"As LGBT Africans, we feel the vestiges of the long European colonial presence in our continent. We feel them when other -- Western, European, 'international' -- LGBT organizations speak on our behalf and we are left unheard. Only Africans can speak for Africans."
— Joël Gustave Nana Ngongang
The internet has been enveloped in a lovely celebration of Black History Month (US) and LGBTQIA+ History Month (UK). Black queer history not only in the US and the UK but throughout the world is rich and boundless. We will take this opportunity to look at one of Cameroon's fiercest advocates: Joël Gustave Nana Ngongang.
Born in Cameroon in 1982, Ngongang travelled all throughout Africa, primarily staying in Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa. He was a believer in Pan-Africanism, an ideology supporting the political union of all indigenous inhabitants of Africa; this came out not only in his travels but also in the way he practiced activism.
His Master of Laws in International Human Rights Law, as well as his knowledge of English, French, Lamnso, Medumba, German, and Estonian greatly aided his work with support groups in countries around Africa. His focus was on creating support and awareness around HIV throughout Africa, particularly around gay men. In 2005, when eleven men eventually known as the "Yaoundé Eleven" were arrested under suspicion of homosexuality, Ngongang publicized their plight in an attempt to get the global community to pay attention. He succeeded. One year following the arrest, the United Nations released a statement condemning the imprisonment of the men under the basis of their sexual orientation.
It was not through global attention that Ngongang aimed to succeed; he believed firmly that the onus was on contemporary African people who supported these laws, saying:
“While it is important to acknowledge that some of the laws criminalising same-sex sex in Africa are part of the framework inherited from our past, we should not negate the agency of Africans. This agency is also expressed through love, hate and most importantly through the law.”
Recognizing the root of the problem lay in colonialism, Ngongang also asserted that the solution must be found within Africa.
"As LGBT Africans, we feel the vestiges of the long European colonial presence in our continent. We feel them when other -- Western, European, 'international' -- LGBT organisations speak on our behalf and we are left unheard. Only Africans can speak for Africans."
It is an important reminder always but especially during Black History Month that queer black people are already doing the work, and have been for far longer than we have been watching. It is not the role of outsiders to step in but to support and uplift the people who know far better what their communities need.
Ngongang's work with Cameroonian organizations like AGALES, his founding of a Nigerian LGBT advocacy website, his coordination of letter-writing campaigns on World AIDS Day, and his co-founding Alternatives-Cameroun and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights encompass just some of the work he did for African LGBT people.
Through this and his work with the "Yaoundé Eleven," he became a recognized expert in LGBT advocacy, appearing on such media outlets as Radio France Internationale (RFI).
He was a parent to his niece, even as he travelled, and he was known not only for his work but also his personality. Upon his death by illness in 2015 Kasha Nabagesera said:
“I met Joel in 2006 in Joburg when he was going to take up my place at behind the mask as an intern at the end of my time. Since then we have been together in many places advocating, the African Commission, UN and recently in the European Parliament in December 2014. He was a very intelligent and funny person. I like the way he packed for trips, lots of bags one for each accessory. I will surely miss him n the world has lost a great advocate, friend, husband and father. Rest in power dear brother n comrade,”
And Dennis, a human activist from Uganda said:
“It had never occurred to me that so much energy, so much power, so much hunger and so much zeal to make the world better would suddenly be taken away from us. Joel was that and more. He was an activist, a colleague, a friend and a brother. He is already dearly missed. Rest in POWER my dear friend,”
It is vital not only to recognize the facts of his work and words but the spirit of it; the knowledge that the people who should be leading and shaping the future of queer Africans are queer Africans. Not only that but to hold to account the leaders who support homophobic and/or transphobic policies, because while colonialism built a legacy of queerphobia in Africa today, there are still people actively working to maintain it. It is the responsibility of people outside of Africa to support the African activists who are already doing the work that needs to be done, not to speak over them. Support the current and next generation of activists; uplift their voices and stories, because theirs are the ones that matter.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
(2015). Africa Mourns the Passing of Distinguished Activist Joel Gustave Nana. Kuchu Times. Retrieved from https://www.kuchutimes.com/2015/10/obituary-africa-mourns-the-passing-of-distinguished-activist-joel-gustave-nana/
(2015). LGBTI activists mourn human rights veteran Joel Nana. 76 Crimes. Retrieved from https://76crimes.com/2015/10/16/activists-mourn-lgbt-rights-veteran-joel-nana/
Githahu, Mwangi. (2015). Controversial African LGBT activist Joël Nana passes away. Mamba Online. Retrieved from https://www.mambaonline.com/2015/10/16/controversial-african-lgbt-activist-joel-nana-passes-away/
Myers, JoAnne. (2013). Historical Dictionary of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movements. Scarecrow Press.
Nana, Joel. (2006). Academic Challenges Un-African Myth. Behind the Mask. Retrieved by https://web.archive.org/web/20100430001031/http://www.mask.org.za/article.php?cat=cameroon&id=1392