In the web-talk “African Writers in Migration: Clementine E. Burnley and Tim B. Agaba about Queerness, Space and Human Rights” on July 21st 2020, Tim B. Agaba and Clementine E. Burnley had a conversation about queer realities, self-censorship, safe spaces, racism, decolonisation, and how class hierarchies impact access to human rights.
Tim B. Agaba and Clementine E. Burnley are both emerging writers. They met in a fairly random way. On the first day of Ms. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust (PHT) Creative Writing workshop (which has followed on from Farafina Workshop) they sat next to each other while Ms. Adichie battled through Lagos traffic.
They talked about the places that were close to their hearts. Tim mentioned the Ugandan kafunda (a bar), a very simple intimate space where he went for muchomo (roasted smoked meat) and to dance, if he felt like it.
Tim: “Once we began talking it feels like a conversation that has never really stopped. We continue to read each other’s work and have since become confidants.”
Clementine: “We didn’t know it but we had already achieved the intentions of the best known African writer of her generation. A literary friendship.”
The meeting in 2018 prepared the ground for a July 2020 web-talk on Queerness, Space and Human Rights organised by the Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation. In the web-talk Tim and Clementine’s writerly conversation addressed queer realities, self-censorship, safe spaces, racism, decolonisation, and how class hierarchies impact access to human rights.
Literary Workshops as safe spaces and incubators for writing on the African continent
First, the discussion focused on the potential of workshops to act as literary incubators, creative platforms and safe spaces for African writers. At PHT 2018 Ms. Adichie said: “literary friendships sustain writers.” The brilliant gay writer Binyavanga Wainaina (1971−2019) had a decades-long literary friendship with Ms. Adichie. He was a fixture at the Farafina Workshop. The relationship between these two mentors sustained emerging African writers for more than ten years.
For Clementine: “Writing can be a lonely life. Much of writing is thinking you have something to say and then realising that you haven’t said it well enough.”
Writers excavate fear, pain, guilt, tenderness and then they wait for outside judgement of what they have done. Writers get familiar with discomfort, rejection, and self-doubt. Paid publication avenues are extremely limited. The received wisdom in many literary markets is that African readers don’t connect to queer stories and white readers don’t connect to Black lives. So why write on queer topics? Some well-meaning friend, relative or writing peer often tries to “warn” writers away from queer stories by saying “I just wanted to tell you something.”
“Don’t you know that what you are writing is ‘funny’?”
At this point the writer who is being warned knows they must choose to write another way. They must leave their “funny” stories behind. It’s hard to blame African writers if they make the logical choice to stay away from exploring Black, same gender love in words.
The Purple Hibiscus Trust Workshop is one of the most important literary spaces on the continent. Dave Eggers, Tash Aw, Lola Shoneyin were due to arrive. So naturally on that first day in 2018, Tim and Clementine were both nervous.
When Ms. Adichie came into the conference room there was a hush. The air conditioners were louder than the writers’ voices.
“You can relax,” Ms. Adichie said. “I read your work, and my publisher Dr Eghosa read your work. If you made it into this room, you deserve to be here.”
Everyone there had hoped Binyavanga Wainaina would be in Lagos as well. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. From the time Wainaina won the Caine Prize, through to his founding of Kwani? Magazine, Wainaina took the English language by its neck and made it convey African perspectives on the world. The people who read Ms. Adichie’s interview in Time magazine knew Wainaina had struggled with the same shame and guilt many gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming Africans feel because so so many people use religious norms and respectability politics to attack them.
So it’s fitting that for Tim: “The workshop made me a queer writer. The workshop created an environment that, looking back now, feels like a hermetic pocket of time and space. One in which we were able to let go of the day-to-day encumbrances to our writing and just write, and breathe, and think, and talk, and dream about writing.”
At the PHT workshop writers found they could celebrate who they were as writers.
It became obvious that being queer wasn’t some kind of inferiority people had to feel ashamed about.
Clementine: “At that point we had no more excuses.”
Tim: “We were finally in a space where we could write stories about the sort of people we knew, just as they were.”
Human rights, institutions, and law
Outside the safe spaces formed by the kafunda and some selected workshops, what are common queer realities? Where does a queer Ugandan have a right to exist without being or doing anything special? Without proof of being good, deserving or worthy? What about people who are not rich, who aren’t activists, who don’t want to fight, who are soft, who just want to feel the blood rush and settle, or who just want to let air travel into and out of their beings?
Here are the facts on Uganda. At the last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its compliance with UN Human Rights processes in 2016, Uganda did not support recommendations to decriminalise consensual same-sex conduct and combat discrimination against LGBT*I*Q people, or unrestricted UN Special Rapporteur visits.
Nevertheless, access to healthcare and provision of legal aid have opened up avenues for LGBT*I*Q inclusion. In regard to HIV prevention and care, the Ugandan Ministry of Health has paid attention to the needs of LGBT*I*Q persons as a key population in its programming. LGBT *I*Q individuals who have been arrested and organisations which have been raided have received legal aid. That said, although the prison system treats queer people better than the police, taunts, ridicule and humiliation are common by prison officials and fellow inmates. Trans people have been misgendered and locked up in the wrong prison, further exposed to sexual violence and abuse.
Since most rights violations are due to a lack of financial freedom, it appears that human rights are reserved for the privileged. Poor LGBT*I*Q persons lack equal education, health services, recreation and protection in the home and workplace.
When we say Black Lives Matter, we must mean it completely.
Africans cannot partially decolonise. We can’t reject exploitation of our resources and erasure of our indigenous knowledge and at the same time cling to homophobic colonial-era attitudes. Decolonising human rights means a grounding in existing local understandings and appreciation for shared humanity: tenets which already inform the ethos of local cultures in specific ways. If we are all able to benefit from collective resources in a way that sustains us wholly, that is, in Spirit and in flesh, the world changes. When we say Black Lives Matter, we must mean it completely.
The visible acknowledgment, reclamation and affirmation of queer kin across timelines, across class and age divisions, across creeds, across nationalities, across continents—happening right now and over the past decade or so, is a powerful symbol: an illustration of confidence in the right to one’s existence, a refusal of erasure, of being disappeared. Perhaps the greatest gift our ancestors leave is the wisdom and beauty of locating ourselves inside this ongoing project we call history.
Clementine E. Burnley, Tim B. Agaba
A cooperation of Hirschfeld-Eddy-Foundation and InterKontinental as part of this project: International Human Rights Debates from an LGBTI Perspective
Clementine E. Burnley is active as a writer, public speaker and coach. She trains, mentors, and supports activist leaders in groups and organisations, across several social justice movements. She’s been shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, First Pages Prize, Amsterdam Open Book Prize, and the Bristol Short Story Prize and selected by Chimamanda Adichie for the Purple Hibiscus Trust Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria in 2018. Her most recent work appears in the National Flash Fiction Anthology, Ink, Sweat and Tears, and Barren Magazine.
You can find out more
Tim B. Agaba is a queer feminist writer and human rights lawyer who has worked within the Ugandan human rights sector since 2013. He has been involved in the protection of human rights defenders, mainly through research, training, community dialogues and development of position papers and Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials.
He was part of a team that drafted the National Strategy on the management of vulnerable prisoners. Most recently, he has conducted research on the role of gender-based violence in women’s incarceration alongside Professor Priscilla Ocen, under her Fulbright scholarship.
Tim is a 2018 alum of the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop organised by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Lagos. He has attended workshops with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Professor Okey Ndibe. You can find Tim on Instagram here
Find all blog-articles relating to this project tagged with HR-2020
- Clementine E. Burnley´s Website
- Tim B. Agaba on Instagram
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust (PHT) Creative Writing workshop
- Binyavanga Wainaina (1971−2019):How to write about Africa
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Wainaina 2014
- Binyavanga Wainaina obituary
- LOLWE, a magazine of literature and art
- Uganda Women Writers’ Association (FEMRITE) , which has been running since 2008 aims to find new literary voices, while promoting intercultural literary discourse including the African Women Writes Association’s residency
- African Writer’s Trust, an organization that connects African writers and publishing professionals through workshops and conferences
- Writivism, runs an annual literary festival in Kampala and awards both a fiction and non-fiction prize to emerging writers; as well as publishes their work
- UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), Mandate holder Victor Madrigal-Borloz