Tag Archives: Poet

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 2017 Winner: A Dialogue With Romeo Oriogun


Romeo Oriogun lives and writes in Udi, a little town in Eastern Nigeria. His poems, which mostly deal with what it means to live as a queer man in Nigeria, have been featured in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Expound, Praxis, and others. He is the author of Burnt Men, an electronic chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online. He is the Brunel International African Poetry Prize Winner 2017.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the hilly, little town of Udi, Nigeria via phone call, a week before Romeo Oriogun was announced the winner. 

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

Romeo: I started writing three years ago, so being shortlisted for the prize is a gift. I am still trying to understand what it means. I’ve went through some turbulent times and I don’t expect good things to come, so I don’t know how to respond when something good comes to me.

Gaamangwe: The speakers in your poetry also exists in turbulent time, where the continuum for love is very much weaved with a lot of darkness. Who do your speakers speak for and why is it important for you and for them to speak about these spaces where love meets violence and death?

Romeo: One thing I tried to do while writing these poems is;  I want them to take a voice of their own. Some of those poems I wrote them without even knowing the next line. With that being said, the history of queer people in Nigeria has lot of violence in it. I think with the advance of social media it has escalated, because you have people saying they are protecting their spaces from western influence without knowing that homosexuality has always been a part of African culture and that there are already queer people in Africa. So you have these speakers who try to say; we have been here and this is who we are. Some of the poems have the speaker who tries to run away because the environment makes life difficult, and love is not enough to conquer it. These dark places happen around me, especially because you have the law that has criminalized queer people, and so you have people who are hiding to express and show love.

I think the speakers in my poems are trying to express how best they can navigate this dangerous time, so you have some of them running and some of them staying even with all this danger. But the most beautiful thing about love is that in the end it always wins, it might be difficult and very hard but at the end of the day, love wins. Whether they are running, staying or dying, you have people saying;  “This is us, this is what we are, this is what we feel and you can’t beat it out of us, you can’t steal it out of us and you can’t kill it out of us. We are queer people, we are here and we are beautiful.”

Gaamangwe: I am really disheartened by what queer people go through. How do you approach, think and validate the love experience when it can possibly lead to end of life?

Romeo: The beautiful thing about love is that there isn’t a box that can hold love. It is something that is powerful and boundless, it can’t be changed and can be expressed in different ways. Religion has contributed to some people killing queer people. They say this is not our culture, but what they are trying to say is that queer people cannot be found in a religious context, and that queer people are forbidden in a religious setting. You find them being hunted, lynched and killed. What this basically means is that queer people must learn to navigate this hate.

It’s a burden because you have an individual learning how to navigate hate and love at the same time. There is very little room for queer people, even in the literary world, because they are still frowned upon and pushed aside. We are fighting, writing and documenting but I feel that this is a battle that might not be won in my lifetime. We have to navigate so much and our lives are held in the balance depending on how we navigate these space every day. The thing is we can’t pigeonhole people, we have to allow people to express themselves, talk about how they feel and express love in the way they want to. We are going to find out one day that love is something that is diverse, and that life itself is diverse, and this diversity is what makes everything beautiful.

Gaamangwe:  What is the one thing that you would want to remove in society that would make the queer experience much safer and free?

Romeo: The truth is, the problems facing queer people is not just one thing. It is diverse, but at the moment if you were to ask me I would tell you it is the hatred. If it can be removed and people can look at others with love, and see that these people are human beings and their experiences are valid, then maybe slowly there will be a little bit of a safe space for queer people in Africa.

I wrote into a chapbook called Burnt Man after a queer man was lynched and beaten to death in Nigeria.  Afterwards, I had different people attacking me, it was a very traumatizing time for me because it was the first time I was writing about the queer experience and I had never realized the level of hatred towards queer people.

Queer men are looked at as wicked people and not ‘men enough’ culturally. Africans claim to be religious, we have Islam and Christianity dictating the way we ought to behave and live, and it is in these religions that queer people are frowned upon.  The most surprising and amazing thing is that the white man brought this religion to us, yet the white man is more tolerant towards queer people. At least in many western countries, queer people are safe. I think it has to do with culture, religion and upbringing. I hope that the coming generation will make things easier but for my generation, our upbringing was very different, to the point where queer people hate themselves. They don’t perceive themselves as beautiful and natural. That’s adds another difficulty to this.

Gaamangwe: I wish people experienced religion mostly as life maps or efficient guidelines on how to navigate on life.  Not as the one and only truth. Maybe that way we can understand that they are many ways to cross the forest of life. I can’t imagine how one navigates this betrayal from society, to the point of rejecting oneself.

Romeo: I think for me because I don’t expect much from society, I am no longer disappointed. Immediately after the Brunel Prize shortlist was out, a very good friend of mine said that I support perversion, I am a pervert and I should not reply him again. All this was very painful because even if I do not expect much from society, it still hurts. You expect at least educated people to be a little bit hospitable to us but you find that the hatred and rejection is more from them.

When my chapbook came out, a boy from Minna (a northern state in Nigeria dominated by Muslims) sent me a message and told me his father is a pastor and every night he cleanses his body and prays that he stops what he is feeling. He asked if I am a queer person, when I asked why, he told me he wanted to include me in his prayers because whatever I am feeling is a bad thing. He says he is praying against his body every day and is scared of his father knowing he is a queer person. I tried telling him about how beautiful and natural his body was but I knew this was not enough. This is someone who has rejected his body totally because he believes his body is full of sin. He doesn’t know that because the sun shines everywhere, everybody has a space in the world.

Queer people rejecting their bodies is the most painful thing to me when it comes to the whole queer experience in Africa. People hate themselves and some commit suicide. It is very pitiful and sad because people are going against their bodies and rejecting what they feel.. The good thing right now is that we have some people who look at queer people as people and their experiences as valid. Every journey takes time, so if we take a step here and there, we will get there.

Gaamangwe: I applaud you for writing about these experiences no matter how heavy and sad and terrifying it is. The very fact that you are doing this, that is the light. On lighter things, I have noticed that water in its various forms and states, (rainfall, oceans, rivers) comes up a lot in your poetry. What does water symbolize for you?

Romeo: Water for me is something special and it has to do with my childhood. As I child, I lost my dad and I had to live with an uncle. It was a very intense time because my mother was not allowed to take us – there was this battle between my dad’s people and my mum’s people for the custody. During that period, the only place where I could find peace was at a small body of water, a kind of stream. Along the road, you would find peace, birds singing and butterflies flying.

When I began writing I realised that it had taken a very significant place in my life and my writing. Water signifies peace and death and so many other things. It all depends on what I am writing about or the voice I am writing in. If I am writing in a very happy voice, it becomes a happy place and if I am writing in a sad voice, it becomes a place of escape – which is what water is to me.  When the sea is crushing and the waves are going up and down, I feel detached from the world and I am entirely alone and there is beauty in that.

Gaamangwe: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much and all the best with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

Congratulations to Romeo Oriogun for winning the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and the powerful and important work on Queer experiences. The world is better place because of his poetry.  – Gaamangwe Joy Mogami. 

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for this prize.

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

Poetry of the Human Body: A Dialogue With Mahtem Shiferraw

Mahtem Shiferraw - Author Photo copy

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Ethiopia & Eritrea. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Cactus Heart Press, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander Press, Callaloo and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full length collection, FUCHSIA, was published by the University of Nebraska Press (2016). Her poetry chapbook, BEHIND WALLS & GLASS, was published by Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweet-spot of Gaborone, Botswana and the  yellow-hot of Los Angeles, USA by Email.

Gaamangwe: Mahtem, I found your reflections of your poem “Blood Disparities” on Poetry LA, quite striking. You said;

“I am very interested on the human body. The way it works, on the very small or simple level. Like the cell, and what it does. I find that there is so much poetry in the human body, and the way it also works with the mind. And the body of the mind or the mind of the body. So there is a lot of exploring to do.”

Let’s start here, on your fascination of the human body, and the poetry you are unpacking and discovering in your exploration of the human body?

Mahtem: This is a great question. I think a lot about the human body, and how it moves in the world. How we, as human beings, are affected by the things we experience, and how differently our bodies react to our experiences. We know the body as an inherently biological element, but what do we know about its psychology? And how does the body inform the things we do, the way we react to certain things? These are all fascinating things to think about. The body is filled with small poems, whether you’re thinking about flesh and blood, or the resilience of scars, or the magnitude of certain organs … I can go on forever!

Gaamangwe: I have never thought about the psychology of the body! Just fascinating.  What ideas do you have about the psychology of the body?

Mahtem: Memory comes to mind. The first thing I know about the body is: it remembers things. The mind does too, of course, in a logical sense. But the body has a memory of its own; as do parts of our bodies. A simple example: hair remembering how to curl or uncurl under a toothless brush. Or the body refusing to fall asleep because of a quiet distress, the body sweating in fear. The thing is, we are accustomed to the body and mind being in synch; but at times, they’re not, and we, are left in the middle, questioning our decisions. These bodies remember everything: the sound of a specific laughter, the smell of a new season, the rumbling of a dropped bomb. They can distinguish between the fear of longing, the fear of anticipation, the fear of death. How many times do we actively think and categorize our fears? We usually don’t. But the body does that for us, among other things. It labors quietly to help us exist in the world as we do.

Gaamangwe: I am now thinking of the way the body also exists in spaces of dis-ease, constrictions and violence. How the body contains grief and sorrows, which are some of the themes that you explore in your poetry.  What griefs and sorrows within the body are you interested in exploring?

Mahtem: Exactly! I write a lot about grief-stricken bodies, it is a fascination of mine. Not because I take pleasure in the aching, but because I am marveled by the beauty and perseverance that occurs within our bodies. In Ethiopia, when a loved one dies, we show our grief explicitly: women shave their hair, wear black for at least forty days, they turn their netela upside down. These are all things that signal grief. But the mourning, although communal to some level, is also quite private, personal. In times like these, the body moves as it ought to be; although our mind is shut down from trauma, the body gets up, fixes things, prepares food, arranges the wake, etc. The body shows up; while the mind meddles in sorrow. I think I’ve said too many times that I am the keeper of sorrows, which is a pretty grim profession. But I consider it to be worthy, mostly because a lot of sorrows go by undocumented, and some fester within us without our knowing. How can then someone claim to be a poet, and not bear witness to such things?

Gaamangwe: As I grow older, I understand how wise our ancestors are, in the way that they have created and kept what might seem as elaborate and unnecessary cultures of grieving. These long days of mourning that seem to be for communal purpose, yet on closer inspection one sees how this communal practice of funerals allow us to individually integrate our loss, to move from shock, to not crumble. On cultures, do you also marvel at how bodies react and navigate different geographies; countries and lands that hold our greatest joys and greatest pains?

Mahtem: Our ancestors were SO wise. I think a lot about my ancestors these days, connected, inherited, longed for – all of them. They have woven intricate ways of living so we could continue to survive.

Navigating different geographies is a source of joy and sorrow for me, which is why I think and write a lot about the immigrant experience. I just wrote a poem about our bodies being maps – each limb part of a land we crossed and uncrossed, each organ hiding a different flag, these feet used to running and running. Ultimately, our bodies just want to be – whether in America or in Ethiopia or in Botswana. But the lands we cross have an anatomy of their own – they give us different names, they place us in a specific social strata, they expect less from our intellectually driven minds. By this, our bodies come close to disintegrating. How can we not? But something keeps us going – a glimmer of hope, whether in the shape of a loved one, or lost ones, or, the will to live and make something of ourselves over and over again. This hope does not let us wallow in our sorrows. And so our bodies know this, and they learn to muster sorrow or grief or longing or whatever is thrown our way, and adjust to move within new boundaries. It’s as if they protect us from the ugliness of a world that chooses to see us as destructive. And this, I take to be a gesture of grace, learned from ancestors, from God, from others.

Gaamangwe: On speaking about the anatomy of our lands, cities and countries and world bodies, I am also vigorously learning to seek and find the poetry here. Because as you said our bodies are so endowed with a beautiful grace, and if we think about the sources of our sorrows, these things that try to disintegrate us, and how they enable us to see this beautiful grace, perhaps then there must be poetry in them?

But I speak as someone who knows only a small fraction of the immigrant experience, but I do wonder if you find poetry in all the countries you belong to? If your body has created a magnificent poem out of existing in different geographies?

Mahtem: That’s a very interesting thought. I never really considered myself as belonging to any particular land, though I develop strong attachments to each, for various reasons. I would hate to romanticize it too much because the experience of the immigrant is turbulent at the least, and continues to be so. Meaning, the experience does not become suddenly pleasant because you have set roots in a different land; the journey is not the only harrowing thing. Some of us adjust better or more quickly than others, some don’t. And I’ve heard different versions about the immigrant who belongs to many lands, and therefore is better because of it. Although we are better for having been traveled, we have also to be realistic about these experiences. I think I’m one of those few who don’t really feel the belonging, and always seeks for it. I belong more to water than to land, which is to say, belonging has nothing to do with physicality. The first time I was kicked out of my birthplace, I felt betrayed, I mourned for the white city. And refused to set roots elsewhere because I did not see myself anywhere else. Thus, the body must have been in mourning. But I can see how bits and pieces of the body must belong to different lands; my hair is from Addis, my chatter from Asmara, the food I cook from both, my first poetry from Rome, the blue I crave from San Francisco, and so forth. And by leaving pieces of itself in different lands, the body becomes a geography of its own; a map of our collective histories.

Gaamangwe:I can’t imagine what that betrayal must have felt like, and still feels like. How is the feel or color or texture of this specific mourning? I say this because I imagine that mourning for something that is inaccessible but still exists, and still could possible become accessible someday, is different from say mourning for something that is gone forever?  I am wondering about the kind of space or emotion the body occupies in this kind of sorrow.

Mahtem: I don’t think mourning can be completely gone from the body, at least not without leaving traces here and there. Perhaps the body hosts that emotion and decides to store it somewhere so we can move forward, somehow. It’s very dense, a liquid kind of mourning that continues to scrape your surfaces many years later.

Gaamangwe: You once said “there is a kind of silent existence in the body”, which I have never appreciated before. But then I also started thinking about different kinds of silent existences, beyond the human body.  I thought about silent existences of lands, that we don’t take note of. I resonated with your “Talks About Race”, poem, especially when you said;

“And how to cradle, and contain the disappointment that is

rekindled whenever someone does NOT know

my Ethiopia, my Eritrea.”

I have also experienced that kind of disappointment about my Botswana. In the way that I have to always explain about my country’s existence. Much like the way we disregard the whole poetry of the body, my Botswana, and your Ethiopia, and your Eritrea and many other lands all over the world exists on this silent existence. I am interested on knowing a bit more what is beneath the silent existence of Ethiopia & of Eritrea. What don’t we know and witness about them?

Mahtem: The silences we practice when we leave our birthplace or home are many. But these depend on us always remembering fondly our lands, our traditions, our culture. It’s one thing to be an immigrant and have to explain where you’re from (which is a natural curiosity of people, I assume), but it’s a completely different thing when your countries are erased completely and simply replaced by “Africa” or “African”. It’s sort of an implicit sense of entitlement westerners have; we and the other. Geography was not my favorite subject, but I knew the existence of 50 states in the U.S., the capital city of Venezuela, the ancient Greeks and their city-states, I had a pen-pal from Uruguay, and dreamt about the islands of Malaysia. I don’t know all the countries in the world, but at least we learn the continents. You have no idea how many times I’ve had to correct people about Africa being a continent and NOT a country. This kind of continuous erasure comes with arrogance; and over time, you learn to deal with it. This doesn’t mean I have anything against being called African; I find that very humbling actually. But it’s still disturbing to know  we don’t get to learn our origin stories; Ethiopia was once one of the greatest kingdoms in the world, and yet, I never learned about it in school. Why are our black monarchs any less important than the Romans or Greeks? These are the thoughts that occupy my silences.

Gaamangwe: This is my daily narrative. The way that our histories have been made to disappear is deeply disturbing. Sadly, this erasure is also so prevalent in the continent. Our education systems are deeply Eurocentric. We know far less about our countries and our own neighboring countries.  We have adopted so much that is not ours, and the systems (education and politics) seems to not be bothered by this de-valuing of our experiences and histories. It makes you wonder, who will become the custodians of our existence? What will say we once lived here?

So I am always trying to unsilence myself. I wonder, for you, do you have ways that you try to defy this erasure? How do you un-occupy these silences?

Mahtem: This is such an important question. Our first act of defiance, I think, is our mere existence; we continue to live and exist despite a multi-layered system that seeks to erase us and our histories, one way or another. We continue to question the status quo. We continue to be vocal and reassert ourselves in the history books. Because we matter, because our stories matter. And our elders have bestowed the most important element for our freedom: along with our languages and cultures, oral traditions play a vital role in our shaping. I might not have read books about my kings and queens, but I’ve heard stories about them. I might not have read about folktales, but I know plenty of Aleka Gebrehanna stories to tell my children. And as human beings, but especially as artists and writers, we have the obligation to bear witness to these stories, and continue the tradition of storytelling. By choosing to do this, I un-occupy the silences a bit less.

Gaamangwe: I absolutely agree. Storytelling has this surging outward and inward, physical and psychic flow, that refuses and defies and protest the things that try to make us disappear. When we witness our silences and sorrows, and the world’s attempt to erase us, we can and the future generation can un-occupy what has been done and what is being attempted to be done.

I am given even more energy and faith by this powerful line, from your poem “A Secret Lull” (in your book Fuchsia);  “Now who’s to say / their roar’s strength / does not lie in their sorrow?”

So much power here Mahtem! I live for this line, and mumble it in days when it feels the world is almost winning. So, thank you for this poetry. What else do you hope the readers of Fuchsia discover about human strength, histories and sorrows? 

Mahtem:  I’m so glad to hear that. Many people think sorrow and hopelessness go hand in hand, but the strength of our sorrow is also important. Fuchsia is complicated on itself, but through it, I hope to connect with readers and their unique experiences, I hope to tell the immigrant story, the story of the nomad, and document the loss that comes from such experiences. Thank you for this wonderful and thought-provoking conversation! I do hope to bring Fuchsia in person to Botswana one day.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful! I would love to have you and read Fuchsia in Botswana! Thank you so much for joining me in this space.

Poetry and the Fullness of Things: A Dialogue With Ejiofor Ugwu


Ejiọfọr Ugwu  lives and writes in Nsukka, Nigeria. His poetry chapbook The Book of God was selected by African Poetry Book Fund in collaboration with Akashic Books to be included in the 2017 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set. His poetry and short fiction have been published in Guernica, African American Review, Drumtide Magazine, The New Black Magazine, ELSEWHERE Lit, Cordite Poetry Review, Sentinel Nigeria, The Kalahari Review, and The Muse, a journal of creative and critical writings at the University of Nigeria.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the hilly town of Nsukka, Nigeria by Email.

Gaamangwe: Ejiofor, you once said that “I come from a Community of stories: beautiful and gory”, and I think there is no other perfect way to describe your poetry.  Beyond communal imprints and influence, what is your obsession in/with poetry? 

Ejiofor: It may not be a marvel to you but to my poetic mind, it’s a huge miracle. People kill and get killed every day. Many go unreported; unaccounted for: the reason for spelling blood does not even have to be tangible. Then again, we see where one death could trigger off concerns that would travel many nations, just one death, because the world thinks that such death is ‘important’. You check where I am coming from, and you find many sites of mass burials and they would quickly fade away. We have gotten used to mass burials – so we are no longer bothered, especially, since it is far away in the North or the North East or a small farming village in Ukpabi Nimbo.

Then Aleppo and many other places trying to deal with manuring their lands with humans.  It’s as if the whole world is a monstrous ‘blood god’ (apologies to Mary-Alice Daniel). I am not obsessed about death and the monstrous conspiracies of the world. No, I am not. After all, as a speaker in one of my poems would say, ‘I have no debt to worms except / wads of silk’. I think I seem to be saying: this is one important way we are now; perhaps, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
My art is a personal protest. How far this protest will go is not certain though. What bothers me more is living with the reality of not having protested at all! You know, against humans and against Gods. The small fowl carried off by a carnivorous kite says that she is crying down from the air, not for the kite to leave her but for the whole world to also know that she is about to die. I have this feeling about most of the speakers I find in my poetry. They don’t seem to be tired of looking at life directly into its face. The speakers are also not better peoples. Sometimes, their personal daemons are so overbearing that you wonder: that is how they love the world.

Gaamangwe:  I am heartbroken for you, for the many humans who are violated, killed and buried, only to fade away the next day, unaccounted and undocumented, never spoken of, never known and cried for, except as statistics, as just victims of “Nimbo Massacre”.  

It’s not right. Even and despite that we will all die, and we are in a world without end, we should, all of us, care about the violent killing of any human.  With art, and much more— our hands, our bodies, our actions, our words are all the ways we should protest. But here is a conundrum, to protest humans and their ways, to say out loud that these are all the things we will accept and live with, is hard but possible. But now Ejiofor, how does one protest against God? 

Ejiofor: I am not just concerned about human destruction say, around me (it does not have to be around me). I am concerned about it happening anywhere in the world. I am concerned that people are no longer allowed to wither on their own and die. And there again, why should we even wither in the first place?

So, to be concerned this way is to begin a protest. The speakers rage not just against God or society but against their own souls. They make you see that they are also broken humans. Sometimes, they speak about things that we would like to keep secret; things we would not like to give speech; things we most suffer from but which we would not like to confront with words. You know, that is why I am not ashamed to write about bones. That is why I am not ashamed to write about small lives. The sense of protest I see in the speakers is in terms of speaking back to things, to all supreme deities including Gods in human forms. Job spoke back out of love: ‘Why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to myself?’ If you say I am your beloved, why do you chose this way to show me your love? Many unleash suffering out of strange senses of love; it could be love of Gods, what you call religion or love of power. There are many other strange forms of love in the world. Art in becoming art can open up questions about these loves. It is opening up things in order to win over erasure, to defeat time, to defeat silence. Nothing is past for Poetry, I think.

Even Christ felt forsaken. Say, He had a self apart from the ordained. We hear Him, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ That is a powerful form of protest against erasure. The answer to such question is for Philosophy or Religion to deal with. Poetry can unnerve Gods and things that way. It can keep questioning meanings and even unmeaning meanings in order to mean afresh. In this way art becomes more historical than history. It connects most to our common humanity.

So whether my poetry will succeed in speaking to things is also there. But more importantly it re-brings things; opens up things; enlarges things with their fullness of life so as to help them assert their lives. Poetry can do this even when we know that it is not statistical. It can record the history of say, the ‘defeated’ in a way most spiritual: enchanting and liberatory. Things don’t fade away completely where you have poetry. Things don’t get exhausted with the hurry of everyday speech. Everyday speech is almost powerless without poetry. Poetry rescues everyday speech for it to start to live. Poetry is a word that defeats time. You ought to have heard this before. What protest is more spiritual than this? Poetry, not in the immediate, or in your personal hurry but in steadfastness.

Gaamangwe:  Why should we even wither in the first place? What a fascinating thought. Is this not the basis of all human wars? This desperate attempt to not wither. To not annihilate. Are we not all, in some way trying to be immortal? Because withering is abrasive to human life. It is this withering that makes us question if all of this is significant after all. 

I understand this personal protest against the human soul. I am also haunted by how we have not been able to contain and transcend our withering nature.  But sometimes, I think that all roads must lead to withering, because perhaps the beauty of life, the poetry of things comes from the very fact that all things eventually wither. What amplifies and gives meaning to the smallness of things is the very reality that all things eventually ends. And love, well they do say love is the elixir of life. It adds fullness to the smallness of our lives. 

 I find what you said about how art asks questions about the many strange forms of love interesting. Now, I am interested to know the kind of questions your poetry asks about love, and the kind of answers your poetry is finding along the way. 

Ejiofor: We do poetry. Man does poetry, and say, he cannot do without doing it. About why he does it, apart from being a feature making him to be what he is, we are the ones to know. Those strange forms of love are possible, so that we know. So that we keep knowing. The much I know, as someone through whom poetry comes into existence, is in rethinking those possible forms. Why do we love that way? Why do we self-destroy?

Say, we can gain insights into certain truths of our being. What are these inexhaustible values of our being? That is spiritual and a oneness of being. Why do we make violence for instance? Why do we make destruction, knowingly or unknowingly? And how do we live with destruction? Again, how is it in our nature to make violence? Can we do self-cleansing?  We are yet to arrive at the complete answers.

Again, whether there is completeness at all? Poetry is in the asking. And that is part of why it will keep tugging at wholeness. The energy that comes from this can make the artist mad. You can crash down trying to dispel the energy. It’s a spell. That is why writing begins like an involuntary action. You spoke about eventuality; man infinitely in doubt of its possibility. That is, man knowing this eventuality, still does poetry. Poetry is an act of transcendence for him. That is one answer we can see along the way – a radical act, say. A way to tell the world that it is well. A way to also say, it is not always rosy for the world. Why the world needs to be always retold is the question of poetry. It can make the world feel nervous. It can make the world feel loved. They are all possibilities of feelings. Say, when it speaks about bones, it wearies the world.

Gaamangwe: The aspiring philosopher in me will say that the world needs to be retold because we, humans, are trying to clutch and connect the missing and incomplete dots, to fill the spaces between the eye and the heart, and to meet pasts and presents and futures, into one complete moments of nows.  And yes, I think, I really think poetry has in many ways, has transcended the in-between missing and incompleteness in our world.

On completeness, I wonder, is there a poem or poems of yours, that you feel has tugged at wholeness completely, one that comes close to the perfect spell and the complete act of the transcendence of Ejiofor?

Ejiofor: The other day, I was going to Arochukwu for the burial of a friend’s mother. Derek Walcott had died in the morning. I had avoided the news early that morning. It was out of shock, I think. And I was going to travel. And I needed to be a bit collected. My avoiding the news helped. But even by the evening of that day, the news had not yet stopped spreading. I had thought that it would have died down by the evening but it kept coming on more and more.  By early evening that day, I had covered half of the distance to my destination.

I decided to check social media. I opened Facebook and each time I did, the news would pop up as if to make sure that I accepted that Derek was now completely dead. We had just left Umuahia, passed some gmelina plantations. I kept getting worried again. The taxi kept speeding amidst hearty banters. The driver and some of the people in the taxi knew that we still had a long way ahead of us. So, they understood the speed and did not complain. We were only two strangers in the car. The lady going to see her would-be husband’s people for the first time and myself. I couldn’t join the hearty conversations. I kept thinking about Walcott and poetry and me. We got to a Jehovah Witness Hall along the entrance to Bende and I was already breaking. I became completely afraid, in form of panic attacks. I felt hopeless. What is this beast that never got tired of eating people? What is the need of poetry?

We passed some two small children running about with used tyres which they steered with double-pronged sticks, unaware that we passed them, unbothered by the world. Then almost immediately, Romeo Oriogun shared a part of ‘Love for Love’. And I reread the whole of it. A voice said in my head, ‘hey, don’t break down, keep working’. I began to type into a word pad in my phone. A title came first, ‘St. Lucian Air’. I wrote under it, ‘for Derek Walcott’. I marveled at the countless land gullies at Bende as we negotiated them. I continued typing into the St. Lucian Air even as we passed onto Ndi Oji Abam through a slim bridge. I feel my whole life will be devoted to writing only just one poem. The meaning of the poem will be ‘transcendence’. That is where everything that I have done is going to be collected and preserved. I hope for the grace. It’s not new. People past that I know did similar things. Derek has just left.

I like ‘The Land of Uz’. The speaker appears to have started speaking since ‘Sunrise’ or ‘Rats’, or ‘Children of the Moon’. The speaker in ‘Children of the Moon’ would say,

‘and we hear birthsongs

in akparata travelling

through the soft mutters of sand’

‘Akparata’ is a native coffin. The speaker and the people are not so much worried that the dead are dead. They rather hear birth songs in the coffins being guided into the sand. They believe in regeneration. For them, I think, nothing is really lost. That awareness is a form of transcendence. It seems to me that ‘the perfect spell and the complete act of the transcendence of Ejiofor’ is a life-long endeavour, so that as long as I have breath, I keep writing into it, into the big single poem. What do you think?

Gaamangwe:  I think that’s really powerful. I think that, a young poet, can only be expected to transcend himself only as a life-long endeavor.  I also really like “The Land of Uz”, but my favorite poem by you is “The Book of God”. Let me share my favorite part:

When the time came
in that small world of
half-woken stars
and broken moonlight
we were gathering palmnuts
un-cracked palmkernels of
previous years
lying silent in the dust
breeding thick and lice
termites eating away detachable peelings
and building endless houses,
eating up sand
I was a boy of unspecified age.
It must have been the time
we took ogwu uwa- the drug that
cured the whole world:
I don’t remember.
my father knew everything for us

The last five lines Ejiofor! Just powerful. And the whole of the poem is just, for me, absolutely genius. Can you tell me about this poem? And more about your chapbook, of the same name, by Africa Poetry Book Fund? 


Ejiofor: The poem grapples with what is it means to remember. Especially, how do we remember? And what can we remember? There are pieces of my personal history in the story, say, in form of scattered remains. Those scattered remains percolated with bits and pieces I picked on the way, or from friends I cared about. It was not clear to me why those remains needed to be given speech when the poem began. I had borne things in my mind long before the poem. I didn’t know what those things meant but they kept assuming importance to me. I had several false starts at writing about such things before and when I was in the university. They didn’t make sense. I threw them away, sometimes after typing them. In a sense, it’s a story I grew up with. I was the one that looked at the St. Martins de Porres Prayer Book that my father kept differently. My siblings or my mother only thought about the book as a place they could go and look up dates of birth when they were required at school or in church. I looked at the book as some kind of treasure. It connected me to certain things that existed before I was born. It held an infinite dread to me. For instance, when I came back from High School and I saw that moths had made in-roads into the book, I bought moth killers and placed them in the box where the book was kept alongside other documents or things. I begged my mother to buy moth killers and spread in the box from time to time. And she agreed.

So, ‘The Book of God’ long started as a desire to protect that small prayer book. Again, I grew up in the village. We were free range children in the village. We didn’t grow up being very protected from say, kidnappers. You know, I am not sure we had any kidnapping value as say, city children. So, we grew up taking a lot of risks. We ran down rocky hills, steering used tyres. We climbed tall trees. For mangoes, cashew, salt fruits or just to dangle happily from them. Sometimes, we fell and sustained injuries that we hid away from our parents until we began to writ in pains in the nights. Mother would ask in threatening voices, “Did you fall?”. “No!” “What happened?” “I fell from a tree”. Sometimes, she would give you some quick hot beatings on your way to the kitchen where she would boil hot water with which to massage away your pains. If we got better from the pains, we still went out to look for salt fruits the next day. So, this is part of what I mean when I speak of scattered remains. Then, very importantly, I took eleven years to process the death of my father. There were many other deaths too. My immediate younger sister, Oluchi died on a market day at the age of six or seven. When my mother came back from the market, a small grave of her size was dug and she was covered with sand. After two or three farming seasons, we lost the grave. I mean, I think I had attained a certain maturity in early two-thousand-and-fifteen when the story came. And it then achieved that ability to speak to anyone anywhere. My chapbook with Africa Poetry Book Fund has what I have been trying to point at here as part of its background.

Gaamangwe: Memory is an interesting thing. There are things that we know we have lost, some we barely remember that they happened, and some that exists as scatterings, as remains of the people we once were and lives we once lived. And then there is the time of memory, when she is very elusive but helpful, because she helps us not to remember the things that hurt. Like grief. Like death. 

To process and understand the meaning of death is a difficult and painful part of the human experience. In writing, The Book of God (the poem), what kind of meanings did you create for yourself to process your father’s death, and your younger sister? 

But also on the book level, what meanings/lessons did you, the writer, extrapolate or discover or create from your personal history & your world history? 


Ejiofor: My personal losses called forth a poem like ‘The Book of God’. In the process of remembering, I think a lot of things come together to yearn for speech. I think the artist especially, remembers that way. That is the same way stories come to him or her. They come to him together; you know, as if they have been there all along. When my sister died, I remember I cried but I didn’t make much of it. I was also young. I only had a mind that was susceptible to impressions quite early. So, I could keep pictures in my mind that early but I didn’t know what they meant or could mean. When my mother, in a way to help us forget things, said she would give birth to another sister, I agreed and kept quiet. My sister’s was a small death so there was no much mourning or ceremonies. When my father died, I didn’t even cry in that elaborate ways. If not for those paternal women that are usually around and who would want to make sure that you are human by expecting you to cry, I am not sure I was that excited to cry. It was later that I cried on my own from time to time.

So, when the stories I have told so far came, they came as things of various kinds coming to take forms in ways that they could now begin to mean; things that are speakable in many faraway places; things that can speak other languages; things that are human. I am not sure you need to know me before you can connect to the stories. I feel the reason could be because they have moved from the personal and ascended to the universal. The personal has that potent force but maybe not for every writer. Maybe what I wanted to say also is that when you train your imagination enough, you may not need to look so far for stories. They will come to you on their own. I am trying to describe my own experience as a young writer who is just starting out. A lot of us are quick to lock our hairs and live the writer. Sometimes, we, in this process, lose completely the temperament that one requires to write well. There are temperaments that will never produce art. I can’t really point at these temperaments in their black and white forms, so don’t ask me, but I know they exist. I think I should stop because I am already pontificating as if my own poetry has already bought me a car or a house. But really Gaamangwe, I am only writing because I can’t stop. If I could, I would, but I can’t. You know how automatons are? If na for the money or fame, I no sure say poetry na the beta place to start. Writing no dey give fast money or fame like that o. So, if you are in so much hurry, I think you should better find many other fast places.

Gaamangwe:  I resonate a lot with your reflections on losses, memory and writing. And yes to never stopping to writing poetry. Thank you so much Ejiofor for the shifting reflections. I look forward to reading more and more of your work.

Ejiofor: Thank you so much Gaamangwe for this opportunity. Keep up the good work. I wish you great successes in your own writing career.

The Art of Unlearning: A Dialogue With Koleka Putuma



Photo credit: Elelwani Netshifhire. 

Koleka Putuma is an award winning Theatre Director, Writer, and Performance Poet based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Her plays include UHM (2014), Mbuzeni (2015), and Woza Sarafina (2016), her  plays for young audiences include Ekhaya for 2-7 year olds and SCOOP, the first South African play for 2 weeks-12month old babies. She was nominated for the Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for Best New Directors at the annual Fleur Du Cap Theatre Awards (2015), named one of the young pioneers who took South Africa by storm in 2015 by The Sunday Times, and awarded the Pen SA Student Writing Prize for her poem: Water.

She is scheduled to release her debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia in April 2017.

This conversation happened between the sweetspot, sunny city of Gaborone, Botswana and the breathtaking, cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, South Africa by Call.

Gaamangwe: Koleka, in your poem “Teachings”, you wrote;


A weapon I use to unlearn a lineage of silence.


A medicine I use to heal years of being silent.


A doctrine I use to deliver my sanity from the ills of silencing.


A tool I use to dismantle a learnt behavior of suffering in silence.

 Let’s start here, because there are a lot of things to unlearn but unlearning silence is by far the most powerful thing we can ever do, especially as black women. What are the things that you are absolutely refusing to be silent about?

Koleka: When I was writing this, I was thinking about the things we learn from our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Growing up, they teach us how to be dutiful, good and respectable, and often there is a lot of silencing of the matriarchs in our families, and I know that in some families matriarchs are not silenced/ruled by patriarchy, but for those of us who grew up in religious households, the narrative is submission. The narrative is that there is a head of the house, and there is a lot of silencing that comes with that.

I think that being a writer/poet the work requires of you to defy and unlearn the thing that has taught you silence and the unspoken contract that the neighbors and extended family cannot know and get involved with traumas that are happening in your house and in your life, and that you are supposed to deal with it quietly and soldier on because you are a “strong black woman.”

I think I am refusing to be quiet about that, and the pain that other people inflict on me, and trying to protect the person who is doing harm to me. I think that is something I am refusing to be quiet about my stories that involve other people but are ultimately my stories.

Gaamangwe: That is powerful because our society doesn’t encourage spaces where we open up and talk about our traumas, especially in the home, where it’s inflicted by a loved one. There is also courage and vulnerability that is required when owning one’s trauma, because there is the need to look at the self as the subject in the trauma.  How do you navigate this requirement, where you have to be vulnerable and own how you appear in your trauma story?

Koleka: The thing that comes up for me here is Anne Lamott‘s quote; “You own everything that happened to you, if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Two, I find the idea of walking around and interacting with people without a mask quite liberating. I find living in a world where we don’t show our true selves, and where we don’t ever say we are hurting, quite suffocating. What is freeing for me is to be able to say that, that experience or person over there hurt me, particularly as a black person. I think that the hardest thing for black people to say is, “Dad or mum or auntie or uncle or somebody, you hurt me or you broke my heart”, especially when you are younger than the person, and for that person in turn to say “I am sorry”. That is the rarest intergenerational interaction you will find between black people.

So I feel like my writing is for that interaction to exist, where I can honestly and unapologetically write/talk about an experience that happened and I don’t have to sugar coat or sanitize it. I can write about it as raw as it is and whether the other person acknowledges it or not, that is one part of the interaction done. In my work I create a space, where as a black woman, I can name my traumas/hurts, and name the people who have inflicted those traumas in an unapologetic way. I can have it be what it is, and whoever sees the story, can have the choice to perceive it however they want. I need to exist in the world as someone who is allowed to be open and vulnerable.

Gaamangwe: There is a concept of psychic climate from Dreams, Evolution and Value Fulfillment by Jane Roberts.  It basically says that our experiences, especially our traumas exists as part of the elements that make the climate of our psyche. As people in a home, we exists in a collective psychic climate, where all the unresolved and un-addressed traumas hover around us, throughout our lifetimes, as impending storms, which eventually as we know either morphs into something destructive or it just explodes in ways that is difficult to repair.

As African families, our cultures don’t encourage addressing and apologizing for the hurt we inflict on each other, especially between parents and their children. We have to unlearn this.

Koleka: Yes, I agree. I used to think that one of the easiest things black people get caught up in is talking about our traumas and pain. You go to a tavern or a shebeen or a place where black people gather to have a good time and you’ll hear folks talking about injustices or the days of apartheid or struggles or whatever. And I always wondered why it is not easy for us to talk about joy, and the things that make us happy, things that bring us pleasure, and I am starting to see that both are equally hard to talk about. It’s also complex to talk about trauma, because it’s easy in certain spaces and not so much in other spaces. One of the hardest spaces to talk about trauma is with the people who have inflicted pain on us, and yes more often than not that space is with family.

And the other thing that I am trying to learn, which is right up there with unlearning, is that;  it’s okay to be happy, it’s okay to have joy, its okay to write about joy and to talk about joy, and that joy is a birthright even with all the crap around us.

When violence is inflicted on a black body, the world doesn’t flinch because it has been so normalized. I want to document the moments when I experience immense joy and pleasure so I can normalize those in my own life. I am learning that those moments are just as important and valid.  I am learning, that it is okay to have a crush on someone for six months, its okay to desire someone, its okay to flirt, it’s okay to want sex, and all these things we are not allowed to indulge in for too long.

Gaamangwe: I totally agree with that, because we rarely ever see pure and raw intimacy between two black people who love each other, in most of our narratives. We should unlearn focusing on the narratives that only highlight that which is heavy and dark in our experiences, because there are other parts that are light, beautiful and lovely, and that should also get as much witness as the other part.

Koleka: You know, there are people who are making work that highlights that lightness and joy and beautiful intimate moments of being black and loving, of being black and happy, and I want more of that. I am in a space that’s looking for more of that and searching for work that celebrates black joy, black intimacy, black friendship, black sisterhood in the way that is not something that is commercialized.

Gaamangwe: Yes, because I think that also we need to understand that the narratives that we pump into the collective psyche of our community or group, really defines how we perceive ourselves. Is it possible to find good love, great love as a black person? To be happy and healthy and successful? What is the narrative around me, on what is possible for me, for us as a group?

If we ponder on the notion of legacy, of what we inherited from our forefathers, what happened to them and the narrative they held about themselves and their experiences, and on what they thought was possible for them, and we take it a step further and think about the legacy we will leave behind, on what we think is our birthright, and the experiences we think we deserve to have, then we have got much to think about, because then unlearning is not just for us, it’s for the future generation.

Koleka: Yes. But also when we talk about unlearning you have to take into account the kind of systematic violence that black people have endured, and the space a lot of people find themselves in is one where they cannot really afford the luxury of this space; to kind of sit and go, what is it that I have to unlearn? Because there are others priorities that are more pressing, and it seems that that the thing about unlearning is that you have to be present for it.

We can’t assume that everyone has the time to consciously ‘unlearn’ or can afford to give up whatever is toxic for them. And also there are different ways of unlearning, you and I are talking about it in a very particular way, but no doubt our grandmothers and aunts also had/have their own way of unlearning, of mobilizing each other, or getting each other out of toxic or unhealthy situations. The conversation of unlearning has different avenues.

As youth it’s not easy to initiate our way of unlearning with the older generation, but it is important as people, that we have this as a legacy that we leave behind, something to pass down to our children; if something is hurtful, if something is unhealthy, if its eating away at your joy, its making it difficult for you to be your best self, unlearn it. That is the dopest legacy ever. Dear Children, here is a legacy—unlearning.

Gaamangwe: Your reflection reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Someone who is concerned with their basic needs, of getting food and shelter and surviving the day, or week or month, does not have the luxury to do an intentional, unlearning process that we are idealizing right now, because that’s the space they cannot afford to be in right now.

But also what if what I call a limitation is someone’s process of unlearning? Because the process or art of unlearning, like many things, is fluid. We have to appreciate that every one of us has their own path and way of doing things, of unlearning things.

Koleka: Yes, in as much as I would love to, and I love to challenge people, particularly my family, and when I say family, I mean my parents, but I am also mindful of the thing that enables people to survive. And more often than not and that thing for black people its religion; it’s God, Jesus and crucifixion. That’s what keeps them going from day to day; the promise of eternal life on the other side of their death. This world is hard and so I am always wary of this; if this is what enables someone to carry on, who am I to criticize that?

But at the same time it’s important to challenge them (my parents) on their beliefs. I want folks to flourish and live their best life with Christianity, but at the same time I am not okay with how religion has screwed over black people.

Gaamangwe:  Let us not romanticize religion or any other system that can uplift and also limits us. This actually reminds me of what you said in 21 love poems, number 21;

I don’t find it tragedy romantic at all.

I don’t think playing dead is empowering

or good for my ego (even).

I love you

But I’d rather be alive.

What was the inspiration with this one?

Koleka: It was inspired by Adrienne Rich’s 21 love poem. I wrote 21 love poems about 21 love experiences that I had. It has now been retitled to 21 ways of leaving, because I realized it’s a poem about leaving something that is not good for you, 21 ways of re-learning love. It’s about romanticizing tragedy, particularly as artist—we fetishize tragedy, we fetishize being in dark spaces—and the whole poem is like I get it, I get how tragedy can be useful, how it can nuance our work as artists and that it is something that we can draw from but for me, I also value my wellbeing—much more than I value being in a space where I am dying internally all the time. It’s saying,  I really love this person, or I really loved this person but the relationship was toxic, and whatever it was that we were pursuing was toxic and it was unhealthy, and I value me being in a good space much more than whatever was going there. And that is just me generally, I value being in a healthy space, I value being well, and I really value joy, and it wasn’t always like that. It’s a new thing for me. And I see now how joy and peace are weapons, particularly in a society that dispossesses black bodies, and a world where black people can only be these tragic stories or are only tragedies. Seeking and choosing joy and peace every day, and normalizing that is important for me.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that—my new thing has been to ferociously guard my space. I am guarding my practice of finding and being joy, and being the most of myself, and its liberating. In the beginning of course I was and still am quite self-conscious because this is new territory because you know, we are not taught to put ourselves first. It is often looked at as if you are being selfish, it’s not, this is what I am unlearning.  

Koleka: And also know that the two can co-exist. That you can be in public and you can cry and be vulnerable and talk about your traumas. And the next day you can walk down the street, and be at peace and be happy. The two can co-exist in one body. That you are not just one thing, you can be both. And that you can go for weeks and weeks being depressed and broke, and not opening your doors or your curtains, and the next couple of months you are the happiest you have ever been, and that it’s okay, both are fine, both have their time and space in your life.

Gaamangwe: That’s empowering. I think of a day as a lifetime that we are given, and we can live this lifetime however way we want. If today we are tragic, then that’s fine and beautiful. There are different types of revolutions, and being tragic is one of them. If not, we have tomorrow to start again.

 In this spirit of talking about empowering and revolutionary things, we definitely have to speak about your poem, “Water”, which is an absolutely mesmerizing and deeply shifting work of art. What was the space that you were in and what were you exploring here?

Koleka: One, I am allowing this poem to take up the space that it needs to take up in my life now. Because for a long time I was kind of resisting that, but now I am just like Water is Water, and Water will be what it needs to be in my life for a long time and that is okay, that’s also a gift.

Two, I was in space where they were a lot of conversations that were happening with friends, family, colleagues, about the idea or concept of water for black people. For those couple of months, the topic of water just kept coming up, I would be in a taxi with a friend and we would talk about water, I would be at a conference or at a festival and the topic of slavery and water would come up, I would  be having dinner with someone and water would come up.

To be honest with you, that poem was written in tiny little bits, and I would write a sentence and put that away and the next month I would write something and put it away. I was in a space where I was having a lot of conversation about black people in relation to water, so it made its way into my psyche, and so eventually I kind of pieced the thing together, and that eventually made up the poem which is now known as Water.

Gaamangwe:  There is a beauty in that, because it was this big, overwhelming and powerful thing that came to you in snippets, but ended up as this brilliant poem.

Koleka: It came in bits definitely and it’s a poem that was written over a few months but the day I sat down to finish it, I finished it in that day. In between writing Water I was reading, and re-reading some stuff and kind of having friends go like “oh have you read this philosopher’s theory about water?” and “have you seen this documentary?” I just kind of took a fascination with water, and people were pointing me in the direction of material that had to do with water and black people. I wish I could say that Water is the type of poem that I just woke up in the morning and wrote it in like an hour.

Gaamangwe: Sometimes the things that are powerful take a long time to be purged out.  Also there is something about incubation; taking months or years ruminating on a subject or story, going to the depth of things and later releasing it when it’s ready and fully explored. I find that beautiful.

So, you are writing your first collection of poetry, Collective Amnesia. How is this experience, and what should we expect?

Koleka: I am so nervous, particularly about the thing that we have been talking about for the past hour. Every day I am re-learning that I am unlearning silence. I am learning to own my stories, to tell them truthfully, in the way that I see them.  I am also learning a new courage. I thought that I was a fearless and courageous somebody but the more I write, the more I realize that courage is something that you have to choose, it’s not a given. You have to choose it every day and I had to choose it for this book.

And as I am working towards its release, I am kind of giving myself permission and going like; yes I want to put that out to the world, yes I want to talk about that, yes that particular situation does not have the power that I thought it had over my life, and yes I got the right to talk about this.

I don’t know what people can expect from it, but I know that it’s transparent and talks about a lot of the things that we want to forget collectively; be it in our families or as a country. More than that I think I am trying to unlearn my own silence and amnesia with this book.

Gaamangwe: I think it’s only normal, but at the same time I think the discomfort and nervousness is exactly what the work needs, because if you channel everything from that space you will create powerful stuff. I think that we resonate with people who are raw and transparent because we rarely are and writers like you help us connect to the part of our stories that we need to heal and unlearn. So basically you are doing great and I cannot wait to read it.

Koleka: I think it’s in our nature to be naked as people. To be open. There is a lot that happens between the time when we are born, when we are our most honest and vulnerable, to the time when we are grown up and we have collected all these inhibitions and locks and doors. But I think it’s in our nature as people to be honest and naked but it’s all the other stuff that happens in between that teaches us otherwise.

Gaamangwe: Yes, we have to unlearn some stuff so that we can go back to the origin, to who we really are. Koleka, this was powerful, thank you.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

On Womanhood and Belonging: A dialogue with Ijeoma Umebinyuo


Ijeoma Umebinyuo was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the author of Questions for Ada, her first published collection of prose poems and poems. Her writings have been translated to Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, Russian and French.

This conversation happened between the now hailing storm city of Gaborone, Botswana and sunny, robust city of Lagos, Nigeria by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Ijeoma, I read one of your poems where you said –

 “I am writing for the women who were once girls judging themselves through the eyes of souls who couldn’t comprehend their light.”

I really resonate with this because I have been, and sometimes I am the girl who judges herself through the eyes that don’t understand the constellation of my being.  So, I am interested in knowing how you got to a point where you decided that you want to be talking for girls, about girls and their womanhood.

Ijeoma; I started writing when I was about ten. So writing for me has always been in my being. My childhood friends are not surprised that I have a book or I am writing. But the themes of what I write I think started happening around my late teens. It was about exploring everything that I have been taught, from religion to being an African woman, and leaving Nigeria for the first time. I sort of understood my blackness and what that meant for the first time in my life. So I have a lot of stories and you can see it’s not one single narrative. And so many people can see themselves in that. I didn’t know at a certain point that was a beautiful thing.

I didn’t think it was because I don’t really fit into a certain narrative, you can’t really place me in a certain narrative and say “Okay, this is how Ijeoma is”, and “this is how Ijeoma thinks”. I can’t really place myself there and I didn’t. And it was in my late teens that I started to explore and understand what it meant to be a woman. What I began to see did not sit well with me. When I was younger and growing up, there were things I wanted to say, and now that I have an opportunity to say them, I say them and I am no longer scared. So it took a lot of going inward and relearning everything I have been told. Because we have been told that this is what you should think and this is what you should do. And you realize that there are so many things that are wrong with certain narratives.

It came to me when I understood that society benefits when I am being silent, and being silenced. Because the most dangerous thing that I have come to realize is a woman that cannot be silenced. Especially in a society like ours. And when young woman speak up and own themselves and know who they are, that’s very difficult for society to comprehend.

So that quote you said I think I wrote it for me and also for girls to understand that they are not alone. I get messages and girls of different ages telling me that “Thank you for writing this, thank you for making me understand that I am not going crazy, that I am okay, and that I am fine” and these are very important things for a woman to see, especially for a woman who has a name like mine, someone who is like me, someone that has lived in places that someone will tell you women from this place don’t speak up. So for women to see me speak up and write about this things, they are the people I am writing for. My first audience, those are the most important audience to me.

And whenever I receive message that tell me “I breathe better”, “I feel less alone”, “I feel like someone out there understands me”, that’s success to me. These are really important things to me because I understand what it’s like to have these thoughts and feel this way. And someone telling you “you are not normal” and thinking how you are acting and thinking is not normal. So I am writing against that, saying this is totally fine. This is who you are and this is how you think.

It started a long time ago and it’s been a long time coming. I look at this as something normal and should have been there. It’s not groundbreaking in a way but it is
because I write the things that a lot of people are scared to see. Things that women and young girls seat around at night and talk about within themselves but cannot say outside. Taboos like rape, molestation and depression. These are things that affect all genders. And I do write about all genders but I am very particular about the girl child and women, about stories that we tell and that we live, stories that when we are dead and gone people can read, stories that young girls can read and say “I see myself in that”. And it’s so unfortunate that we have such a long way to go regarding womanism or feminism in Africa.

I always say this words ” They always tell men to stand up for power”, like its normalized and men are supposed to stand up for power and run for office but when we begin to see women in complex positions as politicians and judges, so many things like policies change. And that’s vital. I want to say that so much change when women take action. And just seeing African women doing this, it’s so uplifting. You see centers for domestic abuse and you see women understanding the dynamics of being a woman.

I was watching a documentary about women in Cameroon and they were policewomen and you can see the kind of passion that they have for other women who are coming up and saying “this person raped me” or “my husband beats me”. And they are using their language and their own mannerism. All these things are important because for you and I, we can speak perfect English, we are very exposed and we are educated. But these women who don’t speak like us and who don’t even have access to cellphones are making so much change in Africa. And it’s uplifting. Because they make use of the laws and systems in place. Because they have nothing to lose.

It’s very important that we tell these stories.

Gaamangwe:  I deeply resonate with so much of what you just said. I feel like we are at a brink of a revolution because a lot of people and writers like you are really bringing up all these issues up and it’s great because it’s opening up dialogues. The landscape of womanhood and what it means is so interesting right now. You wrote about the importance of women defining the terms and conditions of their womanhood. This is an interesting thought Ijeoma. How can we do this such that we reach a point where every woman understands her womanhood and how she wants to express it in the world?

Ijeoma; Here is my thing, just because I define my womanhood a different way, and just because I am this way doesn’t mean that you have to be that way. Because I think it’s very important for us to understand that the different dynamics of women are very important to feminism or womanism. Because I cannot tell someone else that as a woman this is what you have to do and this is how feminism is defined. We need to be very careful about that. There are so many dynamics of feminism and there are so many ways that a woman can say I am a woman and this is who I am and this is how I show mine.
We need to understand that defining our humanity and knowing what we call being a woman should always be choice.  So defining the terms and conditions of our womanhood is really about choice. Some of us are privileged, where we can say what we want but we have to understand that so many women don’t.

We have a society that tell men that they can do whatever they want to do and they can be whoever they want to be but a woman is defined by so many borders she has to carry. At the end of the day it’s like she does not have a choice in her life. That’s where feminism/womanism comes into play and that’s where people have a problem with it because when you give a woman a choice that’s a problem for society.

It is important to have that choice to do whatever we want and be whoever we want, and have that equal opportunity like any man would. One thing that I think is important is for women to be in political positions because that will make a lot of difference. If we begin to speak from an African perspective, we can see in most cases when women are in positions of power. Because we can see when people are discussing issues that are about women and women are not there it doesn’t make any sense. Nobody knows a woman’s body like a woman does. Things like reproductive rights, financial independence, political positions, ownership of land and inheritance.

So I think that choice needs to be at the cornerstone of being a woman. Because when choice is removed it’s not equal opportunity, it’s not women empowerment.

Gaamangwe: Yes, it’s inequality. And it’s what we are all fighting for. Because most of the time we are not given choices as women, on how to be or how we are supposed to express ourselves. It’s in the smallest of things.

Growing up I didn’t realize the narrative I was being given on womanhood until I started reading on my own and started being my own self. And I read your work and I read other people’s work and the reality is that we have to unlearn so much as women. It’s sad because our counterparts, our men don’t fully understand the world that we live in, the landscape and the personal realities of women. So your work is empowering and resonate with us, your readers because they are things that pass us and we don’t take note of them but they really define our lives and who we are and how we act.

You write about mental health, rape and depression and domestic abuse, which are really difficult things to integrate in the normal African narrative. In the dialogues that we hold even with our friends. I am particularly drawn to mental health and will love for us to explore it further. 

Ijeoma: It’s very interesting whenever you discuss issues like mental health within African societies or here in the diaspora. You can discuss Malaria or kidney failure or anything that a white man can go through that a black man can go through. But when you discuss mental health, it is not something that a black person can go through?

It’s interesting how we think our bodies are supposed to carry a lot of pain without breaking down. And it’s interesting because I have heard Africans who are very educated say “what are you talking about, this doesn’t happen to us, and it’s not part of our DNA”.

I think it’s important that we don’t deny mental health exists.

Once at a reading in New York, a man thanked me for talking and writing about mental health. He said he was telling his people that he is depressed and they were telling him that it’s all in his head, that Africans don’t get depressed.

A lot of people leave home and they don’t fit in. I am not talking about leaving home and feeling sad one day, I am talking about seriously wanting to end it all. Seriously not understanding where you are. You leave home and probably for the first time you are being called black and expected to understand the history of blackness from outside your country where you’ve only been your ethnic group till now.  You experience racism for the first time. And because being black is associated with being bad, you have to stop yourself from internalizing this and this leads to some of the worst cases of depression you can think of. You feel isolated and with isolation comes a feeling of not being able to talk to someone back home. Because they will say you are in America, what are you talking about? You have so many opportunities that someone back home doesn’t have, how dare you be ungrateful. How dare you talk about being depressed, what are you depressed about? So you have a sense of guilt.

Gaamangwe: I am glad you talked about how people in the diaspora experience culture shock and racism. Even in the smallest ways. People always looking at you and how things are no longer concepts. You captured this perfectly in your poem, Diasporic Blues –
“So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”

I want to talk about this. The idea of home and the idea of belonging in a space or a place.

Ijeoma: I wrote Diaspora Blues because I came back to Nigeria in 2013 after a long time. Unfortunately, I felt very much displaced. It was a little bit of romanticizing the past, entirely my fault. I had this idea that I will come back and I will perfectly fit into the space that I left. But it’s always impossible for us to do that. Because there is the fact that I had grown up so much as a person. And understanding the dynamics of who I am and being abroad and people saying “where are you from” and still getting this question after so many years. I asked myself where I really belong.

“Not American enough,

not Nigerian enough,

I am Ijeoma enough. And that’s okay”.


That was the first draft of that poem in 2013. When I was writing my book I went back to this poem and felt that it will only resonate with people who are Nigerian and American. I wanted to write something that will include everyone. And it was a very sad poem for me. Short but very sad, it was very personal.

Belonging and the concept of home for a lot of people is wherever they decide home is. But that can be a very difficult thing for refugees and political asylum seekers. Sometimes immigrating to a country and understanding that they don’t have papers that technical recognize them as complete human beings in a society. It is much more than my perspective because belonging is such a complex issue.

A lot of people don’t have that opportunity to come back home like I do. To have a place that they can call home. It might not be exactly what I expected it to be but it’s as close as possible to what I can call home. It is home. Some people leave and they can’t come back.

I explore home in so many ways. In language, food, clothing and our religion. And these are major things that people bring with them. My personal story is I felt displaced. So I have this concept of home and another foreign idea of home and what I can bring back. And I am sort of in the middle. I am bringing from this place. Some things I cannot change. Like the way I talk. Or maybe the way I think now. I cannot change that. It will be sort of regressing from me to go back to how I was before I left. I have changed and I am not going to apologize for things that took me so many years to unlearn. I am becoming this person that I am becoming right now.

Gaamangwe; I think that a lot of people resonated with that because we all experience that, maybe in different formats. I experienced a lot of that when I came back from India. It took me six months to get to a point where I felt like I am navigating this space easily now.  But when I came back I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged because I outgrew this space, and this person and my home. It’s a very sad thing to realize because there is the question, where do I belong now?

I have to say I also really like original poem of Diasporic Blue.  I resonate with that because after everything that’s what you have. You have yourself. The only constant is yourself. So the idea of home can never truly be a place. But you can have yourself as a home. And there is a lot of that in your work as well, you know like as a human you should belong to yourself and be okay with your skin and be proud of your skin and love yourself. Because I think this is the only home you can truly ever own.

Ijeoma: And we can also go a step further and say because society has always told us that home is belonging to a man as a woman. Home is when you get married and that is where you should find your home. And that is something that you should seek and be. There are a lot of people that we see now that are in our society, making terrible decisions staying in toxic relationships because they don’t have that concept of being alone and being home alone, by themselves. I can find home within myself.

Gaamangwe: This is really powerful because I think we need to change the narrative to that. All of us we grow up being told that we should aspire for that. Especially as girls. We should aspire for a husband, and for love with a man. I get so pissed off nowadays if I see those articles about how to make him fall in love with you or how to be a perfect wife.

Ijeoma: Yes! I remember as we were talking and you mentioned how some men don’t acknowledge that they are privileged and how we have to inform them but as ridiculous as I might sound I think we are not here to teach men anything. I feel like we spend so much time trying to lecture or trying to school others.

A couple of years back I was talking to my brother and he said you know the concept of feminism is simple, equal rights for women and men. The idea that a woman should be able to do whatever they want, a woman should be able to think this way, a woman should be able to act this way without being insulted or demeaned, I am not going to teach you that. That is common human decency. I think a lot of time men has this lazy idea that women should have to teach them the basic concept of humanity. Feminism is the basic concept of humanity. It is human right.

Gaamangwe: Exactly. We should focus more on ourselves. Building our own homes. Having the narratives we want to be having by ourselves as women. I think it will start there. It will start with empowered women. And the system will organically change, I think. Slowly but surely. I think we have done a lot of educating and at some point people just then choose what they want to take out of the whole thing then we lose the whole intention.

I think it’s time now for us to focus on ourselves and realize that we are powerful enough, on our own, by ourselves. We should empower ourselves because we are dangerous this way. So now, I want us to pivot to the idea of self-care and belonging to one self. Why it’s so vital right now with all the chaos that’s happening right now in the world.
Ijeoma: I think we sort of lose ourselves in the whole chaos, we have been taught as women to take care of others before taking care of ourselves. It is sort of others first. And it’s then passed on and on. And even when we say no we even question that no. Yes, I can take care of the people but I need to take care of myself first. I need to understand from within what I really want before I go outside. And we praise the always strong woman. This woman who is so empowered and powerful and she sort of doesn’t break down.  Like she is a mule or something. There is the idea that if you put yourself first then you are selfish. And they make you feel guilt for that. That the idea of taking care of yourself is a selfish act. We want women to keep on going without breaking down. A romanticized idea of a strong woman.

But this also reflects in men. Hyper masculinity. I have a friend who lost his father and two weeks later I was talking to him and asking “how do you feel?” and he said “I want to cry but I am a man. I have to be a man”. And I told him “You are a son that just lost his father, do you not understand that it’s okay to cry?” This is the toxic idea that a man is not allowed to weep, to show emotion, and to cry.

Society does such a disservice to young men and boys. This idea that to be a man you have to conceal your emotions. It can be very toxic.

Gaamangwe: Recently I was talking to Gbenga Adesina, in our dialogue and he said that we need to come back to the republic of kindness. To the republic of treating each other as human beings. Before anything else. Before our genders, our races, before whatever system, we can put in defining us. Can we just start from one human being to another?

When you were speaking I was feeling like they are so many systems that are so wrong in our world that we need to fix but also its  kind of overwhelming because what do we start with. Do we start with empowering the girl child or in that way we are doing another disservice to the boy child because our focus is on the girl child? There are so many dialogues and theories and discourses that we have to touch on so we can create a better world.

Ijeoma: Step back. You have to break it down and say this is what I am passionate about, and this is what I am going to discuss and follow through on. But it’s not like you are saying you won’t talk about everything else but rather about what is most important to you. And do whatever you can, wherever you are. That has always been my motto. I wrote something that says start where you are. Just start you know.

I think I could have gotten overwhelmed if I listened to everyone else but myself. I will have gotten overwhelmed if before writing I sort of started following other people’s voices but mine. It’s important to not overwhelm ourselves, that’s where self-care comes in. It’s very important.

For me if I am not focus then I am all over the place. The idea that speaking about the girl child means not speaking about the boy child, it’s very important that we understand that the playing field has never been leveled. It has never been to the advantage of the girl. No matter where you go.

The concept is equal right for women and men. The concept is choice for girls. Historically and presently, women are at the losing end. We can definitely get into this narrative that if we are discussing about the girl child then it means that we are not discussing about the boy child. Or we cannot discuss about the boy child. And it’s very important for us not to do that. Because that sort of narrative is something that a lot of misogynists use. Oh you know these feminists, that’s what they do. But really we are talking about genital mutilations and child marriages in Africa, Asia and Middle East. We are talking about the fact that a girl at the age of fourteen is being married off to a man old enough to  be her grandfather. We are talking about the fact that girls are not allowed to go to school. We are talking about honor killing. And this is happening right now.

The idea that when we are talking about this very important issue then it means we are not interested in talking about the man or the boy. It deviates from the narrative and what we are trying to say.

The concept of an educated woman is such a feared concept in so many places. And you ask yourself why? Why is it that a woman that cannot be silenced is a very dangerous woman?

Gaamangwe; That’s true. I want to now talk about Questions for Ada. Ada means daughters right?

Ijeoma: Yes. Actually Ada in Igbo means first daughter. It means every first daughter of the house.

Gaamangwe: Interesting. So I am interested in what this work set out to do, the dialogues and discourses and seeds it wanted to plant.

Ijeoma: Thank you for this question. When I was thinking about this work I thought a lot about the title. Originally I wrote in Tumblr and I used to ask these questions as poetry. And it started from there. And I started working with Questions for Ada and I shared with my friends and they told me to go with it because it was very authentic and personal for me. The book itself took me so long to bring it together. The book itself is in stages. It goes through different stages.
I was very close to my grandmother and my grandmother passed away a few years ago. My grandmother was an Ada, the first daughter in her house and my mother was also an Ada. A lot of my writings entwines different generations. It included the older generation, our mother generation and our generation. Those three particular generations. At the back I remember I wrote that we are writing for our mother and our mothers of our mothers and for our generations and for generations to come. So it was journey of these different people and writing their stories. I wanted to give voices not only to our generation but to others as well.

One particular poem I actually called Question for Ada. At first I wrote it for me. Then later on it went from that to Ada. It said –

Ijeoma, are you in love?

Is being a relationship hard work?

Do you write love poems for your lover?

Does your lover believe in you?
But sometimes I fear that my lover doesn’t comprehend her light.

What do you on those days?

I bathe her. I play her jazz. I feed her. I weep for her.

Describe her in a sentence.
Her eyes carries strength. Her words crush. She speaks love.

Ijeoma, are you in love?
Is being a relationship hard work?
Who is your lover?

So I changed Ijeoma and I put Ada. So that was the questions for Ada. There were tiny questions I asked. There is one where I asked –
Didn’t your mother carry herself well enough to make you feel like a God?

So inside the book there are very tiny questions I asked. The book is very unapologetic. It’s very feminist. In the very beginning of the book I wrote something called Genesis. I wrote –

In the beginning there were women.

So I am not trying to soften myself or play around or present one thing else. I wanted where our generation could read the book and see themselves in it.

That particular poem obviously you feel like you are lost or you understand that the lover is yourself. It feels like it’s very sad. But the beginning of the book is something like a discourse. I wanted a book that an immigrant could read. A black person can read. A woman could read.  I wanted a book that was very true to who I am. And those aspects of who I am added to create this book.

That’s why anyone from wherever can still read it and see themselves in it. I wrote about what to tell your best friend when she is feeling depressed. Using African names. I wanted to write one thing that goes beyond love. I am writing about self-love in a way and so many other things. And the reception has been amazing. I have been very pleased with the love from the reader. I can’t wait to do more. I am encouraged to do more.

Gaamangwe: That’s amazing because I think every writer wants to do work that impacts the readers. And your work is powerful. It can be just one or two lines but when I read and I am altered forever. So you definitely have to keep doing this.

Ijeoma; Thank you so much for this. I am honored. I am honored that so many women from all parts of Africa are resonating and celebrating my work. It’s so exciting to be celebrated in not just one’s country. It’s very encouraging. I can’t wait to do more.