Last month i got the opportunity to attend the annual AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa thanks to an International Reporting Project(IRP) fellowship. Amongst many enlightening sessions was a pre-conference keynote address given by activist Bisi Alimi. Though the narrative has mostly focused on him being the first Nigerian to publicly come out on Nigerian network television, Alimi is an HIV and LGBTQI activist who has worked on the frontline of social justice, himself a person living with HIV for over ten years. Alimi has had quite the year with international speaking engagements, numerous press mentions and a just concluded Aspen new voices fellowship. We took out sometime for a quick chat on his work, and the many issues still plaguing the community he serves.
You have spoken about the need to come out for the purposes of connection and relatability. This can be quite the task in a criminalising environment. So how do you propose this would work?
The issue of coming out in a hostile environment is a catch 22. If we do we are damned, if we don’t we are damned. The option we choose is not going to be safe but one can either keep us in oblivion forever, while the other will surely lead us to liberation. To be honest the road to liberation is paved with the blood and sweat of the bold and courageous and we have to make up our mind. If we look at history across the world, the issues on the fringe became mainstream because some people decided to stop allowing bullshit on the sideline. From women in politics, LGBT liberation, to sex work decriminalization and disabled people having access to work, these things didn’t happen because the majority suddenly felt like “oh its Christmas, lets be nice and share the goodies”, it is because the people affected decided to call off the bullshit and change the direction of the ship.
You have also talked about the role of liberals as allies. I remember activist Ifeanyi Orazulike saying during a panel at the AIDS 2016 conference that it can be quite difficult to know if allies are actually genuine. He added that considering the fact that there seems to be more resources channeled towards the issues and rights of LGBTQI communities. There have been stories of people rallying around the cause because that is where the money is. What are your thoughts and what is the way around this?
I don’t care if people join the cause because there is money. I have been advocating for the recognition of allies across Africa because that is the only way we can reward their support. For example, look at Funmi Iyanda breaking barriers 12 years ago. I am still waiting for her to get global recognition for her work on LGBT rights in Nigeria. Believe me, if she gets recognised, there will be more people who will follow in her footsteps. I am sorry but the reality is this, they have nothing at stake. Why should they be bothered if some LGBT people are being killed? They have no business with us. So for them to show they care, it has to either be personal or rewarding.
I am an LGBT, HIV and Race activist because those issues affect my life. I speak on feminist and disability issues because I believe strongly in social justice and that’s me, that’s my background. I am a troublemaker and I make those troubles on behalf of people who have limited voices or no voice at all. I don’t do my work to be liked, and that’s okay by me. I should not judge others by my standard and that is why I strongly believe that we should reward and compensate our allies in Africa. The same is being done in Europe and America, so why should we be ashamed to do the same here?
One of the key concepts within the women’s rights and feminism community for a while now has been ‘Intersectionality’. In a place like Nigeria, it has been argued that this is one of the crucial ways to give a voice to the struggles of sexual minorities. Do you think intersectionality has proven effective, as a human rights tool so far, is it sustainable or do certain issues eventually take prominence over the others?
I am a passionate advocate of intersectionality. My advocacy for it stems from the fact that as a single human being, we belong to many social classes in the world and these different parts to us interact with each other in our everyday activism.
As a man who is black and gay, while I have the privilege of being a man but the challenges of being gay in a black country where that identity is criminalised and living in a white society where being black is stigmatised. These are the realities of my intersectionality and the same goes with women in general. Their sexuality, gender identity, race and social class come into play. Indeed this has helped to bring to fore many issues we tend to muddle together. For example, when Viola Davies gave that speech at Emmys and she talked about “opportunity”, it was not just about being a woman, but it was about being a black woman.
When I read the story of Bayard Rustin, it was not just about him being the smart guy that planned the March on Washington for jobs, but it was about him being a black man, but more importantly, about him being a gay man. This is why I salute the courage of Harvey Milk. Intersectionality taught me to be proud of Bayard Rustin and be like him. This is how intersectionality has changed the landscape of social justice. So when we call out the Oscars for being so white, we didn’t forget that Oscar is male as well. When we say Black Lives Matter, we don’t forget that LGBT, the disabled and women’s lives matter, that is the core and the spirit of intersectionality.
We aren’t talking enough about the impact of criminalisation laws and its effect on HIV incidence rates in Nigeria? What would you say is the impact and what do you think the public needs to understand better with regards the public health implications?
First it is important to know that when we criminalise, we drive the affected population underground. It doesn’t solve the problem it complicates it. When you criminalise sex work, it’s not going to go away, it just means sex workers will have to find another way to do their job. If you criminalise same sex relationships, it doesn’t mean all of a sudden all LGBT people will stop being LGBT, it only means they will have to get smart and find a way to live their lives.
The smart ways often means marrying the opposite sex or conforming to the expectation of the society. That means the problem you are trying to get rid of is not going away, it is adapting to the reality it finds itself.
On HIV, we know that for example HIV incidence among Gay and MSM in Nigeria is at 24% while the general population is at 3%. Most of the women infected with HIV got the virus from their husbands who possibly have same sex relationships. And the gay men, get it from their sex partners in heterosexual relationships. We have foolishly created a vicious circle because we moralise a public health issue.
I have argued for many years that as much as I respect the religious right, it has no place in science and more so in public health where communicable disease is an issue. The reality is, the most righteous human being has a dark secret and for that reason, public health should be inclusive rather than divisive.
During an interview, you stated that ‘until your activism is personal, you will never get passionate about it’ essentially, the personal is political. Do you worry about your message becoming monotonous or even been viewed as self-serving?
I am not ashamed to say my message is self-serving. I am a gay man who is being criminalised in Nigeria and if I want to live freely in that country, I have to be self-serving. There is a notion that being self-serving is a bad thing. Well it is if you are Donald Trump. But if your message is about survival, then you should be proud for having the self-awareness to want to save your skin. I have always argued that my activism is personal. I am not a gay rights activist because I want to save all LGBT people in Nigeria. I am a gay rights activist because I want to live in a Nigeria that is inclusive. If in the process of working hard to make Nigeria inclusive other LGBT people benefit from it, then so be it.
Activism has to be personal because that is what will keep you going when every thing else fails. I have had amazing opportunities in life to stop being an activist but activism for me was never about making money, it was about being able to see another day. Actually, that quote I made came from the Baltimore Black lives matter protest. A young man went on a hunger strike demanding that the president of his university resign. It was a battle between his will and the ego of the president. To this young man, his activism was not primarily about Black Lives Matter, but about him being in a college where the president that is expected to protect him is plotting against him. He refused to call off his hunger strike and the president seeing his resolve, resigned. It was based on that I said that quote. There is no compromise outside of the one that promotes the desired result, and all the time, the desired result has to be personal. I don’t apologise for what I believe in and that is what has kept me where I am today.
We can’t talk about the rights of sexual minorities without mention of the religiosity within our community. It can make any kind of engagement on the subject even more difficult. What are your ideas on how to work within these confines yet respecting the religious space?
I think this is where everyone will turn off this interview. My opinion about Abrahamic religion is clear. There is nothing relative about it to the African setting. It was an instrument of oppression and it is really a shame that we have continued to use it to oppress ourselves even worse than the slave masters. This was the same religion that justified the enslavement of my forefathers, the raping of my foremothers and the selling of my fore brothers and sisters. Abrahamic religion is a tool and instrument of the oppressor and my activism will not apologise for calling it what it is. Now postcolonial, it has become the tool of the greedy and corrupt. Nigeria has the potential to be one of the richest countries in the world. Religion has blinded us and taken away our ability to reason and be creative. It has entrapped us in the lazy expectation that there is a white old man with a silver beard who has the answer to all our problems. It is also important to say here that, the reason that religion is called Abrahamic is because it is simply not our culture. When an average African says, “homosexuality is unafrican” try asking them how, and then they go for the Bible or the Quran. We are the generation that lacks the understanding of who we are and what we stand for as a people.
For you to deeply understand Yoruba culture, you will have to travel to Brazil or Cuba. Today, Shango, Yemoja, Orunmila, Obatala and many of our gods are considered as evil. How many Yoruba people know about Oduduwa? The concept of Oduduwa is similar to the concept of the divine god sold to us by the colonists. Our political class trusts a white doctor more than they trust a black one, so it’s just the same with our religion. An average Nigerian trusts a white god much more than they trust their own history. So when people want me to engage with them on the basis of a misplaced understanding of who we are, it is my responsibility to take them on a journey of self-awareness. I don’t expect all of them to take the truth as sometimes it hurts, but I will not be nice with it.
You have also been vocal about the role of peer educators and community engagement with regards the fight against HIV/AIDS. You and many others have voiced your thoughts on the poor pay structure experienced by those working on ground within the communities. Local communities are also loosing good staff to countries that pay better leaving those they serve more vulnerable. Why do you think the HIV community has still not understood the value of their work within the delivery structure?
This ties very well with the question you asked above about religion. One of the most effective tools implored during slave trade was for the black people to appreciate the fact that we have been given an opportunity to serve. Expecting to be paid is an abuse to God, work hard for nothing and God will bless you. You and I know that is total bullshit. During my talk at the MSMGF pre conference, I called this out. I think I know better because I have had the opportunity of working on the frontline in Nigeria and the UK. I get paid good money in London; I was not paid a penny in Nigeria. I was doing the same job serving a community living with and affected by HIV and a community I am a member of. In the UK it is common sense you get paid, in Nigeria, it is a shame to ask for money. We can’t keep allowing this go on and pretend it is not an issue. It is a very big issue and we have to address it. The rich activists who live in London and New York get paid huge salaries while they expect activists in the global south to spend their time volunteering with no pay because apparently they are serving their communities. We know that New Yorkers and Londoners who are doing the same job for their own communities get paid good salaries. Activism is not just a passion, it is a job.
Amongst many things in this years AIDS conference, one of the dominating conversations have revolved around PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) as a preventive tool amongst vulnerable communities from MSM and sex workers to women in Africa. What are your thoughts on PrEP, and its sustainability as a biomedical intervention tool?
My first thought on PrEP is that it works and this is not some conspiracy theory. It works for men, women, gays, sex workers and Trans people. It works to prevent the spread of HIV and thereby reduces the number of people we have to put on treatment for life. It fits perfectly the saying “prevention is better than cure”. However there are questions that we need to answer and most importantly in Africa. I have written two articles on this issue, one was about 5 years ago when I asked the question; “Is Africa ready for PrEP and the other one was two years ago when I called for a rational and reasonable approach to PrEP implementation for Gay and MSM in Africa.
One of the questions I raised was; who will pay for the PrEP? We know that it is only South Africa that has over 5% local investment in HIV prevention and care. Other African countries depend on international aid, and that includes Nigeria. So do we expect the UK who has refused to put its Gay men on PrEP to pay for PrEP in Nigeria through DFID? Do you expect the US who is dealing with local issues around access?
Then there is the issue of corruption justified by the moralisation of issues around HIV. Nigeria for example has questions to answer on what happened to UNAIDS money meant for MSM and Gay men? Even if the money comes, is Nigeria ready to provide PrEP for gay men? A population they consider immoral and have criminalised?
It is a very messy and complicated issue, not because the issues are, but because, in our myopic, holier than thou mindset, we have decided to classify who has any relevance in our society, and that person is the straight bloke. PrEP is sustainable as long as we have the will power to deliver. It is not rocket science. If the drug is there and there is no criminalisation, people will take it, and if it is taken well, the rate of transmission will go down, this is the fact that science has shown us.
One of the issues I find with conferences and high-level meetings is that a lot of information doesn’t trickle down to the masses. How can we start to bridge that gap?
I share your pain and that was why I was doing Facebook interviews while in Durban as that is the only way some people can have an idea of what is going on. One of the biggest challenges of such conferences is general public interest in the issues. I am not sure we can really help that. We only talk about HIV issues on the 1st of Dec. And the other days of the year, we spend shaming people living with HIV. This approach has forced many people to get turned off.
For instance a lot of scientific breakthrough came out of Durban, things that will be beneficial to everyone. But again we end up singing to the choir and I really don’t know what we can do differently to get the message to everyone.
You have been vocal about receiving as much threats as you do embrace. When you are threatened, your life is endangered and when you are overly embraced and idolised, there can be some overwhelming expectations. How have you been able to deal with both?
I am a very shy person and praise actually makes me recoil. I get really shy when people shower praises on me. Many times I have walked down the street and people have stopped me on the street and asked for pictures and thank me for my work. I felt so shy. I think its because my activism is personal, it was never for praises or accolades but I really do appreciate it. As for the haters, I learnt from two people. One is Funmi Iyanda, she once told me “if you see the people that hate you and see who they are and how they are, you will really be angry with yourself for allowing their hate to get to you” and the other Caitlyn Jenner, I asked her if she sees the hateful comment towards her, and she said yes and I asked “how do you deal with them”, she said “ we need our haters to make us appreciate our fans, because for every time you get attacked, a fan comes to your rescue to lift you up, you need both” and that has been my approach to things. The people that hate me don’t know me, have never met me, have no idea who I am, they hate based on their personal assumption of who I might be, and same goes with most people that love me, and it will indeed be a bad kind of self serving if I expect everyone to love me. Don’t forget, I work on an issue that is extremely controversial and some will hate passionately while others will love passionately. Such is life. It is always water off the duck’s back.
Miss wana, this was quite insightful. “To be honest the road to liberation is paved with the blood and sweat of the bold and courageous and we have to make up our mind.” that line will stay with me forever.
Thank you Bisi Alimi. You give strength to all of us.
Really beautiful and insightful. 😄😄👏👏
Hopefully one day common sense will prevail in Naija