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Okong'o Kinyanjui on Curating Safe Digital Spaces for Queer Africans

Echoing Green Fellow Okong’o Kinyanjui facilitating a discussion session and activities with participants at the 2021 AL for Governance Network Gathering in Nairobi.

Okong’o Kinyanjui is a 2021 Echoing Green Fellow and the co-founder and executive director of Queer African Network, a comprehensive digital information hub that globally crowdsources opportunities, transnational alliances, and affirming content for LGBTQI+ persons of African heritage. Echoing Green asked Okong’o about his vision for queer Africans, how his organization is continuing to grow and scale to meet the needs of his community, and his advice for emerging leaders interested in applying for the Echoing Green Fellowship.

Let’s start with an Echoing Green favorite. What was your “moment of obligation” in starting Queer African Network (QAN)?

Growing up in Kenya, I experienced first-hand the life-threatening isolation that comes from battling daily systemic oppression. Due to the colonial 14-year imprisonment penalty, LGBTQI+ Kenyans are discouraged from being visible, which prevents mobilization, advocacy, and resource sharing. Virtual networks saved and sustained me until I found acceptance in my immediate environment. QAN was born out of wanting to extend this lifeline to others. The queer virtual communities that my co-founder, Nerima Makhondo, and I have been a part of have saved my friends from suicide, helped them find housing, and work together to solve issues. Ultimately, I am committed to this work because our lives depend on it.

What is the mission and goal of the Queer African Network?

QAN’s mission is to ensure that every queer African on the continent and in the diaspora has access to the resources and social connections to self-actualize.

We link the life-threatening isolation that queer Africans face to colonialism and capitalism. Both systems have always intersected in ways that privilege certain groups of society at the cost of others. Colonial penal codes threaten to imprison queer Africans, often preventing us from being visible to each other and from mobilizing. At the same time, because of capitalism, queer people are forced to believe that achieving social and economic mobility requires abandoning their identity and those like them.

QAN is challenging the core tenants of capitalism that are rooted in rugged individualism, capital accumulation, and competition by creating behavioral and systems-level changes that prioritize community, collaboration, and resource sharing. Additionally, QAN aims to change the narrative that queer Africans aren’t and can’t be participants in our societies. Through our platform, we aim to empower our users to participate in spheres of life they previously did alone, with the communal support at QAN.

The Queer African Network is a revolutionary medium that connects queer Africans across the diaspora to support each other, access opportunities, and advocate for change. Can you talk about your decision to make this an explicitly global platform?

Our decision to explicitly make our platform global comes at a time when we are witnessing continent-wide mobilization by queer people. We are planning to become the primary tool used for coalition-building and resource flows.

In the last decade, we’ve seen a wave of decriminalization of same-sex intimacy across Africa. And while there is admirable work happening to rid of queerphobic colonial penal codes, there isn’t much happening to focus on the self-actualization of queer Africans. Nearly all queer organizations on the continent focus solely on legal and healthcare access for our community but barely any focus on helping queer Africans gather the resources they need to succeed with their social and professional ambitions.

My co-founder and I have spent years building queer communities in Canada, the U.S., and the African continent, which makes us deeply familiar with the history and context of systemic inequities facing queer Black communities in the diaspora— as well as the positive impact of connecting the diaspora with queer communities on the continent through knowledge production, mutual aid, resource sharing, and so much more.

Our platform has helped promote and connect fundraisers by Zimbabweans, gatherings in Vancouver, queer-owned businesses in Kenya, and banned films made in Uganda. By approaching our work with a global lens, we address the interlocking systems of oppression that impact queer Africans worldwide.

How has Echoing Green supported you in your leadership journey since joining as a Fellow in September 2021?

At the beginning of my Fellowship, Echoing Green helped me organize a Brain Trust session where I presented a challenge brief to other Fellows and asked them what features they would suggest being added to our mobile application. The outcome was incredibly insightful feedback that helped inform our latest security update. More than that, I was moved by the deep engagement and consideration that the Fellows dedicated to my session. I felt heard, seen, and supported.

There are many other ways that Echoing Green has supported my leadership journey that I’m grateful for: access to comprehensive resources that have helped me develop key processes and tools for my team, guidance with finding donors who fund within my issue area, a mentor who understands the challenges we face, and a chaplaincy program that reignites my hope in myself.

Thanks to Echoing Green, we were also able to have the funds to get formal registration. Kenya has a long history of creating barriers that intimidate organizations that explicitly serve queer communities from registering but we have been able to access affordable legal support that made our efforts successful. The fact that Echoing Green believed in us before we were able to register and took into account the context in which we operate speaks volumes to the level of care the Fellowship provides to early-stage organizations working on underfunded problems.

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What’s next for Queer African Network?

Currently, we have nearly 2,000 members from 18 different countries using our platform. We hope to scale our membership to 10,000 members by the end of 2022 with the ultimate outcome of eliminating life-threatening isolation:

  • in the personal sphere by providing access to a supportive community, coalition building, and social services. We also hope to work with community organizers from five countries in adding vetted resources, such as verified housing listings and health care practicians, to our mobile app’s directories.
  • in the professional sphere by providing personalized resources to thrive at places of work and learning and an opportunities database. In addition to our tailored opportunity recommendation, we are now pursuing strategic partnerships; for example, this year we plan to partner with universities and foundations to give need-based scholarships to low-income students in our network.

With our new mobile application (now published on the Google Playstore), there are several new features we hope our members make use of. For example, we are working to host and support 150 members this year in using our fundraising feature to raise funds they need for education, business, and health needs. We hope that this feature catalyzes moving queer Africans closer to financial stability and economic inclusion.

What is your best piece of advice for emerging social entrepreneurs interested in applying for the Echoing Green Fellowship?

I recommend focusing on the process just as much as the final outcome. In my case, the application alone helped my co-founder and I develop and refine key conceptual parts of our work that we still refer back to today. Valuing the process, rather than just worrying about the outcome of the selection, also helped me build meaningful connections with other Finalists that extend beyond community building sessions during Finalist Interviews.

What does the future you’re fighting for look like?

We envision an end-state where queer Africans don’t experience the debilitating anxieties of living imposed on them by capitalist hetero-patriarchy. Queer Africans will be confident that they have a global support net that takes a multi-sectoral approach to funneling financial assets. Our global queer African hub will have over 100,000,000 daily active users connected and building coalitions that transform the prevalence of isolation and self-rejection. The mental model that we are alone and unworthy of love will be a thing of the past. Queer Africans will have self-affirming spaces that allow them to build their identities on their own terms. They will be self-assured and can select from a variety of experiences that align with their aspirations.

For those interested in learning more, where should we go to learn more?

For people who identify as Black and queer, you can download our app and become member by completing the sign-up process. For anyone allied with our work and cause, you can seek more information through our Instagram page where we post regular updates.

About this series

Since 1987, Echoing Green has supported bold leaders from all over the world who see possibility in the face of the most existential challenges of our day. In a series of interviews with Echoing Green Fellows, we explore the connections these visionary leaders make between movements, experiences, and geographies to create a future free from racism and its far-reaching consequences where all people can thrive

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