OkayAfrica's 100 Women
Image courtesy of Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro.

Beyond the Struggle: Trans Activist Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro on the Everyday Joys of Embracing Her Identity

Hailing from a country that criminalized queerness comes with its own challenges. But Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro is choosing to find the joy in her life as a trans women instead of dealing in the loneliness and trauma that can come with being a leading voice in the movement to change the status quo.

Protest comes in many forms. For some, it's marching in the streets with picket signs and bullhorns. For others, it's boycotting or petitioning. For Ugandan trans activist Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro, it's simply existing, fully and openly as herself.

Remaining hyper-visible on a continent where non-binary identity is shunned and sexual relations between people of the same sex remains illegal in a whopping 37 out of 54 countries according to Amnesty International, is in itself a radical act. Still, Kentaro has chosen to take her activism even further through her work as a storyteller, which she acknowledges as a tool for queer Africans to become the authors of their own histories.

In 2016 Kentaro starred in the groundbreaking documentary The Pearl of Africa, making her one of the first openly trans Ugandan women. At the time, however, the activist didn't fully realize how much of an impact the film would have. Instead, she says it was completely "organic" and humbly refers to it as a simple look into her everyday life. "I didn't even anticipate it having an impact in the community, and among my friends and family," she tells OkayAfrica "But [because of it] people have started having this conversation around transness."

Despite the obvious trials that she and other members of the LGBTQ community face in Uganda—where in 2013, the government moved to make same-sex relationships punishable by life imprisonment through its infamous Anti-homosexuality Act—Kentaro is quick to assert that her identity as a trans woman is not primarily rooted in struggle, but rather in the joy of living in one's truth. (One of those challenges came when Kentaro was forced to flee to Kenya from Uganda due to the legislation.) There is a quiet yet invincible power that arises from living in that truth, and for those traditionally deemed "other" by society, this is perhaps the most vocal activism there is.

We spoke with the OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree about her ongoing work with queer African youth, what it means to live life authentically, and the lasting and profound impact of The Pearl of Africa.

Kentaro on the taboo that remains around sexual identity on the continent:

My understanding is that Africa is still grappling with issues of sexuality and gender. Sexuality and gender represent two tools that the patriarchy uses to control people, and once that tool is let go of, then people can literally be anything they would like to be. I feel like the combination of sexuality and gender have been relegated to controversy and as issues to discuss for later, so it's difficult to have that conversation right now. Simply because [it] means that [LGBTQ] people could realize that they do have autonomy over their bodies. So, as it is now, it all feels like a matter of control.

On the cultural power of storytelling as a tool for the African LGBTQ community:

I think it is important when approaching the conversation around sexual education in Africa to use things that we have used to communicate as Africans. One of the ways we've been taught to communicate is through storytelling. My activism revolves around the use of film and art—using film as a tool to be able to tell stories. In my tribe in Western Uganda, we use stories and riddles, and that's how our culture has been passed on, through the telling of stories.

I feel that it is important for African queer people to start and continue owning and telling their own narratives, so that they become part of the narratives of this generation to be consumed later by the people in the future, and so that there are known plots of the struggle that is happening right now.

On the unexpected but lasting impact of The Pearl of Africa:

The Pearl of Africa wasn't meant to be as it ended up becoming. It was simply a shout from the darkness from a trans person who wanted to say something to the world, and to her community to say, "You are not alone, and because I can do this, you also can do this," because the collective experiences of trans people are relatable. [Since then] there's been a shift. I recently moved back home to Uganda and I realize that The Pearl of Africa has had an organic reach that I didn't even anticipate it having among the community, and among my friends, and family. But people have started having this conversation around transness.

Also, the thing for me was being authentic as people, and how seldom we are truly authenticated as people. We all individually go through an identity crisis, especially since we are faced with a world that tells us what we should be. In a way, that overshadows our own narrative of what we think we should be, and it's a struggle that everyone can identify with.

It's also about being able to fill a niche within Ugandan conversation about who are we as Ugandans, given our own socio-economic struggles. The Pearl of Africa has had that reach, and has been something that most Ugandans have been able to access.

I just got back home last August, and I was walking in town and minding my business and someone was like, "I know you. I watched you from this movie." And other people pick it up because of its name… and before they know it, it's serving as a means as an intermediary—they've brought it to their sitting rooms and they've had conversations.

On why she doesn't consider herself a spokesperson for trans people:

I've just had this conversation with my brother, and he was speaking about the things I have been able to achieve at may age and how I have thrown myself in dire situations, in which I could've died. I told him it wasn't about bravery or courage. It was about the effect of inaction, which meant that [if I did nothing] I would simply exist and not live. If I had done nothing about my life and not pushed, I would still be alive in this world, but I would not really be living, just existing. I would not be happy, I would not be fulfilled. All of the things I have pushed myself into have exposed me to the idea that I would rather not live my life any other way.

I wanted to live my life fulfilled—however long or short that life is.

In 2017 when I asked my government to change my name and gender on my passport, it was scary, no one had ever done it and I could have been arrested. Uganda is a very scary country. But I sat among a legal tribunal of 10 men, and explained to them what it means to be transgender. I explained to them what gender means, and spoke about my reality. These are people who have never had someone openly speak about these things with them in a space that's non-judgmental, and for the first time in history Uganda gave a transgender person a legal gender and name change.

It's such a monumental thing that happened, and a thing that can change when one person starts speaking. So, I feel like it's really a personal conviction to push yourself in those spaces. It does have an impact on one's life but also for the life of the community.

On how living life as an openly trans person impacts youth:

The tran-phobia I've felt, a huge part of it hasn't been physical violence towards me. It has been humiliation that has been verbal, that's been psychological. But I say that while respecting trans people who have dealt with physical abuse.

I grew up among very Christian friends and folk and I used to go Pentecostal church and I asked my girlfriends "how come you never minded me?" I used to sing praise and worship, I used to be a part of a youth group and in spite of doing all these things, I never turned down my queerness. I was very heavily queer. While going through these things it always baffled me. I wondered "How come people don't mind me." It was a pathological thought that if people minded, I would feel like a confirmed queer person.

So I asked them "why?" And that friend of mine told me that it's because "you walk in this world with your head held up so high. And with such a confidence that it makes the people who doubt you and think you're wrong think that it's them who are wrong to doubt that you should exist in this world as you are."

And that was the most powerful thing. And that is really my message to other youth who are struggling with existing in their authenticity and expressing themselves. Once you shrink and allow people to doubt who you are and to think that you are wrong. Once people see their wrongness, they will feel empowered to actually express their phobias.

And I think this is my message to trans people to be able to walk with that pride, and confidence and fullness of themselves in that habitation.

On looking beyond "the struggle" and the everyday joys of living in her truth:

When I speak about my life, I don't speak about it like its monotone. It's not a "one note" story. It's a mountain-high history that has high moments and low moments. Some moments are more eventful than others and some moments are pretty much uneventful.

Some of the things I celebrate are the wins I have been able to get with my family, being able to change their attitudes. For them to be able to understand what being trans means. I come from a family of five mothers. My father had children with five women, and we were twelve. We were really like that Cheaper By The Dozen movie.

Having to go one-by-one and change minds made me believe that change is possible, change can happen, it has nothing to do with religion and it has nothing to do with how someone was born. [It is about] being able to have that small impact within my ecosphere. It means that wherever my sisters, wherever my brothers are, they will not target people who may be like me. They have had a real, personal touch of what queerness means and what transness is. There is change that will happen because I have allowed myself to be vulnerable with them. And to be authentic before them even when it had an implication.

My family is like a Telenovela, they say things that you would be like, "Have these guys attended queer university?" I am speaking about my nephews and nieces who are like, 5 years old, who say "I want to be like Aunt Cleo."

[Another joy] is being able to advance career wise, being able to go to school and being able to choose my name and gender, which in my national ID was a huge challenge but mostly a huge win. I feel like most of my wins have been in my personal life. 'Cause that's my world, and I feel like I exist in a world that never questions me. I go to a church that knows I am transgender. We never discuss it, but they know I am transgender. It's not labeled a "queer church." Instead, it's a church that a trans person can walk in, praise, speaks with her pastor. No one is ever distracted. I mean, no one ever talks about it, 'cause no one has had to ever declare their sexuality when they come to church anyway.

For me, that's change. It's change in a place where if you're a minority, identity never becomes something that needs to be discussed. It is freedom to worship, or to work, or to access education—that's movement for me. That movement is happening, and I get to witness.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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