But you know what? It went pretty well! I don’t really remember reciting my poem in front of that audience—the adrenaline coursing through my system in the moment pretty much wiped out my memory—but I know that people clapped afterward, always a good sign. And at least I didn’t collapse again!
Afterward, the room enjoyed a performance from Titica, Africa’s first prominent transgender singer and the UN Goodwill Ambassador from Angola. Africa is deeply patriarchal and, in many areas, conservatively theistic, so the disturbing assumption that trans* people are just “men who want to be women” (in a place where women are already dehumanized to a disturbing degree) leads the larger culture to vilify trans* people—much like the stigma surrounding homosexuality in Africa, any sexual identity that subverts heteronormativity is widely condemned. Bearing these things in mind, I was especially moved by Titica’s performance; I cannot overstate how big a deal it is to have her openly living her life as a prominent artist and inspiring others to do the same.
Another highlight was the speech given by Scottish singer and AIDS activist Annie Lennox, who wore her famous “HIV POSITIVE” T-shirt while she addressed the room. She congratulated the advances that South Africa has made in providing adequate medication to people living with HIV and preventing mother-to-child transmissions of the infection, but I was really moved when she criticized the country for the high occurrences of sexual violence and emphasized that the only way that the national statistics for HIV/AIDS have a chance of lessening at all is if men take accountability and stop raping women, as when she said, “We owe it to Mandela that his dream is ultimately realized and fulfilled…unless men and boys change how they treat girls and women, then HIV is not going anywhere!” I felt like she was preaching the good word, but it also stirred up my resentments about how difficult it is to communicate the simple message that patriarchy is poisonous to the men and boys of South Africa. Many African ethnic groups uphold patriarchal principles which maintain that men are the ultimate authority in women’s lives, and that sense of entitlement also manifests itself in the extremely high cases of gender-based violence in the country.
I felt even more mobilized after watching the First Lady of Zambia, Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, address the audience. I respect her so much for defying the traditional stereotype of the demure, inactive first lady who might be more inclined to sit the audience while her husband gave the address at an international conference. As a qualified obstetrician and gynecologist, she stressed the importance of family planning and sexual health clinics and stated that women are the solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis. While this message was obviously a departure from Annie Lennox’s focus the role of men, I can agree with both of them: Dr. Kaseba-Sata raised the idea that even if men are reluctant to change their ways, women can still maintain their own agency and be active and aware about our sexual health. She championed optimism in the face of dispiriting circumstances, but was also realistic about how difficult patriarchy makes it for women to be self-determining. My favorite part was when she made a suggestive joke about how the first ladies of Africa should have little trouble advancing the causes of women because, “After all, we first ladies have direct access to the highest authority in the country…if you know what I mean,” as she said with a knowing glance over the top of her spectacles. It made total sense to me—like, if I happened to be married to a friggin’ president, I would make sure my presence and my politics were both important to him and widely public to the masses. I mean, how could anything else possibly make sense?
After that night of invigorating speeches, I performed my work again the next day, this time in a small session at the Women’s Networking Zone. I was more at ease because I shared a much shorter poem, and the area could only accommodate a handful of people. It was lovely and intimate, and I could feel everyone’s attention, which made me totally confident in what I was communicating with them. Afterwards, I invited the women in attendance to write their poems on postcards (which had my face on them!) and share their work. Although most were only a few lines long, the poems easily expressed the strength of African women in difficult times, such as the ones brought on by the AIDS epidemic. One particularly touching piece of writing came a woman in a wheelchair, whose poem read, in part, “I am still a woman, even if I cannot walk.” I already know how scary it can be to be female in South Africa, and I can only imagine how that is affected by a disability. I was very moved that she chose to share that experience with us.
During the final event I attended at the conference, the JHHESA delegates I had come with gave a presentation on how to use social media to strengthen communities. They spoke about how organizations that are serious about communicating with Africa’s youth need to engage with social media, because that’s where young people are having many of their most important conversations. As someone who spends quite a bit of time on Twitter and Tumblr, I couldn’t agree more. Part of why my understanding of rape culture is so solid has come from casual, funny Tumblr GIF memes and following people who Tumbl and tweet about social justice—online spaces help people see feminism as less academic and more accessible to everyone. I think we often use social media as a form of escapism, but the great thing is that education can and will find you wherever you are when you’re hanging out in the online communities it creates.
After everything I saw at the conference, I know I’m super lucky to have had the opportunity to experience it. I often become so disheartened by all the enormous challenges facing young African women that I don’t know whether any activism and aid efforts are actually helping them, or if the world continues on oblivious to their struggles. More intimately, I also doubt my role as an artist within the realm of activism, and whether I can really contribute to the causes in which I believe by sharing my poetry—as a feminist, I see young South Africans, both male and female, diss feminism daily, as if wanting women to be treated humanely is a joke, and sometimes my words feel useless against that. It hurts, because I know that people fail to see how their personal attitudes reinforce terrible things that are so much bigger than them, such as increases in sexual violence and patriarchy. But ICASA strengthened my resolve. No matter how deep your doubts are about the efficacy of activism, you can’t spend an entire weekend surrounded by people who are passionate about alleviating the AIDS crisis and not feel inspired and rejuvenated to do more! I’m sure that the more people stand up, speak up, and condemn injustices like rape openly and unashamedly, we’ll be closer to realizing ICASA’s vision of “targeting zero.” It will be a long road, but each one of us will have to do what we can, with what we have, wherever we are. In the year 2014, I’ll be dedicating myself to learning of how I can use my voice and words to add positively to the causes that believe in, like feminism, LGBTQI and human rights, and the end of sexual violence. Because as hard as it may be to measure your impact as an activist, what matters more is the simple act of deciding to educate yourself, roll up your sleeves, and try your hardest to enact real change in the world—however you choose to do it. ♦