Poetry is Not a Luxury: Art, Activism & Peacebuilding

I was no captive dove
on a flight of fancy flouting
and flaunting a plumage
of atrophied wings
I knew the cost of flight
the craft of steering clear of glass
– Marion Bethel, “Tobacco Dove” from Bougainvillea Ringplay


When Bahamian women’s rights activist Marion Bethel saw poet and The Color Purple author Alice Walker read in London, her life was fundamentally revolutionized. “I was memorized, fixated, captivated,” she told The Nassau Guardian. She dropped out of her law school exams and spent the summer writing a book of poetry. The experience taught her an invaluable lesson: “That writing was a way to be a cultural activist.

Bethel went on to write a second book of poetry; write, direct and produce a documentary – Womanish Ways: Freedom, Human Rights & Democracy 1934 to 1962 – on Bahamian women’s suffrage; and serve on the Committee of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. She sees her art and activism as inexorably intertwined, and creative expression as a way to ensure that the stories of women fighting for peace and justice aren’t lost to the generations to come. In an interview with Peace is Loud, she told us:

My community in the Bahamas and the Caribbean was shaped both by the injustices of genocide, the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism, and by the struggles of my ancestors and foreparents for freedom, human rights and social justice. My engagement in peace work is about confronting these injustices through activism and art and affirming the imagination, creativity and work of my community in social transformation.

This kind of social transformation is exponentially enhanced by art, which has the ability to cross socioeconomic and geographical borders like few mediums of its kind. History can be selective, favoring the voices of the loud and powerful, but art is a great equalizer, ensuring that everyone has a voice. To be truly inclusive, movement-building needs a creative mechanism that does not discriminate based on education, income, or one’s place in a power structure.

Poet and women’s rights activist Sonya Renee Taylor, Founder of The Body is Not an Apology, echoes this sentiment in an interview with Autostraddle:

…Art is an essential element of how we make the messages of activism accessible and how we invite new people into the dialogue and how we open up new minds to the issues. Everybody isn’t going to go to the lecture, everybody is not going to go to the 400 level class, everybody is not going to go to a protest. But you can find someone at the spoken word event, at the art gallery, picking up a poet’s book, and being changed by what they hear or read. It’s a more subversive way to change the minds of the masses.

Taylor’s peace activism comes in the form of fighting against the physical and emotional violence inflicted onto our bodies, and viewing self-love as a radical form of healing and justice. Her movement began from the tremendous response to her spoken word poem, The Body is Not an Apology, which led her to start a digital media and education company of the same name. The Body is Not an Apology now reaches half a million people each month with the powerful message: “We believe that discrimination, social inequality and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others.

American Muslim author and gender activist Samina Ali also sees art as a way of opening minds, as well as eliminating stereotypes and bridging divides. As the curator of the International Museum of Women’s virtual exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices, Samina illuminated the multi-dimensional realities of women’s lives to challenge fears and misconceptions of Muslims and Islam within and beyond Muslim communities. There could not be a more poignant time for this kind of project. Regarding the exhibit, Samina told us:

The sad reality is that many of us have grown accustomed to –- and comfortable with –- seeing Muslim women portrayed as victims. Yet each and every one of the women included in the exhibition is noteworthy — a cutting-edge artist or writer, a revolutionary who is upending her community’s and the world’s limited notions of what a Muslim woman is capable of doing, a pioneer fighting for women’s and girls’ rights. It’s these women who are the answer to extremism, who are leading the global jihad for peace!

Samina hopes that through Muslima and stories like those in her novel, Madras on Rainy Days, audiences and readers will discover that building peace is a process that comes from dismantling misconceptions, especially those attached to women. Madras on Rainy Days, which was the winner of France’s prestigious Prix Premier Roman Etranger Award and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in Fiction, focuses on a young woman’s arranged marriage and political awakening in a poignant, deeply personal way.

I believe that change must begin from within,” she said. “But we don’t suddenly change. We change because we see a piece of art that moves us to imagine a world we hadn’t believed possible before.

In its purest form, art is not simply entertainment – it is a conduit for sharing life experiences, connecting people across divides, and, as the women here have shown, building the path forward to the peaceful and equitable future we all deserve.

#BeBoldForChange: Lerato the Youth Advocate

To mark International Women’s Day 2017, I have conducted a series of interviews celebrating women I feel have had positive influence on society. The third woman is Lerato Morulane.

I‘m Lerato, a 21 year-old youth development advocate from Pretoria, South Africa.  My advocacy focuses on the areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), HIV prevention, substance abuse prevention, LGBTI rights and youth participation within the Sustainable Development Goals and African Union’s Agenda 2063.

I started my activism work at the age of 12 in Atteridgeville, in the west of Pretoria, focusing on sexual violence the community.  Later, I worked on a teenage pregnancy awareness programme with two secondary schools in Atteridgeville. I serve as a member of the African Youth and Adolescent Network for Eastern and Southern Africa, and I also serve as the Chairperson of the National Campaign for Young Women and Girls in South Africa; SHE CONQUERS. Apart from advocacy, activism and my academic background in mechanical technology, I am determined to pursue a Law degree, with fervent intentions of becoming the African Union Chairperson!

  1. What does it mean to you to be a bold woman in the year 2017?

Being a bold young Pan African woman means being able to merge my feminism with my African roots. It means allowing others to explore safe practices in terms of SRHR and also being able to educate other young people that there is nothing wrong with being different or doing things differently. What matters in life is what makes you happy, and being able to be bold but humble.

  1. What important roles do you think women around you, including yourself, play in society?

Women are able to bring people together. They are the ones who can end new HIV infections if they stand together in solidarity. Women are able to end a lot of the social ills within and outside our continent because they can come up with innovative solutions.

  1. How does your career or job you do show that women are capable of achieving excellence?

It shows that women are capable of leading at the back. My job requires me to be vigilant, observant, and creative whilst also being a team player. There is no self-made woman though, and so in order to reach your goals you need to be able to communicate with others and believe in their abilities too.

  1. What mistake (s) have you made in life that you think young girls could learn from?

I used to doubt my abilities and believed that maturity comes with age, however, I’ve learnt that you don’t need other people to approve what you can do. Every day is a learning curve and never compare yourself with the others but keep on beating your own record every day.

  1. What advice do you have for young girls who want to be as bold as you are?

Never be ashamed of where you come from. Find something you love and work on it until you excel because people will always belittle you and try to bury you – show them that you are a seed and grow to be a better person. Never search for perfection in another person or be ashamed of your body, the perfect body is what is staring back at you.

  1. What changes do you hope to see, with regard to economic, social and leadership inclusion of women, in the next 10 years?

One of my goals is to become the African Union Chair and what I would like to see is equity. Many people put women in leadership positions because it is mandatory or a policy, not because women are capable. Therefore, they end up with women who have no passion or interest for that position. Women must choose what they want to do and not be forced into being something because of policies and laws.

Follow Lerato on Twitter:  @leray1995

Cover photo credit: Dakota Corbin

#BeBoldForChange: Shakira the Young Health Leader

To mark International Women’s Day 2017, I have conducted a series of interviews celebrating women I feel have had a positive influence on society. The second woman is Shakira Choonara.

As a young South African (27-years-old), my passion and goals are centered on improving health systems, especially in low-and-middle-income settings. I am presently pursuing a PhD (public health) and working towards my ultimate dream of becoming the next Minister of Health in SA, or perhaps even being the President of our beautiful nation! As a qualified demographer, I have worked and continue to work on several aspects of healthcare in various regions of the world. I’d describe myself as an academic or researcher by day, though by night and in any spare time I engage in activism around anti-racism, disability rights and broader development issues.

1. What is the special thing in your life that makes you feel bold?

Boldness undoubtedly emanates from your dreams and aspirations. We all have our dreams and since I was six years old my dream was to be the President of South Africa. I still recall the laughter it often attracted from teachers, my classmates and just about everyone I met. But my dreams give me purpose every day, perhaps not be the president specifically, but to be a leader and to better the lives of ordinary citizens because I simply cannot live and accept inequality, discrimination, and injustice. Secondly, the support and encouragement from family, friends and my mentors play a great role in spurring me on! Finally, accolades and recognition are definitely emboldening, like being named the European Development Days Young Leader for Health in 2015.

2. What does it mean to you to be a bold woman in the year 2017?

Despite the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), over time we are witnessing the erosion of democracy, unity, dignity and a loss of respect for human rights. It easy to fall into the trap of silence, neutrality and ignorance of these injustices but in order to truly foster change in 2017 and beyond it will take truly bold women across the different spheres of society to stand up against ever-growing discrimination.

3. What important roles do you think women around you, including yourself, play in society?

There is, of course, great success to be noted amongst high-flying executives and women at the helm of major global institutions. However, I believe it is ordinary women, especially those in low-paying jobs, who make the greatest contribution to the functioning of our societies. It is the domestic-workers/ cleaners, women in agriculture, childminders and stay-at-home mothers who are often not recognised yet should be thought of as the backbone of growth and development in our societies.

4. How does your career or job you do show that women are capable of achieving excellence?

Throughout my career, I have interacted with a range of truly inspiring individuals both globally and nationally. Through interaction with World Health Organisation Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, at the European Development Days in 2015 and watching her in action at Women Deliver 2016, I was struck by her achievements, leadership and contributions to global health. European Union (EU) high level representative Federica Mogherini is another woman at the forefront of the global political sphere who is an epitome of female excellence.

5. What mistake (s) have you made in life that you think young girls could learn from you? 

Bold women make no mistakes and we live with no regrets but only reflections of lessons learned and the way forward!

6. What advice do you have for young girls who want to be as bold as you are?

The word impossible should never exist in the mind or vocabulary of a bold woman, do not ever underestimate the power of your strength, your voice and perspectives as a young person and stop at nothing to achieve your dreams!

7. What changes do you hope to see, with regard to inclusion of women, in the next 10 years?

Youth, no matter their expertise, qualifications or proven capabilities, continue to be exploited, constrained and excluded from managerial positions or even development discussions. Over the next ten years these barriers must be broken down to unleash and draw on the energy, potential and innovation of youth especially young women from across the world!

Follow Shakira on Twitter: @ChoonaraShakira

Cover photo credit: Shakira Choonara

#BeBoldForChange: Tshepy the Journalist Turned Entrepreneur

To mark International Women’s Day 2017, I have conducted a series of interviews celebrating women I feel have had positive influence on society. The first woman is Tshepy Matloga.

My name is Tshepy Matloga, a 30 year-old South African journalist turned entrepreneur. I am the founder of Chronicles Media Group (South Africa) and co-founder of Encore Creatives PR and Events (Malawi). At the moment I alternate between South Africa and Malawi. When I am not working I read – I am an avid reader of African literature. I have been an entrepreneur for three years and since then I’ve been selected as one of the 100 brightest young minds in South Africa, the 20 most influential young people in SA, and I am a Nelson Mandela Institute of Development Studies (MINDS) alumni. I have also been featured on international mediums such as True Love magazine and She Lead Africa. I am also a founder of Malawi’s only women’s business and lifestyle magazine Inde, which was born last year. My ultimate biggest goal in life is to one day become the president of South Africa.

  1. What is the special thing in your life that makes you feel bold?

My identity. About three years ago I left my job and decided to venture into entrepreneurship with no money and definitely no collateral to ensure I got a bank loan as a startup capital. I remember marveling through the Book of Chronicles in the Bible. This is a book I draw motivation from when I need to recharge. I had spent years helping people set up their businesses and I felt that at that moment God was communicating with me to say, it’s time to create your own path. I started a media company, Chronicles Media Group.

  1. What does it mean to you to be a bold woman in the year 2017?

I come from a society that spent years entrenched in racism and patriarchy. I am grateful for the women who shattered the glass ceiling and paved a way for me to be able to dream in colour today. Women like Miriam Tladi, Lillian Ngoyi, and Charlotte Maxeke who lived a purposeful life. Because of these women, today I have a voice that is not interrupted when I speak.

  1. What important roles do you think women around you, including yourself, play in society?

I was raised by my mother and her siblings. Three gentle giants, I call my mothers. They have taught me without saying a word that when women collaborate, we can raise men and women of substance. Because of the values they instilled in me, I now mentor young ladies who want to venture into entrepreneurship as a career.

  1. What mistake (s) have you made in life that you think young girls could learn from?

Allowing people to box me in their idea of what a ‘good’ woman should live her life like. Don’t let obligations dictate how you live your life – there is no happiness in living your life on society’s terms and I learned the hard way. Don’t think you’re on the right path just because it’s a well-paved path. With age, I have learned that we are the ones who live with our choice, not our parents and definitely not society, therefore never choose the crowd to the detriment of your happiness

  1. What advice do you have for young girls who want to be as bold as you are?

We are lucky to be living in an era where the world is filled with opportunities for women to make a difference in the world. Find your purpose and pursue it regardless of how difficult the journey may be. I believe that in one way or the other, we are all here to leave the world a much better place than we found it.

  1. What changes do you hope to see with regard to economic, social and leadership inclusion of women in the next 10 years?

Seeing  more women taking up leadership and entrepreneurship positions all over the world. I dream of a world where women won’t have to fight for inclusion in decision making, because equality will be a norm.  A world where women don’t get violated and disrespected, and where boys grow up to be men who are taught the importance of treating women as equals.

Follow Tshepy on Twitter: @tshepy

Cover photo credit: Tsephy Matloga