Njoki Njehu on inequality and African Feminism: Podcast + transcript

October 4, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

I interviewed feminist inequality activist Njoki Njehu, Pan-African Coordinator for the Fight Inequality Alliance, at a recent meeting in Nairobi. Here’s some excerpts:

The Fight Inequality Alliance is a broad alliance and has everybody, the big INGOs like Oxfam, and local organizations like Dandora Hip Hop City – how do you manage the power relations when you come around the table? I say it’s a dance where no-one really knows the steps. The small organizations are so used to looking up to organizations like Oxfam or Greenpeace that it takes a while for people to believe that they have equal standing.

Some people in the INGOs get this better than others. I want to pay particular tribute to Winnie (Byanyima, Oxfam International’s outgoing Executive Director). We were part of a FIA delegation to Norway last year, and we got a lot of doors opened, including meeting the prime minister, because Winnie was there. And she modelled it – said ‘listen to these people, because they know it better than I do.’ And then the Norwegians started to see the other people in the room.

One of our members, Dandora Hip Hop City, is based in the biggest rubbish dumpsite in Nairobi. When you go there, you can see the garbage mountain, you can smell it. But if you are paying attention you see messages, graffiti, art on all kinds of things like peace and youth – you have to realize you are going there not as a saviour, as someone with the answers, but out of solidarity, coming to listen and learn.

What kinds of inequality matter most in Africa? The issue that brought me to the FIA table was women’s land rights, the fact that women in Africa produce 70-80% of the food consumed in rural areas, but hold title to less than 6% of the land. It’s about power, the economy – if you have land, you can go to a bank, take out a loan. Even for something as simple as a visa, you have to prove you have ties to make sure that you come back. A title deed can do that.

Health is an issue, education is an issue – all of them perpetuate inequalities. As a woman, I will experience a violation of my land rights, limited access to education, go to a hospital that doesn’t have the services I need, live in a community that doesn’t have water or garbage collection. So when we are looking at inequality, I may be at an organization that works on land rights, but all these other issues also affect me. The siloes don’t make sense.

We just did an FIA video (below) and interviewed 4 activists. One of them was in a young man named Javan the Poet, who raps. His main issue is extra-judicial killings because in his community young men are being arrested and killed by the police. But when we interviewed him he was very eloquent about women’s land rights, because his mum was dispossessed of her land.

What is different about African feminism? It is both simple and complicated to talk about. The fundamental issues about feminism are about power. So in discussing African feminism, you have to look at the multiplicity of oppressions, even between women. The issues of white privilege, of economic privilege, all come into play. We see it all the time. For example, take the Commission on the Status of Women, at the UN in New York every March. Hundreds of African women are denied visas to the US for that meeting. If you have a UK passport, that’s not a worry. So young women who could have given a lot, gained a lot, can’t take part.

Imagine if Greta Thunberg had been a Zambian young woman, so much would have been closed off to her. She wouldn’t have got that much attention, she wouldn’t have been able to go to New York.

That would not have been possible for a young African woman without extreme effort, emotion and all of those things. It would probably happen in the end, someone like Oxfam vouches for you, but it takes so much effort!

There was a book that was very popular in the 80s called ‘sisterhood is global’ but as people began to unpack that they thought ‘ah, not so much’. For African feminists, in terms of how we approach different issues, with our own agency, analysis, understanding of the situations in which we work. The kinds of things an American feminist can do to express their feminism are very different from an African.

How you confront power on things like how you dress can be very different – this is my here and now. Our mothers and grandmothers standing up to their husbands and saying ‘you’re not going to take a second wife’. Or the ‘my dress my choice’ protests when women were being stripped on public transport, accused of dressing ‘indecently’. We have to assert the right to self define as African feminists.

October 4, 2019
Duncan Green