Interview with the Coalition of African Lesbians on a communal, solidarity-based approach to wellbeing

The Coalition of African Lesbians is a feminist, activist and pan-Africanist network of 14 organisations in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa committed to advancing freedom, justice and bodily autonomy for all women on the African continent and beyond. Towards the end of 2020, CAL published the third issue of African Feminist Standpoint, which was focused on wellness, care and healing, titled “Breathe In.” The publication included a wide range of articles, poems, opinions and personal essays written largely by and for African women. The Coalition has also recently worked with LBQ women’s organisations and collectives in Benin, Rwanda and Tunisia to produce research on wellness and wellbeing of LBQ women in these three countries. Here, we speak to three CAL secretariat team members - Amanda Hodgeson, Botho Maruatona and Nozizwe Ntesang - about the impetus for this work.   


SRI: Why has CAL prioritised well-being as an area of work? 

CAL: Wellbeing has been on the ‘feminist radar’ for some time now. We have seen activists like Jessica Horn and Melissa Wainana write about and organize around wellbeing beyond some of the mainstream ideas and language we may have been exposed to, like self-care and self-help. These feminists have, for example, critiqued western therapeutic models and ideals that have largely focused on wellness and wellbeing from a very individualistic place. They have done some of the work in locating wellbeing as something that is and can be personal, yes, and which also cannot be separated from institutions and structures of oppression that keep us disempowered and disenfranchised, and, essentially, unwell. The idea of the African Feminist Standpoint issue on wellbeing very much came from our engagement with such work.

The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as CAL’s own internal musings about how well we felt as individual workers in a feminist civil society organisation, and the greater impact of this on our movement building and advocacy efforts, further solidified our desire to engage our community, feminist activists and organisers, in how we were thinking about what it means and looks like to be well, and to challenge and find solutions to the things that make us unwell. 

Covid-19 restrictions on travel and movement gave us an opportunity to slow down and to truly introspect on internal processes and mechanisms, and on what wellbeing can look like for us as workers. But perhaps on a greater scale it further highlighted the necessity for CAL to very intentionally coordinate its advocacy, movement building, research and media work to, yes, respond to the ways the pandemic has affected the ways we can and can’t move and organise, but to really embody the realisation that, essentially, all the work we do is directed at making sure we exist in societies and communities that foster and promote our wellbeing. As Varyanne Sika so poignantly pointed out, “When feminists fight against violence against women, or fight for economic empowerment, or environmental conservation and care, or mere freedom to do whatever they please with their bodies, what they’re saying is we want to be well, we want the people around us to be well, and we want to live in a society that is deliberately invested in the well-being of everyone.”   


SRI: It seems like the impetus for this focus was a combination of internal considerations and the need to respond to the external context. And then of course, there was the pandemic. How did the pandemic affect CAL’s work on wellbeing and the publication itself?

CAL: We had, of course, already started thinking about wellbeing in terms of our ways of working -- internally as a feminist organisation and externally through our advocacy and movement building work. Aside from the way in which Covid forced us to slow down even further and gave us the time and space to do this internal work, it also showed clearly and directly the failures of the health, safety and security systems generally and how these disproportionately impacted on the communities CAL works with. It was very clear that these communities were not being prioritised or even thought about in responses to the pandemic. 

Our members in Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe and other countries ended up being the ones to play the role of the state to provide for basic resources, such as food, shelter, mental health care, etc., to queer persons and women living with HIV during a time where the state was preoccupied with measures to fight Covid in ways that continuously marginalised different groups of people with every intervention. Despite the scarcity of resources, on top of institutionalised exclusion, our members were forced to stretch their already strained budgets to do this work, because their primary scope of work is not to provide food supplies.

Another area of critical engagement was with the concept of family as ‘security’. The loss of jobs due to lockdowns forced many of our constituents and members to move back home with families that are discriminatory and abusive, meaning that people had to hide their identities (which even made advocacy work difficult because online work/calls exposed people to even more danger due to shared space) and some folks had to even find safer ways to take their ART so as to not expose their status, thereby rendering themselves vulnerable to victimisation; the entire principle of autonomy and integrity could not be realised under such circumstances. Another great hurdle was in accessing health care services (including mental health) for queer persons and women living with HIV specifically; restrictions on movement and the prioritisation of “essential” services that for a period did not include conclusive plans for people to access ART medicines or any other forms of health care added another layer of anxiety on top of the panic and confusion around Covid. Movement permits that were largely availed through online platforms or required one to go to a government office (past armed military tanks and armed police), which can be triggering for our members, given the experiences of queer bodies with police brutality and arbitrary arrests, cemented the lack of consideration in states’ Covid responses and made holistic wellbeing within a pandemic a more complicated issue than just staying “safe” in order to not get infected by Covid. 

The most important thing was how, as an organisation, we could support our members through this understanding of the prioritization of bodies that do not resemble them and their experiences and in ensuring that the most realistic approach was to provide for basic needs so that people were able to build community around the process of sharing and providing food packages, creating safe spaces for themselves through online group therapy sessions and finding psychologists who were willing to assist folks on tight funds that had to be redirected from other initiatives.


SRI: Wellbeing can mean many different things in different contexts. How does CAL approach wellbeing and how does this differ from mainstream understandings of wellbeing?

Initially, in our quest to delve into the subject matter of wellbeing and wellness, we mistakenly used the two words interchangeably. Now, we only use the term wellbeing. This is because ‘wellbeing’ refers to the more holistic aspect of one’s life rather than just the physical health, which is what ‘wellness’ tends to encompass. It was important for us to recognise and appreciate that people’s welfare is affected by so much more than physical health, so many intangible factors like racism, sexism, patriarchy and capitalism that disproportionately affect LBQ women, activists and human rights defenders mobilising on the continent. Our hope is that these groups of people are holistically well. 


Having said that, defining wellbeing has not been easy. This is because the term is used in multiple fields of study and can therefore mean different things to different people. We narrowed the focus of wellbeing to the wellbeing of those like us -- LBQ women, activists and human rights defenders on the continent. Our research was conducted through a rapid literature and desktop review of available material on the subject matter and the specific focus. We are very cognisant of how capitalism has infiltrated the wellbeing discourse and has painted a particular image of what it looks like -- #selfcaresunday, going to the spa, face masks, etc., and while all of these are wholesome, we wanted to dig deeper than that. 


Our working and interim definition of wellbeing is borrowed from numerous scholars such as Ryff, Dodge and Thorburn, and many others. We view wellbeing as the concoction and equilibrium of life satisfaction, growth and autonomy, a sense of belonging, material possessions, an income and a sustainable environment. This definition is indicative of wellbeing not being a stand-alone event but rather a culmination of various aspects of our lives. We also view wellbeing as both an individual and collective effort. 


SRI: Can you share a bit more about the research CAL supported on the wellbeing of LBQ women and WHRDs in Tunisia, Benin and Rwanda? Was it easy to arrive at the same understanding of wellbeing with members in these countries? Was there any resistance to or departure from your definition of wellbeing?


Towards the end of 2020, we hosted a wellbeing webinar with various queer folks, activists and members of collectives in our focus countries -- Benin, Tunisia and Rwanda. It was an opportunity to showcase the research on wellbeing that had been conducted by the collectives in their own countries and additionally to get a sense from other activists on the continent on what wellbeing looked and felt like to them. Many spoke about the layered experience of oppression and its impact on health and wellbeing and how the very systems and programs set up to deliver health and wellbeing were themselves exclusionary and added to ill-health, disease, inequality, loneliness, stress and, ultimately, death. Activists spoke about the impact of the lack of space, time and resources available to prioritise their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those they work with. What was evident from the webinar was not a resistance but rather a shared sentiment of exhaustion amongst the activists and a resilient commitment to radically changing and improving the wellbeing discourse in Africa. There is a shared desire to reconstruct the ways in which we perceive wellbeing and to lean towards a more communal, solidarity-based approach. 

In future, we do plan to conduct more research on wellbeing particularly in Africa. This research is only a preliminary study which we hope to continuously expand on from varying and imperative angles. We are currently working on the report itself and a wellbeing toolkit for feminist activists and organisations in Africa. We hope that the knowledge produced from this research can form an integral part of wellbeing jurisprudence on the continent but also that the work can be used as an advocacy and lobbying tool across the continent. 


SRI: Understanding the connections between the individual and the collective, and among the personal, institutional and structural dimensions of social justice work, is critical for thinking about wellbeing but this understanding can be challenging to apply in day-to-day work on wellbeing. What have been the challenges CAL has faced in taking this more holistic and ecological approach to wellbeing? 

CAL: It is a challenge and it even starts with ourselves; it's so easy to fall into individualistic conceptions of wellbeing. Capitalism is so powerful. When we think about wellbeing and what causes us to be unwell, we name the systems and structures and then when we start discussing ways of addressing this, we fall back into individual practices which are so often profoundly classed, gendered and ableist. This led us to think about alternatives. 

And all the time we have to be wary of the kinds of hierarchies that are created between these categories. In some contexts, we see how the individual’s wellbeing is viewed as less important than the community’s or the collective’s needs and therefore the individual is seen as being in service of the collective. This logic completely undermines an individual's ability to live and act with autonomy in their own lives. And we have seen how this plays out in particularly harmful ways for women and queer people. 

There are other hierarchies and tensions created between the different elements of wellbeing - physical, mental, sexual, material, etc., that we also have to pay attention to and attempt to dismantle in our work, such as the idea that the physical must precede the mental, and only far down the line is sexual wellbeing... and this is often viewed as a luxury. 


You can find CAL’s publications here.