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Amplified Voices: Jessica Horn

Jessica Horn – AWDF Director of Programmes

What does the African diaspora mean to you as a lived experience?  

I didn’t grow up in the traditionally conceived United States/Caribbean/Africa diaspora, but rather in Southern Africa and in the South Pacific to parents who were Ugandan and American. It’s very interesting to carry Africa with you in places like the South Pacific, where the connections to the African continent are primarily political and perhaps literary, but not necessarily cultural.

I attend United World Colleges in New Mexico for secondary school and then Smith College for University, where I start to connect with the experiences of African American, Afro-Latinas, Afro-Brazilians; women who were part of an extended African diaspora. 

Understandably, the primary cultural resonance for many of these women was with West African traditions and cultural expressions, which at that time were not familiar to me. But I still grew to understand a kind of diasporic blackness and diasporic Africanness, and the significance of learning from and listening to the realities of African diaspora women in our various permutations. 

Here in Accra where AWDF is based, I’m seeing more of the root of the Afro-American and Afro-Latina diasporas, which has helped me better understand the connections. There is also an intergenerational diaspora that has returned to Ghana; there is an Afro-Brazilian community that came back to Ghana; African Americans who came back to Ghana after the first Pan-Africanist wave in the 50s, St. Lucians, Jamaicans, and it’s been interesting for me to see this ‘return’ and the ways that people reconnect to a region that they were separated from through a forced and very violent process. 

How is your experience of the diaspora impacted by being a woman and a feminist?

It’s significant that much of my feminism developed through reading African American women’s political and literary works. Alice Walker, as a writer, was quite impactful for me in my teens in terms of understanding a sense of a black womanist self. And because my parents were very situated in liberation and leftist politics, writers like Angela Davis with her lack Panther leftist thinking were pivotal to my understanding of feminist thinking. During university I sought out the texts by African women and black women in the diaspora: writers like June Jordan and Sonia Sanchez were so important for shaping my self, my ability to express my voice, and my understanding of my political position as a woman in the world and as a woman in certain structures of power. 

You’ll find that many African women have read a lot of African-American feminist and womanist texts as one reference point in developing their feminism. It’s a significant and interesting link. 

How does your work with AWDF contribute to your understanding of connections throughout the diaspora?

One of the main ways AWDF connects to women in the diaspora is through the African Feminist Forum. Throughout the 1950’s through 1970’s there were many women from the continent who went to various places in Europe and were very active in political organizing there, and many of these women came back to re-engaged the political climate on the African continent. Through the AFF we engage a good number of these women who are part of a more recent diaspora to Europe as well as those who have come back to Africa, and are very engaged in building feminist politics in both places. 

It’s important to start by recognizing that the continent is enormous: there are 54 countries and so there are a lot of things happening, all over the place. A lot of women elsewhere in the diaspora have a connection to a particular African country—or a few countries—through friends who live or are from those places. But when possible, it’s important to visit the continent and engage activists and professionals who are doing similar work as yourself. There’s a big focus on women’s business and women’s business collaborations, which i find exciting. 

There’s tremendous activism coming from different places on the continent, and it would be great if women from the diaspora generally engaged more on the writing and critical output of African feminists. There’s a lot of great platforms and knowledge production that has become much more accessible via the Internet. The problem used to be that things were being produced that were not very easy to access, but now publications like Feminist Africa, websites focused on African feminism, and the #AfriFem hashtag on various social media sites make it much easier to engage your own particular passion and interest areas. If you’re a tech innovator in the States, there’s a huge amount of tech innovation happening in Kenya, in Senegal, in Ghana. Connecting with people who are doing work similar to yours is one important way of building a link. 

AWDF is a resourcing facility, so we see and understand the power that these resources have to provide African women and their organizations with the means necessary to make the kinds of radical change that sisters make. And so, supporting through financial resources is a powerful way to make a connection and to make a contribution in terms of supporting the tremendous work that’s being done on the continent to transform African women’s economic, social, political, and cultural realities. 

Amplified Voices: Gloria Mangi

Interview with Gloria Mangi: Tanzanian writer, producer, and podcaster. 

What does diaspora mean to you, and how do you experience it as a woman and a feminist? 

Gloria thinks of diaspora as something that can unite you to other members of your diasporic community through highlighting how different you are from the place and community you have migrated to, but it also illustrates the ways that you change and adapt while living away from “home.”

She was born in Tanzania and spent her formative years in Ireland before moving to Saudi Arabia. A racist encounter with the principal of her elementary school in Ireland illustrated to Gloria, in a painful and shocking way, that she was perceived as different from the other students. After this encounter, Gloria because newly aware of the way that her differences—hair texture and style, the foods she ate, the color of her skin—made her a target for teasing and bullying. Feeling so disconnected from the images of beauty and normalcy where you live brought about some insecurities for Gloria, particularly as a young child, but later it also brought about “a hunger to learn more about my heritage.”

Returning to Tanzania with her family during holidays gave Gloria some valuable opportunities to reconnect with her home community, but also reminded her of the ways that she was changed during her time living outside of Tanzania and outside of Africa. The condition of being in the minority, particularly in Saudi Arabia, generated a deeper appreciation for those moments of shared connection with other Africans, whether through the language of Swahili, shared food, similar clothing, and turning each other’s homes into literal community spaces. “These kinds of connections are very special to me, to this day, and were so important for keeping me grounded.”

How does your work connect to your experiences in the diaspora? 

The genesis of the African Queens Project (AQP), Gloria’s African woman-based content and news site, goes back to 2012 when Gloria was selected to be a MILEAD Fellow with the Moremi Initiative. This program selects 25 high achieving women from around Africa and the diaspora, across fields, to convene in Accra, Ghana for three weeks. This experience was life-changing for Gloria, and she stills considers those women to be her sisters. One day during the fellowship the group was asked to share what had gotten the Fellows interested in the work we were doing, and what impassioned them. As part of the fellowship, each participant was tasked with coming up with a project for our year-long fellowship period. Gloria recognized that her work as a journalist could give her a platform to explore how media narratives in the west impacted the way Africans discussed and were informed about key issues. Listening to the other women share their work and interests helped Gloria realize that she wanted to provide a platform to share the projects, passions, and journeys of dynamic African women like those in the MILEAD Fellowship. “I realized that there weren’t enough Africans telling African stories, and when you focus on women that number is even smaller.” The African Queens Project was born of a desire to combat overwhelmingly negative media portrayal of Africa, Gloria’s training as a journalist, and her passion to share African’s women’s stories in a way that emphasized their uniqueness. 

The African Queens Project has been met with success even in its early stages – they won a World Summit Youth Award from the United Nations, and were recognized as one of the Top 20 Initiatives by Google Africa. “I didn’t realize how much it was needed until it was done. And how well received it was when it did come about. And how receptive people were of it all over the world, not just in Africa.” 

In light of this very strong start, Gloria wants AQP to go even further. “There’s so many places I would like for AQP to go – there are so many voices we haven’t heard; places we haven’t reached. I’d like to see a concept like AQP taking place in every country; a hub for people to document stories. I’m passionate about Africans being able to document our own stories.” This also includes making sure that Africans in more rural areas, who may not have consistent access to Internet, computers, smart phones, and social media, are not excluded from this storytelling process. “We want to think about how to both hear and share the stories that are coming from those areas.”

The next exciting step in the AQP journey is the upcoming Queen Things project, developed alongside co-producer IzE Ahanotu. Queen Things is a podcast that has a similar focus and structure as AQP, but is more focused on the diaspora. The first season of the podcast is currently being developed, and keep an eye out for more information to come soon. 

What advice would you give to other folks living in and thinking about the African diaspora?

“I think it is so important to never forget or be ashamed of where you come from. This is something I struggled with because I was made to feel ashamed. Know and learn about your history, and don’t wait until somebody else tries to tell you about your own heritage. Being willing to talk to and learn from people who look like you, but also people from other backgrounds makes you more tolerant and understanding of other viewpoints and ideologies. It helps you gain an understanding of how the many different ways that people think. At the end of the day, everybody has a story to tell.”