Our Pan African LGBTQI activists: Unoma Azuah

13 Nov


As we move close to the start 16 Days of activism campaign, a campaign that was started to bring an end to violence against women and children, I have decided to dedicate blogs to activists that represent the LGBTQI communities of Africa. Initially, I was in full support of the campaign but over the past few years the meaning and importance of it has become blurred. Many corporates have now used it as a marketing campaign in their CSI departments thus increasing their BEE scorecards. Many people have seen it as a time that women should not be beaten during thats time, which I find rather preposterous, as violence should not be happening at all. Majority of the cases that are reported, involve women in heterosexual relationships, thus excluding the LGBTQI community, especially the Black LGBTQI community.

A few years back as we were launching the One Billion rising campaign in Johannesburg, our late sister, Prudence Mabele, was displaying a very thought provoking exhibition, honouring women from the LGBTQI community who had been murdered and their cases had not been solved. As I examined the exhibition, I saw in horror, a name of a person that I once knew and mentored. I had lost contact with my late sister, over the previous year and I could not understand why. That cold hard reality was that she was murdered but as she was a black lesbian, not much noise was made in the media nor was there an urgent appeal from the police to find and prosecute her killers.
I have decided to write a few blogs, honouring activists and poets who highlight these plights and honour those who had been killed for simply living their truth and their lives. The first lady that I pay homage to is Unoma Azuah

Unoma Azuah is a Nigerian writer, author, and activist whose research and activism focus on LGBT writing in Nigerian literature. She has published three books, two of which have won international awards. She focuses on issues relating to queer Nigerians, such as in Blessed Body: Secret Lives of LGBT Nigerians (2016).

Azuah was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu in Delta State of Nigeria. She attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where, as an undergraduate, she edited the English department literary journal called The Muse and received the awards of the best Creative Writing student for two consecutive years: 1992 and 1993. She has a Bachelor of Art in English, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (1994), a Masters in English from Cleveland State University, Ohio (2001) and a Masters in Fine Art from Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond (2003).

Azuah is the first Nigerian to give LGBTQI issues consistent visibility in the Nigerian literary scholarship. She left Nigeria in 1999, after receiving numerous threats to her life on account of her work, and now splits her time between the US and Nigeria to continue assisting and working with the Nigerian LGBTQI community.

Of her work, Azuah has said “I’ve always explored the theme of sexuality in my writing, especially in my poems and non-fiction pieces. Edible Bones is actually inspired by a true story. The life of the major character loosely reflects the life of a Nigerian immigrant I met. He happened to be highly homophobic, but when he goes to jail and becomes a point of attention for bullies, a homosexual guy happens to be his saviour.”
Of the anti-gay law in Nigeria, she has also said the following: “I feel that the Nigerian leadership is using the matter as a tool to distract Nigerians from genuinely pressing concerns like the lack of economic opportunity and infrastructure. The strong wave of fundamentalist Christianity sweeping over Nigeria fuels the distraction of this topic which should not be up for national debate because what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom should concern no one.
Her exploration of gay themes in her work, and “defence of queer sex”, for a Nigerian-based writer has been described as “a courageous act indeed.”. Now a citizen of the USA, she continues to stay “deeply involved in her homeland by sharing stories of the persecution of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community there.” Azuah currently teaches writing at the Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago.

Her publications include:

• Night Songs. Lagos: Oracle, 2002. A collection of Poetry
• Sky-high Flames. Frederick, MD: Publish America. July, 2005. A novel.
• The Length of Light. Germany: VDM; Dr. Müller, 2008. A collection of short stories.
• Edible Bones. New York: Demarche Publishing, 2013. American edition. A novel.
• On Broken Wings: An Anthology of Best Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. New York: DLite, 2014.
• Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of the Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender: non-fiction. Jackson, TN: Cookingpotbooks, 2016

• The Urban Spectrum National Best Novel of the year 2006 by an African born writer for Sky-high flames[8]
• Best fiction writer of the year 2006 for Sky-high Flames, Association of Nigerian Authors/Flora Nwapa award for fiction, 2006
• The Griot Hero award for civic engagement with Adult and High school students, West Tennessee, 2008
• Nominee, Thomas Ehrlich Civically Engaged Faculty Award, Indiana University, 2009
• Aidoo-Snyder Book Award, Women’s Caucus of the African Studies Association, for Edible Bones, 2011[9]
• Winner, Hellman-Hammett award for Sky-high Flames[2]

She wrote the poem: The choke of grief

I invoke their names:
Desire Ntombana
Mandisa Mbambo
Phumeza Nkolonzi
Thapelo Makutle
Neil Daniels
Sanna Supa
Sasha Lee Gordon
Hendrietta Morifi
Nokuthula Radebe
Noxolo Nogwaza
Nqobile Khumalo
Ntsiki Tyatyeka
Tshuku Ncobo
Milicent Gaika survives
But the list lingers
A cascade of lives lived and loved
Plump fruits crushed
on the barren bough of hate
Their lives thumb my prayer beads
Sorrow mutes my plea to heaven
I choke on their mangled bones
I choke on their mangled bodies
Strangled, raped, clubbed, shot
Beaten, tortured, slashed with
Knives of blunt hunt
Carved beyond the hearts of animals
But these are my family
The pain is the heat of burning meat
Flesh charred on the flames of bigotry
These are my clan whose bodies have been
Scarred by the claws of hate
Girly Nkosi
Eudy Simelane
Khanyiswa Hani
Sibongile Mphelo
Daisy Dube
Madoe Mafubedu
Thokozane Qwabe
Salome Masooa
Sizakele Sigasa
Zoliswa Nkonyana
Mpho Setshedi……….
These are my family
As their ashes circle my anguish
Their names swell with the whirlwinds
I choke in my grief
And watch their spirits
roll off the slabs of the slain
And rise
like a burst of butterflies
into the horizon
These are my kindred
If there’s a God, she must hear
my cry for justice.
© 2012

*This poem is dedicated to my Queer family, victims of the brutal hate crimes in South Africa:
Sihle (19), stabbed to death by a group of gangster in Philip township, Cape Town;
Phumeza (22), lesbian, shot three times in her home in front of her grandmother, in Mau Mau, Nyanga, Cape Town;
Mandisa (33), stabbed to death and allegedly raped at her home in Inanda township, Durban
Thapelo (24), gay man, brutally murdered in Kuruman, Northern Cape;
Neil, transgender person, murdered in Cape Town;
Sanna (28), lesbian, shot dead in her home in Soweto; Sasha, trans woman, stabbed to death in Wynberg;
Hendrietta (29), aka Andritha, lesbian, murdered in her home in Polo Park, Mokopane in Limpopo;
Nokuthula (20), lesbian, strangled with one of her shoelaces in Everest;
Noxolo (24), lesbian, brutally beaten to death in Kwa-Thema, Johannesburg;
Nqobile (23), lesbian, murdered, her body found in a shallow grave near her parents’ home in KwaMashu, Durban;
Ntsiki (21), lesbian, murdered, her decomposed body was discovered a few metres from her home in Nyanga East, Cape Town; Tshuku(26), found dead, believed to have committed suicide;
Girly  (37), lesbian, stabbed and died of her injuries in KwaThema, Springs;
Eudy (31), lesbian, raped and murdered in KwaThema, Springs;
Khanyiswa (Lhoyie) (25), stabbed and murdered in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth;
Sibongile (21), raped, her vagina mutilated, shot and killed in Strand, Cape Town;
Daisy, trans woman in her 20s, shot dead in Yeoville, Johannesburg;
Madoe (16), lesbian, raped and stabbed to death in Kliptown, Soweto;
Thokozane (23), lesbian, stoned to death in KwaZulu-Natal;
partners Salome (23), lesbian mother, and Sizakele (34), lesbian, both raped, tortured and murdered in Meadowlands, Soweto;
Zoliswa (19), lesbian, stoned to death in Khayelitsha, Cape Town;
Mpho (27), lesbian soccer player, shot dead in her home in Yeoville, Johannesburg;
Millicent (31), lesbian, suffered ‘curative rape’ and severely beaten in Gugulethu, Cape Town.
She is a survivor.

For more information on how you support the LGBTQI community:

1. http://www.out.org.za

OUT provides direct health services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, MSM, sex workers, and injecting drug users, including HIV testing, counselling, treatment and general lifestyle advice and support.

OUT has been in existence for more than 21 years and is dedicated to the building of healthy and empowered LGBT communities in South Africa and internationally, while reducing hetrosexism and homophobia in society.

The Durban Lesbian & Gay Community & Health Centre (a project of the KZN Coalition for Gay & Lesbian Equality) is a Drop-In Centre, safe and secure space for lesbian, transgender, gay, bisexual, and intersex communities in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal.

3. http://www.thamidish.com

Thami Dish Foundation seeks to support young, LGBTI individuals from disadvantaged communities in South Africa.

One of our core objectives is to encourage and motivate young LGBTI members to dream beyond their current circumstances and moreover, to equip them with the necessary tools to propel themselves forward.

The Thami Dish Foundation offers positive, affirming, support to LGBTI youngsters with a view to contributing to a future where sexual diversity is fully understood and embraced within the South African society. We envision a tolerant and compassionate society where diversity is valued and appreciated.

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