Reclaiming digital platforms for African feminists

Tiffany Mugo

The Hub of Loving Action in Africa (HOLAA), promotes conversations about African experiences with sex and sexuality.

Tiffany Mugo and Siphumeze Khundayi. Image credit TED.

Interview by
Rama Salla Dieng

Tiffany Kagure Mugo is co-founder and curator of HOLAA: a Hub of Loving Action in Africa, a pan-Africanist hub that tackles issues surrounding African sexuality. In the following interview she talks about the founding of the platform and the philosophy behind it.


RSD

How did you meet [co-founders] Christel Antonites and Siphumeze Khundayi, and what led you three to create HOLAA?

TM

It was the year 200 BC and the War of the Worlds was finally over … winter seemed so long that year. Kidding! We met in university. The other two were in a project called “Women Crossing the Line” and were doing the Lorde’s work as it were, leading conversations within the University of Cape Town around bodily autonomy and doing sex-positive work before it was cute. I was messing around with Siphumeze and that’s how I got to meet Christel, and how we all took to drinking wine together. That is how HOLAA was born. Like any great idea HOLAA came about from the wine-filled musing of three friends who, due to Dutch courage were sure they could change the world, or at least the blogosphere. We wanted to have a space on the internet that looked like us (African lesbians at the time, we weren’t woke to the diversity of sexuality then) and so decided to do what any university student with access to the internet would do. Start a blog. And once that was up and running, no blog is worth its salt without supporting social media platforms and fast forward a few years and a series of fortunate events later and now we are here being HOLAA. Whatever HOLAA is right now. We would like to lie and say that we did want to save the world, but really we did this for us. Because sexuality was a tricky and lonely space, in terms of visibility, and we would see ourselves in the mirror, even if we had to hold up that mirror ourselves. However, even when we realized we were grown now, and could wander out into the cruel world without HOLAA holding our hands. She had outgrown us by this time, and we realized the need for something like this in the wider world, so we kept going.

RSD

I like how you refer to HOLAA as “she.” You are a writer what do you think is the power of non-fiction? And how have your location, gender, and sexuality influenced your artistic choices?

TM

HOLAA is our baby. And just like a real child she takes time, energy, money, and keeps us up at night. Non-fiction is a way of using the stories of those around you to have a conversation, one rooted in reality, in something tangible. When someone writes about their story or that of others without coating it in a veil of fantasy, there is a way it hits harder in my opinion. Non-fiction is a tool that is available to everyone because everyone has a reality that they can draw from.

RSD

I have been following HOLAA, which provides a “space for women and gender-non-conforming people of all sexualities” and promotes sex-positive feminism. I particularly love reading your blog posts. You said the reasons for launching it in 2012 with two friends was: “Looking online, we realized there was very little for the African queer woman and her experience.” I can testify that there is no such space in the Senegalese digital sphere. What has been the three main challenges and achievements of the HOLAA journey since 2012?

TM

It has been a rollercoaster ride. So many ups and downs. Challenges are few and far between but when they come, they land like a shark attack. One of the major ones for me was group dynamics. HOLAA always attracted a bunch of different personalities and types of work ethic, and merging these was sometimes an absolute shit show. And because it has a flat structure in terms of leadership, it meant that sometimes there was great synergy and sometimes it was a battle ground. Another challenge was navigating the internet. As [Mark] Zuckerburg and his friends increasingly shut down the ability to be sex positive on the internet, it took some real mental gymnastics (and some friends in strategic places) to be able to run our online platforms, especially Instagram and Facebook. On Twitter, you can put as many titties as you want, same with Tumblr until the ban was set up. Because of this, we have to be extremely strategic about how we maneuver on the internet. We have been banned from more than one social media site, but we keep bouncing back.

In terms of achievements there is so much more to talk about because the tribe that has built this space made a whole bunch of things possible: from increasing the amount we publish to starting a podcast to publishing the works of queers from around the continent in both digital form and hard copy. We even have a book or two set to publish soon, which is exciting. The achievements far outweigh the challenges because we had the pleasure of working with so many incredible people, who brought so much flavor to our sauce. But if you were to twist my arm and make me rate our top four (I am taking four as a compromise) it would have to be the continuous growth of the social media platforms and site (especially Instagram), our safe sex and pleasure manual and workbook, the podcast The Wildness with Tiff and Manda, and our eight-country tour of our #PleaseHer sexual health and pleasure project.

RSD

How welcoming or unfriendly have African digital platforms been since 2012? How achievable is a pan-African queer feminist agenda, with digital platforms being potential “weapons of mass distraction,” to paraphrase Cornel West?

TM

Weapons of mass distraction. Damn. That’s a good one. I can understand that. I can understand that viewpoint, where there is so much on the internet you end up not being able to see what it is that is around you. However, the fact that there is so much on the internet means you can find copious amounts of what you need like, for example, African queer feminist content.

Granted the online space, like anything else, has its good sides and its bad sides. On the one hand we’ve seen mass censorship, the rise and rise of internet trolls and also social media being used to spread strange and dangerous ideas. On the other hand, the internet has allowed us to meet some of the greatest collaborators, our squad, our village. Without these digital platforms HOLAA would not have been able to grow the way she has. The online space allowed us to meet offline family. The space also gave us room to play, to invent and reinvent ourselves and also ideas that floated around to be made into a reality. From where we are standing, the internet is key to building the pan-African queer feminist agenda, because it allows for connections that might otherwise not happen. Not everyone is invited to the fancy conferences or works for the right organizations. Not everyone can jump on a plane and visit their faves in Cairo, Maputo or Accra. The internet is allowing for a level of access to each other that is unprecedented. It allows for levels of love and solidarity that our foreparents could only dream of. Now we can be in Johannesburg and “Stand with Stella Nyanzi” in Kampala. We can know what is happening with feminists in different parts of the world and we can build a network digitally that can manifest physically if and when the time comes. It allows you to find your tribe—as the kids and cool cats say.

RSD

I find it very difficult to reconcile my creative ambitions with other activities, how do you reconcile your work with HOLAA with your other activities?

TM

A lot of working at the weekends and team meetings over drinks. It also helps that my partner in HOLAA is also my partner in real life, so I have the space to nudge her at 6am and whisper “baby, we need figure out the Ghana trip/where we will print the safe sex manual/ what time we are having the meeting with X organization.” Sure, she hates it but it gets stuff done. Having your co-worker also be the person you share your house with can be extremely useful … or extremely detrimental to your work/life balance.

It also helps that we have managed to intertwine our work lives with our HOLAA lives, for example taking a work trip as a consultant to a country and at the same time doing a workshop on safe sex and pleasure in the same place. Merging the two worlds has made it easier to balance, whilst also having the freedom to chop and change things to suit where we are at in life. Right now, being in school means less time to travel so bippity boppity boop, our internet presence has gone up to replace our offline activities.

RSD

If you were to cite three life lessons that you learned from curating a digital platform for queer sex-positive feminists, what would those be?

TM

One, have your squad: Having people you can call on to write/tweet/create a project with is so important because they will be able to check you when you get problematic and support your wildness when needed.

Two, try something new: The thing about sex and sexuality is we tend to get stuck in old ways. Old ways of viewing ourselves and others. Old ways of thinking. Old ways of being. Gold star lesbian, missionary position is the position, bisexuals are greedy, eating ass isn’t right. The thing about doing work within the queer sex-positive realm is half the work is breaking down old ways of thinking and building new ones. So, this takes doing things in a new and innovative way. Have a #FreakyFriday, start a podcast about two random African queer women talking about sex, have a safe sex and pleasure manual and spread it like wildfire, have a Kenyan lesbian do the graphics. Do new things. Breaking out of the box might mean you aren’t always invited to the party but when you are, you are the life of it.

Three, have fun: sex is such a taboo. Sexuality is an even bigger one, especially when you are dealing with alternative sexualities. So, people take them very seriously. Which they should, but that does not mean you cannot have fun. People often think that if something is bright and colorful then it is not serious about what it is doing. Just because you do a live tweet about eating pussy like a champ does not mean you are not serious about sexual health. But you are. And often this makes you more accessible and your information easier to digest. People will remember to use a dental dam if the advice comes in the form of a meme, or a sexy Instagram pic. Make space for the silly and sometimes function in fun.

RSD

I admire the work you, and others are doing through digital platforms such as Adventures from the bedrooms of African women that I discovered in 2008, to promote sex-positive feminism. I also really enjoyed your powerful TED talk in which you explain your passion for “making sure people had the orgasms and conversations that elude them whilst being given the comprehensive healthy knowledge of sexuality.” What inspired you this resolve and passion?

TM

Nana and Adventures are life! Nana is actually one of the key people in my past who gave me a boot up the backside and got me deeper into writing and also into understanding how to run HOLAA. Adventures showed me the need for spaces that spoke about sex in a positive way as well as through an African lens, as most sex education and sex-positive stuff was from far away and seemed to lose some nuance and contextual understanding on its journey over here. The sex-positive aspect of my work grew both from running HOLAA and realizing that writing about sex on the internet was something that I could actually do, whereas before I tended to stick to political commentary. The sex-positive aspect of my work grew out of focusing on sexuality within HOLAA, realizing that even though the queers were rumored to all be having mind-blowing sex, very little was actually known about sex. Especially safe sex. And the more we realized we, personally, had a lot to learn, the more we realized our HOLAA community had a lot to learn and eventually we realized that, in fact, everyone had a lot to learn. From this realization HOLAA’s focus on sexual health and pleasure grew very organically. Initially we just wanted to house queer stories, but eventually we found ourselves discussing sex both online and offline, spending copious amount of time asking people 
“what chu know about consent?”

RSD

Which feminist movies have you recently seen and what are your thoughts on it?

TM

I have to admit to being a bad feminist and not having watched any lately … or if I can remember. I am generally that feminist who isn’t drowning in feminist literature, academia or movies and things. I did watch a couple of Netflix shows and movies that passed the Bechdel test. Does that count? I tend to operate of the periphery of most “spheres” I belong to, be they queer circles, feminist circles, literary circles. I know just enough to keep my membership up to date, but other than that it’s dystopian societies, magical realms and sci-fi odysseys all the way. If someone has to save the world by going into space, I am there.

RSD

What acts of radical self-care do you practice?

TM

I am currently in the market for a new self-care routine after I recently went down with a serious case of stress without even knowing it. Clearly my last self-care regime was more like a placebo than an actual healing balm. My body essentially was like “it’s a hard no from me.” So, for now, my “radical” self-care regime is making sure I do not take on too much, even when it is fun and exciting and a whole vibe. Learning to say no to the things I desperately want to say yes to. And maybe Pilates. Definitely lemon water.

About the Interviewee

Tiffany Mugo is a co-founder of Hub of Loving Action in Africa (HOLAA).

About the Interviewer

Rama Salla Dieng guest edited the "Talking back: African feminisms in dialogue" series and is on the faculty of the University of Edinburgh.

Further Reading