The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her widely circulated TEDGlobal talk of 2009 drew attention to what she called ‘the danger of a single story’. Interrogating dominant generalising narratives that reinforce stereotypes about people and communities, Adichie called for embracing a multiplicity of stories. Multiple stories can contradict, counter-balance, and complement one another, and together they can enrich our understanding and help us grasp a fuller picture. As she puts it:
‘Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’
Adichie’s insights into the power of storytelling have also been explored in academic scholarship, such as by African feminist theologians (e.g. see the book Her-stories: Hidden Histories of Women of Faith in Africa, edited by Isabel Apawo Phiri, Devarakshanam Betty Govinden, and Sarojini Nadar). These insights might also explain why members of many LGBTQ+ communities in Africa in recent years have engaged in the telling of life stories. From different parts of the continent, we have witnessed the publication of collections of LGBTQ+ life stories, such as from Ethiopia (Tikur Engeda: Queer Stories from Ethiopia), Kenya (Stories of Our Lives and Invisible: Stories from Kenya’s Queer Community), Nigeria (Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender; She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak), and Somalia (Being Queer and Somali: LGBT Somalis at Home and Abroad).
In all these countries issues of sexual and gender diversity and of LGBTQ+ rights have become highly contested and the subject of heated public debate. Dominant narratives have emerged on the continent in which LGBTQ+ people, their identities and lifestyles are depicted as ‘un-African’, ‘un-natural’ and ‘immoral’. Meanwhile, in Western media narratives, LGBTQ+ Africans are frequently depicted as victims of socio-political homophobia who lack any agency themselves, and who need the intervention of Western human rights activists to advocate their cause. By telling their life stories, such as in the collections mentioned above, LGBTQ+ Africans demonstrate that they do have a voice and can speak for themselves. As much as their life stories testify to their challenges, difficulties, and struggles, they also testify to courage and creativity, dreams, and hopes, experiences of joy and pleasure, love, romance, and sex.
Our book Sacred Queer Stories builds on this established tradition of life-storytelling as an LGBTQ+ activist method for claiming visibility and recognition. It presents the stories of a particularly vulnerable group of people: LGBTQ+ refugees from Uganda, who at the time of the collection of the stories were based in Kenya. All had left their home country in the aftermath of the passing of Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, seeking safety and possibilities to live and thrive, and hoping to get resettled in Europe or North America with the help of UNHCR. The project leading to the Sacred Queer Stories book was developed together with a community-based organisation called The Nature Network into which a group of refugees had organised themselves. Two of the community leaders, Brian Sebyala and Fredrick Hudson, served as research assistants and as co-authors of the book.
Recognising the importance of spirituality, religion, and faith in the lives of many community members, the project explicitly aimed to set up a creative dialogue between life stories and stories from the Bible. The idea here was twofold. First, the Bible is embedded in a history of oppression in Africa. In particular, it is often used to fuel socio-political and religious homophobia in Christian-dominated parts of Africa, by depicting LGBTQ+ people as ‘sinners’, if not as ‘demon-possessed’. However, second, the Bible is also an influential, widely circulated, and well-known religious and cultural text in contemporary Africa, the stories of which speak to the life experiences of marginalised communities, including to LGBTQ+ people of faith. Thus, as a way of changing the dominant narrative, this project facilitated a creative process of appropriating and re-storying biblical stories, in a way that is affirming and empowering to the group of LGBTQ+ refugees at its centre.
In the first stage of the project, we conducted life-story interviews with participants. One of the interview questions was about favourite stories from the Bible. Two stories were mentioned a couple of times: the Old Testament story about Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6), and the New Testament story about Jesus and the woman who is accused of adultery (John 8). In the second stage of the project, we used these two stories, by reading and discussing them closely, identifying the points of identification and recognition, linking them to contemporary events and experiences in the lives of participants, and re-telling these stories creatively through drama. The two resulting drama plays, ‘Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den’, and ‘Jesus and the Guys Charged with Indecency’, are on YouTube.
The book Sacred Queer Stories presents the life stories of twelve participants. It then continues by documenting, analysing, and interpreting the dialogical process between the life stories and Bible stories. As we argue, this dialogue engenders a new body of stories, which we designate sacred queer stories. We use ‘sacred’ here as an open-ended term referring to the various ways in which, through storytelling, lives are signified and given meaning. The bottom line is the humanistic principle that human life has intrinsic value. This principle is deeply rooted in African spirituality, where life is fundamentally considered sacred (e.g. see Laurenti Magesa’s book What is Not Sacred?). For many of the people featured in our book this is a religious idea: human life is sacred, because it is created by God.
As a reader, you might or might not agree with this premise of divinely created human sanctity. But in any case, we hope that you will agree that the stories in our book testify to the transformative, even sacred, power of life-storytelling and that these stories, in the words of Adichie, empower and humanize, and repair the broken dignity of a people.
This guest post was written by Adriaan van Klinken, Professor of Religion and African Studies, University of Leeds and Director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and of the Centre for Religion and Public Life and Johanna Stiebert, Professor of Hebrew Bible, University of Leeds and Deputy Head of School (School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science).