While I have been lucky to have traveled all over Africa, I have never had the chance to travel to an African country that has an open and dynamic queer activity. So, when the opportunity came to travel to such a country, I started searching for queer spaces online to that country even as I was buying my plane ticket. The information I gathered online made my trip even more exciting.
I headed to one of the queer bars on a Saturday. I was sitting alone and finding it difficult to believe that I was still in Africa and I kept looking around me. On my left, there were male couples talking and staring at each other with adoration. On my right, about six people were drinking, talking, laughing and dancing. The place was full of African queers. It was amazing. They are beautiful, we are beautiful! Sitting in that space, I was forced to think of my experience in Addis. I thought of all the hussle and the men that kept bothering us as my partner and I were dancing at a club in Addis because we were read as close friends and not as lovers. The feeling of being disempowered is not something that I will easily forget. Sipping from my whisky, I kept looking around as if I was in a movie. I did not have to worry about who saw me in that space, everyone was having a good time and were in their own world.
It made me emotional. I have been to several bars in a lot of places in the world, but this was different. As a lesbian from Addis Ababa, seeing the freedom that African queers enjoyed made me hopeful but it also seemed like a dream. For the fact that this was happening in Africa was utterly surprising!
The queer singer Lil Nas’ “Someone Who Loves Me” started playing and, the way that everyone joined the singing, it was as if someone had distributed a written copy of his lyrics. Based on the fact that everyone knew each other, I assumed that most of them frequent that bar. I think this helped make the space even more lively.
Because I was sitting alone and maybe because he sensed I was not from there, one of the guys from the group sitting on my right came to introduce himself. He told me he was gay and that he and his friends frequented the bar on Saturdays to let off some steam after their stressful work week. I told him that I am a lesbian and that I was visiting. Rihanna’s song “Bitch Better Have My Money” started playing and we both started singing along in a way that felt as if we have both known each other forever,
Bitch better have my money!
Bitch better have my money!
Pay me what you owe me
Bitch better have my …
He invited me to join them and they welcomed me with smiles. A gay couple, a lesbian, a transwoman and a heterosexual ally made up the group. They told me that they have been friends for a longtime. Their first question when I told them that I was vising from Ethiopia was, “What is the queer community like there? Do you have spaces like this where you can enjoy yourselves?” I didn’t want to ruin the evening by saying too much about the situation in Ethiopia but I said enough to give them a sense of the climate for queer people. While they had more freedom than us, some of them were not out to their family and culture and religion continue to play a significant role as points of struggle for acceptance. But the fact that they can go to a bar and are able to express their love freely and publically makes things better. They reminded me how strong my fellow queer Ethiopians are and one of them said “Your strength is admirable. We cannot be imprisoned for being queer here.”
They bought me drinks, we took selfies together and we took videos of each other dancing. They knew my situation and told me “We will not post anything on social media. We just want a reminder of our time here.” We exchanged WhatsApp numbers and hoped we would meet again somewhere. I will not forget that evening. Sometimes, I open those pictures and smile. I watch the videos and bask in the freedom.
More than anything though, it reminded us that we are strong. We are a people who keep declaring our freedom amidst so much hate.