This past month, the AHA Foundation had the honor of speaking with Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, author, theatre-maker and activist. Born in Tanzania and raised mostly in neighboring Kenya and other East and central African countries, Nick writes extensively on themes surrounding gender, identity, and sexuality. His latest book, Waafrika 123 will be out in mid-May 2016, and addresses the issues of honor and FGM, among other themes. Nick is female to male transgender and an active voice in campaigning for the rights of the LGBTQ community in East Africa.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal story?
I was born in Tanzania. I was assigned female at birth. I knew by two years-old, I was not who I was assigned to be. I began running away because so much, including violence, was being done to force me to conform to a list of stereotypes that made no sense and still don’t.
Fast forward. I went to school in Kenya. After school, I held a string of menial jobs to pay for school and basics. Then I got a job with an international news agency which required writing everyday plus filing away articles my colleagues wrote. I started to travel, a bit at first then more and more extensively as the news agency gained confidence in my reports. Seeing my continent and that region from varying vantage points — rich, poor, not too rich, educated, not so much, female, male, religious, homeless, war-torn, artistic, extravagant cities comparable to the richest ones in the world — allowed me to expand my awareness by collecting perspectives. Fast forward. I came to the United States to work but needed more schooling. I stumbled on writing then theater. Both degrees are from Columbia University, both in writing. I’m currently trying to live as a writer, though no longer working for Reuters New York.
How did you get to be doing the sort of artistic and advocacy work that you do?
In Africa, there is no separation between Art and politics. In fact, politics is art and vice versa. I would argue that all Art is political; when an artist argues otherwise, this is perhaps the most political of artistic statements because it assumes a certain perspective as the universal norm: issues that center on visibility, voice, experiences as shared, dominance, marginalization, silencing, erasure, acceptance, definitions of universality with respect to gender, sexuality, race, etc. — all of which resound in the statement “I do not make political Art” — making it among the most political statements.
My art became advocacy when it became increasingly clear if not obvious that I was never going to see the people, things, worlds I needed in the theater as it is now. The result is that I did not know that I exist. One among many of the functions of Art is to defeat death and make sense of pain. When day-to-day existence is unbearable at profound levels and permutations, Art is the resurrection. By screaming a little bit on the page, I’ve managed to stay alive.
Have you seen any changes in the attitude towards the LGBTQ community in East Africa in your lifetime?
Definitely. There are more groups which points to some increased visibility and voice that was not there before. Local activism based on local needs has assumed a gorgeous shape in Uganda especially where they might be on the verge of queer genocide. Purely foreign models of queer activism did not meet the needs of local communities so they created their uniquely vital blend in much the same way Gandhi adapted his activism to India after experimenting in then-apartheid South Africa.
Queer African activism is creating the language that heals. Right at this moment.
You do quite a bit of work with Un/Cut Voices, a publishing company working to spotlight FGM. Why is FGM an important issue to you?
When no one was willing to publish my work, Un/Cut Voices did. They are also publishing my sequel, Waafrika 123 by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko. Out in mid-May 2016.
FGM is a complex issue because its intention–to demarcate strict gender binaries on androgynous bodies–is deeply rooted. Honor-based violence is justified by communities that practice it through ritual, which is based on myths. Myths are stories told to sustain the life of that community; the story is told over and over again, from generation to generation in order to justify something socially abhorrent, something that goes against nature. The retelling of the myth reflects the repetition of the ritual. The repetition of both myth (story) and ritual (practice of the story/myth) is meant to soothe the psychological upheaval going on in that community’s mind. So, if the community believes boys and girls are essentially the same unless that difference is inflicted upon, then they create a ritual to make that difference known to everyone within their community. Because they believe it cannot exist otherwise. It’s not a question of actually seeing the difference — girls’ breasts versus boys’ chests; facial hair versus no facial hair, etc. — it’s a question of belief. FGM tells them a girl who is not circumcised can never be a woman; she becomes something else and that thing is dangerous; it disturbs the natural order of everything within their community. This is the significance of the ritual, to quiet potential upheavals in the mind because, as we know, the imagination can become a human being’s worst enemy. So they repeat a story to perform a ritual to justify a belief.
The violence attached to the practice is also complex. Most tribes who perform FGM are or were nomadic, that is groups who never had a set space so they were constantly in contact with other tribes, most hostile, some not. So violence was a very useful tool for a group under constant threat and it might even be their first response to threat. So, if androgyny is assumed to be a threat, violence is probably one tactic to silence it, or at least a ritual engaged with violence is. Also, it is quite difficult for someone like me — non-nomadic, not faced with relentless uncertainty — to offer a lens into a world that, though I am an African, is not entirely mine. My gaze is insufficient to decode or even dismantle the significance of so much in the ritual. That said, no amount of moral relativism can justify mutilation, especially when the subject — little girls, the most vulnerable members of any society — overwhelmingly scream against it throughout their lifetime.
But, living in a world that seems to believe in it and its reinforcement, here are some prescriptive ideas: There has to be a way to preserve the celebration of girlhood into womanhood without preserving the violence that marks it in the FGM ritual. There has to be a way to honor girls and women through ceremonies without marking them forever. There has to be a way for a tribe to claim their own without scarring them for life. There has to be a way to honor patriarchy without consuming women. There has to be a way to revisit patriarchy, so its foundation is not built on destroying girls and women to give birth to manhood. There has to be a way of re/assigning gender without violence.
Because of my personal experience and activism, I very much see the issue of FGM through the lens of gender non-conformity. I want solutions to begin to come from outside the box, and to take the intersectionality of the issue into account, instead of viewing it through a traditional binary. FGM is made possible through a long history of binary views about how the world should function, so in order to end the practice, the viewing of the world in binary terms must also be addressed. FGM makes assumptions about the explosion of the gender binary that imply a social takeover and falsely strict gender order.
What would be your message to those attempting to speak out against honor-based violence and FGM?
No amount of moral relativism justifies mutilation. It is hard to couple the notion of violence with “honor” without assuming somewhere, somehow patriarchy is at work. When one of the consequences of “honor” is that its subject, little girls, the world’s most vulnerable, end up screaming and crying into their grave, then it ceases to be honorable.