African feminist activism has been going through an increasingly introspective moment. A moment when we are considering not just the external politics of our thoughts and practices towards change, but also the impact that all of this is having on our physical and emotional bodies. I think its fair to say that there is a collective sense of exhaustion, compounded at times with the actual direct threat of harm in response to speaking up (the contemporary political moments in Egypt, Algeria and Zimbabwe, and the ongoing process of articulating a public queer African feminist politics come to mind). As a sector we have dubbed the extending reach of oppressive states as a phenomenon of ‘closing space’. However its toll is not just felt in the restriction of public space for civic action, it is also felt in the inner space of feminists activists and in the sense of emotional depletion that constant battles without replenishment can create. And while activists and donors increasingly recognise this, there are still very few practical resources to fully meet this need on the African continent.
I came to AWDF having spent some years developing AIR- an initiative supporting African practitioners to document practice and develop new tools around sustaining emotional wellbeing and mental health in contexts of deep gendered structural and direct violence, from war zones in the Great Lakes to the deep poverty and xenophobia of South African cities. In AIR we ended up focusing our energies on reconceptualising trauma from a transformative feminist perspective (work that I have written about here). AWDF was a founding member of the AIR network, and on joining AWDF, the CEO Theo Sowa and I agreed that we would find ways to bring some of the creative visions of AIR’s work into AWDF’s programming, in particular the idea of creating a retreat for African feminist activists.
In July 2017 the Novo Foundation put out an unusual call for applications- inviting pitches for ideas for ways to nurture radical hope. This seemed a perfect place to plant the vision of resourcing the deep work of care in feminist activism. I started to draw out the concept, combining elements of practice that together would enable our activism to flourish: seeding inspiration for the growth of African feminist movements through documenting activism and inter-generational dialogues, grounding through piloting a model of an activist retreat for African feminists and women’s rights defenders; and connecting feminist activists to convene and grow their feminist organising at national and community levels linked to the African Feminist Forum.
Our concept note passed the first stage and we were invited to submit a full application. Novo recognised that with limited budget not all great proposals could be funded, and in an absolute golden egg of a policy in the philanthropic world, they explained that any organisation submitting a full application that did not end up funded would receive an amount of money to recognise the labour that had gone into developing it. They had made it so there was nothing to lose by allowing ourselves to imagine. A few months later we got the news. AWDF was selected as one of 19 successful organisations- drawn from a pool of over 1,000 applications. The Flourish Initiative was going to be fully funded.
I began designing the Flourish Retreat with the newly hired Catalytic Initiatives Officer Akosua Hanson — a Ghanaian feminist theatre practitioner and popular radio DJ. We assembled a facilitation team with the kind of magical energy that could pull something like this off: lead facilitator Hope Chigudu, a pioneering voice in integrating wellbeing into feminist organisational practice; Laurence Sessou, Beninoise aromatherapist, massage therapist and holder of sacred space, and Ghanaian psychotherapist Laurita de Diego Brako. We invited organisations doing frontline work around violence against women across Africa to recommend staff to attend, and we gathered them by the banks of the Volta River for our activist experiment- the Flourish Retreat. Thanks to Akosua’s spatial design vision and Laurence’s aromatherapy wisdom we ensured that the space looked, smelled, and felt like possibility. The days were intense but incredible, and every day in our debriefs the facilitation team became more and more clear that this work was indeed essential.
As I explained in an interview by my colleague Akosua Hanson after the Flourish Retreat:
“I see activism as a form of collective healing. We are looking to both prevent and find lasting cures for the individual and collective wounds caused by patriarchal injustice and violence. Some activists do this by providing direct services- so the practical side of people’s needs for legal, medical, emotional, educational, economic and other support. Some people do this by working on challenging the systems that cause these inequalities and harm in the first place. And many work on both. Activism is healing work. And the questions is- if that is the case then who heals the healers? Who provides the same kinds of support and solidarity for activists? I think it’s important to say a deep thank you to the people who help sustain and make our lives better. We focus these days so much on celebrity, on corporate leadership, on mainstream political leadership. Yet who makes our lives liveable? Who nurtures hope? Activists do. Practitioners do.
Now, any gardener knows that in order to create a flourishing landscape you don’t only need someone to explain to you when to plant or how often to water. You need soil, seeds, and the desire to see your garden grow. We designed the Flourish retreat methodology so that participants left with seeds in their hands. In true activist spirit, many of them have decided to return to their own soil and continue to plant. A few days ago I received an email from Hope Chigudu describing the work that the retreat participants from Uganda have been doing. Continuing to both hold space for each other and for their communities, they have now produced five editions of Diaries of African Feminists reflecting on the emotional dimensions of COVID19 lockdowns and ongoing thoughts about navigating activism. One has opened her home as an informal wellbeing space for women needing safety from their abusive homes, with others in the group dropping in to offer support. This adds to the other stories of retreat participants who have gone on to use their renewed sense of inner vision, and new tools for resilience to reshape how they are engaging in their women’s rights advocacy and in their activist communities.
As a women’s fund, AWDF is first and foremost a donor- a provider of resources. Indeed a majority of AWDF’s financial resources go directly to support the work of African women’s organisations through its grantmaking. However we have also learned that if our resourcing is to sustain this work of change-making it has to be done with attention to the who and the how of transformation. We need to ‘take care’ as we so often say in English. To pay closer attention not just to the numbers of people reached, or whether the work is feeding into internationally agreed change goals, but also to the realities of the lives of women taking risks, facing threat and acting as anchors for community hope. To keep asking the question of whether our funding and programming models seed enough, water enough, clear enough ground to enable activists to thrive.
This is the second in a series of reflections by Jessica Horn, the outgoing Director of Programmes at AWDF, on programme strategy, organisational culture and feminist transformation. She tweets @stillsherises