– Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja
A queer masculinity refers to countless ways in which gender can be performed and experienced beyond dominant heteronormative and homonormative expressions. It refers to the expression and performance of gender that is fluid, plural and radically reimagined. A queer masculinity can be embodied beyond LGBTIQ+ bodies, meaning that even heterosexual men or women can also embody and identify with queering masculinities. It is however significant to note that queerness is not just about deviating and subverting from normativity, it is also an expression of love. Queer modes of knowledge production have a lot to do with the pursuit of love and freedom, even beyond the work of gender. Critical Pedagogue Paulo Freire teaches us that, “Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation.” I think of love and queer masculinities in these Freirean terms highlighting how struggles are shared and solidarity has everything to do with love. African Queer praxis is an additional ideological stance and method in solidarity with African Feminisms, Black Consciousness, pan-Africanism and critical race praxis in the work of social justice for all people of the world. Love is the guiding principle.
I was born in 1987, in apartheid South West Africa. This means that I am part of a generation of young men and women who witnessed and experienced post-apartheid elation and the early days of big promises of ‘One Namibia, one Nation’. I received an education in both post-apartheid Namibia and South Africa. We know that Namibian nationalist ideas have never been inclusive of the LGBTIQ+ community. We have learned this over and again, as we encountered and reclaimed our queer selves and queer histories. More evidence of this is the Namibian government’s recent withdrawal from Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE).
1987 is also a year in which specific Black men whom I love passed on. These men are Namibian visual artist John Ndevasia Muafangejo (1943-1987), American novelist, essayist, poet, and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987), Burkinabé socialist revolutionary Thomas Sankara (1949-1987), and Zimbabwean writer and poet Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987). All these revolutionary men may not have identified as queer, but I recognize queer resonances and possibilities in their artistic-activist work and lives. Their work includes traces and remnants of loving fearlessly and unapologetically. Muafangejo’s print Forcible Love (1974) traces his own queerness as a black artist from Owambo and Katutura. This is an autobiographic print in which Muafangejo narrates and visualizes his community’s pressure on ‘a beautiful girl’ to be in love with him. Muafangejo expressed that he is not romantically interested and therefore focuses on his art and educational work. He portrays himself in one frame in this print, deeply engaged in his work, making it impossible for him to fall into his society’s expectation. In this print, he narrates ‘The frankly artist is busy cutting linoleum and etching without fear and worried’. This is Muafangejo rejecting Oshiwambo compulsory heterosexuality by choosing his passion and therefore choosing love over fear. This very labour of love, which is deeply personal and intimate, is a useful example of an African queer masculinity. This love ethic, as feminist author bell hooks would call it, is what African queer scholar Keguro Macharia would refer to as hygienic love. A kind of love that begins with self and its heart’s desires, as opposed to the colonial and African normative expectations of masculinity. Muafangejo sustained this love ethic until the time of his death at the age of 47, when he was still an unmarried man without children of his own. He however left a legacy behind that teaches us about love and more.
And then there was Dambudzo Marechera, another lover, a radical lover. He was a complex man whose misogynist values can be traced in his work even though his radical imagination remains unmatched. I would like to think that queer sites in Marechera’s work and life remain underexplored in interpretations of his work. This makes it both easy and difficult to love him and his work. However, in an interview with Flora Veit-Wild in December 1984, this is what he said about love, “You know, love is so inward for me. It is so centripetal, it invites all that is around me to the centre of my own soul, and I usually find that when I have to express love for somebody, I cannot say anything whatsoever.“. This excerpt is one of many expressions of Marechera in which he shows us his vulnerability and availability to love the other *** just as he is also voicing the way that patriarchy silences men’s ability to be productive in the healthy articulation of their emotions. Instead this wordsmith finds himself at a loss for words, cut off from the means of connection that could anchor him to others, to reciprocal love rather than “centripetal” love. In this paradoxical way*** Marechera expresses the inexplicability of love by highlighting its intricate nature and contested politics. It is reminiscent of James Baldwin’s positioning of love as always pertaining to struggle. Balwin writes, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle. Love is a war. Love is growing up”. James Baldwin is a celebrated queer ancestor in the global LGBTIQ+ community for his courageous writing and commitment to the work of social justice. We often turn to Baldwin as queer folks, as a way of reclaiming pan-African queer histories, which are often shaky because of the erasure they have endured. Queer histories are also slippery all together because they refuse conventions and sameness.
Through his concept of the Upright Man, Thomas Sankara teaching us to love women by pointing to inclusive notions of solidarity. In fact, he asserts that for this to happen, we as men must recognize that we have a duty to work towards to liberation of all women. We must recognize our privilege as enabled by patriarchy and use it to support and strengthen feminist work. Sankara writes;
“Women’s fate is bound up with that of an exploited male. However, this solidarity must not blind us in looking at the specific situation faced by womenfolk in our society. It is true that the woman worker and simple man are exploited economically, but the worker wife is also condemned further to silence by her worker husband. This is the same method used by men to dominate other men! The idea was crafted that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by ‘divine rights’, were superior to others”.
The kind of love we learn from Sankara is a feminist love. This is close to queer love because queer people resonate with it. Sankara’s feminist ideas are significant because they stand out from the gender-insensitivity of many historic African liberation struggle leaders.
I look up to Muafangejo, Sankara, Baldwin and Marechera because of the lessons they have left behind for me as an African man looking to embody and perform a healthy and queer masculinity. I love them. By thinking of their work as sites of African queer possibility and life, I am not saying they were not problematic men, I think they all had shortcomings, but their work has the potential to help us generate contemporary African queer masculinity.
Namibian musician Chantell Diolini /Uiras and I wrote Ongovela (melody), a song about love as a mode of solidarity. I dedicate this song to these four men for teaching us how to be free. We sing this song to all women, expressing our commitment to the struggle. We sing ‘You are my Ocean’ for all the men finding the courage to love and be loved. We sing to remind you and ourselves of the words of James Baldwin, “Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?”. Cheers, to queer love and freedom!
Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja is a #ShutItAllDownNamibia Protester and PhD artist at the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, University of Cape Town.