Solidarity & Sustainability: An Interview with Sokari Ekine
by Peter James Hudson
The Nigerian social activist and writer holds forth on poverty and foreign meddling in Haiti and repression against homosexuals in Africa and the Diaspora. On Haiti: “Some people made a lot of money in the aftermath of the earthquake and a small few are still making money but the poor are being erased.”
Solidarity & Sustainability: An Interview with Sokari Ekine
by Peter James Hudson
This article previously appeared in The Public Archive.
“With the right connections and a few photos of starving black children, a US based charity or church can raise thousands over a weekend.”
Sokari Ekine is a social activist, educator, editor, and journalist whose work and writing is engaged with queer, feminist, pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist, and environmental politics — in both Haiti and Nigeria. She has written for publications including Pambazuka News, Feminist Africa and New Internationalist and she is the editor of Blood and Oil: Testimonies of Violence from Women of the Niger Delta, SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa, and with Firoze Manji, African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions. Most recently, Ekine and Hakima Abbas edited the Queer Africa Reader, a path-breaking collection of essays, testimonies, statements, and stories by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex contributors from across the continent. Currently teaching in Port-au-Prince, Ekine edited the blog Black Looks from 2004 to 2014. She tweets at @blacklooks and her tumblr can be found here.
What first brought you to Haiti? What kind of work have you been doing there?
I first visited Haiti in 2007 under the auspices of Pambazuka News, I was the online editor at the time. The aim of the trip was to meet with women’s groups and present on gender and militarization in the Niger Delta. Rea Dol, founder and director of SOPUDEP (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Pétion-Ville), and her family were my hosts and we have remained good friends and I continued to visit over the years. With the encouragement of Rea and other friends, I have been trying to move to Port-au-Prince for an extended period since early 2012 and finally this was made possible in January 2013 after I received a year long new media fellowship from the John Hopkins International Reporting Project. So my time has been spent between reporting on health issues, teaching, and working in solidarity with activists/organizers on a range of issues and projects and really just living my life.
In one of your “occasional musings” on Haiti on Black Looks, you point out that two criticisms of the deliverance of aid and charitable support to countries like Haiti are the introduction of inappropriate technologies without local consultation or participation and the other the long-term sustainability of projects. What have you seen in Haiti over the past couple of years in regards to both? How would you assess the implementation of foreign aid projects as we pass the four-anniversary of the earthquake?
Volumes have been written on the ineffectiveness and lack of sustainability of development aid but the issues can be broken down according to two factors: waste and dependence. In addition to the usual governmental and non-governmental aid agencies, there are hundreds of faith based groups and churches in Haiti. With the right connections and a few photos of starving black children, a US based charity or church can raise thousands over a weekend, employ x number of people and arrive in rural Haiti with free food, medicines, clothes and religion. I contend that we don’t know what many religious groups and other charities are really doing in Haiti. There are few regulations, no visas requirements and no monitoring of projects or churches. Every flight I have taken to or from Port-au-Prince, there has been at least one mission and some I have spoken too have been coming for years. They tell you this with pride completely unaware or maybe not, that they are contributing to a culture of dependency which keeps them in jobs and Haitians in poverty.
In many cases the technology might be appropriate but because consultation is minimal — in the sense that insufficient research takes place of local resources available, local needs and local infrastructure — projects fail or soon become unsustainable. Take for example a water purification project of considerable cost, was to provide clean water to a number of internally displaced camps and poor neighborhoods. The project organizers insisted that the water be provided free of charge, which is a laudable but not practical without considerable ongoing funding to pay for a water truck, drivers and maintenance. I understand wanting to provide free water but even if there was funding for free delivery, how long could this be sustained? The cost would be thousands every year and we need to ask is there another way? Can this money be used to create jobs so people can become financially independent? I don’t know the answer but meanwhile the purifier lies idle and no one gets water free or otherwise which is rather sad.
We can compare this with another project/enterprise for a group of 20 women living on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The women have received a small amount of funding to build a water storage tank for wash water and a small water purifier for drinking water. Once completed the women will have low cost water for themselves plus be able to sell the surplus and at the very least they will break even.
There are so many examples like this where the technology sounds great but quite often the actual application is not thought through. Another problem is that NGOs arrive, offer services or technology, make all kinds of promises but fail to follow up with the necessary support. This has happened to SOPUDEP who were provided with compost toilets but promises of support never materialized. The system became too expensive to maintain and this summer they reverted to traditional ‘deep hole’ latrines. The school was also offered “solar” cookers but they refused them because they were totally unpractical. You cannot prepare daily food for 700 children with solar cookers!
But it’s not just with technology that interventions are whimsical. In a recent article on Restaveks, Nicholas Kristof concludes that “free and accessible birth control” is one way to fight trafficking in Haiti and presumably globally since this is a global problem. The idea of providing birth control to Haitian women is highly problematic, ending poverty by ending the birth of poor children to poor mothers is not a solution but a depopulation strategy. It does not tackle the structural causes of poverty.
You’ve also written on the environmental costs of “reconstruction.” What have you seen and what are the major issues in Haiti concerning development, sustainability, and eco-system preservation?
The piece you refer to concerns the degradation of the riverbed in Pernier. In the period after the earthquake, particularly in the past two years there has been this massive building boom largely fueled by government projects and Haitian-American monies. In the past year alone parts of Port-au-Prince such as the rich neighborhood of Petion-Ville have been completely transformed. It’s great that rebuilding is taking place but it’s only in the richer neighborhoods and it comes at a high price to the environment. Haiti is a mountainous and hilly country and right now some of those hills are disappearing. For example on the outskirts of the Port-au-Prince along Route Nationale 1 huge chunks of hillside are being cut out to provide building materials. The same goes for river beds which are being excavated for the gravel. The photos I took only show the present and I am sorry I didn’t take photos three years ago so people could see the difference. Imagine 24/7 removing the gravel from the riverbed? First the trees were destroyed now the hillsides and the rivers are going the same way. It’s an unregulated paradise for business and the government, which collects taxes for destroying the environment.
In years to come Haitians will again be blamed for destroying their rivers and hills much in the same way they are blamed for destroying the trees. But when you investigate, it is not the people but big business and corrupt governments who are to blame. In her trilogy Love Anger, Madness, first published in 1968, the Haitian novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet, described how foreigners forced Haitian peasants to cut down their trees for sale or starve. We don’t hear this story. Rather, it is always poor Haitians cutting trees for firewood whereas thousands of trees were cut by corporate greed and government corruption. The farmers knew this would destroy their land and tried to protest, but their lives were worth less than the trees! Then charities arrive with food, clothing, and the bible to save those whose land and livelihood were destroyed.
You introduce your first post in the Haiti – Feminist Series on Black Looks by noting: “One of the stories least reported has been the one about Haitians organizing for themselves, particularly stories presented within a framework of feminist organizing and movement building.” Can you say a little about the different types of feminist organizing and movement building that you’ve encountered in Haiti?
What stands out for me are the everyday acts of solidarity and mutual support. Support networks are crucial as in Haiti there is always a crisis but just the energy needed to live and work through the week is tremendous and sometimes overwhelming. The violence of poverty is overwhelming – we of the privileged speak about it, write about it, and stare at it through tinted or even open windows but really we don’t know.
This is not to say there are not differences, but one’s religious beliefs or sexual orientation are not determining factors for coming together. I’m not talking about grand campaigns but rather small, focused actions that respond to the practical needs of women and children in poor communities. Secondly, building relationships within and between neighborhoods and communities, between issues and creating support networks where women are at the center. What this means is that the possibility of change becomes real, not a dream – though dreaming is good too.
Most recently I have noticed there is a growing focus and concern over sustainability – how to integrate movement building and organizing with income generation that is viable, possible over the long-term, and that does not force people to have to rely on donors even if the donors themselves are working in solidarity. However these are small pockets of organizing. Overall when I look at Haiti in the present, it is hard to see how the majority of lives have improved. Some people made a lot of money in the aftermath of the earthquake and a small few are still making money but the poor are being erased. I think they are in a fight for their lives.
You’ve also worked with queer communities on both sides of Atlantic – in both Haiti and West Africa. Can you speak on some of the similarities and differences in the struggles and strategies of both communities? Are their structural parallels in terms of the relationship to local states and to the international NGO community? Is there a parallel problem in the Caribbean of what you’ve termed the “spectacularizing of African homophobia” and, accompanying it, the emergence of a white savior complex through the “Gay International”?
I cannot speak to the Caribbean and my experience of queer organizing in Haiti is limited. I have met and attended various events and meetings as a guest as well as holding formal, individual and group interviews in PAP. However, two factors stand out in Haiti. First homosexuality is not criminalized, and secondly homosexuality is not excluded or denigrated within vodou (some Hougans for example are openly gay and lesbian) though this is not to say there is no homophobia amongst vodou practitioners. Having said that, there is considerable homophobia in the wider populace, especially among evangelical and fundamentalist churches.
This year saw the first organized anti-gay march that was organized by an all faith coalition of homophobic haters called The Haitian Coalition of Religious and Moral Organizations. The consequence of this march of hate was the death of two gay men and the injury of forty-seven others who were attacked with machetes, stones, and sticks. The attacks continued the following weekend. Since then there has been an attack on a private party when an organized gang tried to burn down the house; and two separate attacks on the leaders of Kouraj a LGBT group, and Fascidis, a lesbian advocacy organization. It’s not clear who is behind the “anti-gay” protests and violence and I wonder if there is a connection between faith-based homophobia and the growing demonization of vodou, particularly by foreign missionaries.
I can only speak generally and, yes, there is a relationship with the international NGO community, the US, Canada, and France. But I am not in a position to speak critically of what is taking place. The spectacular in Haiti is a spectacular poverty as in “the poorest country in the western hemisphere” and spectacular disasters and humanitarian aid. The LGBTQ community has not yet been singled out for the ‘worst place to be gay’ story!
In terms of the state itself, I understand the President has spoken against the homophobic attacks but he has done nothing to protect queers by ensuring prosecution of homophobic crimes. It has taken years of hard work from human rights activists to prosecute rape crimes and unless a similar campaign is structured around homophobia it is doubtful the government will do more than mouth empty words.
How are the effects and impacts of the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill similar to that of the US Patriot Act?
Through a number of interrelated and contesting laws and social mechanisms. Both are underpinned by a heteronormative nationalist project marked by exclusions. Like the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill, the Patriot Act does not allow for difference – for example, in terms of religious beliefs or the multiplicities of gender. Citizens are assembled as homogenous with a frightening expectation of a uniformity in belief systems, behaviour and willingness to act as agents of the state. Both require surveillance in the public and private spheres and both require citizen vigilantes to snitch on neighbours, friends and family.
The impact is to create fear — and to create an environment where the power of the state to infiltrate the domestic private sphere is encouraged and accepted. Citizens are told that their actions and those of the state are there to protect them from the chaos of deviants and terrorists, those “those who seek to destroy our way of life.” This may be the phantom known as the “American way of life” or the phantom of the normative heterosexual family or the nostalgia of an imaginary Africaness and African past which we are told does not include homosexuality. Queer Africans like Queer Americans – gender non-conforming, transgender and all the dykes, bulldaggers and sexual punks who challenge normative mores – are viewed as ‘incomplete’ citizens, expendable, and chaotic.
This is very similar to the poor in Haiti and other parts of the world who are also seen as expendable and deviant, what Ananya Roy calls the “bottom billion.” But in the case of Nigeria, the poor expendables are set against the queer expendables and its really only when the two can come together that we can begin to tear down these nationalist exclusionary projects.
In the introduction to the Queer Africa Reader, you and your co-editor, Hakima Abbas, write that the immediate impetus for the book was the 2010 charges against a Malawaian transgender woman, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, and her male partner, Steven Monjeza, for “gross indecency and unnatural acts,” and the eruption into the public of what had previously been muted discussions among queer African activists, intellectuals, and artists as a result. But can the Reader be placed within a longer genealogy of underground – or muted — queer literature and print culture from the continent and the Africa diaspora? What are its antecedents in terms of zines, special issues, collections, collectives, or individual writers?
The impetus for the book was it had become imperative that we speak for ourselves and about our world as we see it which is variegated and complicated. This not to say we are the first Africans to write about queer Africans. There is a genealogy. At the same time, all too often our words had gotten lost or placed on the margins of the work of big NGOs or foreign academics and activists. The few years preceding 2010, LGBTIQ communities across the continent had become increasingly caught up between African patriarchy, religious fascism and western imperialism. The charges against Twonge Chimalanga and Steven Monjeza were the most glaring example of the kind of disruption and tension brought about when these three meet at a particular juncture. When we started in 2010 the movement was at a crossroads. People were becoming more conscious of the controlling restrictiveness of NGOs and interventions by western activists and there was a real push away from these towards self-determination and a collective Pan-Africanism. There was also an increased feminist and queer analysis amongst the community leading to a greater self-awareness and confidence. These are important changes.
In terms of antecedents, there has been a number of books published in South Africa as well articles and essays in various African feminist journals. In the last two three years African queers have become highly visible in online spaces such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. African Sexualities: A Reader, edited by Slyvia Tamale, was published in 2012. We see the reader as complementary and an integral part of a progressive African feminist project that has grown over the past five or six years, one that embraces our sexual and gender plurality and seeks transformation.
What are you future publishing projects? Can we expect a Queer Haiti Reader?
As a queer Nigerian feminist, I was able to co-edit the QAR. A Queer Haitian Reader will have to be undertaken by Haitian Queers. I don’t have any publishing projects and honestly I don’t wish to go through the process of editing another collection in the near future. I look forward to returning to Haiti in a few days for at least a couple of months. And I will continue working in the background with Rea Dol and other friends.