Photo: Stefanie Jason

Meet the Women Championing South Africa's Black Muslim Pride

There's a new movement of Black Muslims in South Africa asserting their Africanness within the context of their religion.

"I have other names but I prefer to be called by my birth name," Nelisiwe Msomi, a health journalist and activist, tells me. We're at her masjid in kwaThema, a township to the east of Johannesburg. "This mosque feels like home, it's in the community which raised me and has seen me grow," she says. In the distance a group of people, some in hijabs or abayas and some in kaftans, start making their way into the place of worship, and their garments—blowing in the early afternoon breeze—glisten like coral in flowing water.

"For the longest time I did not use my birth name, which in isiZulu translates to 'satisfied,'" says Msomi. "When I got to school, I got given the Arabic name Shahida. I'm not ashamed of it but when I say my name is 'Nelisiwe', I'm affirming that Black Muslims in South Africa do exist and fighting against our erasure."

Msomi—who has and continues to be outspoken on the rights of women in her community—is part of a growing movement of young Black African Muslim women in South Africa carving a more inclusive religion that celebrates the intersection of Islam and African traditions. Instead of a religious practice in which African tradition is sidelined or shamed, which Msomi says has been the case in the local Muslim community, where the dominant culture has historically been Indian or Arab, and Malay in the southern parts of the country.

Msomi at her MosquePhoto: Stefanie Jason

"Being Black, Muslim and woman means I have three battles to fight: racism, Islamophobia and patriarchy. And I'm always navigating between my religion and culture; trying to find a balance between these identities, and attempting to synchronise them". Over the years, Msomi says she has been growing spiritually however as she embraces being both Muslim and Zulu, says she and her younger sister Zahara, who attends an Islamic oriented school, have been criticised for openly participating their culture. And makes an example of the time Zahara wore traditional beadwork on top of her hijab at an event, for which she was severely denounced by her schoolhead. "As a Zulu Muslim, I feel religion isn't in conflict with my culture but rather certain people who want to impose their culture onto us Black Muslims. We should be encouraged to practice our culture."

The Black African Muslim community is a minority group within South Africa who, despite living in a country where they can practice Islam openly, still face marginalisation (and xenophobia, namely towards African nationals, some of whom make up part of the Black African Muslim population in in the country). Approximately 80 percent of South Africa's population practices Christianity, while Islam—which dates back to the 17th Century in the Cape Colony and the 18th Century in the eastern part of the country—represents only 2 percent of South Africans' religious belief, and the Black African Muslim community is a fraction therein."

Nelisiwe MsomiPhoto: Stefanie Jason

"Among the black majority of the South African population the number of Muslims is relatively modest. During the late 1970s and early 1980s a number of the black youth embraced Islam convinced that Islam as a non-white, non-Christian and non-oppressive religion with a clear statement on the equality of all human beings could be adopted as an ideology with the potential to resist apartheid. This might encourage the idea of an increasing number of black Muslims in South Africa. However, the proportion of them compared to the rest is insignificant," writes academic and researcher Ursula Günther as she traces the growth of Islam within the Black African community.

"I am definitely part of this movement. It's a consciousness shift in which there is a deep sense of Black Muslim pride and where we're all supportive of one another," says Tshepang Mamogale, a graphic designer and aspiring modest fashion designer. Like Msomi, Mamogale—who is a single mother of two—is considering the meeting point of tradition and religion, and looks to marriage as an example. "In Islam there's no such thing as the man initiating the marriage. As a woman you can make the proposal. But it can be quite tricky when marrying a Muslim person who isn't Black African and who doesn't understand lobola," she says about the customary marriage practice of lobola or a bride price. "I believe it is a tradition I'd like to engage in. Islam preaches family bonds, so I think it's important for different cultures to be respected. As much as Islam is a way of life and our religion, everyone has a culture. Egyptians have their own culture, Indians do too. I'm an African Muslim, wear clothes that represent my faith and Africanness, and therefore believe in practicing my culture, and lobola is a part of that."

Tshepang MamogalePhotos: Stefanie Jason

In Mamogale's home, in the Johannesburg suburb of Fourways, she says, "When I became Muslim, I didn't anticipate the intricacies of my everyday experience." After her best friend introduced her to the religion in high school and exposed her to its practices, she converted to Islam. "One Friday morning, I just woke up and went to the mosque in Atteridgeville. There I did the shahada, a declaration of faith, and one of the things that makes you a Muslim." But as she ushered in a new way of life, Mamogale was also exposed to new encounters.

"I didn't know many Black Muslims outside of my circle at first. And naturally assumed that I'd be welcomed with open arms, mainly by the Indian Muslim community because that makes up a chunk of the Muslim community in Gauteng." Despite her assumptions, this was not the case for Mamogale, who says she has faced prejudice from members of the Indian Muslim community. "There's a lot of racism that we experience as Black Muslims, to the point where some Indian people don't greet us. And in Islam, it doesn't matter what race you are, you have to pass the salaam, 'as-salāmu ʿalaykum.'"

Mamogale and her daughtersPhoto: Stefanie Jason

"We are told that it is not good to generalise but I think it's pretty fair to say the community is racist AF," says Johannesburg journalist Fatima Moosa in a piece titled "South African Indian Muslims Need to Look in the Mirror." "The roots of the racism that pervades the Indian community (Muslim or not) in South Africa might find its source in the caste system originating from India. Maybe it has its roots in apartheid and its method of separation and self-hate." Despite this, Moosa challenges South Africa's Indian Muslims to confront prejudices towards Black African people, saying, "As the myth of the rainbow nation crumbles, we appear ever so blind to our deep, deep racism. The community may have suffered under apartheid but we did manage to escape some of the harshest punishments of the racist regime reserved for Black Africans. And today, some of us seem to be failing to interrogate the inequalities and injustices and the structural legacy of that oppressive system. It is this lack of reflexivity, and refusal to recognise this privilege that is most concerning."

Discrimination in the country's wider Muslim community goes beyond being Black African. Queer Muslim women and gender-non-conforming Muslims face marginalisation. In a recent article titled, "Queer Muslim women are making salaam with who they are", author Carl Collison speaks to South Africa's first openly gay imam and founder of The Inner Circle, a Cape Town-based organisation focused on creating a safe space for queer Muslims, Muhsin Hendricks. "The main problem Muslim women face is patriarchy, which is inexpungible from Islam," says Hendricks. "Orthodox Islam has always taught that women should be in the back row when they pray and their roles confined to the home. With queer women, they already feel marginalised because of that, and then still opening themselves up to more abuse by openly stating that they are lesbian. It's a double discrimination for them. Whereas with gay men, they still have the privilege of being men. So it's easier for them. Many lesbians feel uncomfortable even in gay men's spaces because, even then, it is still very patriarchal."

Responding to questions around steps towards fighting racial prejudice, Mamogale says, "There's a movement brewing among young Black Muslims in the country today. It's still at its inception but it's here. In the past, we as Black African Muslims would follow the practices of the Indian community, from the food we eat to the other cultural intricacies. But that's changing. Since converting to Islam in 2002, Black Muslims have done a lot to empower themselves. We have our own gatherings. Some might think it perpetuates segregation but I think that it's a form of empowerment."

Dineo Maqhawe and her QuranPhoto: Stefanie Jason

Johannesburg school teacher and poet Dineo Maqhawe, points to one the spaces of empowerment for Black African Muslims. "For me, stuff like #blackouteid is such an important movement, and champions our visibility and presence in South Africa and across the globe," she says about the popular hashtag launched in 2014 by Aamina Mohamed to highlight diversity and tackle the lack of visibility of Black Muslims, especially during Eid celebrations.

Born and raised in Springs, the east of Johannesburg, 25-year-old Maqhawe, converted to Islam while in high school in the US, where she lived with her older Muslim sister, and was exposed to the Black Muslim community in the States.

After returning to South Africa, the mother of one found practicing her faith at home and in a majority Black Christian community challenging and isolating. "It's tough being Muslim especially around family members. When I converted my family couldn't relate to me. I became this foreign person to them and it seemed as though they were afraid because they've had so bad experiences with Muslims or would draw on portrayals of the faith from mainstream media that they decided to write off the religion," she says about some of her extended and immediate family, with the exception of her mother and sister. "My dad didn't understand why I became Muslim because of his personal experiences. Later, before he passed away in 2011, he learnt about the religion with my help, and he opened up to it and accepted it."

Dineo Maqhawe (left) and her poetry (right)Photos Stefanie

Maqhawe, who also has a pan-African clothing range for children, raises everyday issues faced by some Muslim women, such as getting policed by men over wearing hijab and the experiences of going to mosque. "One time I went to a mosque where the speakers in the room for women weren't audible enough for me to hear the sermon," she says. "The purpose of going to the Friday prayers is to get spiritual revival. So why not just stay at home to get your soul revived?"

At her Johannesburg apartment, Maqhawe son and husband join us as she shares the importance of community as a Black African Muslim. Wrapped in a loosely tied black turban, a silver earring with an ankh—an ancient Egyptian symbol of life—pushes its way before the folds of her headscarf. Maqhawe writes out her poem The Colour Audacity, in which she defiantly calls out microaggressions and other behaviour that acts to erase her place in Islam as a Black African Muslim woman. "My Muslim name is Dineo. My mother has breathed these syllables of beauty into my skin… this is the colour I call audacity."


The 12 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Sarkodie, Cassper Nyovest, Elaine, Darkovibes, Stogie T, Phyno, C Natty, and more.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our best music of the week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow our SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS WEEK playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Check out all of OkayAfrica's playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

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Photo courtesy of CNOA

These Colombian Civil Rights Activists Are Fighting to Make Sure Afro-Colombians are Counted in the Census

When 30 percent of Colombia's Black citizens disappeared from the data overnight, a group of Afro-Colombian activists demanded an explanation.

It was the end of 2019 when various Black organizations protested in front of the census bureau—The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (DANE)—in Bogotá, Colombia to show their dissatisfaction about what they called a "statistical genocide" of the black population. The census data, published that year, showed 2.9 million people, only 6 percent of the total population of the country, was counted as "Afro-Colombian," "Raizal," and "Palenquero"—the various terms identifying black Colombians.

For many years, Afro-Colombians have been considered the second largest ethno-racial group in the country. Regionally, Colombia has long been considered the country with the second highest number of Afro-descendants after Brazil, according to a civil society report.

Why did the population of Afro-Colombians drop so drastically?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists protesting erasure of Afro-descendants in front of the census bureau.

Last year, a crowd of activists gathered in Bogota to protest what they saw as erasure of Black communities in the Colombian census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

In the latest national census report from 2018/2019, there appeared to be a 30.8 percent reduction of the overall group of people that identified as Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero, as compared to the 2005. After this controversial report, an Afro-Colombian civil rights organization known as the National Conference of Afro Colombian Organizations (CNOA), officially urged DANE to explain the big undercounting of the black population.

This wasn't a small fight. Representatives who hold the special seats of Afro-Colombians in Colombia's congress asked the census bureau to attend a political control debate at the House of Representatives in November 2019 to deliver an accountability report. "The main goal of doing a political debate was to demand DANE to give us a strong reason about the mistaken data in the last census in regard to the Afro population," said Ariel Palacios, an activist and a member of CNOA.

At the debate, the state released an updated census data report saying that, almost 10 percent of the Colombian population—4.6 million people out of 50.3 million—considers themselves Afro-Colombians or other ethnicities (like Raizal, and Palenquero). But despite DANE trying to confirm the accuracy and reliability on the latest census report it was clear that, for a variety of reasons, Black people were missed by the census. The state argued that their main obstacles with data collection were related to the difficulties of the self-recognition question, as well as security reasons that didn't allow them to access certain regions. They also admitted to a lack of training, logistics and an overall lack of success in the way the data collectors conducted the census.

How could they have counted Black populations better?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists playing drums in front of the census bureau.

Drummers performing during a protest against the Colombian census bureau's erasure of Afro-Colombians from the 2018 census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

These arguments were not reasonable for the civil rights activists, partially because the state failed to properly partner with Afro-organizations like CNOA to conduct or facilitate extensive informational campaigns about the self-identification questions.

"CNOA has worked on self-recognition and visibility campaigns among the Afro community and this census ignored our work," says priest Emigdio Cuesta-Pino, the executive secretary of CNOA. Palacios also thinks that the majority of Afro-Colombians are aware of their identity "we self-identify because we know there is a public political debate and we know that there is a lack of investment on public policies."

That's why it is not enough to leave the statistical data to the official census bureau to ensure that Afro-Colombian communities are fully counted in the country. And the civil rights activists knows that. They made a big splash in the national media and achieved visibility in the international community.

Thanks to The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Palacios traveled to D.C to meet with Race and Equality institution and a Democratic Congressman. "We called for a meeting with representative Hank Johnson to talk about the implementation of Colombia's peace accords from an Afro-Colombian perspective but also to address the gross undercounts of its black population," says Palacios.

For the activists at CNOA, the statistical visibility of the Black population is one of their battles. They have fought for Afro population recognition for almost two decades. "Since the very beginning CNOA has worked on the census issue as one of our main commitments within the statistical visibility of the Afro-Colombian people," says priest Cuesta-Pina. Behind this civil organization are 270 local associations, who work for their rights and collective interests.

The activists want to raise awareness on identity. Because according to Palacios, "In Colombia, there is missing an identity debate—we don't know what we are. They [the census bureau] ask if we are black, or if we are Afro-Colombians. But what are the others being asked? If they are white, mestizo or indigenous?" Palacios believes that for "CNOA this debate is pending, and also it is relevant to know which is the character of this nation."

Afro-Colombian Populations and the Coronavirus

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists use mock coffins and statistics to protest erasure of Afro-descendants

Colombian civil-rights activist insist that undercounting Afro-descendants can have a real impact on the health of Afro-Colombian communities, especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

Even though the state recently "agreed with to give us a detailed census report" and make a different projection with the micro data, says Palacios, now with the Covid-19 emergency, CNOA and the government has suspended all meetings with them, including cancelling a second congressional debate and the expert round table meeting to analyze the data.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in situations like the Covid-19 emergency where data analysis and an accurate census report would have been useful. According to the professor and PhD in Sociology Edgar Benítez from Center for Afro Diasporic Studies—CEAF, "Now it is required to provide a reliable and timely information on how the contagion pattern will spread in those predominantly Afro regions in the country and what is the institutional capacity in those places to face it," says Benítez.

He adds that this information is "critical at the moment because the institutional capacity is not up to provide it at the current situation". That's why the Center for Afro Diasporic Studies plans to work with DANE information from the last census. According to Benítez, "We are thinking of making comparisons at the municipal level with the information reported in the 2018 Quality of Life Survey, in order to have a robust and extensive database as possible on the demographic, economic and social conditions of the black, afro, Raizal and Palenquera population in Colombia."

News Brief
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Nigerian Officials Drop Charges Against Naira Marley for Violating Coronavirus Lockdown Order

The Nigerian star was arraigned on Wednesday for attending a party at the home of Nollywood actress Funke Akindele.

Naira Marley has been pardoned by Lagos authorities, after being arraigned in Lagos for attending a party at the home of Nollywood actress Funke Akindele last weekend, which violated the city-wide lockdown.

According to a report from Pulse Nigeria, the "Soapy" singer and two other defendants—politician Babatunde Gbadamosi and his wife—were ordered to write formal apologies to the Government of Lagos, give written assurance that he will follow the ordinance going forward, and go into self-isolation for 14 days.

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Photo by Bird Lambro

In Conversation With Cameroonian Drag Artist Bebe Zahara Benet: 'You Don't Stop Doing Your Work'

The U.S.-based Cameroonian artist speaks to us about her upcoming EP, Broken English, and how she's navigating the world of music amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Bebe Zahara Benet is three things: fierce. fabulous, and a force. For avid followers and fans of the reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, you may remember Bebe Zahara Benet as the winner of the inaugural season of the program back in 2009. Since then, she's gone on to star in TLC's Dragnificent and more recently, has been back in the recording studio working on her upcoming EP, Broken English.

Last week, she dropped "Banjo," the first single o the EP. It's a fun, energetic and uninhibited number that likens romantic pursuits to the sweet harmonies of the stringed instrument. Naturally, the accompanying music video is just as vibrant and light-hearted.

The Cameroonian drag artist moved to the United States when she was 19-years-old and has grown to see herself as belonging to two homes. She's put out a ton of music including including the EPs Face and Kisses & Feathers, as well as a number of singles including "Fun Tonite", "Get Fierce (Lose Yourself)" and "Starting a Fire." Currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she says that it's been two years since she's put out original music and it's time to give her fans what they've been asking for.

We spoke with Bebe Zahara Benet on lockdown from her home in Minneapolis, and got to hear more of what went into creating her upcoming project, the challenges of being an alternative artist from a conservative African country and how she's navigating the world of music during the coronavirus outbreak.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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