Imagining an inclusive Africa Day

Africa Day is a day of celebration for Africans and people of African descent all over the world.

Celebrated on May 25, it is meant to commemorate the founding of the Organization of African Unity. It is a day when we Africans get to celebrate our culture, history, heritage and our socioeconomic achievements.

The Organization of African Unity has a lot of meaning for those of us in Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was one of the most instrumental leaders in creating the Organization of African Unity, the precursor to the current African Union. And the organization has always been housed in Addis Ababa, my city of birth, where I grew up and where I still reside.

Watching the various celebrations of African-ess yesterday was a reminder of the potential of this continent. From Abuja to Windhoek, Africans made their voices heard loud and clear. We showed the cultural diversity of our people and were able to offer a counter narrative to the one that paints Africa as the “dark continent”.

Despite my pride at being an African, it was also a time of reflection. I am queer. And I cannot openly live as a queer person in my city, the city where the African Union is headquartered. 

I could be jailed for three to 15 years for a consensual same-sex act. I am actually lucky. If I had lived in neighboring Somalia, the punishment would be death. More than half of the countries in Africa outlaw homosexuality. 

What does being African mean to someone who is queer like me? As most of my fellow sexual and gender minorities who reside on the continent, I live in fear. I live in a place that considers who I am inconsistent with being African. It is hard to be proud of being African when I am hunted and I have to consciously choose to hide my most basic self in order to continue to survive. Africans are subjected to daily violence due to their gender identity and sexual orienation.

Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian, was found murdered in neighboring Kenya about a month ago. Security forces have raided and shut down the offices of an LGBTQ rights group in Accra. South Africa’s queers are are still murdered and corrective rape is rife despite their constitutional protection.

While so many of us are targeted by violence, our leaders actively or tacitly encourage the violence. In just East Africa, Kenya’s president Uharu Kenyatta framed LGBTQ+ issues as of “no importance” and as not being a “human right” issue. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda said gay people are “disgusting”. Other African leaders have compared us to dogs, vermins and malaria-causing mosquitoes. 

The root for all this violence is the idea that being an LGBTQ+ person is “un-African”. The idea that being an LGBTQ+ is a Western import is a myth. Homophobia and homophobic laws, however, are Western imports. Even Ethiopia, a country that has never been colonized, has borrowed its anti-homosexuality laws from the West.

Indeed, there is sometimes a glimmer of hope. Almost a year ago, judge Michael Leburu of Botswana overturned anti-homosexuality laws in his country by arguing that  “the anti-sodomy laws are a British import” and were developed “without the consultation of local peoples”.

As an African queer, I hope for more judges like Michael Leburu who will make me proud. 

I am an African. And queer. I am a proud queer African who refuses any split of my identities. Africa Day – Africa itself – needs to make space for me and my fellow LGBTQ+ people.

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