(Koko, Udo, Karwitha, Mercy, Kabi and Waiyaki) Conversations With Queer Africans On Family and Friendship

A series of interviews done over Instagram, voice notes and calls with beloved strangers. Each respondent is in conversation with Angel Lovely and in turn, in conversation with each other. This is a documentation of possibility and reality. Queer African folk on the continent mull on queer friendship and family. We get to live such lives. People like us can choose. You are dearly loved. 

Q. What is family to you? 

Koko: I’ve grown up thinking family was one way; the people that I grew up around, the people that raised me. As a queer person, I’m very aware that the idea of family isn’t what I’m going to carry on through my life. Those people aren’t going to stay with me through the whole thing. My family is going to be my friends, people I’ve met along the way that I want to keep close to my heart. There are no specific criteria. It’s not about a biological or blood bond. 

If I feel that you’re someone I want to carry on and do life with then that person is going to be part of my family. As a queer person, being in countries that are so loud about rejection of queerness, you need a community that is just as loud about supporting you and many people aren’t comfortable with doing that even if it’s just as being an ally. Many people won’t show up for you. They won’t be loud for you and so finding people who are willing to do what they can to take care of you and to ensure your safety is going to be really difficult because the countries we come from, doing that means putting yourself in danger.

Udo: Family is my community, my safe space, the loves of my life. 

Mercy: People who are able to see you clearly. Able to see you fully, to extend sustained grace, to be continuously curious about who you are, who you’ve been, who you are becoming, to help support who you’d like to be, to hold you accountable about the promises that you make to yourself, about the promises that you make to the network, the community of people. It’s something that, for me, has definitely grown in definition, based on my experiences, to be more than just people that you’re related to by DNA, or people that you’ve happened to live with all of your life because you happen to be related to them. It’s a very intricate intimacy. I think that it’s something that is built over time with a lot of intention, with a lot of vulnerability.

Karwitha: The home that you have with yourself, the people that you’ve expanded that to. Choosing each other in a very material way also. Like we’ll think about insurance together. I always kind of have you in mind, if I’m ever thinking about something like that. ‘Cause I feel like the people I feel like family with, that’s what we offer each other. You’re in my plans.

Waiyaki: Family is a thing that is fairly contentious in my life right now and has been for the last couple of years. And this for me, is directly tied to queerness. A big part of my coming out story, which I detest by the way. God, the violence that it is to be required to quantify my existence and experience into words. 

Having that as a static face, a static mask. When in reality, I’m so dynamic, I’m so much, I’m so many. The violence of having to render yourself visible to heteronormativity and to people who exist within the paradigm of heteronormativity. Having to define and delineate and describe who and what I am was always a very tough process for me. I’m such a being in motion. 

I don’t know how to hold a face. There’s a lot about me that’s not very legible. That’s not easy to read. I think it’s very hard to be required to put into words some of those things. To have it asserted that all you are is what you can put into words. It was a rocky relationship with my relatives. And so I thought the people that gave birth to me couldn’t be family. Family means no one gets left behind. When I think of family, I feel hungry and I think that that’s an accurate description of what place I feel like family has in my life right now. I feel alone most of the time. I don’t really feel like I have around me family or community right now. It almost feels like there’s not enough people around me right now for us to be a family. 

Q. What do you dream of family and community?

Udo: Acceptance and accountability for your actions and who you are. Cominge as you are and being accepted.

Mercy: To share space more with more immediacy and proximity.

Koko: My dreams of family is closeness with people.

Kabi: My chosen family is phenomenal and has exceeded my dreams. They are so expansive. They are phenomenal individuals, and more. Everyone is experiencing their own version of reality based off of their understanding of different things. The beauty of finding community is you’re in a space where a lot of bits of your reality are shared. My dream of community is where I am surrounded by more people where we have common shared realities. 

Waiyaki: I see softness. I feel welcome. I feel wanted. I feel like there is a space for me. There is a place for me. At the dining table, metaphorical or otherwise, there is a place for me. I am invested in their wellness. I am invested in their fullness. In the fullness of their being. In their coming into their freedom. In their coming into love. In their coming into their understanding of themselves and of others and in their coming into being understood. I love and I am loved. I care and I am cared for. I feed and I am fed. I am fed. I am full. I can be. We all can be. We all can be ourselves, our full selves, the fullness of our complexities and contradictions. There is no shame here. There is no guilt here. There is no fear here. We wind each other so deeply in love, that there is no space to fear. There is no space to be afraid, not of ourselves, not of each other, not of the world around us even. We are protected by our love, by the circle that we hold here with each other.

Karwitha: To cultivate the kind of personhood that means I show up in ways that invite freedom and love. My dreams are that I continue to embark on arriving there. A recent dream I’m watching unfold is, I’m recently very into the concept of growing older. And I want to be that one person in your network of community whose house people who are going mad or heartbroken, can come. They can just come and lose their mind in peace. If you’re feeling like your life is over, come let’s have a sweet ending, if that’s really what the feeling is. And we’ll see what the wind and some love can do. I really want that. I’m surprised by how much I want that. Cause like when we’re together, the force field gets stronger. That feels very much like a life you’d want to stay and grow old in. People you choose the same world with.

Q. What dreams have you manifested that you had for family?

Mercy: I think I’ve always wanted to have multiple people that I can look at and be like “I have had a long term closeness with these people.” I don’t know that it’s something I necessarily manifested. I think that I was just really lucky to come across people who were happy to choose me and continue to choose me to this day and people that I’m happy to continue to choose all the time, and over and over again for as long as it makes sense; for as long as possible, is my hope. 

Also, I have two younger siblings who I consider family in my way. We don’t take it for granted that we have to be close just because we’re related. There is a genuine curiosity and vulnerability that I have built with people who initially were strangers to me. It’s the same that applies to these relationships. It’s a very stark difference from the type of relationships I have with other people that I’m related to through blood because that curiosity is not there, that openness is not there, that vulnerability is not there, that safety is not there. With the relationships with my siblings I’ve been fortunate to be able to have that cross-over of acceptance and sustained support and safety with people that I’m blood related to.

Q. What does being loved, held and in community look like for you?

Mercy: People that I can share material support with. A give and take of curiosity and generosity and compassion. A very big part of what love looks like for me is people being happy to witness me taking up space. Witness me living my life. Witness me becoming and also being happy to have me witness them and to share parts of themselves with me. 

Koko: Knowing what someone in your community needs without them having to ask for it. I think it takes a lot for someone to be able to ask for something when they need help or to be able to say that they need help or acknowledge it. So as a community, it needs to be your responsibility to be able to notice that and be able to address that in any way you can. Being willing and ready to step up for someone when needed. I think another thing for me is being intentional about continuing to learn people and to understand them. I think that’s a way to show that you love someone and that you are committed to them. By being committed to still learning them even after a long period of time. 

Udo: Me showing up in the most authentic self that I can, in the most authentic being that I am and people choosing me every day. Being held in community, for me, is such a choice. It’s not offensive to me if you don’t choose me. When you do choose me and want to continue being in my life, that’s the holding that I need and that’s what love means to me. A choice. 

Kabi: Being fully accepted as who I am. I want to be given the opportunity to be seen. For me, being held is when people want to peek into my core reality and I want to do the same and we can do that together and then create our own reality. Community for me would feel like the feeling I get when I’m by myself, with other people. I just want to exist in spaces without question. Just existing while other people are existing and allowing myself to exist with them and them to just exist with me and we can just exist together and give each other spaces to share existence. Community for me is sharing existence and experiencing this life together and that makes me feel loved and held. 

Karwitha: I don’t have to figure out how to meet all my needs by myself.

Q. What does it look like on a spiritual level for you to be loved and held in community? 

Karwitha: I feel one with my own godhood. People and spirits that are affirming that. 

Q. How has community held you?

Waiyaki: When I left my parent’s house and left the capital city, community looked like financial support from the people that I knew from Twitter. As things were breaking in my family of origin, the thing that kept me alive was community. Queer benevolent community. There was a group of friends that I existed in, who existed around me. All of us queer, all of us very young and all of us doing our best. Doing our best through the mental health things, doing our best through the things of existing within capitalism, doing our best with the things of trying to be free in an oppressive and colonial existence that was prescribed for us. That community really held me. That was one of the first tastes of what a community can be. That it can set you free. That it can set each of you free and you can be setting each other free. That it can be about organizing and supporting and redistributing resources and care. 

Udo: They keep me accountable when I be speaking weird stuff. Teaching rather than cancelling me. Being like “Udo, you said this classist thing, this is actually breaking it down.” Giving me the space to also do that has also been holding in itself. 

Q. I also left my biological family too and it was honestly queer people I didn’t even know that rallied around me. They were showing up for me in ways I had never expected and in ways biological family had made it seem like it was so impossible for them to do. 

Karwitha: There was a period in my life where I was in a spiral of imagining that every uncomfortable feeling I’m feeling is because I’m bad in some way. Community really came through for me by interrupting those stories, urging me towards freedom. Reminding me that you can do what you want. I know your parent may be upset but also they’re not god. They can be upset and the world continues. It felt unreal. That didn’t feel like it could ever be true. Holding me until it felt truer and truer.

Koko: I need to be reminded to not let my grades take over my life and that’s what my community did for me at that time. 

Mercy: Community has held me through a lot of loss of community and refinement of community. There’s something to be said about being able to navigate crises with people and not shame them for it or not lose respect for them or not deny them their dignity or not withhold compassion for them despite you seeing them in a vulnerable position. 

I think another beautiful part of how my community has held me especially as someone who is queer and non-binary and trans and very fluid in how those things manifest and also multiply creative and also very fluid in how my creativity takes up space. Having a community that’s like “This is who you are today, we love it, we embrace it, we see it. How can we adjust how we engage you to meet you where you’re at right now.” Having that sustained willingness to meet me wherever I’m at is a beautiful part of how community has held me. 

For me, I experience a sense of being held when I’m relied upon. When I am entrusted with care. When someone says to me, “I am giving you myself so that you can take care of me, so that you can hold me,” Something about that feels like being held as well. Because you are held in their trust, you are held in their interdependency, you are held in their vulnerability.

Q. That makes me think about allowing people to carry you when you can’t carry yourself and you carrying them when they can’t carry themselves. It also reminds me of the relationship I have with my own spirit family and how I have depended on them in times when I literally can’t carry myself. It’s so heavy that I give myself to them and they can hold me for me.

Mercy: When it comes to spirit and celestial beings, I think for them, they do receive a lot of gratification in knowing that we trust them to hold us. That is where they pull their intimacy from within us. In a lot of religious texts, as well as non-Abrahamic religion, there is this understanding that they are there to hold you. They are glorified by you allowing them to hold you. That’s definitely a part of how I experience that compassion from people trusting me to hold them as well. You make me more me by allowing me to show up for you.

Q. I had never thought of it as the way you said it. How they become more themselves when they hold you. In a lot of my poetry, I talk about these spirit beings that have held me and I never thought of it as gratification for them, I saw it as I am trying to show them how much their love means to me.

Mercy: Yeah, but a way to show them that is also to allow them to hold you. I think there are always loops in intimacy where care just goes back to where it’s given and where it’s received. When you receive care, you allow yourself to receive care. The person who is offering it to you receives care as well. The same thing we were speaking about making them feel more like themselves. I think the care just moves in a loop. When I receive care from you, you receive care from me being open to your care, being receptive to it. 

Q. The only time I thought care was cyclical was in relation to my birth parents. I understood the cyclical nature of financial relationships. This can show up in sex work and it can show up between parents and kids where the parents are giving you financial support but in return they expect a certain amount of access and responsibility from you. And so when I was thinking about my relationship with spiritual beings, I had never thought that the care was cyclical. I always thought about it as linear. 

Mercy: I think the kind of relationship you are describing as far as material resources and expecting a sense of fulfilment of expectations is more transactional. If we were to take the same example of the parent and child relationship. The parent cares for you and protects you and supports you and at some point you become self-sufficient enough to not necessarily need those things from them. 

The cyclical nature of care that I’m speaking about would be, in the point where you don’t necessarily need them and you are self-sufficient, they still need to feel needed by you. There’s an opportunity there for vulnerability where you say yes, I’m self-sufficient, yes, I don’t necessarily need you in the ways that I did as a kid but I can still allow you to show up for me in ways that allow you to keep feeling like a parent. To keep feeling like your love has a place to go. You receive their love and it gives them love to know that their love still has a place to go within you. So it’s more a cycle than a transaction. The love is just going round from you to them, to you to them, to you to them.

Q. How is your queer friendship and family different from how you learned about friendship and family?

Udo: We don’t believe in compromise. You are your own person at all times. You should always be top priority. Growing up in school, everywhere, you always needed to be in uniform. Differences caused conflict. Individuality is selfishness therefore you always need to be community minded. But then this community isn’t taking care of you. Being your own. And holding yourself. Your needs are yours to meet. Your emotions are yours to hold.

Koko: I feel like the queer friendships that I’ve had, have managed to give me both enough space to explore myself as an individual and have held me close enough that I feel supported and cared for. You do that but we’re going to be here the whole time. I think queer friendship and family is the closest I’ve come to unconditional love.

Karwitha: It’s a celebration of choice. 

Mercy: You can find people who see you and get you and love you and accept you. Who love you in ways that you didn’t even know were possible and don’t stop. It’s a continuous sweetness. It’s a continuous safety. It’s a continuous acceptance. It’s a continuous sense of belonging. 

Initially, I believed and experienced that queer friendship and family was something that would always be painful and difficult and dysfunctional. It’s possible to find your folks. Your tribe. The people who really get you and are there for you. I think I was always sold this idea that queerness is where the safety was. I think I often trusted people off the strand that they were also a gay like me versus knowing what their values are. Knowing how they interpret, relate to and regard vulnerability. We make this mistake of assuming that just because queer people are different from predominant cis-het people that we are not socialised in the same space as them. 

We grow up in the same patriarchal society as cis-het people so we learn a lot of the violences that are taught and internalised in patriarchal society and we recreate that within our spaces as queer people. It requires a lot of intentionality. It requires a lot of commitment to recovery. Commitment to unlearning. Commitment to healing, to meet people who don’t show up in patriarchal ways even with each other. I have been fortunate enough to find people who are as committed to that as I am. Who are committed to practising compassion even though we are taught not to be compassionate. Who are invested in not being hierarchical about where their love goes and how much love is shared with friends vs shared with romantic partners. People who are interested in destabilizing and dismantling what we’ve been taught is possible for how we can love each other. 

I don’t think it’s something that has happened by chance. I think all of the people that I consider my community and my family are people who move in those ways on purpose and they understand that it’s something you have to teach yourself and keep practising and the more you practise it, the better you get at it. I think it’s Audre Lorde who said something about making sure that we are committed to a practice of tenderness until it becomes normal to be continuously tender. 

Q. When I think of that quote I think about when you are in the practice of being tender and your family is in that practice too, unlearning the ways you’ve been taught to be violent towards tenderness.

Mercy: One of the things I am most grateful in my community and my family of gays, is that we treat tenderness as something that is precious and that should be tended to carefully and not handled recklessly. I was wired to think of tenderness as something that was very disposable. I was trying to be that with people I knew didn’t have the same perspective of tenderness that I did and so I was allowing my tenderness to be puddled by people who didn’t value it. Who didn’t respect it. Who didn’t know how to be protective of it. As soon as I see signs of someone who doesn’t have that protectiveness towards tenderness, I have to keep on redirecting and finding the people who are able to be protective of that tenderness because that’s a part of me protecting mine as well.

Q. How has queer friendship and family impacted your life?

Karwitha: Completely transformed my life. Completely transformed what I thought I could expect from the world.

Q. What do you expect from it now?

Karwitha: I expect freedom and justice. Another thing, feeling like I can change. I don’t have to make sense to be loved. I feel like my queer friendships are the places where I have really felt love’s power to move a mountain. Imagine, care, with people you share values with, and dreams. The state doesn’t exist when you’re in the room together. Self-reclamation, that’s what I feel like a lot of the transformation has been towards. I can be even more radical than I thought. We can be even more… even more… The world we want can be here today, we just have to… be together, honestly.

Mercy: For me, I’ve always defined myself by my relationship with other people and so when my relationship with other people were continuously dysfunctional, I internalised that as some kind of sign that I was specifically and uniquely dysfunctional and that I wasn’t capable of safe intimacy or sweet intimacy or sustained sweetness or safety. 

Coming into the space I’m in now with the queer family and friends that I now have, I understand myself as someone who is able to participate and facilitate safe and sweet intimacy. Having that shift in perspective about what I’m capable of and what is possible in defining who I am has also shifted how I engage with life generally. 

It’s made me feel like I can be a more functional part of society, generally. I’m not just going to go out there and cause havoc or be poisonous to the connections I make with people. It has changed my life in those ways and I think also saved my life because of those reasons.

Udo: it has shifted my whole perception on everything and anything. How I interact with the world is gentler because of the people I’m surrounded with.

Q. How has it impacted how you relate with your body? 

Udo: I used to be very dysphoric and I used to be very bothered by people’s perception of me outside of my safe spaces. I feel so secure and know the people who can view me as who I am and the people who can’t. My body is just a tool for this realm. They don’t call me delusional for thinking these things. 

Bodies that have boobs and vagina are given direction from such a young age and I used to view my body as a thing that wasn’t for me. Within my spaces, I’ve been able to realise that it is mine and I’m the one who gets to tell you, now you can view me in a sexual light. Being in these spaces has made me question whether I want to have surgery or not. The reason I was getting it before was because of perception but now I just don’t like boobs.

Koko: I think queer friendship and family has given me a sense of security. Not so much in the sense that they’ve revolutionised the world and now the world is safe for me. But my community is safe for me. I know that I can return to my community and they will be accommodating, they will keep me safe. And they will give me the security that I need if I can’t find it outside of that. 

Q. Who has informed what you consider family today?

Udo: Majority is me, and then there is society’s aspect of their projections of what they want it to look like. It’s mainly me and sticking to my values and my beliefs and always seeking people who even if they don’t share the same values or beliefs, respect me.

Koko: My brother. My parents and how they raised me in community. My ex. We had very similar views of community and we explored that together. Ericka Hart. Both parents are trans non-binary. In terms of a celebrity, Ericka Hart is definitely the person that has informed how I view community and queerness. My friends will have a room in my house and I will have a room in their house as well. 

Mercy: I think it depends really on where you find it. The people who find family within broader society, within certain African practices and customs and communal structures, if they can find a sense of belonging and a sense of family in that, then that is what they’ll attribute their understanding of these things to. When you have to search a little outside of the margins, when you have to go outside of what you were given, to look for that safety, to look for that sense of belonging, that also shifts your perspective of what’s possible and what is and what that means for you.

Karwitha: My first love. That really shifted what I thought was possible in family. A lot of black feminist writers and dreamers and artists. I feel like family is a place where you need to be encouraged to unlearn respectability. The friendships and the relationships and the love connections. The day-to-day things that really blew my mind. In real time, you and I can do something different. You and I can make our own world. 

Q. How did your first love change that for you? 

Karwitha: We were free together. Our relationship was such a deep experience of how much freer I could be. Even freer than I had conceived. I woke up. Deep parts of me woke up. We talked so much about literally everything that had happened to us. 

It was so healing to walk through the corridors of my childhood with someone who was free and committed to being freer. When I’d tell them about my childhood they would be like “oh my god, I’m so sorry that happened to you” for things I didn’t even know were sad. 

Someone being mad about the things no one was mad about. Saying things that I never really said to someone as honestly as I said it then. 

We were on the side of each other’s children. We were so adamant about how we protected each other. Growing up, you’d seen all these people who claimed that no one on earth would love you the way they would love you. That they alone would ever love you or choose you and then you think about all the things they stood by and watched happen and no one batted an eyelid. Someone making your inner worlds so real and valid. They know how it makes you feel so it will never be allowed to continue. My standards for family shifted fundamentally. I hope to love the people I love like that.

Q. Where have you found home? 

Mercy: I think we can turn the self that we come back to into a home. Especially, as I’ve entered my thirties, my big task that I’ve assigned myself, is to make myself my safest home.

Q. Who do you call family and why?

Mercy: My blood siblings, my four really good friends. Those are the people who have continuously accepted me. Have continuously met me with the curiosity about who I am, who I used to be, who I’m becoming. Those are the people who hold me accountable to the promises I’ve made to myself, to the promises we’ve made to each other. Those are the people who meet me with unending sweetness and compassion and grace. Those are the people who have held me, who have allowed me to hold them. Who have continuously made me more possible. Who have continuously made me more of who I am and have shown me so many different possibilities of who I can be.

Karwitha: The tress. There is definitely pieces of art that are family to me, we are family to each other. There is a whole constellation of people I call family. People who in whose presence I can jsut come and people whose homes I know are open to me. Ancestral spirits that I call to often. Ancestral spirits I honor. Ancestral spirits I develop intimacy with. I feel like we are part of different ancestral traditions. There are some I’ve stumbled on who literally every time I’m at the crossroads I return to them. I keep their work on me like talismans. The trees here because of the level of time and conversation. 

Udo: My homies. I want to be in community and family with them. I’ve chosen this. There is so much love.

Koko: When I’m calling you family, or a close friend, I am making a commitment to you and to myself to put effort into this relationship. I am committing to continuous curiosity. I am committed to doing life with you from here until as far as we go. Something that I’m trying to teach myself is that just because I say someone is family doesn’t mean that they’re going to be family forever. We’re going to do life for as long as life lets us do it together but we’re going to do it together for this time. That’s what I’m committing to when I say you’re my family.

PS.

I hope this documentation of queer life and being can hold you whenever you need. Hold you close. Keep you warm. We get to choose. we get to love. we get to love our people with sustained abandon. 

Author