African Media and Misrepresentation: A Queer Battle

Words and Image: Katlego K Kol-Kes

Africa’s media perpetuates homophobia and rouses community unrest and irrational fears. In a recent article, the Gazette insert, ‘Time Out’, added Botswana to a list of countries where this statement is proven fact.

So much has happened in Africa in the past three months: we’ve seen Kenyans maliciously murdered, foreign Nationals brutalised in South Africa, a stronger stance taken on Rhino poaching, and a Presidential misstep turned into a viral, cyber trend. So much has happened, yet so little has changed when it comes to LGBT representations in our local media.

In his acceptance speech at the GLAAD, Ugandan Trans* Man, Pepe Julian Onziema said “back home the media is our worst enemy”, and this fell on the empathetic ears of approbatory Westerners. Unfortunately, these weren’t the words of someone looking to mar a reputable trade, but the testimony of someone who’s seen how media interest defaces the LGBTI community in Africa. It was in 2011 that we saw the full effect of how media is capable of raising people’s emotions higher than necessary when concerning LGBT interest pieces. David Kato, a Ugandan Gay Activist, was killed after being outed in an article which may have been seen as ‘public service’.

When the tabloid newspaper, Rolling Stone, published an article outing Kato as a homosexual and calling for homosexuals to be killed, the editors couldn’t have thought their call would be answered in action. To believe that any practitioner, understanding the responsibility of upholding human dignity could insight malicious acts knowingly is a frightening thing. Yet it seems African media outlets don’t mind writing pay cheques with human blood.

Recently, ‘Kenya’s Most Authoritative Political Newspaper’, the Weekly Citizen, published a cover story titled: Top gays, lesbians list in Kenya out. This comes after Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid published their cover story: EXPOSED! Uganda’s 200 Top Homos Named , on 25 February 2014 after the initial instatement of what was called ‘the Bahati Homosexuality Law.’

Western media shunned the witch-hunt style headlines as violations against human rights, but it was only so that they could sit on horses high enough not to see the bodies of the other Africans they were trampling upon. The common cry in Africa is that western media doesn’t invest in accurate portrayals of Africa, and this results in ignorance on the progress being made on the continent. This cry, though, is subjective and only applied to the heteronormative majority. When foreign press covers a story on homosexuality in Africa, for example, it is this very majority that claims the west is imposing its ideas and loose morals on young Africans and leading to the erosion of traditions and cultures.

I recently fell victim to the ignorant African media machine. After a long telephone conversation with a journalist – in which I had detailed all the information available and warned that nothing be taken out of context due to the sensitivity of the matter at hand – I was alarmed to find the article on the front page under a sensational title. Though I had expressly stated that the Queer Shorts Showcase Festival is an initiative to address issues of sexuality and culture as they operate in Botswana, the journalist, or her editor, opted for a more eye catching title: Homosexual Festival Billed For Thapong.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe the level of betrayal I was feeling. Beyond feeling like a herdboy who’d lost the prize bull to jackals at the mouth of the kraal, I found myself laughing like a lunatic in Mugg & Bean, Riverwalk, at lunch time. What made it even worse was that I had received a message from my mother in the morning when I woke up reading: “Your festival is on the front page of the Gazette, I saw your face on the front cover!” As one of the most important people in my life, I ensure that my mother is kept abreast of all the work that I am doing, and the festival is no secret. The main issue is that in order to give her time to process some things and not cause her to worry for my personal safety, I am purposefully explanatory when talking about it. This headline presented me with a challenge because I only got to see it after my mother, and newspaper readers across the whole country, had already seen it and read the article.

The contents of the article weren’t anything new, simply pulled from the press brief which is hosted on the festival’s official blog, the Facebook page, as well as the media blog for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Though there were attempts to repackage the words, the construction was still the same as what our publicity team carefully crafted to stop people from misrepresenting our efforts towards community development.

By placing my face with the article, it has put me in a situation much like that which got David Kato killed. This isn’t the first time my face has been used with my ARTivist work  but the first with such a misinformed title. I feel like I have been left defenseless against the layman who doesn’t have access to the internet and doesn’t have the patience to read an article – and so reads headlinesand looks at pictures. I don’t blame that person because that is what I do as well when I am fishing for quick updates. I put the blame here on irresponsible journalism since there is absolutely no regard for what some words raise in our contemporary, religion fuelled society.

As a church going person, I am well aware of how small our national community really becomes when you split it according to different social circles. There are the people I meet at the Cathedral, who I then meet when I am hosting events, and then I run into some other people when I am performing, and there are those who I will only see when I am at exclusive gatherings. I have long understood how to compartmentalise my life because I have to deal with humans on a daily basis.

Though I have crafted my compartmentalisation skills, this has never stopped the circles from overlapping and it is with this understanding that I ensure that there is never anything one can say to the other which will appear to be scandalous. Let it be understood that I am not talking about completely censoring my life. I work knowing that should my student refer to me as ‘she’ when talking to his parent, and then his parent discusses me with the principal saying ‘do you know what the students call him?’, I ensure that the principal is equipped enough to correct the parent and explain the error without resorting to quick-n-easy ‘born in the wrong body’ explanations.

I have had to work diligently to ensure that the pronouns used in articles and interviews are correct, that captions are closely observed, and that my story isn’t simply subsumed into a westernise-able narrative – as is the current case of Mmusi Maimane, the “Obama of Soweto”  . This hard work is very easily dismantled by one instance of misrepresentation by a media house which has far greater reach than all my social media profiles multiplied tenfold. I therefore wear my scarlet letter and face the speculations which aren’t viewed as speculation because since it was in black and white it should be completely reliable and true – unfortunately calling to mind the recent debacle involving the very same media house.

There is a particular reason why I prefer video and radio interviews and that is because there is a truth and immediacy about them that makes distortion very difficult for those with ulterior motives. In the build up to the Queer Shorts Showcase Festival, I have been riddled with anxiety and fluctuating faith in Gaborone’s community since the song on replay is ‘Botswana isn’t ready’ to support the work that this festival is about. However, I have called off support from foreign lands in order to maintain the focus in the country and on the capital city. I have thanked potential foreign investors for their interest and suggested that their carrying of our message is of greater value to the people on the ground than a donation of USD 5,000.00.

Learning from the Uganda narrative of “US led homophobia”, I am a firm believer in the fact that Batswana still have access to the principle of botho and this compassion is what is going to lead a whole movement of cross generational champions for equality. My utopic outlook on life, however, is consistently being demeaned by the realists who believe in the power of money to change the minds of millions rather than the minds of millions changing the power money has over them. Money, here, obviously gets your arms further reach and your message greater volume.

I am gravely disappointed in the journalism exhibited in this case in particular, and I sincerely believe this is the exact reason why courses like Kat Kai Kol-Kes International’s Gender Sensitization for Media and Hospitality Practitioners are fundamental to today’s society. The power of words has grown stronger since the popularization of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” As people who operate with language and rely on words to communicate our messages in succinct manners, we must always be careful of what we say and how it could live beyond our control.

I am excited for those who attend the festival hoping to see a homosexual display because they will be sorely disappointed to find that we are truly dealing with human factors of self acceptance, self knowledge, relations between people, culture and liberation from self persecution. It is our sincere hope that the Queer Shorts Showcase Festival manages to achieve its goal to “Build Minds and Open Hearts”, and leave the speculation and sensationalist of the very important topic of LGBTI livelihoods and youth security in Botswana to those who’d sooner sell papers and ignore the age old idiom: ‘the truth will out.’

Katlego K Kol-Kes is an ARTivist, Writer, theatre producer and founder of the Queer Shorts Showcase Festival based in Gaborone. She loves motogo wa madila and has a weakness for Janet Jackson. Her writing spans lifestyle and human interest features, poetry, and music. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, her blog  and via her website.