"Freedom to" is so full of potent energy

We talk to Jessica Horn: (East) African feminist activist, writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary, with an inclination towards digging deeper, inspiring activist alchemy and asking ‘where next’? We discuss African feminisms, world-building, regenerative activism, and more.

Advaya: Let’s begin with you sharing with us what you’ve been up to lately, your new position that you’re very busy with, and also what big picture visions you’re bringing to life these days, and just generally what’s on your mind.

Jessica Horn: I have always been interested in process.

We spend a lot of time on outcome, but the reality is process is what makes the world happen. It also is what makes change happen.

So for much of my practical, pragmatic life, I’ve worked on process. I’ve been thinking about how do we better structure the work we do, how do we better resource the work we do, how do we think about the ways we do the work so that it doesn’t break us, and it actually creates the worlds we want as we work towards the broader vision.

Because of that I’ve worked in philanthropy for probably about a decade and a half now. And the new job I have is a job in philanthropy in East Africa, with the Ford Foundation, where I’m the Regional Director. In my other life, I’m working on a book on African feminist praxis and imagination. And I continue to be interested in documentary and history, and what people call the “archive” these days: going back through almost the forgotten, fragmented pieces of memory, and trying to bring that through into life. With that, I’m doing a creative documentary project with another woman, Laurence Sessou, which is called “the temple of her skin”, which is documenting African women’s tattooing and scarification journeys and histories.

To me, it all makes sense: because like I said, it all has roots in my passion around process, around making the invisible, visible, and bringing out our stories, our politics and our vantage points, in the world.

Advaya: So much to get into, but first could you tell us about your work right now in the philanthropy space, what that looks like, and why you came to do that?

Jessica Horn: I kind of fell into philanthropy in my late 20s. I found it to be really fascinating because, the critical work of change exists, and there’s brilliant people who are willing to oftentimes even risk their lives for change, and usually they have all the resources that they need, they have the intellectual resources, the people… but the one thing they don’t have… is money. I found that philanthropy was useful, because it was almost like an enabling connection to movement, and it was a way to think about being an ally to social justice work from a different angle.

So for quite a while I was helping to develop participatory funds, and rethinking power in philanthropy, supporting feminist funding, and moving now into, in a way, questions of scale, with Ford—Ford funds in a greater volume—and thinking specifically about how to support work happening in the East African region, around creating civic environments, where everybody has the ability to voice, to participate, to engage and ultimately to achieve the rights of citizens to thrive.

Advaya: It’s not unknown that philanthropy can be problematic. It’s very much steeped in capitalist power dynamics that we know to be very destructive. How is your, and this ties into the theme of Regenerative Activism, work in the philanthropy space pushing back against that, in a regenerative way?

Jessica Horn: Philanthropy is a really broad field. It’s done in different ways. We need to acknowledge that philanthropy is not only large foundations, or even high net worth people giving.

Interestingly, the Ford Foundation itself has been quite involved in expanding, both the platforms and conversations around philanthropies in other contexts. So for example, in East Africa, there’s vibrant conversation about East African philanthropy, and quite a bit of it is community-based philanthropy. Overall, Africans are tremendously generous. People tend to give out of a sense of obligation, but also an ethics around collective wellbeing. And so people do give when people are in need. That’s actually philanthropy. So it’s just about reframing what we understand to be the term. I find it interesting to explore or expand the terrain of our understanding of the concept, because the way that it’s framed so narrowly doesn’t actually reflect the context or the reality of the practice.

There’s also really interesting work being done to think about what they call “shifting the power” in philanthropy: thinking about how to increase community decision making, and agenda setting. There’s lots of fascinating movements within philanthropy itself, that almost mirror the questions that are being asked outside philanthropy as well, in general, about how things operate. A real call to fund South, to fund Black, to ensure inclusivity, to ensure constituency-led decision making, etc.

Advaya: When you were talking about community based philanthropy, it almost feels like there is a space for it to move almost towards a mutual aid sort of framework, instead of the traditional sense of giving.

With that, let’s move onto the next question. Which is about what African feminism is, and maybe it should be “African feminisms”, as you shared in a previous interview. Could you expand about how and in what ways African feminism brings a structural analysis, of power, of colonialism, of patriarchy, of the various intersections in a way that differs from the mainstream white feminism, and how African feminism characterises the problems that we see today differently from mainstream discourse?

Jessica Horn:

Feminisms are always politics of resistance, and a politics of critique, but also on the positive, also a politics of imagining different ways of being.

I always say that feminism is a word in English. So what matters more is the politics behind it. If you look across African history, you can always find and trace, individual, and collectivities of, women who are resisting patriarchy in its different forms and its relationship to different dynamics.

So for example, if you’re interested in the intersection of patriarchy and the economy, I think it’s interesting to think about the Aba Women’s riots in Nigeria, where basically the colonials had a system of indirect rule—Nigeria was too hot, and had too much malaria, and so they didn’t want to directly rule by setting up a settler colony. Instead, they identified men, who would be the people that enforce their laws in the land, to rule on behalf of them, and so they put in place positions that men would hold to then enforce colonial power. And so there was a tax imposed, that would only affect women in this area, and so the women said that this intersectional discrimination was fundamentally unfair—it was from a colonial regime, and on top of it, is was targeting women specifically. They waged a very successful uprising against it.

Those kinds of instances and kinds of thinking are present all across African history. So that is what I mean when I talk about African feminism as being about the combination of all of those moments of resistance.

It doesn’t have to be named with the English word to understand when people are resisting patriarchal power and its intersections.

African feminism, as we know them now, very much grew out of independence movements and liberation movements. Because African feminists were, even if they didn’t name themselves as such, at the time, very involved in liberation processes, but then at independence found themselves written out. They found women’s concerns in particular, written out of independence visions, constitutions and policy. So they began to point out that this was an incomplete liberation, as the independent countries largely put in place patriarchal modes of being.

So African feminisms then were always emerging in response to colonial rule or to struggles for independence, and thus always retained that structural eye of the reality of being African, in a global world that positions you as a loser, in a global power system, in global economies that don’t support African women, or Africans in general, thriving. So that structural analysis has always been a part of it.

Advaya: We appreciate you weaving a lot of bits and pieces of history into this response. Building from that, when mainstream academic feminist discourse emerged, African feminism was even more like written out. How do we then push back against this being written out?

Jessica Horn: This is partly a problem of documentation, publishing and storytelling. Who gets to write, and who gets to prioritise what we know. One of the major barriers that African women have, because of again, the way the world economy is structured, has been access to publishing—which is slowly starting to change now. But that has meant that there’s generally less information circulating in ways that are acknowledged by for example, teachers and the Academy, and universities.

There’s a huge amount of African feminist knowledge production that exists in nonprofit reports. These days there’s a lot of content on websites, like africanfeminism.com, there’s an initiative in Uganda called Wulira! that is trawling back through archives to create a women’s history of Uganda. And then there are some of the old time publications like Feminist Africa, Agenda. So I think it’s about reaching out and finding out more about that.

The last thing I would say is actual, direct allyship. These days, with social media and online spaces, it’s actually easier to find people than it ever was. There are lots of different initiatives around that you could connect to, to find out what people are doing and have thoughts about how your struggles interconnect, etc. We’re more able than we ever have been to do the allyship, but sometimes I think it’s about a focus and an interest. And so I’m hoping more mainstream and very widely heard voices like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would end up being like the gateway for people to become more curious, and to ask…

What else is going on in African feminism?

And to do some digging and discover.

Advaya: Great places to start. And it’s not just about expressing interest—it seems a lot of it is also just about having respect for where feminist history is grounded and rooted in, and also recognising the reality that so much of the world doesn’t see things from the lens of traditional white feminism.

To move on, we love that a lot of your work doesn’t just talk about what is wrong with the world. It is not just about framing, as you’ve said, and this is us paraphrasing, African feminism as fighting the experience of oppression, but also emphasising what African feminism is making space for. And yes, it’s not just about talking about what we what we are saying no to, but also what we are saying yes to, and putting energy behind that. So could you talk about why it’s important for all of us to put energy into what we’re saying yes to, and how this is something that African feminists are and have been leading the way toward?

Jessica Horn: Absolutely.

It’s always easier to argue and rally people around “freedom from”, to make a case about abuse and violation and violence and to appeal to people through horror, pity, extreme anger at injustice. “Freedom to” is full of so much potent energy, transgressive energy, that it can sometimes actually be harder.

Because it’s easier to say we don’t like; it’s harder to say this is what we do. You see that really loudly in the politics of the body: it is always easier to rally people around freedom from violence than it is to the right to pleasure. Though in reality, if we built the structural environment—the health services, the social norms, the access to services that people need, the beliefs and attitudes that support consensual, pleasurable sexual encounters for adults, we would have a world free of violence, because violence is not pleasurable.

There’s interesting African feminist work trying to work on the “freedom to” and on this question of what are we saying yes to. I’m always interested in ideas, but even more in praxis. We can be proposing ways and methodologies, but I really believe in doing. I think it’s important to chart the broader vision of what we want, but it’s even more important to experiment, and to practice it. So I think this is where African feminisms have been interesting, because there’s been a lot of experiments with practice.

In the environmental space, there’s people really looking at traditional farming methods, and of course, African women are the majority food producers on the continent. The traditional methods were all about maintaining the ecosystem, because people needed it to survive. So the methods helped to make sure that the ground, the environment around stays healthy, etc. It was all permaculture. And so people are looking to re-encounter that, look at seed libraries, seed knowledges, and just try and reintroduce other people to that and honour and understand the value of it in the present context of us being in absolute crisis.

So yes, the imagining is important, but the practice is what’s critical.

We have to do, because we have no time to wait.

The stakes are so high, we have to just do and as we do, we discover what works, what doesn’t, what else is needed, who hasn’t been included, what other vantage point we could be looking at. And we as we go along, we think, we create knowledge about it, we amend, we change, we continue to try and see how it can unfold.

Advaya: Yes, this idea of doing and discovering as we do is so important and interesting! Could you expand a little bit into that, about how the doing is not just the executing of a particular vision—and this is something that Regenerative Activism this year is trying to talk about—it’s about the balance between having a vision and allowing that to dictate what we do, but at the same time, allowing ourselves to make space for the emergence of alternative ways of doing things, and changing as we go along? Did you have any thoughts about these adaptive, non-limiting visions?

Jessica Horn: Absolutely. It’s really important to open spaces to enable people to think differently, to imagine differently, and that’s something that in movement space and in civil society space, we actually have a lot of, so it’s just about better facilitation, better imagining of what the spaces could look like, and then also better facilitation to really bring that out of people.

We need to think about how to do things in less conventional ways, like incorporating play, creativity, ways of thinking and being differently with each other. So just getting ourselves outside of the status quo models, which is what helps liberate the imagination.

There is a Ugandan organisational development guide to the movement called Hope Chigudu. And this is some of what she’s been infusing into our work for years: just really pushing people to think differently about how we convene, how we engage each other. We have the spaces for that. So that’s the first thing: use whatever existing spaces we have, but use them differently.

The second thing is sometimes we need new information. We have information that’s just actually conceived on the basis of old ways of thinking, and without new information, we’re not able to act differently. And then, the other thing is, then just working out who’s willing to change and who isn’t, and trying to work that out.

I’ve been involved in a lot of what you might call innovation. I know, there’s contention about the word innovation, but it’s just the space of encouraging people to think and do things differently.

What I found is that I would say a minority of people are interested in doing things differently.

Most people are very resistant to change, and won’t necessarily go the first step with you. So you have to build that into your models and how you’re thinking about doing things. You can’t assume that everybody wants to change. A lot of people see it, and they think that’s nice, but they’re scared, or they don’t have the energy, or they don’t know what to do in order to get to the next step towards change. So there can be huge resistance to change, even on things that are that are clearly for people’s benefit. Because normativity teaches or trains us into thinking that there’s so much benefit in it that you would never want to lose it.

So I think we need to face that head on, and build into process how we then encourage more people to come along. How are we going to make arguments to people? How are we going to make people feel differently so they then connect differently to the question and see how it would feel to be doing things differently? And they can see how lovely it is.

But again, I’ve seen a lot of people who are mavericks and the imaginers of the movement get burnt out. Because we act like we’re really interested in that, but in reality, sometimes we can also not give it any support. So it can feel super lonely. So how do we build in ways to help build momentum around exciting energy, around transformational energy, and encourage people to come on board with change?

Advaya: Interestingly, people don’t realise that though the doing is hard, at the end of the day, the fruits of the labour of doing are much more pleasurable and more desirable than the current system. And so we just need to get people to see that. People just are so used to, and maybe hence, tethered to the idea of continuing to suffer and take the more… painful route of this system, because it’s kind of all they know.

So moving on to the next question. You shared before that, “as the lived experience of many African feminist activists suggests, activism is itself also fulfilling and contributes to a personal and collective sense of agency and of joy”, which I think speaks to the response that I shared earlier. This comes from African feminism being grounded in pleasure, which as you’ve quoted Taiwo Afuape before: “in the context of oppression is interference, interruption and hope.” It’s also, as you’ve shared elsewhere, grounded in revolutionary love, radical care and rest. These are all related concepts, of course, but we’d love for you to expand on each of them in the context of revolution and radical change, and why these concepts are so important, and how they find roots in African feminism. Because even though these concepts are now becoming more popular, people fail to attribute them to where they’re from, and they look towards white theorists and organisations—which are not where these ideas are from. African feminism, comparatively, has been practising these things, since day one. So we’d love for you to share about these, from your perspective.

Jessica Horn: The roots of concepts are always contested, because everybody would like to be the originator of them.

When it comes to radical care, I’ve written about movements of HIV positive women on the continent and how they did this work, because I find it fascinating. And it’s definitely one of those things that doesn’t get its proper recognition. But that whole movement, around living positively with HIV, and how African women went about it, was really very beautiful. People were ill and for a long time, most people didn’t have easy access to quality antiretrovirals, so people were dealing with quite serious effects of HIV, and sometimes full blown AIDS, and so looking after yourself was like a life or death question. But people also generally didn’t have a lot of money. So there were a lot of more economically marginalised women who were who were doing this, and trying to find more affordable ways of healing: people were teaching how to use whatever oil you could find easily that was good for your skin, how you could do certain massages on each other, and people were creating spaces where people could rest in meetings because they knew that sometimes people would get really tired, or feel sick. These were simple, but deeply thoughtful practices.

And so with that, it was not just about the practice, but it was also about what it did. It was like, if you’re living in a body that’s neglected and stigmatised in society, and framed as not being worthy, what a beautiful thing it is, for a community of people to say, we respect this body that you live in, and we want it to be well, and so we’re going to create a space and resources and support to actually make sure that you can sustain this body that you’re in. Symbolically, there’s also a power in that, in affirming that this is a body that’s worthy of care.

And with revolutionary love, it is a concept that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time, because it’s a practice that my mother really tried to live, and I should say that my mother went through a process of politicising herself in the context of the left and feminist discourse of at the time of Southern Africa. She really tried to think about and look at those concepts, and apply them in terms of the care that she gave us as children, and especially me as a child who was turning to a young woman in the world.

As I started getting involved in community, I started realising that activism, work that really requires you to sometimes put yourself at risk to challenge systems, and to be vilified for it, to face stigma, to face social ostracism, to have “unpopular opinions”, because you’re really challenging power—that kind of activism that involves some level of risk, because it’s really about challenging power where it hurts or affects the power system… You can only sustain that kind of activism if you really love the people whom you’re seeking to defend.

That’s revolutionary love. It’s really this idea that you can’t do this work if you don’t hold fiercely in your heart.

And in any space, you will find people who are kind of more or less on that spectrum of care. People have different reasons for being part of activist spaces, but there’s always that core of people whom you can tell really deeply feel it in their hearts—and I think that’s where the charisma comes from sometimes, they have a real heart connect, you can feel the level of care they have, you can feel the the degree of connection to the heart, when they’re thinking about their politics. And it’s not everybody but there are some really beautiful relationships and connections that manifest this revolutionary love, where people really seek to protect each other, create spaces where people can feel, can heal, can refuel, can feel differently about themselves and each other. The longer I stay in movement spaces, the more I see how powerful that is.

Advaya: Were there moments where you saw that show up, say in African feminist activists, and were there moments where you were particularly struck by certain people from certain organisations? We would love for you to name them.

Jessica Horn: That’s so interesting. And what’s hard is that so much of it is backstory.

But I would say, if you look at the early activism, and early allyship around LGBT rights in Uganda, you will see that it was actually Ugandan feminists who created the spaces to engage that. And even though they were running spaces that were targeted at women, when it came to the LGBT allyship, they included men in those spaces, because they could understand the bigger question: that it was that patriarchal power also asserts itself on queer existence, and so it was a clear grounds for solidarity and allyship. And a lot of those people spoke up on principle, but that also had impacts on them. If you look, for example, at Sylvia Tamale, she’s a professor of Law at the largest university in Uganda, Makerere University—she did really rigorous legal analysis of the laws and their colonial roots, and their implications in the East African region, and she was very vocal around legislative changes and analysis, etc., and for that, she was vilified. And yet she has continued to do the work to this day in terms of solidarity and support.

And in South Africa, of course, under apartheid, there had been a huge military budget. And in the new Parliament, Pregs Govender was one MP who had actually tabled the question of, if we are no longer at war, why do we have such an inflated military budget? And she basically made a recommendation to create a woman’s budget, which would transfer some of that military expenditure to actually support the advancement of the investment of women in South Africa. And so, again, just really thinking about how, if you hold in your heart, the love of your people, how do you use a position of power that you have to actually make an impact in changing some of the dynamics of people’s existence?

Advaya: Thank you for sharing those. The last question we have for you, and you’ve touched on it briefly, but we would love to bring it out more: what is regenerative praxis, in the context of regenerative activism?

Jessica Horn:

###Regenerative activism is by definition activism that feeds.

So it has to include and weave into it practices that really help sustain. Of course, that means about taking care of ourselves and each other directly in physical and emotional ways. But also, I think, it’s also about really thinking about the power between us, which is usually where things fall apart. So really taking seriously that we have to be mutually accountable, and be self-critical. And it’s almost impossible to assume that from one vantage point, you can make sure that you have everybody’s views, so we also have to be constantly attentive to what other constituencies are there saying, hey, what about us? And being really serious about engaging that.

I think regenerative activism these days, also has to be something that thinks about our connection to the earth, to the environment, and thinking about our impact on it. Even if the work is not explicitly about environment, if we don’t have a world to work in or to do activism, how is it ever going to be regenerative?

And ultimately it has to be activism that contains the seeds of what we’re trying to sow. So the joy, the positivity, imagination, and attempts to actually live egalitarian power.

Advaya: We spoke with Ilaj from Ulex Project recently too, in this series of interviews. And it’s very interesting how the questions can be so different, but in many ways, we come to kind of the same conclusions… Do you have any final thoughts, or anything you’d like to share?

Jessica Horn: Well, the book that I’m writing is a contribution to archiving African feminist praxis as I’ve interacted with it, and thinking about the ethics that frame our work, and the ways that we’ve attempted to live the politics, as African feminists.

Advaya: We will look out for that when it comes out!


Jessica Horn

(East) African feminist activist, writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary.

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