03 February 2021, Johannesburg
Queer organisations and activists have largely been underfunded and overworked while trying to support communities struggling with discrimination and violence. Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent lockdowns, have further exacerbated the problems these organisations, activists, and the communities they serve are faced with. At the end of 2020, Tshegofatso Senne reported on the effects of the pandemic on queer organisers and activists in Namibia, Ghana, Uganda and Zambia.
The impact of COVID-19 on the continent will most likely be felt for decades to come. While the Global North has been boldly wondering exactly ‘Why Africa’s coronavirus numbers are so surprisingly low?’, the effect has still been destabilising. More specifically, the challenges faced by civil society organisations (CSOs) on the continent are important to note, as these are the people who often go above and beyond the call of duty to fill in the gaps that are neglected by governments who have committed limited resources to keep citizens safe and healthy. While the effects of COVID-19 will continue to alter the ways we live our lives, queer organisers on the continent have seen how the pandemic has changed the ways they can support their communities. The Africa CSO COVID-19 Survey results point to the challenges these organisers are facing. A total of 1015 CSOs from 44 African countries participated between 28 April and 15 May 2020.
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These are some of the findings:
• 98% of respondents confirmed that they had been adversely affected;
• 55.69% have already experienced a loss of funding, while 66.46% expect to lose funding in the next 3 to 6 months;
• 49.87% have introduced measures to reduce costs because of the loss of funding, or the uncertainty about future funding;
• 77.97% of respondents indicated that COVID-19 would have a devastating impact on the sustainability of many CSOs.
• The majority of respondents (84.48%) confirmed that they were not prepared to cope with the disruption caused by the pandemic.
• 69.34% had to reduce or cancel their operations, while 54.94% expect this to continue over the next 3 to 6 months.
Many queer organisers felt the very same struggle, if not slightly more, as many are small and underfunded. Are we aware of how queer communities across the continent have been affected? Of what support they need? Where their most urgent challenges lie? Where are the queer organisers in this work? How do we begin to understand the impact of the pandemic on our communities when they are subject to erasure?
Bella Matambanadzo has reported on this, highlighting how the LGBT community in Zimbabwe has been adversely affected by the lack of reliable and affordable social services and utilities, which has resulted in community members being forcibly removed from their homes during lockdown. Many organisers have not been able to continue their advocacy and outreach work during lockdown periods, with many staff members losing their jobs due to a lack of funding. Survey participants in Zambia spoke on challenges around employment as queer people, with intensifying concern surrounding mental health overwhelming small organisations.
Through speaking to queer organisers and activists from Uganda, Namibia, Ghana and Zambia all these concerns and challenges are clear across regions. All of these countries faced various levels of lockdown in the past few months as governments dealt with the pandemic. With the African Union having estimated in April 2020 that close to 20 million jobs were at risk, these organisers have faced larger numbers of community members requiring aid, while working with significantly smaller budgets to do so.
Executive Director of Wings to Transcend Namibia (WTN), Madame Jholerina Timbo, also points to the issues around reporting and statistics. She noticed that when the Minister of Health, Kalumbi Shangula, reported new COVID-19 statistics he would often segment the positive cases within the gender binary, leaving out a huge proportion of the queer community, and in this way continuing to reify gender essentialism.
"Where does that place me as atransgender person who is not recognised in this country? That means all my data goes to male. So that means I am further invisibilised by this system. We get tested and our data is captured wrong. Even when cases would come out people would be asking the specific trans person: ‘So did they put your data under male or female?’ My ID document doesn’t affirm my gender identity. And when they have to report it they’re going to say this number of males and this number of females. So they’re obviously going to because of my legal documents throw me [in] the deep end with the males. These things add strain and stress on top of what we have to deal with as transgender people in this country. There is a gross violation and erasure of our existences as trans people in this country."
Timbo’s work at WTN includes advocating and lobbying for equal rights for trans citizens in Namibia. Her work includes raising awareness and visibility of the community within the country, deconstructing the gender binary and providing people with information on the complexities of gender. Within the queer community, Timbo first began her work in an effort to highlight the presence of trans people in Namibia, she has continued/expanded on this by raising awareness on gender affirming healthcare, gender recognition and reform of legislation that would allow the trans community to amend their documentation without facing abuse. These realities that trans people continually face were exacerbated by the pandemic. WTN’s funding was cut drastically in 2020, with funders taking months to respond to confirmed funds being transferred:
“We cannot even take care of ourselves. So how do we take care of our community?” Timbo asked rhetorically. “If I can’t even put bread on my table, if I can’t pay the rent on our office to keep our doors open, how do we go on? I’m struggling to buy airtime and data to stay in contact with our communities. We were kicked out of our offices by a partner organisation even when we told them we had no funds. It feels as though the whole partnership was a lie because this is when we need help most. We’ve learnt the hard way who we can rely on for support. So when we are also incapacitated and affected adversely – financially, emotionally, psychologically – I can’t buy essentials for myself and my staff members. I was trying to be strong but it’s a struggle."
Based in Ghana, Kemet Queen* volunteers at Sisters of the Heart, a queer organisation formed with the sole purpose of advocating for the rights of Ghana’s LGBT community. Queen stated that the organisation works mainly with LBQ women, empowering them economically and educating them on human rights issues. Part of their programme is also caring for the ill, those without family or support networks and workshopping around issues of sexuality, policing and getting work:
“It’s been a very difficult year,” Queen stated, “We had so many problems with funders. Everyone is just doing what they can to keep working. Lockdown was intense, our Whatsapp group became very active because we couldn’t run our usual workshops. We’ve been doing everything online, just trying our best to keep the community happy during this time – it felt like we achieved something if someone was happy with us.”
Queen noted that the police in Ghana have been taking advantage of lockdown, violating and harming many women within their group. They’re having to deal with the realities of COVID-19, along with poverty, gender-based violence and unemployment. Even with all this, their members have been in urgent need of spaces where they can simply exist/feel safe, and be away from homophobic violence. She feels that they need a physical space, a space in which their members who are not accepted in their homes, with homophobic family members who attack them, can come to feel safe and secure. Where they can read books, listen to music and watch queer films. Queen provided comment on this, “We need these spaces for LBQ people, so we can just exist in a safe space, where I know I’m okay and so is my mental health.”
The Anglophone West African LBQT Research Collective’s 2019 study on the needs of LBQ women and trans people in Ghana emphasised the lack of research on the health needs of the queer community.
“Considering the myriad of problems facing LBQT communities, it is safe to infer that achievement of the UN 2030 Agenda – Sustainable Development Goals, which the countries studied are a party to, will face significant obstacles as there is no mention of LGBT persons in the targets and indicators. There are no means of measuring government compliance of rights protection of people who do not conform to sexual heteronormativity, and achieving the promise of ‘leaving no one behind,’ as espoused by this document signed by these countries.”
This has also been the focus of Hajjati Abdul Jamal, director of Rainbow Mirrors Uganda. The organisation is led by trans women and sex workers, advocating for their respective rights in the country. The organisation focuses on resource mobilisation for the communities, running an economic empowerment program, hosting dialogues and providing health and legal services. Their work has also been struggling this year with the limited amount of funding accessible due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jamal provided insight into the experiences of queer Ugandans who have been arrested at safe houses for breaking the National Standard Operating Procedures, due to there being too many individuals occupying/seeking refuge in safe houses. Many of these queer people have nowhere else to go, having been kicked out of home, or without homes at all, and for simply trying to find a safe place to live they have been held in jail for up to 3 months.
In a conversation with AfroQueer podcast, Adrian Jjuuko, lawyer and director of The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum spoke on how he defended 19 homeless gay, bisexual and trans youth who were detained for 50 days for living in a shelter. Many of the sex workers Jamal works with have also faced immense amounts of violence from clients who do not pay them, many blackmailing or abusing them. Some of these workers end up arrested because they have to walk home from meeting with clients, therefore facing danger on dark roads, sleeping at residential gates or facing police when found walking outside past curfew. All three of these organisers have declared how devastating the pandemic has been for their work within their communities, made worse by the majority of their funding having been pulled or significantly decreased this year. Jamal commented:
“We have no core funding so we’ve lost staff members because we couldn’t pay them, we’ve been challenged a lot. We no longer have a space where our members can come and receive their services and medications. The work hasn’t been easy, we’ve tried reaching out to so many partners but they haven’t been able to help. We’ve had to prioritise health and legal services the most – to make sure our members still have their medication and helping those who have gotten arrested.”
Timba, Queen and Jamal’s organisations are not the only ones feeling this funding strain as highlighted in the Africa CSO COVID-19 Survey results. Based in Zambia, Lovemore Mupanta, a trans non-binary person and coordinator of Queer Talk Africa (QTA), a podcast that tackles topics including sexual assault, criminalisation, being trans and non-binary, heteronormativity and being in the closet. QTA aims to change narratives around LGBTQIA+ people in Africa. Mupanta utilised this platform because they felt that this was a great time to start looking for connections in our regional movements, have more collective conversations about the issues we’re facing as the continental queer community, and attempt to imagine advocacy that doesn’t rely as heavily on funding from the Global North.
“Sometimes we do this work because we are moved,” Mupanta said. “Other times we get caught up with grant and funder issues, trying to meet all the donor expectations and end up losing the direction we want to go in. We find ourselves going in the direction that the donors and funders want us to go in and do those projects for years before we realise that it’s not what we really want and not what our purpose is. So we must understand that activism is collective.”
After realising that activists often feel that the best way for them to affect change is to start an initiative, hold huge meetings and start applying for funding – QTA instead decided to use digital media as a way to achieve activism and advocacy that is banded together across the continent. They envision QTA being a body that fights for queer rights, pushes for policy reform and changes social narratives, not just in one country, but across the African continent.
In a recent QTA episode there is an open discussion around mental health in the LGBTQI+ community. Freddy, a contributor to the podcast, discusses this: “There’s a conversation that’s been going on in Zambia around mental health issues, a few organisations are speaking more about anxiety and depression when you’re living with family or friends that aren’t accepting. There’s already so much uncertainty around employment, there’s the uncertainty of the virus, we don’t know when the economy will get back to normal, so people just don’t know what they’re going to do.”
South African non-profit organisation, Queerwell creates awareness around mental health care within the queer community, linking those in need to accessible professional mental health providers. Their website speaks candidly about depression and suicide, ensuring that we have an understanding of the issues many of us struggle with silently. Interviewed by OkayAfrica, Leone Kakazi*, a mental health advocate in Rwanda speaks about their experiences:
“Growing up with all those identities being gaslit and being hurt just for being different, it occurred to me that I would... It didn’t occur to me, I literally attempted suicide twice. But, the second time I was like, ‘Hey, clearly, I’m not doing a good job in dying so I might as well just do something about it.’ So I came home to Rwanda, I found that we have 11 or 12 psychiatrists working in the public sector for a population of 13 million. I found that, despite that, there’s relative support and you’re not going to be killed for being gay, which is what Uganda, the country I was in, did. And so I sought help, I joined an organisation called Yanco Rwanda, which is religious-based of course, but supports mental health, does a little peer counselling. And from that, I found my goal and I found my passion and that’s why now I advocate for mental health in a wider context, but some of my deepest, deeply held passions are mental health for minority populations that include LGBTQ and women, black women. I’m very passionate about black women.”
Psychological and mental health support is a dire need for many of these organisers, who often have to care for communities with little support to keep them going. They are painfully aware of the issues their communities face, juggling these needs with their own, all the while imagining healthier futures for us all.
Other queer orgnisers echoed this sentiment. Jamal’s work at Rainbow Mirrors Uganda includes psychosocial support for the community, specifically offering Saturday sessions where members link and talk through their challenges. They also offer a toll-free line that allows the community to access counselling sessions and refer them to partners that can offer other free services should they need them. Queen, from Sisters of the Heart in Ghana, noted that 2020 was especially difficult on her mental health, in total lockdown she struggled with not going anywhere and experienced panic attacks. It was especially hard for her to access support because mental health was not taken seriously, with many people saying that her anxiety is “un-African”, that she’s being dramatic, and as a result would often keep her struggles to herself. Timbo, of Wings to Transcend Namibia, shared similar thoughts:
“I haven’t been doing well,” Timbo shared. “Even though I’ve been strong in front of everybody, not having someone to talk to about everything happening is hard. I would break down and cry because I can’t do that in front of my community and staff members. I can’t show that the ship is sinking. Most people look at us in the street and say, ‘You people are so strong, you have a no-nonsense attitude. But when we get home and close that door we fall apart. That is the time that your demons are busy with you. That is the time that everything comes rushing back because now you are in a quiet place, your mind has settled. That’s when your mind starts grappling with the realities that you have been facing throughout the day, right? That leads to depression, that leads to suicide, that leads to so many other issues. Even though you might have food at home, if you are psychologically and mentally battling, there’s no appetite to eat, so that also affects your physical health and well-being, so all of these things.”
Despite the challenges, the Africa CSO COVID-19 Survey results highlighted that many CSO’s feel optimistic about the future: 45.06% of respondents felt that they would come out of the pandemic stronger and 68.08% felt that the pandemic would result in more appreciation for their work. These small organisations and their independent organisers are struggling and need support and appreciation, they are vital in keeping our communities safe and feeling held, and they cannot achieve this without help.
*Pseudonym used to preserve the interviewee’s anonymity
Please be sure to reach out to these organisations (details below) directly should you be willing and able to support their work financially. Every little bit counts.
Queerwell is a South African based and focused NPO that aims to provide mental health care and support to the LGBTIQ+ community. Donate here.
Rainbow Mirrors Uganda (RMU) is a non-governmental organisation that was established to support and enable young trans women sex workers. They aim to create programmes and influence policies in the areas of gender, sexuality, health, and education. Contact them on email to find out how to donate/support.
Sisters of the Heart is a group that focuses on fighting for the rights of Ghana’s LGBT community. Find them on Facebook.
Wings to Transcend Namibia (WTN) is a non-governmental organisation that advocates and lobbies for equity and inclusion of transgender people in Namibia. Find them on Facebook or contact them on email to find out how to donate/support.
Tshegofatso Senne is a Black, queer, feminist writer, speaker and digital content creator based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes and speaks on issues concerning feminism, sexual and reproductive health and pleasure, healing, social justice and pop culture. Senne’s writing has appeared in Mail & Guardian Friday, New Frame, The Citizen, MTV Shuga and W24. She does youth work across the country and hosts workshops focusing on consent and rape culture as well as kink and BDSM.
StudioStudioWorkWork is a multi disciplinary studio for art, research, design and project management.
This piece was commissioned by GALA as part of the Queer Lockdown project. It was sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) with funds from the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The content of this piece is the sole responsibility of the GALA Queer Archive and author and does not necessarily reflect a position of RLS.