AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTHE DJILO AND FRIEDA EKOTTO
BY PATRICIA RÍOS
December 18, 2018
“Colonialism forces the colonized to ask the question: Who am I in reality?” The Wretched of the Earth (Frantz Fanon)
Vibrancy of silence: A Discussion with my Sisters (2017) is a documentary from Cameroon that moves us into stories about identity and historic memory through conversations and the artistic production of four african women living in exile. The film’s approach includes both collective and individual testimonies: “We wanted to show that [both collective and individual experiences]. The line of the project is about collecting images and cultural production that we can get our hands on because as a minority, it is always difficult to preserve anything that is being produced”, justified Marthe Djilo and Frieda Ekotto during their attendance at the Sexual Diversity Program in Morelia.
In their commitment to creating and sharing knowledge with the new generations, the right to be different– in a given culture and in sexual expression– emerges with a critical approach to colonial past. This work of historical recuperation challenges elements such as language and cultural roots, beginning with the notion that the body, just as the territory, has been colonized and alongside it, our sexuality. “ The next generation know that we have history, so they have to go back to that and see what they can take from there, and to be who we are, because most of our children have been born in the Western countries so they don’t know their history”, says Ms. Djilo. Ekotto sees their documentary as an opportunity to talk about themselves as women: “Dependence is that we have to be attached to the West but there are also possibilities. You don’t have to go to Paris or London or New York. It is crucial to do it in the South.”
I. AFRICA AND SEXUALITY
Africa is a continent with a high percentage of countries with laws that criminalize or penalize not heteronormative sexual activities with prison sentences, and in many cases, the death penalty. Among these, are,Mauritiana, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Libia, Argelia and Morocco. “In every family in Africa there’s a homosexual, but the difficulty is that you can’t publicize your sexuality, so you have to be in the closet. The problem comes when you start claiming rights”, expresses Djilo Kamga, who defines this phenomenon as “sexual neocolonialism”.
Both women contend that sexual liberation in Africa doesn’tneed to follow the same route as Western emancipation. They are conscious that their fight is different from the one in the 21st Century, when new generations are in constant contact with Western ideas through television or social media. “We can give tools to the young people, but we cannot give them duties”, says Ekotto, who asserts that domination over sexuality in the continent was part of colonialism, particularly form the French and the British, manifest in religious beliefs and in in language.Nevertheless, she says, in her linguistic structure there are no words for homosexuality or lesbian, but words that describe intimacy: “I don’t use the word ‘lesbian’, I speak about ‘women that love other women’. Djilo also defies these terms: “I always use ‘homosexualities’, never ‘homosexuality’”.
In I am sheriff (2017) by Teboho Ekins -a short film presented in the program that ZINEGOAK curated for Morelia- a trans man, Sheriff Mothopeng, tours African communities screening videos about the LGBT+ community to raise awareness. “My mother lived in a town like that. They’re welcoming, understanding, you sit them down, talk to them, they understand, so it’s not that we are totally inhumane and that we are homophobic. No, you just have to explain what’s going on.” Ekotto explains. “My mother lived with a woman her entire life after my father died, we call her ‘auntie’ because she was like our mother, but no one questioned her about her life, they were very intimate, they slept in the same bed, they lived their lives”.
II. VIBRATIONS OF THE SILENCE OF COLONIALISM
In 1950 the Martinican poet, Aimé Césaire, denounced in his “Discourse on Colonialism” the looting of the colonized subjects’ past. He underlines that history, malleable, allows human beings to reinvent themselves socially an option that is only possible if there is freedom of self-determination and proclaiming a culture of our own. By 1961 his compatriot, the psychiatrist Franz Fanon published for the first time his famous book “The Wretched of the Earth” in which he defines colonialism as the “systematicnegation of the Other, a frenzied determination to deny the Other any attribute of humanity, colonialism [that] forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: “Who am I in reality?” . Condemned to the alienation of themselves, of their culture and ontological self-determination, the colonized becomes a dependent subject of West. “Lots of people are completely impoverished by colonialism, they are prisoners of the whole system, there’s no breaking free”, Ekotto comments referring to the psychological ravages of post-colonialism. The colonized subject lives a process of deconstruction and reconstruction of a silenced and subdued identity, but there is no turning back. Although colonialism is irreversible, one can transcend its grip to create a better present.
“For us we are still under the colonial powers, we are not able to express ourselves, but I think the next generation can take the opportunity to say what they have to say, but now, what can they say if they don’t know the history?”, notes Djilo. “In Africa people are very confused because people are not telling you that you shouldn’t be confused, you have a history, we are not people without history, colonialism came and wiped it out, that’s why we have to go back. I want to read the colonial library and deconstruct it and see what we are missing from it and how can we make it better.”
III. THE ARTIST’S POWER IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH
Life is an intersubjective network in which we construct ourselves and reconstruct people in it. “You don’t have only one identity. We have multiple identities. Everywhere you go, you are in contact with people so my roots are built with different connections. In my communities, we have to build something in the Global South, we have to create a world with the Souths”, explains Ekotto.
Ekotto observes that in Mexico, even though homosexuality is not criminalized, the colonial pastit shares with Cameroon provokes other kinds of imaginaries. “There are family ties that are destroyed because they believe this Judeo-Christian religions that stipulate you must not sleep with the same sex.”
Referring to the “third cinema”, Brazil’s film tradition during the 70’s, Ekotto explains that in the Global South where Mexico belongs, there is room to create new imaginaries. “We can create tools to understand each other. Being in Mexico is very important to us, with this kind of exchanges we can create space within the cracks. In the Global South there are possibilities to have that kind of dialogue. Unless we do this ourselves nobody will do it for us and I think it is in the Global South -and Mexico is part of it- where it should start.”
For both women, the power of the artist resides in decolonizing, rereading history and beginning to talk about topics that are not discussed, starting with sexuality in general, a task that can only be completed step by step from the trenches of culture and art, without expecting political changes. It is a change of how we relate to sexuality. Heterosexuality can also be a taboo when loving relationships are surrounded by protocols founded in machismo and shame, not only in Africa, but in the West, including in Mexico.
 Fanon, Frantz, The wretched of the Earth, Estados Unidos, Grove Press, 2004, p.182.