Kholoud Bidak is an African philanthropist who has worked since 2002 with minorities and oppressed groups through NGOs and collectives in different areas of the world. She addresses topics such as women’s issues, gender, sexuality, well-being, and the environment through art, writings or self-expressing methods.
Doing the work we do in activism, whether through NGOs, art, community organizing, or any other frame, the issue of wellbeing remains one of the greatest challenges that we almost never address! In the past 16 years—the time I have been active in the human rights field and in organizing communities—I have lost a lot of colleagues, comrades and friends. This may be due to the lack of medical care or for hard circumstances of life or the revolution or suicide or burnout or for some other various reasons. On December 16th, 1988, my friend Jacobus Witbooi was born; he passed away on November 24th, 2016, after being hospitalized for a couple of weeks. It’s very shocking how we continue to lose great minds and wonderful people and nothing really changes. But then it’s the same with poverty, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, pollution, war, Trump…etc! Nothing changes. Some people keep fighting to change the world for the better, while much of the population is not even capable of grasping the idea.
Convening this roundtable for ArtsEverywhere presented an opportunity to share the point of view of some people who care about changing ideologies of oppression through their work; we were very keen to share the voices of African/coloured, artists/activists, gender non-conforming individuals, women, lesbians.
The issue of wellbeing is one of our main challenges in the work of activism, either for those who work with NGOs, art, community organizing, or any other channel. It gets more complicated if a person still struggles for essential needs and rights.
On November 24th, 2016 we lost a friend/comrade/colleague to the lack of physical wellbeing. My friend Jacobus got sick and in a matter of weeks he passed. A person who is black, non cishet, queer, and fighting for the rights of similar people and of every person who’s different and not accepted by their communities!
I dedicate this issue of wellbeing in memory of Jacobus Witbooi.
Author Coumba Touré comes from Mali and Senegal, in West Africa. With Muu-So, she has crafted a tale of the beauty of the process of creation and how it is also necessary to closely care for and love that which we are responsible for.
This fatigue in my shoulders? I would like to free myself from it momentarily, now and then, but I know that it is not only due to the heavy sack that I haul or the children that I carry. It is not only due to the many messages that need replies, the work I must perform daily, or the phone calls from those hoping for my help, time, money, information, or a contact. No, I know that it is not just family, parents, friends, neighbours, comrades. It is not only due to those young men and women with eyes full of hope.
This fatigue in my back lessens a bit each time I steal a moment’s respite and meditate. But even while at rest, a flurry of vexing questions return:
What can be done about the injustices we witness?
What can be done about the sexism of men?
What can be done about the racism of white people?
What can be done about the centuries of exploitation that enriches fifty people to the detriment of half the world’s population?
What can be done about our politics?
What can be done?
I know that my wellbeing does not exist in isolation, does not have to do with me alone. I know that my life is connected to many others, and my wellbeing is as well…
Thank you Aishah, Emezhi, Pia, Rokhaya, and Adama for having shared a bit of your life’s journey.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, published writer, international lecturer, and activist. She is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. An associate editor of the online publication, The Feminist Wire, Aishah is the creator of the Ford Foundation-funded film NO! The Rape Documentary and the #LoveWITHAccountability project.
Aishah Shahida Simmons
For several years, I seriously struggled with feeling like I was on two concurrent tracks. The first track is my almost twenty-five-year social justice AfroLez®femcentric cultural work, which focuses on ending adult rape through my film NO! The Rape Documentary, ending child sexual abuse through my project #LoveWITHAccountability, and Black Feminist Queer Visibility. The second simultaneous track is my twenty-four year self-care work with a licensed clinical Black feminist psychologist and my fourteen-year spiritual work through vipassana meditation. I grapple with my deep and profound sadness with how the conservative right wing of the United States has co-opted religion and spirituality to the point where many of us who are in the trenches of radical compassionate social justice activist work are extremely leery of anything that resembles spirituality and/or religion. In the past, I, too, was extremely resistant to integrating spirituality into activist work for fear that it would dilute the “real” issues at hand. As an incest and rape survivor, I’ve come to understand that both tracks holistically support each other and me on my journey called life. I do not believe I could have one without the other.
Over the past multi-decades (dare I say centuries), in the name of liberation, diasporic African/Black women have been consistently covertly and overtly encouraged to put our literal selves on the back burner for the sake of the “greater” cause, however it is defined, and by whomever is defining it. I have read about and personally witnessed too many diasporic African/Black women literally sacrifice their bodies and spirits for righteous causes and work, which they believed in and fully supported in their countries, throughout the African diaspora, and in the world. Toni Cade Bambara the late Black U.S. feminist author, cultural worker, organizer, and one of my teachers asked, in her award-winning 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters, the prophetic question: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” I ask myself this question consistently because my spiritually based activist/cultural work, which centralizes the societal margins, is not easy and takes a toll on the totality on my very being. I firmly believe that freedom, liberation in every sense of the word, equality, and justice for all must include components of mental/psychological, spiritual, psychic, emotional, and physical wellness.
How can we transform the world, if we ourselves are not transformed? I’m most interested in the wellness of not only the community from which I come but for all communities, especially those of color. Life experiences have taught me as a cultural worker that I must focus on my own self-care so that I may continue to compassionately, holistically, and lovingly carry out the radical social change work that I believe I was called to do in this lifetime. What used to be negotiable on my journey called life is moving towards being completely non-negotiable. I fully understand that I can’t live without my life; and my work can never be healthier than I am. If self-care is not included in a (wo)mandate for freedom and liberation for all, I do not believe we can be fully effective with our calling and mission to make this world more humane for all its inhabitants. We cannot continue to be violent with how we treat ourselves and each other, while working towards achieving compassionately radical peace and compassionate justice. We must mirror the change we want to see in this world.
 Coined in 1990 by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, AfroLez®femcentric defines the cultural conscious role of women who identify as Afrocentric, Lesbian, and Feminist.
Akwaeke Emezi is based in liminal spaces and works in fiction, memoir, experimental shorts, and video art. Her debut novel, FRESHWATER, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic in the winter of 2018. See more at www.akwaeke.com.
It takes such work to be well.
I think one of the hardest steps is even realizing that you’re unwell in the first place—that something is wrong with your state of being. After that realization comes the process of teaching yourself that you don’t have to stay that way, that you don’t deserve to stay that way, and that whoever told you it was okay to suffer because everyone else does was wrong. I was raised to be excellent in school and to work hard on achieving excellence in my studies, not in my wellbeing. I think many other people are raised, as I was, without that focus on wellness. This is why it’s crucial to have a community of people who prioritize being well and are willing to support you as you work towards it—this is why I see wellness as a communal goal, a feedback loop of people emphasizing self-care and affirming each other.
Even after the work of “getting well,” which is a constant and shifting target, there is additional work to keep being well. There is no magical summit where you can stop and say, “This is it! I am well! Finally, I’m done.” I’ve felt guilty several times because once I was starting to feel well, it also felt as if I had no right to feel okay when so many people around me weren’t. Society does nothing to help with this—it’s commonplace for people to bond over suffering, to socialize by detailing stress and struggle, and if you don’t have that community of people focused on being well, it’s easy to encounter resentment when you don’t partake in the culture of being unwell. I’ve had to tell myself often, “it’s okay to be okay. It’s okay if they call you selfish.” Frankly, I think we are the best versions of ourselves when we prioritize our own wellbeing.
It’s also important to realize that wellbeing isn’t static. I have considerable neurodivergence—or in more pathological terms, I have major chronic depression, an anxiety disorder, and a dissociative disorder. On most days, I am well, but on some days, I am not. It’s been a few years since I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and I’ve always thought that it was a little sad that the only way I was able to focus on my wellbeing was by realizing my options had boiled down to this—either I am well, or I am dead. Now, I must always be careful, because no matter how well I am, the window of a bad panic attack is all the space I need in which to die. Perhaps my standards for wellbeing are stark as a result of this, but my wellbeing involves daily questions like “What do I need to do today so that I don’t feel like being dead?” and “How can I stay engaged in the act of living?”
A large part of sustaining my wellness is creating a bubble around me that acts as a safe space. As a queer neurodivergent African, I can’t engage with a world that is hostile to my very being. I have immense respect for those who do so in resistance, and I believe that understanding the limits or reaches of our capacities is crucial for our wellbeing. We all have different roles to play, we all fit in different spaces, and as such, the range of what we need for our wellbeing is vast and varied. If we are fighting for other people to be okay, though, we need to remember that we are worth being okay too, and prioritize that.
Kagure Mugo is the intoxicatingly scary gatekeeper of HOLAAfrica, an online Pan African queer womanist community dealing with sexuality and all things woman. She is also a writer, digital and social media consultant, and freelance journalist who tackles sex, politics, and other less interesting topics. On weekends she is a wine bar philosopher and polymath for no pay.
The idea of wellbeing is tricky to say the least. When people say that we must engage in wellbeing, it suddenly becomes a hot topic. Everyone has an idea of what it should be and often it seems tied into ideas such as going to a spa day or lounging at the beach. It becomes the idea of living a good life and then the debate kicks in about how there are only some who deserve or have access to wellbeing. This essentially shuts down the conversation around wellbeing as it becomes something linked to a privilege, something that many artists and activists do not feel that they can engage with.
I have heard and read, from activists especially, that there is simply no time or money to engage in self-care. This notion is tied up into extremely limited notions of what wellbeing is and who deserves it. It is made out to be very much tied into access to resources, however wellbeing is about the little things as well as the big things.
People often forget that something as small (and cheap) as hanging out with friends, having your partner rub your head whilst listening to music, switching off your phone for two days, or even ignoring Twitter for a month all form a part of wellbeing. Cooking yourself a good meal or even missing out on that one march is just as effective as a week sipping cocktails. Wellbeing is based on the notion that the world will not end if you take five minutes. It will not come to a crashing halt and it will not be all your fault.
Relinquishing the guilt of wanting to take care of yourself and taking care of yourself are key elements of wellbeing. It is not about the how but the actual doing. Allowing yourself this space will allow you to also think about what it is you need. Spas and expensive cocktails are nice, but they may not be what you need. When you place yourself in focus, then you can be properly self-aware.
Taking the time to be self-aware is not something that is open to women, especially women of colour. We are wrapped in the idea of being super woman and selfless to the extent that when we aren’t, we are met with a visceral reaction for messing with the way things are. Brown women are meant to give.
The notion of wellbeing is one that comes with a great deal of stigma as an African woman, an activist, and even a young person. It comes with the notion of being self-indulgent, part of the millennial/western thinking that people must work themselves to the bone to prove their worth.
There is no notion of deserving self-care/wellbeing because it goes back to the quantification of one’s time and labour. The notion of who “deserves” it is linked to the idea of how much you’ve done and where you’ve done it. The problem is that to state that some deserve it and some do not allows for arbitrary and often external factors to limit the amount in which we engage in wellbeing. We start to think “Will X think that we have done enough? Will this project show that I deserve self-care? Will achieving something in my advocacy, helping pass a bill, helping three hundred women?” But it never ends. The challenges and barriers in this world and are never fully eradicated. Self-care cannot be put on hold until they are.
Despite the murky nature of where, for who, and when wellbeing is deserved it is extremely important to engage in. It becomes an act of survival, no matter what you are doing. Words such as burnout and social justice fatigue are thrown about, however this is not the beginning of the wellbeing story but the very tragic end. Wellbeing is fundamental to the work we do and the lives we live because it ensures that we can continue to be human beings, and not ensure that we rebuild ourselves as human beings. It is not a final thought but the genesis of all we do.
Lucia Victor Jayaseelan
Mother, grandmother, feminist activist, and a human rights lawyer, Lucia Victor Jayaseelan has taken up issues of political detainees, asylum seekers and refugees, workers, migrants, and violence against women. She worked with the Committee for Asian Women based in Bangkok and is now a member of the Institute for Women’s Empowerment, which promotes wellbeing and self care, while integrating security and feminist leadership. She is also a practitioner in various healing therapies, including Reiki, Reflexology and Jin Shin Jyutsu.
Lucia Victor Jayaseelan
The idea of wellbeing and self-care is important because being involved in anything political is to understand that you are political. The attention to the body and spiritual dimension is part of our struggle. For example, in labour rights activism you can clearly see a strong connection between working conditions and all traumas and personal problems.
Patriarchy and the structures we live in place impossible expectations on us as women to be parents, carers, workers and homemakers; yet our person is persistently subjected to institutionalized derision and abuse. Thus, there is no recognition of women as truly having a heart, soul, and body, intelligent beings able to give or withdraw consent. It is no wonder that women and women activists in their everyday lives and actions are human rights defenders. So every act of ours is political.
Wellbeing is having and creating the conditions for our self-respect and dignity, our personal health and that of our families. It is important to have the environment to share and shape the hopes and dreams we have for social justice and peace when we are at war with forces that seek to victimize and violate all aspects of rights: workers’ rights, women’s rights, human rights.
Stress won’t go away, but it can be managed with better balance. How do we build wellbeing and self-care into our lives and organizations when we are migrant workers, sex workers, poor, hungry, homeless, and fleeing violence? Our struggle and quest for social justice is very much about our living conditions, hence wellbeing at work, at home, in the community, in health and education, and for women and children is directed toward peace and justice.
Wellbeing as women, feminists, activists, and human rights defenders is about being able to promote balance and peace in body, mind and soul. It is about finding and having spaces where we can continue to nurture our dreams and make individual and collective decisions to change or improve conditions without fear or anger or isolation.
Wellbeing for ourselves and in our organizations is about having safe and healing spaces for ourselves and for our organizations to recognize that having time to speak amongst ourselves and to collectively listen to our bodies, hearts, and minds is necessary and a priority.
This is powerful.
It is a political act because it is powerful. To create and work in nurturing and supportive environments is a political act because we are reclaiming our rights and dignity, because we are reclaiming our power to love ourselves, to fight for our wellness and our right to happiness, to fight for a just and caring society, for social and political change is synonymous with our ability to care for ourselves. The security and the power of our movements to fight for change come from the security and power we each of us have within us.
Kutlwano Pearl Magashula
Kutlwano Pearl Magashula is a feminist from Botswana who is passionate about the pursuit of human rights and freedoms for all. She is concerned about changing lives and being a part of the generation that refuses to be silenced or pushed into submission. Kutlwano has a legal background and is a member of diverse social movements.
Kutlwano Pearl Magashula
As activists we often give very little consideration to wellbeing or self-care, even though they are fundamental to being able to live a balanced life. Self-care and wellbeing are essential and central to sustainable activism. The challenge is either that we either view self-care and wellbeing as indulgent, superfluous, or a luxury (activist culture encourages us to deprioritize individual health for community or campaign needs), or we do not have access to services essential for holistic wellbeing.
We carry with us the burden of our individual struggles and the collective struggles of our communities or the people we work with and this can culminate in stress, burnout, exhaustion, fatigue, or an inability to cope. We are constantly confronting violations and violence, sometimes directed at us or inflicted upon people we know or work with. We experience trauma or are exposed to secondary trauma and for those of us with a history of trauma, sometimes we are re-exposed to trauma. That this affects us is undeniable, yet very few organizations have the resources or the capacities to address wellbeing needs or to support mental health conditions that are the direct consequence of our activism. The odd team retreat is never enough to address these concerns. Often this is a result of limited funding or competing priorities but even when these resources are available we struggle with finding practitioners who are sympathetic to, or understand the risks associated with, being a human rights defender.
Activism gives a strong sense of meaning; it gives a sense of purpose and is empowering, but activists are not invincible! Operating within hostile contexts exposes us to all kinds of risk, not just the risk of physical harm. Stigma and discrimination impact the psychological and physical health of activists and taking on too much personal responsibility for social change often has extensive negative effects and can result in depression and other mental health conditions. When progress towards change comes slower than expected or change doesn’t happen at all, activists can get discouraged. We do not allow ourselves to appreciate and count the small victories or the small positive changes we observe. We beat ourselves up, giving very little consideration to our wellbeing. Activists often work long hours under extreme pressure on campaigns. We travel constantly and hardly ever have enough time to recharge. Less time is spent with family and friends or with support structures, and personal wellbeing and self-care is neglected.
Activism must be balanced with self-care or it interferes with one’s wellbeing; it can affect your intimate relationships and leave you emotionally vulnerable. We must be intentional and deliberate in our self-care and adopt practices, lifestyles, and even life hacks that will help keep us balanced. We can spend time with family and friends (or in their absence, with our support systems, people who share or understand our struggles), eat healthy, exercise, practice mindfulness, get proper rest, etc. But self-care or wellbeing should not be reduced to a personal responsibility. The personal is political. Wellbeing is more than just trying to deal with the symptoms of stress and pressure. It’s about addressing the larger context and it relies on collective support. We are better at taking care of ourselves when we feel supported and loved and can be more positive, more present, and more resilient.
Pia Love is a nomadic dancer, healer and a multi-disciplinary artist. She has spent the last 24 months travelling in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America, capturing the art of healing and dance.
The piece that I’ve created for the roundtable is a short film about healers, dancers and artists from around the globe that are women, gender non-conforming individuals from poor or marginalized communities, who are finding ways to being well despite everything else. It is a slightly artistic film with dance incorporated into it that acts as a love letter to nature—the ultimate mother who’s also under the threat of our oppressors.
Ndeye Rokhaya Gueye is a visual arts teacher. She completed her studies at the National School of Art in Senegal in 2001 and has since participated, lead, and collaborated on multiple art projects. She is also a member of the Art Critique Association in Senegal. Muu-So is her first children's book.
Ndeye Rokhaya Gueye
Woven Cloth: A Timeless “Must-Have” Component of Female Clothing as a Symbol of Wellbeing
We all possess woven cloth, a talisman that is highly symbolic as it pertains to our social status, our age group, and our cultural community. In Senegal, weaving is an ancient craft that has long occupied a prominent place in socio-economic development. It has generated employment both directly and indirectly. Many families have maintained this ancestral tradition of weaving by which the cotton cultivated on family fields is ingeniously transformed first into yarn and then woven into cloth.
Along the way, such cloth has been carefully preserved either in ethnographic museums or in grandmothers’ trunks. At the same time, the safeguarding of this heritage has contributed to the preservation of cultural and biological diversity. Indeed, this work constitutes a pact that links the weavers of the Sérere, Djago, and Alpular communities with the natural world. As a result, they have maintained their ecosystem through the cultivation of genetically varied species such as cotton and indigo. These natural resources are then employed in the process of cloth-making.
The commercial benefit from woven cloth has allowed for the economic development of families. Such development is a process leading to the improvement of human wellbeing. The Brundtland report indicates in the same way that sustainable development is unattainable if both human and environmental needs are not simultaneously considered. It is in this manner that the preservation of this cultural product corresponds with the preservation of specific ecosystems.
Cloth-weaving is part of a family’s heritage, both tangible and intangible, through the technical know-how of the weavers. Woven cloth is a status symbol since its costliness serves to determine social rank through the level of purchasing power. However, some cloths are more widely affordable, which makes it possible to distinguish between higher and lower-end products.
Cloth serves social, aesthetic, pedagogical, therapeutic, recreational, erotic, and cultural functions. It plays an important role in the sustaining of traditions.
Traditional woven loincloths are two to two-and-a-half metres in size, composed of seven sorr, woven bands that are interconnected by way of the xaff technique. In some cases, it is integrated fully into the rituals of the life-cycle of cultural communities in its use as a blanket.
Woven Cloth Blankets
After birth, a baby is wrapped in a cloth blanket and then greeted by the community. The blanket serves as a beacon and is worn constantly. Upon birth, the blanket is offered by the badiane, the father’s sister, and from the baptism onward the baby is always wrapped in it. It is decorated with simple geometric motifs and linear graphics that serve as protection against evil spirits.
Another equally important cloth made of white cotton is used by African mothers as a talisman to carry the newborn mbootou. On both a psychological and spiritual level, mothers and grandmothers are constantly reassured that the baby is swaddled in this particular cloth.
Besides, the respect for this apparel helps to establish the baby’s relationship with the community.
Even as the baby grows, the cloth remains part of life. Toward the end of adolescence, the cloth is there to cover the body and to hide the spasmodic pain endured during the tattoo ceremony.
As one ages and becomes unwell, the cloth is once again there to soothe the illness. It holds a metaphysical power that serves as medicine on a psychological level.
With seasonal change, the cloth is always there, especially in the cold months when it serves us well. By keeping us warm, it affords us a sense of wellbeing.
At milestones throughout life, notably at wedding ceremonies, the cloth is once again brought out. It is a special gift that the bride receives from her family (her mother, her aunts, the badianes, and godmothers). The bride enters the conjugal household covered in this mythical piece. Her husband is equally decorated with cloths, symbols of wealth that win him the respect of his in-laws. Indeed, these cloths can serve as a hoard, a material heritage that, if need be, can be used to ensure the family’s financial stability.
In turn, the young mother perpetuates the tradition of diverse use of woven cloth and, in doing so, imparts the tradition to her children who will do the same with theirs.
Lastly, upon one’s ‘final journey’ the cloth is once again present, as it covers the dead body like a shroud.
The life of Senegalese women is intimately linked to the cloth. In the Wolof language, we call it rabaal, a word derived from rabb, meaning “weaving” or sëru ndunke. It can also be called sëru djagoo when it is woven by the Djago people in the south of the country. In the Alpular community in the north of Senegal, they speak of djombadjo. (See image below.)
Due to the symbolism of the motifs printed on the cloth, one can recognize its ethnic origin as well as the ceremony being celebrated by the community. In place of writing, Africans have developed ideograms, a graphic language woven into textiles to preserve their stories.
Woven loincloths are a component of both female and male clothing in West Africa. Like other cloths, it lends itself to multiple uses adapted to the needs of different users.
The loincloth holds many secrets since it witnesses all the significant events in a woman’s life. It is the first garment to be wrapped around our waist when we dress, and is equally the last piece to be removed when we undress.
If our woven cloth were to speak, we would discover that it indeed has much to say, based on the variety of its uses and depending on circumstances. Sometimes we use it as an undergarment, or simply as a garment in its own right.
Cloth is a symbol of virtue when it serves to cover and protect intimate parts: jiitlay and béléfété.
Cloth is equally an emblem of boldness and frivolity, which is translated in Wolof as Pendal bou woyoff. The knot that ties the cloth is easily undone and thus lends itself to games of seduction.
We are so closely tied to these cloths that our wellbeing depends on them. Woven cloth imbues value to the woman who wears it and demonstrates a form of education, such as how rawasqué cloths are worn as part of daily life.
Cloth is easily transformed by draping it around our hips. By moulding, cutting by hand, or sewing the cloth, it can be modified into a large boubou, tunic, sarouel, scarf, etc.
It can be accessorized in equally diverse ways through embroidery by hand or machine, beading, crochet, notie, or jaaxass patchwork.
Moreover, Senegalese designers demonstrate their genius through their many creative transformations of the material. Thus, the cut and comfort of woven cloth garments is constantly being improved: woven-cloth skirts and skirt-pants, for example.
Textiles are also constantly being reinvented including fabric of animal, plant-based, or synthetic origin.
Economic activity and material wellbeing are essential. Aesthetic enjoyment promotes wellbeing. There is also a need for equitable access to ecological goods and services that depend not on our wellbeing but on the quality of our lives.
Sheena Gimase Magenya
Sheena Gimase Magenya is a feminist, a woman, a failed nationalist, and Media Specialist to the Coalition of African Lesbians.
Sheena Gimase Magenya
We are asking African activists the wrong questions about wellbeing
The classed nature of conversations about wellbeing is at worst irritating and at best frustrating. The continued creation of—I’ll say it—imagined space and time for dialogues and actions on wellbeing within donor driven and institutionalized social justice movements is indicative of a clear dissonance between the work we do, how we do it, and the heavy presence of the elusive social justice we seek, within our own spaces and movements. Creating conversations about wellbeing are no different to creating the many social justice silos that pervade our countries and work. Carving out another lane, one that we imagine we can swerve into when we need a break, also has to be funded.
Locating wellbeing outside the everyday makes the conversation disingenuous. Worse still for us—activists, social justice actors, and movement builders—to continue to encourage the existence of this conversation outside the daily lives of women and men that risk all kinds of safety, to work towards shifting an oppressive status quo is not only dishonest, but begs a deeper engagement with what our activism is. Is it work? Is it love? Is it work we love? Or is it love at work? The two-step that happens between work and love when we speak of activism of any kind, is fast and dizzying. Not many people would be willing to work hours this long, doing work this dangerous, for money this little, unless there is an altruistic motive, a bigger pull than financial security. This “thing” that keeps us here, then must be love. Love for a cause, a people, a movement, an opportunity for change—love for a particular kind of work and a particular way of working that frames and holds here, in our activist spaces.
There are clear and thick threads that can be drawn between narratives around “love” for the work we do and an unhealthy idea of what love is, and what work should look like. It is often assumed that activists do what we do because we “love” this work. This is a widespread assumption. In the background of this fallacy lies a narrative of love that is oppressive, that forces us to endure suffering and pain and survive our own lives because that’s what love is. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is all sorts of things that mean you put yourself last. And this love narrative is married to the work of building movements and demanding social justice. Therefore we cannot expect that our 40+ hours a week, our lost weekends, our TV babysat children, out failing physical and mental health, our extreme financial insecurity ever take precedence over “the movement.”
The truth is that we don’t create safe enough spaces for activists to say that we hate the work we do. Doing so would call into question all the money raised, and contracts signed and reports written to get us more money, year after year? Especially in the global South where there’s a drug-like dependency on donors and donor aid, saying, publicly, unequivocally and unapologetically that you hate your activist work, is seen as biting the hand that feeds you. You then become that one activist that “makes us all look bad.” And then the donors ask questions around the WHAT of the work, and start to wonder if maybe they are funding the wrong cause. If activists doing the “right” kind of activism will be passionate and will love their work, no matter how little they are paid or unsafe they feel, unhappy activists call the work itself into question. People working outside movements are allowed a lot more freedom to criticize their spaces because the consequences differ greatly.
These conversations, about love and hate and the state of institutionalized movement building, especially in the Global South, are conversations about wellbeing. Being able to critically engage with work, and acknowledge that today, in every way imaginable, that activism is work, that thousands if not millions of people are remunerated for the work of activism, perhaps we should stop trying to have this conversation outside the work we do. This conversation should mature beyond thoughts on hours worked and equal pay for equal work. Our organizations, the pay structures and power structures as well, follow the wider world capitalist models, meaning everywhere we look institutionalized organizations and movements are micro-replicas of capitalism, but only in these structures, our remuneration is significantly less because somehow, and supposedly, we are paid back with love.
Wellbeing should not be a question of cost. It’s not about that proverbial space of safety and wellness and the odd time out and massage. Wellbeing is the ongoing practice of questioning, and being allowed room to critique even the most sacred tenets of our movements and ways of organizing. It is acknowledging that we are mired with and that we work within (and very closely replicate) the same oppressive capitalism that we critique. I imagine that realizing this will help us hold up enough mirrors to keep each other in check and to stop creating spaces and conversations on wellbeing that do not challenge an internally oppressive status quo that has left us overworked, underpaid, unappreciated but somehow still celebrated posthumously for our “passion” and “love” for change and social justice.
Thato Poelo Semele
Thato Poelo Semele is an activist from Botswana who is passionate about advocating for the rights of LGBTI communities with a particular focus on LBT women. Her passion lies in community mobilisation and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). She is a teacher by profession, but is currently pursuing other passions and interests.
Thato Poelo Semele
Activism as a career path is very taxing. Activists are people who saw a lot of injustices in the world and decided to speak out against them. It takes a lot of guts, backbone and serious determination to tackle these injustices. You must be super generous and selfless to take it on. This includes putting your own needs aside, in pursuit of the greater good. What we often overlook as activists is the fact that we could never be robots; we are humans first and activists second. There are certain avenues to being human which can’t be pushed aside without leading to a breakdown at some point.
Wellbeing is vital for activists. This includes physical, social, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. Activists invest quite a lot of their life into fighting injustices. They forget about their own personal battles and work extensive hours, with very little sleep. This creates very little space for a routine in lifestyles. It becomes rather difficult to stick to a diet, or exercise as regularly as one might like. This already threatens their physical health, and I have not even touched on the risks they face daily, of being targets for direct or indirect violence. Their security is often compromised just by virtue of being activists. As Africans, we lead very cultured lives. Certain things we fight against, such as patriarchy, are very normalized behaviors. Speaking against them is a form of disrespect. This might lead to being disowned by your own family or even being discriminated against. We Africans are a very docile bunch, contrary to popular misconceptions. We do not denounce or speak ill of our own cultures. This creates a dilemma of choice and encompasses a lot of mixed emotions. Being caught in this situation you might find yourself needing validation that you are indeed fighting for a good cause. But we all know that we Africans do not talk about our emotions. So, in turn, we bottle these things up. This in turn might even drive us to the loony bin, because, let’s face it, these are all ingredients of a mental breakdown. Our social skills take a knock as we travel with strangers, in strange parts of the world, away from our own family and friends. Personal relationships suffer, because while absence may make the heart grow fonder, that much time spent apart can only lead to disconnect.
So without these loved ones who do we turn to for support when the weight becomes a little too heavy to bear? Without proper structures even, how do we make sure that activists lead a balanced life? It’s high time we set aside funding to help support the wellbeing of activists. We can’t just keep giving everything and getting nothing in return. It’s like using a tractor to plow, but neglecting to invest in its servicing. Eventually the engine might break down. This is exactly what will happen if we as activists do not invest in our wellbeing. We should not handle our wellbeing as a luxury, but as a very crucial part of being a better activist. The last but certainly not least of our worries also, is our spiritual health. Because of the injustices we confront so regularly, we often find it difficult to believe or have faith. We become detached from our own spirituality, and might even stop nurturing it. We forget it is our souls that drove us into being activists in the first place.
It goes without saying that activism, especially in Africa, is tough. We work under very harsh conditions, with very limited funding, and fight for causes that are either shunned upon or clash with our cultures. Understandably so, we have the most work to do in order to catch up with the rest of the world. But it’s also important to strike a balance. Make time for personal health, take a day off, meditate, talk to a friend, walk to the mall, drink water, do something to reboot the system. Refresh and get in touch with our humane side. Realize it’s not a betrayal to do things that benefit only you.