and two countries influence the kind of human that you are?

JJ: It is really interesting. For example, one of my cousins back home, we are about the same age, and we have pretty much had similar education experience but he lives in Kinshasa, he was born in Kinshasa, grew up in Kinshasa and never left Kinshasa. Although I was born in Kinshasa, I grew up in London and schooled in London.

For my cousin, he is Congolese and he doesn’t have the conflict whether or not he is Congolese or any of the concerns of being influenced of multiple cultures. His identity is rooted in his congolese identity. But he watches the Kardashian’s and all these reality TV shows and he knows very little about Congolese history, culture, politics, the different cultural groups and so forth. And on the other hand, I know way more about Congolese history, culture and politics because I have been passionate about researching about Congo.

So when we have a conversation, he sounds like the foreigner,  because he is talking about mainstream TV, all these reality show and social media and I’m talking about our culture and our traditions. So, you have to ask yourself who is more Congolese in that situation?  If I didn’t give the location of where each person was, and I just said person A speaks about mainstream culture  and person B speaks about the culture of the country, which person do you think is from this country? People are more likely to say person B is from that country because we often tie our identity to culture, arts, history, and people who have that information or passion are seen as being more authentically from that country or from that place. So it’s always a really interesting dynamic, this idea of how authentic or the authenticity of being from where someone is from. What does that truly mean because when you take my cousin, he has never had to question that because no has ever questioned him on whether he is truly Congolese because he is physically there. Is it enough to be physically present yet be mentally or even spiritually absent? I am not saying he is absent in that way but where do these rules about authenticity come from and when do we ever come from just one place?  Especially when I am looking at Congo, a lot of Congo is defined by colonial borders and again that’s the number one conflict that I have when it comes to nationality and what we are tying ourselves into. It’s a conversation, I don’t know if I I’m presenting the answer, I’m just saying this is the question that leads to more questions.

Gaamangwe: Yes, I also have a lot of questions. How do we define citizenship?  how do we define belonging to a certain country? how do we even define countries? I don’t think it’s as simple as we always want to make it seem, it’s more complex than that.

I realized that there is probably a person who is outside Botswana who knows more about Botswana than I do. I also had an experience where I moved to India and I knew so much more about India because when you feel like you don’t know something you are propelled to do a lot of research and consciously experience that place as compared to someone who is there and takes it more lightly. There is so much gratitude and awareness when you are outside something.

JJ: Definitely, I remember this experience I had that led me to be passionate and aware of  the culture of my origin. This one time a white guy somewhere randomly asked me what country I was from and I was a teenager at that time and this was just after Congo had been named back to Congo, after it was Zaire, so this is a few years after Mobutu’s exile. I said I am from Zaire, because as far as I knew my country was still called Zaire. He said Zaire doesn’t exists, it’s Congo now and he said how could you not know and he went on to tell me about my own country. This guy who was not from my country talked about the history, politics and I was learning so much but I felt a deep sense of embarrassment because there was this complete outsider who knew way more about where I was from and I didn’t even have anything to offer to him as new information. So that really set a deep conflict and I was embarrassed by it,  and so I thought it’s really important to learn. Obviously no one can know everything about where they come from but at least you should be able to offer a certain amount of principles.

Gaamangwe: Definitely. I imagine that you didn’t leave Congo under good circumstances. How did you live with that kind of wound and betrayal from your country of origin?

JJ: Even still now as an adult I can still feel the way I felt when we had to leave. It happened in a way that it was a surprise. Your parents have to make a decision to leave, so they leave a place where they have their lives and where they are surrounded by their family. They make a decision and that’s that but there is no consultation process or any preparation. They barely have enough time to even really pack anything. It’s a really difficult thing especially as a child. So we are looking at issues of attachment, belonging and abandonment. You are taken from a place that you have always lived to a completely new place in a different environment and you are treated differently. It can be a shock to the system. But we were quite lucky  because  London is quite cultural, so all the time there were other people from our country that we were able to connect with here. It’s really important to have that sense of community as well because the community allows you to find yourself, to always recreate where you come from. But it’s really difficult because even now in my adulthood, I realize that there are something that I still take with me. Constantly travelling and moving from place to place, feeling of attachment or dis-attachment and not completely ever feeling settled in one place because you always have to be prepared to leave just in case. That’s always in the back of my mind.  I am always prepared to leave just in case. I guess that’s a symptom of the experience that we have had as a family or that I have had as an individual. But on the flip side, it’s also made me a lot more resilient and given me a lot of strength and determination because seeing what my parents and my community have been able to go through, how they have been able to achieve in spite of the odds really makes me believe there is so much more that I can do and that we can do. Leaving to go to a new country where you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the language, you’re not aware of the systems and you’re poor and still be able to establish yourself and start a life even if it’s just holding down an ordinary job, that’s still a massive achievement. That is something that still does give me hope.

Gaamangwe: That’s inspiring. In your own personal reality, what is the story of Congo?

JJ: For me, Congo is the land of my ancestors. It’s a place that connects me back to myself and reminds me of how small I really am. Those times when I start to sink in my own ego and I see the world as only me, I think and connect back to Congo and I am reminded that there is generations and generations that came before and make up who I am today. It’s like connecting the roots to the tree, it’s always good to remember that you don’t stand alone and that you are connected to other people and also the people where you come from. My being away from home and my country and being part of the diaspora doesn’t mean that I am separated or cut off, it’s just like a branch from the tree but we all have the same root. It definitely reminds me that I am always connected to something that is bigger than just me.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. Have you ever gone back to Congo?

JJ: I have been back once in 2014. It was so powerful. I have my extended family that I have only ever been able to see through pictures and only ever been able to speak to on the phone, so being able to hear their voices and see them face to face was such an incredible experience. It opened me up to a part of myself that I wasn’t aware of. To be able to travel outside of the city into the village and connect with my grandparents side of the family, was a deeply, humbling experience. I think it was very spiritual. I would say there was a deep peace that settled in my soul when I went back home in the sense that there was something I was looking for that I didn’t know I was looking for. It definitely answered a lot of questions that I had and it also gave me a vision of myself, in terms of where I can be and what I can speak about in the future. It gave me new language to be able to articulate my reality, and I think that was probably one of the most important things.

Gaamangwe: How do you articulate your reality now especially when you think of it in connection to Congo?

JJ: For me, I have a lot of admiration and reverence for my reality. For who I am as a person, for the journey that I have come from not just as an individual but in terms of the connection that I have with people who come from where I come from. Often times we are conditioned to feel shame about being from Congo and Africa, especially in the diaspora. It really allowed me to connect back and see myself because  while other people are still looking for themselves and the world is still looking for itself, I was connected to something that was already there and visible. Right now people are trying to find ways to define themselves, ways to define their culture, so  being able to go back home and connect with my culture allowed me to  see myself and also see those around me. I was able to now speak about Congo, being back home and give examples of the way things are going that are much more concrete and solid than just what I read in books. A book can prepare you for so much but the reality to be able to see it, live it and breath it is just way more powerful. So this experience was really empowering as it allowed me to speak of myself and my reality in a way that I was never able to before.

Gaamangwe: That’s incredible. So you wrote a book exploring most of the things that we are talking about— the idea of home and belonging— called “No Place to Call Home”. Can you tell me more about this book?

JJ: No Place to Call Home looks at the journey of a family that comes from Congo to the UK to seek asylum as refugees. It tells a story from two perspectives, the parents (the father) and the children (mainly the young son).  Essentially from the parents trying to protect their children, trying to integrate their children into the new society and protect them from the reality of their political experience. But also the children are trying to understand about their reality, where they come from and what they are going through and some of the conflicts that this can bring. It also looks at the parents lives before  they decided to leave the country and have the children; how life was like then, what their dreams and aspirations were, what was lost when they were forced to leave and what was the circumstances that actually forced them to leave in the end. So it tackles the questions of belonging and identity, and this feeling of places and how there isn’t a place for you but also how communities come to form themselves away from the places they feel they belong to and how they survive in different spaces and some of the issues and interactions that go around that. It’s really like getting magnifying glass and going to a community who aren’t really spoken about on focused on a lot.

Gaamangwe: Was it very cathartic to write this book because it seems that you were inspired by your own personal experience?  Was it also a bit difficult for you to go into the depth of your own experience and translate that into the characters of the story in the book?

JJ: It was definitely both. It was cathartic in the sense that there were things that I hadn’t had to think about since I was a child. Some of the things that were long left behind that I didn’t need to address in my adulthood, a lot of it came back to me and I was able to see some of the experiences that we had and it was a release. There was also a lot of the issues and burdens that we still carry as adults and trying to navigate around that.

I feel much lighter and clearer after writing it and I hope that those who read it and have gone through similar experiences will be able to relate but also those who haven’t gone through this experience at all will also be able to relate because I think it’s part of the human story, it’s part of the everyday experience that we all feel no matter where you are from. I think we all feel this idea of places and this feeling of questioning our identity.

When you’re refugee it’s more of an immediate question, it’s something that comes sooner to you because of you status at the moment . But it doesn’t mean that it’s not an a question that doesn’t arrive at all for a lot of us.  At some point or another in our lives we question who we are, who we think we are and how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Gaamangwe: The idea of places and belonging is a huge part of the human experience. There is a sense that not all of us fit places entirely nor feel a sense of belonging entirely, at all times. I look forward to engaging further with these questions and realizations in your book and possibly process my own experiences. Thank you for joining me in this space.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.



Women Who Live On The Margin of Society.: A Dialogue With Tshepo Jamillah Moyo

Tshepo Moyo (1)

Sometimes “The Joy” but always a Poet, Writer and Super Hero; Born 1994, Tshepo Jamillah Moyo (TJ) is an unapologetic black Pan African Inter-sectional Feminist performance artist. Her work centers on the exploration of black African womanhood.

At 18 years, she received her first publication in an online anthology with the University of Nebraska via their Prairie Schooner platform. Her poem “Battleship” was published alongside some of Botswana’s literary legends – namely TJ Dema, Barolong Seboni, Lesego Nchunga and Andreatta Chuma. This was only the beginning and she has since been published in Emergence; An artistic Journal of Women and Gender Non-Conforming People, and  Walking The Tight Rope: Poetry and Prose by LGBTQ Writers from Africa. She was profiled in WAVE WOMEN’s 50 Formidable Women coffee table book along with 49 other Batswana women including such household names as Sheila Tlou, Athalia Molokomme, Mmamasire-Mwamba, Linah Moholho, and Immelda Molokomme. Tshepo is currently working on her first book, a collection of poetry.

In her dedication to literature, Tshepo has experience as a journalist having written for The Tswana Times and multiple online platforms including The Afrolutionist. In 2016, The Echo Newspaper hosted her column 1thirdofawoman which follows her blog of the same title’s theme of engaging socio-economic political dialogue.

Miss Moyo is a regular theatre performer and has appeared in numerous productions aimed mostly at bringing awareness to the issues she holds dear. She spent majority of her teen years volunteering and contributing to life changing causes such as Peace is love, a yearly play to raise funds for organisations working against Gender Based Violence. In her spare time TJ offers mentorship and guidance to young women under her work with The African Women Leadership Academy. However, she also sits on the board of a national NGO Higher Heights for Girls in Botswana which she spearheaded forming at the age of 20. In her work with Higher Heights for Girls Tshepo works towards training adolescents in Sexual Reproductive Health Rights and Responsibilities and Gender Based Violence. She has had the opportunity to use this work with in-school adolescents to inform the 2036 Botswana Vision as she was called on to give her expertise in 2016. Miss Moyo is not only an avid activist, reader, facilitator and present member of society but also a colourful nourished writer and performance artist.

This conversation took place in the charming sweetspot of Fego Cafe in Gaborone, Botswana by person.

Gaamangwe:  Recently, a young woman was sexually harassed and assaulted by a group of men and women at the Bus Rank, here in Botswana. Supposedly, this assault was based on the belief that her dress was too short and inappropriate. On June 3rd, human rights and gender activists, and fellow women marched in the RIGHT TO WEAR WHAT I WANT walk, which aimed to highlight that no one has the right to violate another human being based on what they are wearing. Now post the march, an image of you, taken by Mathiam  Basha-Agha is circulating in the internet. There is an uproar of people who feel that what you wore (Black T-shirt, Unbuttoned shorts pants with a visible Victoria Secret underwear, and fishnet stockings) was inappropriate. Furthermore, there is a huge backlash towards the statement that you wrote in your body; Hoe is Life. How has this experience been like for you?

TJ:  The decision to go to the march was a very simple one for me. After the assault happened, I knew that I wanted to go march. It was my public duty to go. Before the march, I intentionally choose and planned my outfit. The intention was to shock. It was to disturb the idea that I needed somebody’s permission to wear what I was wearing. People are asking if my parents knew, if my father knew, but my parents don’t own my body, so it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t know.

I am not shocked over this backlash. As Batswana, we have a very unhealthy culture with social media. We are very hurtful on social media. Nobody actually thinks about what they are saying and what the impact of what they are saying will have on other people.

I am tired because people think that, that photo happened to me or that day happened to me. The conversation should not really be about me or my body. It shouldn’t be about “Hoe is Life”. I understand why it is, I understand why it needs to happen but the truth of the matter is I feel everyone is deflecting from the issue that really matter.

Right now, everybody feels entitled to my body; they think they can give me their opinions about how I should dress it, what  I write on it and what message I should give,  because they think I owe them dignity, I owe their children dignity. It just goes to show you that we are a sick society and there is so much work that has to be done.

As I walked into the Bus Rank and all those people were so angry at us, even when I left the march, I knew the march was not enough. I knew that there is so much education, learning and unlearning, and work that needs to be done.  I have been doing activism work around issues like this for the longest time. So it should be clear that the march was not the beginning of my work around educating people around this. It’s definitely not the end.

Gaamangwe: I think that your image and the dialogue it has created is so powerful because we really discovered how people actually think. People still don’t understand that everyone has the right to choose what they wear, and no one has the right to persecute, violate, attack or harm them in anyway, under no circumstance or space. A lot of the narrative was about how that was not what a girl child is supposed to wear in public. The concept of dignity which claims that a woman is supposed to be a certain way in certain spaces.

TJ: Yes, and the woman who is not that way then deserves disrespect and violence, and doesn’t deserve the dignity of life.

During the march, I was very upset because there was a woman who was speaking over the mike who kept saying “Assault and rape are done by people who are not educated”, but we all know that is not the case. People who are educated and smart enough to understand the concept of autonomy, which is really a simple concept, also do assault and rape.  Assault and rape is not an uneducated woman or man’s problem. It’s something that cuts across race, gender and class. It’s everybody’s problem.

That is why we need intersectional feminism. Intersectional Feminism thinks about every single woman, and all the intersections of her life  where those oppressions comes  from. There are women who we believe because they are poor deserve to be raped. Some people say “this woman is someone’s sister, someone’s daughter” but what if I don’t have a family? What if I am an orphan? Then I deserve to be abused and raped because I don’t belong to anybody? The idea that there are certain people who deserve dignity and there are people who don’t, is exactly why I wrote “Hoe is Life” in my body. Because there are women who are considered hoes, and they are rejected from society, and treated as if they don’t deserve the right and dignity of life.

A lot of these discussions tend to be based on ideas that we claim are our cultures and ways of life as a society. But clearly we have a lot of learning and unlearning to do if we fail to understand the importance of autonomy, rights and dignity that every human being is entitled to. The question now is; as this is clearly not a degree or university issue, what kind of education do we need to implement here, and what kind of education are we talking about?

Gaamangwe. This is a very important question because people who are supposedly educated also seem to not get the very basic concept of human right and dignity of life for all humans. There are so many aspects at play here. We are dealing with interconnected systems of oppressions, and so we have to understand that we need to ensure accessibility to holistic education to all the various oppressive systems, their toxicity and how we maintain them as a society. What is clear is that more women seem to understand the toxicity of patriarchy while men really struggle to actually understand it.

TJ: Yes, that’s also another thing. But how are we expecting men to step out of their privilege?  This is the same way that we have some politician who are refusing to let go of their seats, because of the power they have. Patriarchy puts men in a position of power. And we can’t exactly expect them to easily say “Whoa! I think this might be too much power”. They like and enjoy it. They benefit from it. But I do have hope that there are men out there who realize that life is ten times easier for them than it is for any woman, because once you begin to see your privileges the less you step into the spaces of others.

Gaamangwe:  Yes. But a lot of men don’t actually understand the daily war zones women navigate on a daily basis.  How terrifying and uncomfortable it is for a woman to walk in the streets in broad daylight. Men fail to understand the daily undertones of potential violence layered in every single encounter with a male body.

TJ: And then you have the good men who say; I defend women, I don’t abuse and violate women.  I don’t treat women like that. But you don’t call out your brothers, male friends and fathers that treat women like that.

Gaamangwe: But can we also assess this idea of good men. Because I think a lot of men actually think that there are these wholesome all around good men. Just because a man has not done something violent towards the women in their lives, it doesn’t mean that they are not some women from all the people they have interacted with in their lifetime, who have not felt unsafe, violated and harassed in some way by the same man.

TJ: Whenever I say men are trash, the first question that I get is; is your dad trash? And I am like; not to me! My dad is amazing. My day has been showing up for me for the past 22 years. He is literally the most embarrassed man right now, and he could have gone on the internet and said I don’t know that girl, and he hasn’t done that. My dad has been affirming me and making sure that he plays a huge role in the feminist that I am today. But I will tell you something, I am sure there is some woman out there in the world who will say “Your dad once did something that really made me feel unsafe”.

And that’s the problem of respectability politics. You cannot pick which women you are going to be nice to, based on who they are related to, how much money they make and what they wear. It’s not going to cut it. Consistency or nothing. All women or no women.

I am sure there are men who are saying TJ did the right thing. I received a phone call from a rapper who told me he is so happy and proud of me, and that this is such an important conversation that I am making with the world. My first thought when he called was; what rubbish is he going to say? After he said that to me, the second thing that came to my mind was; why isn’t he saying this on a public platform? Because he can’t afford for his rapper friends and male friends to know that he supports what I am doing, and their behaviour is wrong. Because then he will then have to admit that him and his friends and the way they treat women is wrong. Men have this thing I call the Boy’s Club, which is the most toxic and disgusting thing ever. Basically, even when men are not friends, they will defend each other. You will be in the club with a man, and you will say to a man, you can’t ask me out because I have a man, and that man will respect the idea of you having a boyfriend, more than the idea of you saying no, I am not interested. He respects a man that he’s never ever met in his life more than he respects you the woman he likes.

Gaamangwe: True. There are so many dialogues on social media right now, particularly on your image and the statement “Hoe is Life”.  Clearly people don’t actually understand what it means, what it represents and what it stands for. Although, that is still not a reason to attack you.  What does this statement mean to you, and why was it important for you to write it in your body?

TJ: So first of all, let’s starts here and make this clear; Hoe is Life. This statement actually started as a hashtag on twitter (as all good things start on twitter). The idea behind this is about sexual liberation for women. When you claim your sexuality, and people calling your hoe for it, that is fine because that is your body and you are allowed to do with it whatever and however you please. But of course it’s advisable to always be safe.

Hoe is Life is important because when women claim themselves, even when you are not claiming your sexuality as a woman, but you are assertive, you own yourself, your body and your choices, you will be called names like a hoe or bitch, and most of the times these words are created to exclude women from womanhood.

The good women, don’t get called hoes. The women who don’t conform, the bad women, get called hoes. Those were the women that I was walking for. The women who live in the margin of womanhood. The women whobecause you have decided that you are going to take your brother to court for refusing to give a piece of the landare excluded in the family. Because you are approached by a man who is ridiculously rich and you told him, his money doesn’t matter you are now a bad woman. Because you are approached by a man and his money did matter (because they can’t make their minds up, about which one is bad and which is good; it’s you must get a rich husband so he can take care of you but if there is a man taking care of you, then you are a bad woman. Huh?).

The women who are lesbians, the women who are trans women, (because when we are asked, where were the trans women in the movement we say  we didn’t invite them because we didn’t want them to derail and talk about those things), the sex workers (women who live in the margins of darkness and have to spend their lives running because of criminalization of their jobs, and who can’t afford to come out and march because they can’t afford to because that’s time that could be making them money). Those are the women I was marching for. The women who nobody finds socially acceptable. The women nobody wants to identify with. Nobody wants to be friends with and wants to be known to support.

Because those are the women who are called hoes and bitches. They are constantly excluded from our society and I was simply saying these women matter. I will never be okay with the reality that I have access to certain rights and another woman doesn’t have access to the same rights. For example, in Botswana everyone has access to basic free health care, but a lot of the times, there are women who when they go to the hospital they don’t get that access. Trans women don’t get access to that. There is a little girl in Maitengwe who really doesn’t want to wear a skirt to school, and she keeps being forced to wear it. That was the girl I was walking for. The one who say; I am not allowed but I still exist.

Gaamangwe: And who often most of the time society is comfortable with not bearing witness to their violation.

TJ: Yes, for example the woman who was walking in the Bus Rank, people say she was drunk, so deserved it. Aren’t men sometimes drunk at the bus rank? Do they get abused and violated when that happens? Some people say she was insulting others. But when a child is insulting others, don’t we take them to kgotla? When did it become our culture to address people when they are misbehaving, ourselves?

Even our religious systems don’t support assaulting people. It’s not written anyway in any of the religious texts that you can assault people if they are not wearing what you deem right. Even if a woman is naked, you don’t assault her. In case of wrong doing, you hold a trial. I don’t understand how people can just decide that there are the court/ judge/police office/executioner and the person’s lawyer.  It is so uncivilized. Our culture has systems in place, most of which don’t work but to say violence is our culture? Is a blatant lie.

Gaamangwe: Actually it doesn’t matter what state she was in; whether she was drunk, whether she was insulting others, or whether she was mentally unstable. It doesn’t matter. No one had the right to violate her.

One other upsetting aspect of the assault at the Bus rank is that there were some women who sat through the abuse, and even participated in the abuse. And in your case, some women were at the forefront of attacking your photo.

TJ: Even at the march, there were women marching besides me, who were attacking me. They thought and felt like I was being inappropriate and I was derailing their movement. These women are gatekeepers of patriarchy, also known as Patriarchy Princesses.

But here is the thing: it’s all women or there is no movement.  Don’t ever in your life think you are safe for as long as another woman is not safe. Don’t make that mistake.

Women who attack other women are the same women who will go out with their male friends, watch them get other women drunk and take them home, knowing very well that’s rape, and still think it will never happen to them because their male friends care about them.

The Gender Ministry published a study, and it showed that 67% of women in Botswana have been sexually assaulted and admit to having experienced gender based violence. Almost half of those women say that they have experienced gender based violence at the hands of someone they knew. Meaning the men in their circle. The men some women are defending are the same people who are abusing women, as a matter of fact abusing them.

We also have the Pick me women. The “I am better than the other woman.” Women who think that society works like this, and it must work like this, and that they are safe because they fit in and work according to the rules. But the reality is that good women who keep by the rules and do everything right are still raped and assaulted by men. As long as you are a woman, you are not safe.

I understand the Pick me as people who want to be part of the Boy’s Club. But you are not. You will be with a man who you have known your whole life and you will walk up to him and say that man harassed me, and he will go to that man who harassed you and say “Ao my man, why did you touch her?” and he will say “Ao hardy my man”, and that will be the end of the conversation. Because of the Boy’s Club. Men will always pick men over women.

Gaamangwe: I do think that these women sometime choose a single view at that particular point in time, and neglect the other view at that same point. I refuse to believe that they are women who confidently feel safe when they have long dresses on. Every single woman who exists as a woman has felt unsafe at one point in their life. Every woman feels unsafe everyday of their life, regardless of whether they are well-mannered, have social appropriate clothing and live by the rules.

I asked a male relative; if you were put in a city and you were told some of the men here might rape you, would you leave your house? Of course, he said he wouldn’t leave the house at all. Yet that is our reality every single day.

TJ: The other day I was at the cinema with my mom, and I was texting on my phone, and these two little boys (they must have been fourteen) walked up to me. I was concentrating on my phone that I didn’t notice them until they were in front of me. My first instinct was to hide my phone in my chest, and these kids were so hurt because they were like we are not thieves. And I was like; I am so sorry boys, it has nothing to do with you. But it does have something to do with them. It is nothing individual but the collective meaning of the image of a man, which they are part of. Seeing and interacting with a man means possible danger. Even at fourteen years old, when I see two of them, I really don’t feel safe. I don’t know if I can actually manage to fight two boys.  Our reality, walking on the streets, is you are always assessing your environment, looking for things you can use to hit a man should he come out of the blue and attack you.

Gaamangwe:  Another dangerous belief is that men are naturally unable to control themselves. That you as a woman, you must do everything that you can, to make sure that men are not tempted to violate you.

This narrative says; “a woman must wear clothing that fully cover their body parts, so that a man doesn’t get excited, as we know men are easily excited, and can consequently fail to control themselves and will be forced to attack you. It is your responsibility  to ensure that you are not raped!”.

TJ: It’s confusing because we say men are trash and they get upset, yet here they clearly don’t believing in themselves. Who really cannot control their sexuality? If you want a burger and it is not yours, do you ever just eat the burger. No, you control your hunger. But, you can’t control your libido? Come on, just grow up. Men don’t even believe in themselves. They don’t believe in themselves and they want us to believe in them? No. Men need to believe in themselves, they need to hold themselves accountable, otherwise they will forever be trash.

Gaamangwe: So what  is the way forward?

TJ: Educating, changing the world’s view and behavioral change, is going to take a very, very long time.  When I first started my activism I started with blogging.  I wrote this blog-post about abuse and I remember a young woman inboxed me and told me that, that blog-post had been the reason that she got out of her abusive relationship. I shared that conversation with a friend of mine and I remember him saying; this is so important because this girl is going to have this conversation with five other girls, who are going to have it with five other girls and so on, and maybe out of all those girls at least three of the five will get out of their abusive relationships. Maybe they will start holding the men in their lives accountable because half of the time nobody holds men accountable. Mothers coddle a lot of the men, and the rest of society is left to deal with them.

So we need to start holding each other accountable. When you see your friend commenting on Facebook and being out of line, don’t just stand there. It’s your responsibility to comment because it affects you as the end of the day.

But it is not my responsibility to educate everyone. I am doing my fair to educate the people in my life that are around me and the people I have access to. There are also spaces that I go into that are not in my direct personal life. I have always been a supporter of the statement that the personal is political. So if you politically agree with me, you need to hold the people in your lives accountable. If your father is sitting there in the car and he is saying “whoa, this girl is such a problem”, you need to say “but that’s my friend”. I support her, I agree with her because of this and this.

You need to challenge patriarchy every day in your life. So that everybody in society can start growing, our cultures can evolve and we can move forward and beyond what is currently happening in our personal and collective spheres. The thing is once society starts shifting its mind-sets around one thing, then you make everybody else evolve, you make our activists jobs easy. We don’t get much resistance. So if we can start in our homes, schools, offices, churches and any other spaces we all access, then it will make a huge difference. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can do some much together.

My title has always been Poet, Writer and Superhero, which is very ironic because everyone is calling me a hero right now, but I have always identified as a Superhero because I think the work that I do as an activist saves lives.

Gaamangwe: Thank you TJ for your powerful work, and for joining me in this space.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.


Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue With Kechi Nomu


Kechi Nomu was born in 1987. She grew up in Nigeria under two Nigerian dictatorships. Her poems have appeared in Saraba Magazine, The ANA Poetry Review, Expound Magazine, Sentinel and Brittle Paper. She writes film and theatre reviews for Olisatv. Her short stories have been workshopped at the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and the Caine Prize Short Story Surgery. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared online and in print.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the busy hub of Yaba in Lagos, Nigeria by Email.

Gaamangwe: Kechi, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean for you to be on the shortlist?

Kechi: I am still processing all of what it means, but gratitude is the clearest emotion. The news came at a time when I had a lot of questions. So, it felt like an answer on some level. It is also just stunning to me to be on a shortlist with poets whose works I greatly admire, for the Brunel!

Gaamangwe: What kind of questions are you exploring in your poetry?

Kechi: I am very interested in memory. In the ways that this works for the individual and for people connected to a place (country and community) who have shared history. How certain events move from the center to the fringe of a larger consciousness but may remain very present for some people. Particularly in the ways that these things touched their lives. I was talking to a poet friend about this exact same thing days ago because well, it just is something I’m very preoccupied with.

The ways that a glitch in the day can mean so many different things in a place like Nigeria where things like memory and nostalgia—just the right to say that this happened in my small corner and this is what it means or continues to mean for me—can feel like such a luxury and in some cases, such a contested thing. In my writing, I try to reclaim a space to say these are the things I know that don’t fit into the general story and yes, they happened.

Gaamangwe: I am also obsessed with memory, specifically the collective unconsciousness of our ancestors, and how that affects our lives now. Latent memory. Which specific memories are you exploring?

Kechi: Wow. I had to sit with the thought of ‘the collective unconsciousness of our ancestors’ for some time. The weight of what remains untouched just stared me in the face. It is so important that you do this.

For me, you know, I am never sure what memories want to be told or explored. It is just the ways that memories spill out of places where a lot of effort has been put into containing them. But I am interested in selves or people set up to function outside of the memory of what they have lived and how this effort to contain/shut their memories fail. When a country for instance tries to negate memory with nationalistic slogans and the lid keeps coming undone or does not fit properly and there is a bubbling over. I think in this way, poetry functions as a collector. These are the things I think of.

Gaamangwe: That kind of nationalistic forced amnesia is disturbing. Because a lot of violence is performed within this space, where there is the expectation that people will forget. But memory doesn’t work like that, even when you think you have contained it, most time it’s seeping in unconsciously in daily events. This got me thinking about the memories in my country that we’ve been forced to forget, and also wondering, what memories in your country and personal space have been negated?

Kechi: Very true. I couldn’t agree more. Memory is very autonomous. It belongs solely to the individual. In Nigeria, there is just a lot that has been negated by this collective silence and denial. This, even in the face of the work done, currently being done, to write these memories into being. In our contemporary history, there has been a civil war, there have been dictatorships each with its own specific brand of trauma. In the last decade, terror has had an incalculable effect and there has been a denial narrative consistently put out by the state. Such that, in the face of the relentlessness of this denial narrative, to be sentient, to remember, to claim memory, the ones that space is made for in the larger conversation and the ones that seem not to matter in mapping the big stories, becomes a radical thing.

Gaamangwe: At this point in human history, we really need to be radical. Because accepting these denial narratives is a very dangerous space where our existence is made to be insignificant. Which we cannot and should not have. How are you, and the speakers in your poetry becoming radical?

Kechi: The people in my poems, the poems I have been feeling my way through for a while now (as the poems I sent in for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize reflect) are wondering what love means, what it is worth when the object of love becomes a thing that is dangerous. How do boys love/long for fathers who want to consume them? How do men for whom the love of country/ideas of duty/honor/responsibility/expectation, return when the systems they have given themselves to fail them, what do they return to. How do girls love fathers whose memories they want to discard as much as they want to claim parts of them? How do children love mothers who make memory by the erasure of self, for whom this is what the equation of love looks like. How do people love places that turn on them? How do they carry the memory of these places across geographies, or for people who cannot afford physical distance, across time?

For the speakers in my poems, it is looking at a beast from angles that are familiar. Processing from these points that are true. Claiming the right to start from the confusion of what you are and then working your way to some kind of question.

Gaamangwe: These are really powerful angles of looking at love, especially love that walks on a tightrope. What are you and the speakers discovering about love? What meanings and understandings are you and they making about love?

Kechi: You know, I wish I could say that we have begun to make discoveries for certain, things we can frame with language just yet. It does feel like we are on the road to understanding… there is a way that Toni Morrison frames it that makes sense to me and seems to fit where it is that we are and what it is that we are working through.

There is really nothing more to say – except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

It’s from The Bluest Eye I think. Not very sure now. But, you know, I think to arrive at some point of discovery or meaning, I and the ‘people’ that inhabit me are feeling our way through the ‘how’.

Gaamangwe: This speaks to me, Kechi. Thank you, and all the best with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist


The Disappearances of Women: A Dialogue With Titilope Sonuga


Titilope Sonuga is an award-winning poet, writer & performer based in Lagos, Nigeria. She renders, both in verse and in performance, a remarkable elegance of craft, a quality of rootedness and an unflinching womanhood that makes her one of Nigeria’s leading performance poets. She has graced stages across the country and internationally, and in May 2015, she was the first poet to appear at a Nigerian presidential inauguration. She has authored two collections of poetry, and her third This Is How We Disappear is forthcoming. Her spoken word album Mother Tongue is available on iTunes.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a quiet sanctuary in the bustling heart of Lagos  by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Titilope, your work is rooted in womanhood, in celebrating  and appraising the woman experience in its entirety. I want to start here;  on your womanhood and why it’s important for you to celebrate, explore and interrogate  it?

Titilope: I didn’t start out knowing that this was how my work would evolve. I wasn’t that deliberate. The rigorous process of stepping into my womanhood, how jarring that was, how it shook the foundation of what I thought I knew, created an urgency for me to go back inside. I wanted to understand, to heal, to be whole and naturally that began to reflect in the work.

I celebrate women to push back against the narratives that say we should do otherwise. I celebrate women not to hold us up as these long suffering beings with an endless capacity for suffering, but to hold us up as completely human. There’s this expectation particularly in this country for women to carry so much and get so little credit for all of that carrying until we buckle beneath that weight, we lose ourselves, we disappear.

This is an idea that is at the center of this new collection that I am working on, disappearance in response to trauma or loss, as an act of survival, but also shape shifting as a form of rebellion. The collection began with a handful of poems about the disappearance of the Chibok girls, but grew to become an exploration of the physical and psychological disappearance of women, in Nigeria in particular.

I wanted to look at what it says about our humanity when over 200 girls disappear and no one goes looking. I wanted to explore the second and third disappearances these girls must have experienced as a means to survive. I was interested in how women respond to being pressed in on every side by culture, tradition or religion and the new shapes we take.

I am also particularly interested in this idea of our magic, how we disappear ourselves from the boxes we have been put in, just in time, before the saw comes down. I imagine these tricks as something passed down through generations of women. I wanted to rejoice in the power of being able to leave our old selves behind and reappear as something with sharper teeth and stronger claws.

I talk about our trauma, heartache and grief as a way to sweep the secrets out from under the carpet. I want us to look at where it hurts so that we can start to do the work of reclaiming what we have lost, so that we can ease the suffering that comes from that kind of loss.

My work is rooted in black womanhood and the complexity of what that means, the many different forms that our womanhood takes, because I love us. Because there is something truly divine about a woman stepping fully into herself. I honestly think black women are the closest thing to God.

Gaamangwe: The reality of how women, especially black women disappear on a daily basis is so heartbreaking. Everyday we have to claw ourselves from all these different spaces and borders that we disappear into. How do you try to not disappear?

Titilope: I write to create a pathway back to my truest self. I find myself in the poetry. It always feels like a kind of digging, like I am trying to uncover a part of myself that has been buried. In a sense, every poem feels like I am continuing on this digging from the last. In performances now, I find myself going from one poem into the next and into the next, because I started to see a rhythm in this digging and I knew that I needed the collective momentum of the poems to dig myself out.

There are so many things thrust upon us as black women, as Nigerian women, as African women, that we don’t even know that we are disappearing beneath it until we are already neck deep in it, until we are already gone.

Writing brings me back out of the earth and back into myself. It allows me to remember what I know for sure. Some poems feel like a reminder, some poems feel like salt on a really bad wound, some feel like talking to a friend. So, poetry is the way I unpack, the way I uncover myself again and again.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that. What are the narratives that are trying to make you disappear?  

Titilope: Every single day there’s a news story about a woman or girl abducted, assaulted, and murdered. For every one of those stories there are hundreds more that we hear nothing about. We are simultaneously negotiating these physical disappearances, these acts of violence against our bodies and carrying the mental burden of knowing that we have to save ourselves.

It is heartbreaking that the people in power to protect us require us to be perfect victims, to explain what we were doing or what we were wearing. We have to constantly explain why we deserve to live. The devastation of having to explain your worth can erode all the courage you can muster to get up everyday.

Nigeria is very slow on the uptake that women are complete and with agency. That marriage and childbirth are not the upper limits of accomplishment. That each conversation about gender equity doesn’t have to boil down to who is in the kitchen pounding yam.

There is also so much shame and pressure on women who choose to live their lives on their own terms. The imaginary goal post is always moving, there’s always something we should be doing, and it is typically in service of holding up men as mini-gods and keeping their egos intact.

It is extremely refreshing to be in the company of women who are vocal, who are pissed off, quite frankly, and who are not afraid to use their voices and their platforms every day. It is also refreshing to meet men who recognize that this imbalance exists and are ready to do the work to move in a different direction, in the very least start to change things within their own circles of influence.

It is a lot of intellectual and emotional heavy lifting, and it gets exhausting. It is very easy to find yourself starting to quiet down slowly for the sake of peace. If you are exposed to something long enough, all of the things you think you know about yourself come into question. Each day becomes a fight to protect your truth.

Gaamangwe: It is so overwhelming to look at all the things that women negotiate on a daily basis. We negotiate the realities of our disappearances and how they are often this is invalidated by the men in our lives and our communities. Our burden does not end with our traumas, we are often driven to educate men in our lives, on how we are traumatized, how they traumatize us and  how the patriarchal community traumatizes us.

When we speak about the presence and influence of males in women reality, I think about your poem  “Speaking Into The Void”. Listening to it,  I got the sense that you’ve been influenced by your father.  How have the males in your life influenced your womanhood and your becoming into yourself?

Titilope: I do agree about keeping your circle accountable and creating spaces for that sort of honest dialogue. There is a lot of room for growth in that kind of space. I also think it is particularly unfair for the entire burden to educate and carry along to fall on women. We have enough work to do. In the same way that we are organizing, calling each other to order and keeping each other accountable, men should also be doing the same in their own spaces.

The people who I choose to keep in my life are doing the work on their own but also with me. I can’t be around men who are misogynistic or men who don’t view me as a whole person. My parents raised four girls and raised us to believe we could literally do anything. I feel super privileged to have grown up that way, with parents who braced me up and made me feel powerful.

That particular poem is centered on my relationship with my father, but both my parents have been huge influences in my life. My father was really strict when we were growing up, he has softened with old age and grandchildren. Academic excellence was such a big deal to him. It puts you under pressure as a child, to please, to use your achievements as a way to draw out the affection you so desire.

My sisters are pharmacists and accountants and I became an engineer, so imagine how challenging it was to say to my parents, to my father in particular, “Hey, this life that I have been living is a lie and I’m unhappy and I want to try something else and I want to try something that comes without structure or stability but it’s the thing that I really want to do”.

I think they were fearful but they had also seen me grow and they knew it was in me. My parents introduced us to literature, art and music. I remember my dad taking us to go watch classical concerts when we were just little girls and we didn’t really understand what was happening. This was in Nigeria, at a time when it was pretty expensive to do that.  We would sit there and try to listen until we fell asleep. He insisted on exposing us to as many different experiences as possible. My mother gave me my first notebook to write about my days while she was away on trips, my first true introduction to storytelling. The seeds had been planted.

I think all parents struggle when their children become themselves and have opinions and full ideas about the kind of lives they want to live, but my parents pushed past their fears and encouraged me anyway. That has been such a blessing to me.

When I talk about women and the way they disappear, I think about my mother a lot because she gave up so much of herself so that we could have the life that we had. I think she is now finally in a place where she is trying to reclaim herself, even in her 60s. There’s something really soft and beautiful about seeing her journey, as a woman myself now, and watching her come to terms with her truth. She is not just this superhuman woman who would do anything for her children, but she is also this person who is doing the complicated work of inching towards the most whole version of herself.

Gaamangwe: I appreciate this wholesome, broad way of looking at how  both the light and the dark has influenced and served your journey. We can always salvage ourselves. But of course, they are some journeys that are far too deep, traumatising and collective.

You wrote and performed an incredible poem “Hide and Seek” which was about the traumas that some societies in your country went through. I was moved by the idea that we need to name thingswe need to name people, we need to name our traumasand we cannot hide all these things from ourselves.

We need to start looking at these things as if they are our own because someone else’s pain is ours, we are all interconnected. How was the whole process of writing this poem?

Titilope: I love this Adrienne Rich quote — “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors” and often times I sit and think about that quote in relation to myself, in moments when I think I am not a warrior and I don’t know how to fight in that way but I have this language, I have this art and I have this poetry and maybe that is me sitting and weeping and still being counted as a warrior.

It was particularly important for me to say something because at the time when I wrote those poems, there are 3 different poems actually that make up “Hide and Seeks” they are performed back to back as one poem, which is what I talked about earlier and finding the glue in my work and realizing that most of my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exist in relationship with something.

I wrote that poem or those poems because I didn’t know what else to do and I felt compelled to do something. It was almost as though I was sitting in a burning house and everybody else was just sitting and watching television and I was trying to scream and trying to tell them that we are in danger and we need to do something. The poems came obviously after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, it also talk about the Buni Yadi boys, a group of young boys that were killed at their school. It also talks about the bombings that were happening at the time Boko Haram was at its most vicious. I was talking about all those things at the same time.

I started to think about how we were sort of treating the disappearance of these girls as though it was something casual, a game of hide and seek that we were playing, that we would find them eventually because it was just a game we were playing. It horrified me to think these young girls were out there thinking that the adults in their lives and their country would come through for them. Surely they wouldn’t be forgotten, somebody would find them eventually. I imagined them as the days went on, the slow heartbreaking realization that nobody was coming to save them. How terrifying, to accept that you have been abandoned.

When you give the girls their names, when you think about them as people with dreams and desires, it is more difficult to ignore that these are people’s daughters and somebody came and just took them away.

It’s been 3 years (April 14 2014) since they were taken. They are trickling back bit-by-bit. Some of them are mothers now, some have reportedly been sold off or martyred. We do not know for sure. What we do know is, these girls will never be the same again.

Who are they now, what resources exist within an already broken system to support them. If you hold that in context of how women are treated in this country and the stigma of what they have experienced, what are we bringing these girls back to? How do we ensure that they are not traumatized?

Hide and Seek was written in a time when I felt like we had touched a new rock bottom. Before that I wrote a poem called Icarus about our endless capacity to suffer and smile, how we experience the most horrific things and just keep on going.

It is almost as if the level of suffering that we are used to, the daily hustle for the next meal, a place to sleep, those things are so urgent that mourning and reflection feels like a luxury.

If we can recover from a place falling from the sky and killing hundreds of people, if we can recover from a group of boys being burnt alive for stealing, almost 300 girls being abducted for 3 years, it tells you the state of things.

Gaamangwe: It’s so disturbing how as a continent/world we have all these different ideas/lists/exercises that we implement on how to make money, how to survive a burning building, how to speak to elders etc, and nothing about how to heal the self, how to address one’s trauma. We have a dozens hospitals, clinic and churches but one or two mental hospitals, psychiatric wards. It’s almost as if we say that trauma and griefs don’t exists, and actually don’t matter.

Post traumatic stress disorder is such a crippling disorder that requires intensive and vigorous address. It is really painful and horrible that women disappear not only emotionally but physically too. And very, few people care. Can you imagine how long will it take for the Chibok girls to heal and truly become integrated into their whole selves? A really, really long time. 

But Titilope, how can we not value human life like this? What do you think is the core problem? Why do human insist on having a gender, a race or a religion that is superior? If we look at all wars and all traumatizing experiences, there is always someone trying to be superior, better or more in control than other people. It is all about power. Violence seems to be about power..

Titilope: Power is such a seductive and intoxicating thing. Just look at the way that our countries are governed and how a leader can get into power and decide he needs to be in there for the rest of his life.

A lot of conversations that we have around the dynamics of power is governed by fear. The oppressor is always wondering what the oppressed will do with power once they have it. What happens when we take our heels off their necks, are they going to strike back? This is always the case when there’s an imbalance, whether you are talking about race or gender or class.

There are different kinds of poverty that we experience as a people. There is the not being able to physically sustain yourself and then there is a mental poverty of not knowing who we are, who we have been and who we could be. It is that kind of mental starvation that makes you want to steal more money than your children’s children could ever need, that makes you only think about yourself. It robs you of compassion, of kindness.

I often use driving in Lagos as a microcosm of our larger society. This city is one of the most insane places to drive because everybody is driving for themselves. It is aggressive, it is selfish, it is about “I need to take as much room on this lane as I can and I don’t care if I push you in a ditch or a trailer or your car somersaults, I don’t care. I have to get ahead of you”. That is the way Lagosian drive and often I am in the car thinking; if I am not willing to wait 30 seconds to allow someone in front of me, to wait 1 minute to allow this traffic to get through, to wait 5 minutes to ensure we all get where we are going, If I can’t do that, how can I be the sort of person who gets into a position of power and not abuse that?

How do we change that? How do we become kinder and more compassionate to each other. How do we learn to value each other in a way that is grounded in true and genuine love, regardless of gender or social class, or religion or sexuality?

We are easily the most religious people in the world, there is church on every corner in this city, yet we don’t practice those beliefs in our day-to-day lives. Why is that?

The only thing I know for sure is to keep writing and to keep creating something that holds itself as a mirror that says; look at us, look at what we become and maybe that will create enough momentum for us to start to change.

On the days that poetry feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, I remind myself of that one person who sends me a message and says; “thank you so much for writing that, I decided to get out of bed today, it made me feel less alone.” That’s good enough for me.

I’m doing a 3 part performance series in Lagos on June 25, July 16 and July 30, titled Open and it really is about this idea of trying to keep your heart soft, through it all, trying to stay grateful and peaceful. In turbulent times, art is the only thing I know for sure. It is the one way I know how to contribute, how to put a little bit of light back into the world. I want to keep doing that for as long as I live.

Gaamangwe: This has been inspiring, Titilope. Thank you for joining me in this powerful dialogue.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.


Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlists: A Dialogue With Nick Makoha


Poet Nick Makoha is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow and a Fellow of The Complete Works in the UK. He won the 2015 Brunel African Poetry Prize and the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize 2016 for his manuscript Resurrection Man. His poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, Rialto, The Triquarterly Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri. Find him at

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the cosmopolitan, busy city of London by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Nick, congratulations for being on the Brunel International African Poetry Prize shortlist. What does it mean for you to be shortlisted?

Nick: It means everything. I think there is a lot of work that goes in with writers behind the scenes, improving your craft, reading, workshops. So, it is always nice when there is an opportunity to show what you have been working on inside of your creative space and inside of your mind. Particularly the Brunel Prize because it does two things; it shows you a lot of good African writers, and it shows you where they are because they are all over the world. For me, it is an important way of engaging with a wider African literary community. This will probably be my last time to apply because my book is coming out soon but I have enjoyed the process and it has helped me to develop as a writer by just applying for this award.

Gaamangwe: You have won the prize before, so what inspired the collection that you selected for this entry?

Nick: It’s a body of work that I have been working on for a long time. I have probably been writing all my poems for probably the last five to seven years. I have been looking at the 1971-1979’s Idi Amin regime and I was looking at how to bring to life that moment of history, which in many people’s minds is almost a caricature of all the work or poems that have to do with that time. I didn’t start out that way intentionally; I wrote one poem which was actually about my cousin who used to live in Kenya and has now died but from that poem, poems about my life and Uganda started to drip through and I had to pay attention to that. That is pretty much how it worked and the way I work is that I focus intently on something. It took me a while to kind of get my confidence. I didn’t want to write things that I had heard before or how other people might write about war, so I really tried to find an original way of suggesting something that people already know. Everyone knows about some kind of war and everyone thinks they know about Africa and I was like; ‘’How do I open a conversation about war in a particular area of Africa that makes it seem necessary?”

Gaamangwe:  Besides illuminating the history of Uganda and the events that happened during the Idi Amin period, what do you hope you could illuminate further? This original angle, where is it leaning towards?

Nick: You always start something by digging at the roots, because you are as strong as the roots. What I want people to do is not just looks at my work but look at Uganda in general and not just glance it over. I feel East Africa has a lot to add to the creative economy, so I am hoping that my work will be one of several works that will emerge as originating from East Africa because the story is from Uganda. I am hoping that my work will be one of several stories that will show this place called Africa, this place East Africa, this place called Uganda and encourage people to find out more. I also hope this will encourage writers both native and in the diaspora to say “I’ve got a story to tell and I’ve got an interesting way to tell it’’ in the way that other writers have been doing. Poetically Derek Walcott did that for me, the way he spoke about the Caribbean made me confident to speak about my home land because even though I am not in my home land I still relate to it as home. I believe that we have an interesting literature and interesting stories which need to be told from that space. So what I am hoping is new is that people learn more about Uganda beyond the existing narrative of Idi Amin. Most times people forget that there were people affected by what happened because of Idi Amin. I took my wife to Uganda and she said to me, “Wow these people are really friendly and they are warm. I like this place”. If all you have for reference about Uganda is Idi Amin, then you have this one image that is overtaking the true image of Uganda. I hope the reader can see that there is much more to Uganda than her history.

Gaamangwe: So Candidate A is Idi Amin, right?

Nick: Yes, A for Amin. I wanted to highlight that people forget that he was selected. The British colonials wanted him in power and they thought he could be their puppet. On one level we look at it and say “Oh Idi Amin was so horrible” which he was, but we also have to ask and understand who put him in power and who gave him access to that power. A lot of the time you can just subscribe the blame to Africa and its dictators but we have to think and ask: what is the climate that allows that to happen repeatedly? What is the gain of the west in allowing dictators to destroy a perfectly running economy and then come in when it is almost destroyed and say we will help you?

Gaamangwe: I do wonder about what could have possibly stopped him?

Nick: The reality is that Idi Amin was a very menacing character but he wasn’t the only villain. We were up against a lot.  There was the colonial regime, where when it was told to leave after independence it didn’t want to leave. So it stayed and put their own puppets in power. There was a game that was being played and it was very strategic with the power of the people. There had a wild man acting as their puppet, and that enabled him to do all the damage he did.  He destroyed the economy and created havoc countrywide. And also made it difficult to reclaim our country.

I don’t think they realised how gruesome he would be, they thought that he had no brains. He had some brains, and this insatiable need for power. The thing to also understand, is that while we were being colonized they removed us from power and from the decisions affecting our country.

So when you place anyone in there, it is a drunk sense of power. I am not saying what he did was right but it was a dangerous position to put just one man in it. It needs people who can hold the man in power to account. You have to ask yourself why didn’t the colonials intervene sooner? Why did they allow that to happen?  They still allow this to happen, Uganda is not the only place where this has happened. It is something they have done before and something they will do again and that is my biggest concern.

Gaamangwe: I understand the yearning for power and how that drove a lot of the activities that happened during that time but I am disturbed by the kind of mind he had.

Nick: I think any person is capable of extreme good and extreme bad and evil. It’s like making a soup, you add certain ingredients to the pot and it will taste a certain way and if you add too much it will taste a certain way. What you have to understand is that the conditions allowed for a person such as Idi Amin to become a dictator. I don’t think he woke up and said “Hey I am going to be dictator”. I believe there were many factors that aligned themselves that allowed him to make choices. The choices that he and others made led to the constant spiral of events that happened.

These choices are what made Uganda what it is and many decisions were made that we have to think about responsibly when placed in that position. There was paranoia, world agendas and tribal agendas (Uganda became about tribal feuds as opposed to our differences bringing us together). There were many factors, we can’t just look at Idi Amin as this one entity of evil against this beautiful country. That is what I hope the poems and the book intends to look at.

Gaamangwe: How are you and other Ugandans trying to un-occupy this history?

NIck: For me, I have turned it into art.  Because art is a way of looking at beautiful and horrific things in the world. The way that we get over it is by allowing ourselves to look at it as opposed to what we do in most times of trauma; avoiding, suppressing or denying. What I am hoping for is we can learn it from looking at this.  We can have a discourse, and hopefully transformation and eventually change. We also can’t forget our pasts because part of the error that we keep making is because we forget our pasts. The past is not meant to be remembered with judgment, it is to be remembered as learning tool, as a guide, as a way of understanding people.

As for Ugandans, I can’t speak for them but I hope there has been change.  We as a nation are moving on and I think only time can answer; what is life for Ugandans right now, what space do we occupy in the world consciousness, what is the life of a typical boy or girl in Uganda, and what are the prospects for prosperity in Uganda. If there are green ticks in those areas then we can say that we are moving on. What I want as anyone would want for their country is that my country be a player in the world economy, I want my country to be the one where the native Ugandans are thriving, for me as an artist to thrive artistically, in business and science and within families. That we are not a nation that is just persecuted by war. That for me would be the measures of success.

Gaamangwe: For Ugandans and other black people we have been persecuted a lot for the bodies that we inhabit and for the lands that we inhabit these bodies in. You explore this in the “Black Death” poem. I wonder if it’s also in the same stream of line about Idi Amin or it was a different theme all together?

Nick:  Although it’s parallel with Black Lives Matter, “Black Death” is still about Uganda. A lot of times when we focus on war, we focus on the opposing powers – that this country is fighting against this country, this tribe against that tribe and this party against that party. What I was interested in with this poem is that while people are discussing the rights and wrongs of what they believe, they are leaving behind the bodies.  I wanted to look at how bodies were affected. The poem focuses on the loss of life and the value of life, and hopefully it shows the value of black lives. Sometimes when we talk about dictators in African countries, we don’t realise the loss of life and what that means. So the poem hopefully shows the value of the black body.

Gaamangwe: This is true. We need to look more on how lives are lost and altered forever. I think the work that you are creating with this collection is very important.

Nick: Thank you, I appreciate that. I hope this collection also encourages other artists to look at their countries in Africa and to write stories about them because that is important. Otherwise our stories will always be told by other people. One of the things that Kwame Dawes brought to my attention is that; “The most interesting story right now is the African story” and that has many shapes. So we need to claim that and write the Africans version of things. We also can and have to participate and contribute to the world dialogue, with our point of view in its different forms.

Gaamangwe: That’s the exact reason why I do Africa in Dialogue!  Thank you Nick, and all the best of luck with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist

Re-Imagining Culture: A Dialogue With Caroline Anande Uliwa


Caroline Anande Uliwa is a Culture Journalist, Poet & Singer from Tanzania. She has been working in print media in the country since 2008, when she was opportune enough to run a column in a weekly newspaper, ‘The eXpress’ titled I am an African. To date she has worked for the National newspaper as a features reporter, in Flare Magazine as Assistance Editor and as a contributing writer in Lucky, The Bold & Bang magazine, plus as a columnist in The Citizen Newspaper in their Saturday insert magazine ‘Woman’.

She’s currently running her own blog titled ‘MKEKA,’ as well being a contributing writer in the ‘Magazine’ inside The East African Newspaper (distributed in Kenya, Uganda, Kenya & Rwanda).

As a Poet, she has been the Chair & co-founder of a burgeoning Poetry Club called WAKA, which in 2015 worked with Badilisha Poetry (The biggest online archive of African Poets). To amass over 40 Tanzanian poets works for their website. 

As a Singer her debut was in Tusker Project Fame the East African iconic singing competition, here in 2009 she attained the 11th position (2nd in Tanzania). Since then she’s performed in South Africa, curtain raised for Oliver Mtukuduzi at ‘The East African Vibes Concert’ & mostly she’s worked in local live bands in Dar es Salaam. With seasoned musicians from her country like guitarist Norman Bikaka, sax player Rashid Pembe, percussionist Twaba Mohammed & Kauzeni Lyamba as well base guitarists Bakuza Moshi & Leonard Kayoya.  

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the Soma Book Cafe in the chilly, rainy city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Caroline, you are a cultural journalist, which absolutely sounds cool and interesting. Which aspects of culture do you explore in your job,  and why was it important for you to explore culture?

Caroline: It happened quite organically, growing up I was always drawn to fiction. When I returned home from college, at my first job working with a Journalist & Communications expert, she hooked me up to an editor at The eXpress Newspaper. A weekly English paper in the country. Through that the editor, I got to start writing a column titled “I am an African”. It’s here that I started to sink on the surface of culture journalism.

I wrote on the topic to affirm my being an African. As most of the fiction and literature I had read till then, was on foreign cultures mostly from the west. The column was my ‘pop’ attempt to uncover more of our own stories/heritage. Starting with the little things; how we make our hair, how we eat our food, where we sit when we are eating, how people talk with their accents etc.  

To date I am drawn to sharing on this inner journey of the African persona, his/her emerging culture particularly the Afropolitan emerging sphere, which showcases our interaction from domestic norms which for the majority are from tribal environments to the globalized context in Africa today. I see then that this ‘Afropolitan’ description is still an embryo which requires stronger voices from African perspectives.

Gaamangwe:  The “I am an African” column is so important, because modern Africa knows far too little about her history and culture. Hopefully, the emergence of the “Afropolitan” culture is here to dismantle this. What does it mean for you to be “Afropolitan”? Where do you think we are going with this “Afropolitan” culture?

Caroline: I find that the Afropolitan culture is being forged strongly in the cities of Africa then trickling down to the rural areas. Though of course this varies from country & region to region. It’s in the city that a lot of diversity meets. A year or so back I was at an art exhibition ‘Impose/Expose’, with Tanzanian sculptress Safina Kimbokota. Herein she showcased a metal plate wind chime. She said the clash of the metal plates were indicative of the clash of traditions and norms that occurs in the city, forcing a new culture, in my eye the ‘Afropolitan’ culture.

Personally I am very interested to inform on it, this drive is empowered by my noticing that it’s endangered in maintaining its authentic African emblems. Due to the heavy influence of globalisation, which on this continent is felt triple, what with our past of colonisation, slavery etc. So now you have our popular music with a heavy western influence, the South America’s telenovela’s prevalent in our local TV’s. Not to mention our publishing industry faces stiff competition (economies of scale) from the west, with our own low standards of living that make buying a book for many a luxury.

This battle is then to amplify the voice of the native african footprint in the equation of ‘Afropolitan’ culture. Noticing how Afropolitan in Kenya is not the same as Afropolitan in Mozambique for example; is what I foresee my life work being anchored on. 

Gaamangwe:  One thing I am seeing with the emergence of “Afropolitan” is a lot of our culture seeping in our creativity. Our literature, music, fashion  is becoming more Afrocentric.

It is empowering that no matter how much we have been influenced by the outside western world and colonialism, nothing can remove the aspects of us that is rooted in being African. Our essence is still integrated in our Africanness.

Caroline: Very true, there is hope for sure. Even for individuals like myself who don’t speak their native tongues (my parents speak two different native languages & I grew up in the city where Kiswahili is spoken). The ancestors still have a latch on us, not just in our DNA but in our ghost african accents, our mannerisms, how we eat our food, how we raise & discipline our children and how we respect our elders.

I recently interviewed a young jewelry maker Sekela Nyange of KusKus Jewellery, I was  fascinated that even though most of her raw materials come from China. Her designs are so intrinsically African with notes from the Maasai culture, tapes from the Nubian choker necklaces, not to mention her play with bold colors that can be seen in various tribes from the Ndebele in their homes to our ‘vitenge’ fabrics. This tells me there is still a beautiful thread that we ought to be proud of and expose more boldly.

So yes there’s a brave resilience of our essence budding, it’s there in our bold african prints, the thrive of new natural hair movements, the joyous music genres that have more of african beats like Kwaito & Nigerian pop music. 

Of course I think we have to dig deeper because there are so many norms and traditions of Africa that are positive & being left to the wayside. For instance in Tanzania there are music instruments like the Zeze, Irimba, the Makonde Drums, that have fewer and fewer of the younger generation learning to play them.

I’m moved to look into the past, pick the thorns from the gold and amplify the jewels of our traditions, inviting all of us to forge a ‘new/today’ that is more authentically ours.

Gaamangwe: That new and braver reclamation of our heritage is surging all over. Women with their Black Girl Magic & Melanin Poppin hashtags; which is basically us appraising and encouraging ourselves to to be entirely okay with who we are, because we are magic just the way we are right?

Yes, the challenge  is we didn’t record a lot of things, so we are trying to get back to who we were with little information of how things were done back then. Also, globalization is really pressing hard, and sadly the majority of what has been promoted as Global, for a long time now, is not from our ways. It’s an interesting state to be in right now.

Caroline: It can get frustrating. Though once you’ve sniffed the pandora box of our histories, you can’t go back. There are times however when I wish I was oblivious, that I still thought wearing weaves every day was empowering and/or beautiful. That gorging on popular African music which has only 10% of our real essence, entertaining. As there is economic power backed to those who stick to this lane, I saw this connection clearly when I watched a documentary.

Aired at the Zanzibar Film Festival by John Antonelli, it highlighted the plight of the tribes like the Suri in Northern Kenya living around Turkana Lake. Their very livelihood is in danger due to the construction of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia on Omo River (the biggest water source for lake Turkana). Now you’d think there’d be an uproar from the East African public through mainstream media & or social media.

As our own people are being prosecuted with clear cases of land grabbing and environmental crimes. Yet the thing is, these people aren’t wearing normal clothes, many of their women still walk bare chested with gleaming brown skin covered in ground clay, an assortment of jewellery and leather skins for skirts.

It dawned on me that to the public they are not us but an ‘other’, a clear indication of the danger of the subliminal messages in our society. Propelling the themes of ‘heathens’ and such regressive perspectives.

Gaamangwe: The worst act done to the African human is the de-humanizing of African ways and realities. We have lost so much of our cultures and beliefs systems because time and again, we’ve been told they are barbaric and regressive.  And now we have adapted those perspectives as our own. Its absolutely sad.

Do you think that art can play a role in redefining, influencing and impacting  the way that we perceive our cultures?

Caroline: I think we have to recognize that art is the one profession that reminds humans we are creative beings. We don’t end at food, clothes & shelter; we enhance our food by cooking it with recipes (chefs), knowing how to best let it nourish us through nutritionists. We don’t just protect ourselves from the elements with clothes we also express ourselves through a fashion designer. We enjoy our environments better with architects and  interior designs, we connect to that intangible space of our spirits through music & literature (holy texts).  

Despite this in our third world economies in Africa, Art & Culture takes a back seat with stringent budget allocations and poor policy & laws to support their infrastructure.

I believe if our leaders were empowered with a modern ‘griot’. Hailing the pride of their histories, by stumbling into works from African storytellers in all genres of art. They would meet that intimidating space, filled with foreign tongues and etiquettes backed by financial prowess (that our ancestors through slavery, colonialism helped cement). Where they negotiate deals that affect all our lives, they’d be there with more confidence and therefore fight for us more diligently.

Instead of what is the case right now, where brave leaders like Thabo Mbeki release a report showcasing that Africa loses Billions of USD per annum. More so that what it gains through financial aid (illicit financial flows). Still we don’t see a unified cry from the continent demanding a stop to this modern slavery.

We instead have cases like in my own country where our Ministry of Culture in less than a year has seen two Ministers despite being in a serious bid to uphaul our ‘Art Policy’. With the current one Hon Dr Harrison Mwakyembe quoted publicly to say ‘musicians shouldn’t bother with integrating social political messages in their works…’??!!.

They have to see that art enhances culture and culture is our backbone. The foreign powers that have ravaged our continent for centuries knew this and so they always first aimed to undermine our culture (what with mentioning our way as ‘heathen’ ‘barbaric’ and sanctifying us with their religions). Before showing their fangs and severely regressing our progressive evolution.  

Gaamangwe:  Its absolutely maddening. The power of the artists in the average person’s life is far understated in Africa. Yet the artist reflect the things of the time as they see it. They mirror socio-economic, psychological and political state of human existence.  When you see, you can change. How can that be minimised? 

Caroline: I draw inspiration from persons before me who have persevered in even tougher times. Recently our own John Kitime, a musician and notable activist in the art circles of Tanzania. Took funds from his own pocket to interview and document views from various artists in the country so as to give our ministry of culture, a wholesome representation in their deliberations of tabling of our new ‘Art Policy’.

I know many such s/heroes like Demere Kitunga, Elieshi Lema of E&D Publishers, Carola Kinasha-Musician/Teacher. They pushed through despite the challenges. I think with this age of social media, the opportunity to create meaningful dialogue is present and it is being used. However the case is that of David & Goliath for as I said the capitalist powers that be, wouldn’t have it in their interests if we really knew our histories. As then perhaps we would demand reparations for all that has and continues to be embezzled out of this continent in ways of natural resources and low/unpaid labour.

Gaamangwe: This is sadly true. But yes, artists are fighting in the ways of rendering new spaces of interaction with our culture and heritage. You are one of those people who have created this new, empowering space by the way of WAKA Poetry. How are the artists who are coming for WAKA poetry sessions re-imagining culture? What are the dialogues that they opening up in the sessions?

Caroline: WAKA has certainly been a space where I’ve witnessed the re-imagining of culture. Through the monthly meetings and the interactions on social media mostly through our whatsapp group.  We attempt to strengthen our poetry and always end up giving each other food for thought in way of discussions and debates that arise from the poems.

Our dialogues here touch on gender roles, politics, humour, spiritual journeys. The nature of our meets nurture a safe space, we sit in a circle, we introduce ourselves at each session (kind of like AA).  So due to the personal nature of poetry & the environment we provide (thanks to SOMA book Cafe) many of our dialogues veer from the heart and the consequent osmosis of ideas, change our lives. This space has certainly enhanced mine.  

Gaamangwe: That is amazing, you’re doing a great job. On this vein of enhancing lives, you wrote a poem Fundamental Lessons of Four, on the lessons humanity needs to learn in order to enhance our lives. One stanza says;

“If the world were well-educated

they’d be no hunger.

As lesson namba mbili,

humans here are the smartest species

should translate least effort goes to survival”.

What was the source of this poem?

Caroline: My own journey as an artist has found me being uncomfortable with labels, noticing how they ultimately don’t really define me. This poem then walks on a spiritual vein, that speaks to what really unifies us in our ability to draw breath.

See despite many of us being religious, where we are taught to value life, see each other as brethren. In reality there is still a strong ‘other’ in our day to day. How else do you explain some of us going to the moon whilst millions starve to death.

I heard a woman say “We have to respect racism is a disease and should be treated as such, like someone suffering from alcoholism“

I think our systems have a disease of ‘inequalities’ stemming from our own decree of ‘other’. We have to bring awareness to it and perhaps that is where the role of the artist shines through. For me it has been art in the form of film, literature, fine art that has poked me to see we have more in common than not.

Gaamangwe: I agree with everything that you are saying. So as an artist how do you use your artistry to re-imagine culture?  And how would you like to contribute to this endless conversation that we are always having as human beings?

Caroline: I have to say meeting persons like yourself, who see the importance of telling authentic stories that forge our true evolution on the continent. Keeps me refreshed, inspired, for it can be lonely working with infrastructures that don’t yet recognise our presence as poets, culture journalists or afro-jazz/ spoken word artists.

I use my articles to allow my audiences to be better informed on the cultural resources of their own treasures here in Tanzania & to a less extent the rest of Africa. My music & poetry many times is my own therapy, though I don’t live in a bubble. So they’re an honest engagement with what bombards me. Somewhere in there I find I relate with various people, which I am grateful for.

I’d like to contribute to this endless conversation by continuing to grow in this work. Learning from those before me, where my prayer is to be so immersed in it that the universe doesn’t have a choice but to keep me sustained in it.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.

Caroline Details:  @CarolAnande- Twitter @CarolAnande- Facebook  @CarolAnande- Instagram  Caroline Anande Uliwa- Youtube Website: