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Strings AttachedAIDS and the Rise of Transnational Connections in Africa$

Nadine Beckmann, Alessandro Gusman, and Catrine Shroff

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265680

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265680.001.0001

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From an Activist’ s Point of View: Experiencing Transnational Dynamics among African Migrant Communities in the UK

From an Activist’ s Point of View: Experiencing Transnational Dynamics among African Migrant Communities in the UK

(p.69) 4 From an Activist’ s Point of View: Experiencing Transnational Dynamics among African Migrant Communities in the UK
Strings Attached

Ijeoma Ajibade

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This essay provides a practical illustration of how transnational dynamics are taking place within African migrant communities in the UK. It discusses the work of three community organisations from the perspective of a religious leader who also considers herself to be an activist. It explores her thoughts on the kinds of dynamics that she has witnessed within her community work. In this way the chapter provides a perspective of UK/African transnational dynamics which is rooted in practical experience. It shows the ways in which myths and prejudice about sexuality and HIV can be challenged at community level by allowing migrant communities to take the lead in addressing these issues within their communities. Through this process individuals are able to negotiate both their sexuality and HIV in a way that takes account of their conservative cultures. This process of learning and change is not limited to the specific communities involved, but has an impact on the host country through the public policy process.

Keywords:   Community activism, African migrants in the UK

From an Activist’ s Point of View: Experiencing Transnational Dynamics among African Migrant Communities in the UK

Remembering that there is unity in all our diversity (Holy Communion at St Philip’s Church, Earls Court, London)

(p.70) Introduction

MY AIM FOR THIS ESSAY is not to provide a detailed academic narrative about the subject of transnational dynamics, but to explore my personal experience of where such dynamics are taking place within the UK African diaspora and to illustrate the connections to Africa that emerge from this. My aim in doing this is to explore what I have seen in practice and in this way contribute to this book by providing a perspective that is rooted in practical experience. I would describe myself as an activist. I am a self-supporting priest at a church in the diocese of London and a chaplain at Southwark Cathedral in the diocese of Southwark. My service in both of these churches is voluntary and therefore provides me with great freedom to both shape my ministry within the church and work with a range of other religious and secular organisations. This freedom to respond and work with others is vital for me as an activist. The organisations that I work with are focused on a range of different fields including HIV services and prevention, international development, and lesbian and gay human rights. Although these are all separate specialisms, there are ways in which they overlap and connect, especially when considering the delivery of services at community levels here in the UK and in Africa. My activism takes place through these organisations at both community and regional and international levels.

Experiencing transnational dynamics on HIV and human sexuality at community and national levels: the Naz Project London (NPL)

The Naz Project London (NPL; www.naz.org.uk)is a charity that seeks to improve the sexual health of people from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in the UK. I have worked with the organisation for some years as a board trustee. NPL provides sexual health and HIV prevention and support services to South Asians (including Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis), Muslims (including Middle Easterners and Africans), Horn of Africans (Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis), Portuguese speakers (including Angolans, Brazilians, Mozambicans and Portuguese), and Spanish speakers (mainly Latin American).

HIV, Sexual Health and the Community at Naz

Through its work the organisation challenges the myths and prejudices that exist about sexual health and HIV within BME communities and works to ensure that these communities have access to care, support, and culturally and linguistically appropriate information. At the Naz Project we aim to educate and empower our communities to face up to the challenges of sexual health and the AIDS pandemic, and to mobilise support for people living with HIV. In that sense part of what we (p.71) do is to nurture community leadership, so that the communities themselves take the responsibility for providing information and support, and educating people about sexual health.

The Monya project is an example of the work that NPL does. Monya is a Swahili word for ‘strength’. In 2007, there was a call for a specific HIV prevention programme for migrant African men who have sex with men (MSM) in the London Borough of Newham. The project became a meeting point for migrant African men to access sexual health services that are sensitive to their needs. At the end of the third year of the project we had a total of fifty men accessing services. This is an example of one of our many projects and a setting in which transnational dynamics take place through learning and sharing together.

Within NPL the diverse communities work together to provide needed services and in doing so they are able to improve not just the sexual health of their own specific ethnic community, but also at a cross-cultural level they improve the sexual health of people beyond their ethnic and cultural grouping. Transnational dynamics lie at the heart of this process and through research and dialogue move beyond the BME community to influence wider UK sexual health policy through the relationships that NPL has with the UK government, the UK Department of Health and the National Health Service.

HIV, Sexual Health and The Individual At Naz

It is also clear to me that NPL is a place where cultural and religious conflict around sexuality is articulated and experienced, but done so in such a way that an individual is empowered to find a way to reconcile their cultural and religious needs with their sexuality and sexual health needs. Some of these experiences are reflected in our impact assessment reports (NPL 2010: 9).

Hearing South Asian parents talking about their experience of ‘coming out’ as a parent of a gay or bisexual son made me realise that ‘coming out’ isn’t just our journey as young gay men. Our parents have also got to make a journey which they may find more difficult than ours. Coming to NPL opened my eyes to ‘coming out’ and talking about it in an appropriate and accessible manner with my parents.

(Juned, 25, Bengali; NPL 2010: 10)

I gave an interview for the Tonight Programme on BBC Radio 4. I talked about reconciling my faith with my sexuality and gave a lot of personal information about how difficult and isolating I found it. Without the support of NPL, I don’t think I would have ever considered giving a personal interview that would be listened to by millions.

(Amit, 24, Indian; NPL 2011: 7t)

Across the different cultures and groups the Naz Project is able to develop a strong sense of acceptance and community cohesion amongst its service users, staff and volunteers. For some people this culturally appropriate support actually leads (p.72) to a sense of empowerment and in some cases may lead to community activism and leadership outside the Naz Project, such as participating in Pride, in fundraising activities or other forms of community outreach.

It is clear that the organisation provides the space in which transnational dynamics take place. Not only is this evidenced in the services provided to specific cultural groups, but it can be evidenced through the work that takes place across and within the different ethnic groups. Through this process individuals are able to negotiate both their sexuality and HIV in a way that takes account of their conservative cultures. This process of learning and change is not limited to the specific communities involved, but has an impact on the host country through the UK public policy process.

The African Health Policy Network (AHPN)

This national organisation has a different focus, but once again transnational dynamics can be experienced in a number of ways. The AHPN (www.ahpn.org)seeks to formulate and promote policy around sexual health, HIV and other health issues for the African diaspora in the UK. As the organisation seeks to develop policy responses on HIV, the importance of faith within this is a key factor. The organisation often finds that it has to negotiate different positions on morality and sexuality because of the pandemic and confront African religious groups with issues that are often considered taboo and are not discussed in places of worship. This interaction is focused on both African Muslim and African Christian communities. Migrant faith communities then find that they need to respond. Even where they are of a conservative background they are challenged to both understand and respond to the issue of HIV and human sexuality, not only because of the needs of the African community in the UK, but also because of wider debates that take place within the UK such as on equality and more recently on gay marriage.

Faith plays a key role in everyday life for Africans. It is for them a form of identity, and for new African migrants, participation within their faith community is one of the key ways of integrating into life in the UK. For many people, participation in the life of a faith community is vital for their well-being and it is the basis from which relationships are formed. It is recognised that if faith communities can address the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and recognise that HIV exists in their respective communities, not only will this develop support for people living with HIV but it could also assist with the implementation of prevention strategies at local levels and help raise awareness about HIV. Particular emphasis is placed on the role that religious leaders could have in achieving this. In 2011 the House of Lords Select Committee on HIV and Aids stated that ‘faith and religion play a strong role in the lives of many people. It is (p.73) essential that faith leaders engage with HIV as an issue and provide effective and truthful support and communication around the subject’ (2011: 32–3).

Before Africans living with HIV can receive appropriate support within their faith communities there is a need for faith leaders to understand HIV. It is recognised by policy makers in the UK that African religious leaders are in a key position to:

  • assist in HIV primary prevention by addressing some of the myths that surround HIV

  • ensure that places of worship are places of welcome and acceptance for people living with or affected by HIV

  • respond to the spiritual needs of people living with HIV

  • contribute to decision-making on HIV at local levels

  • create safe space in which the challenges of living with HIV can be discussed (African HIV Policy Network 2009).

The AHPN recognises that it is therefore crucial to engage faith leaders in the HIV response because of the authority they hold within their communities and their regular involvement and relationships with people, especially at key life stages.

I have worked to support the AHPN as they seek to engage and educate a range of African religious leaders and church-going Africans across a number of different denominations. We have developed toolkits on HIV for both Christian and Muslim faith communities, as well as providing a range of campaign materials and workshops.

In 2009 I worked with the AHPN to develop a course on HIV for Anglican clergy. This course considers the issue of HIV from a theological and ethical perspective in order to enable clergy to develop a greater awareness about HIV and how it affects people, but also for clergy to consider how they might wish to engage with the issue of HIV at both a local and a global level. In 2011 we organised a similar session, this time with a particular focus on the role of the church in responding to the HIV pandemic and to show religious leaders how the church is involved in the global HIV response. My work is not limited to religious leaders and their congregations. I also speak to clinicians and health-care workers about religious belief, especially on the issue of treatment adherence, HIV and the question of miracles. This follows on from the reports at the end of 2012 about some churches that were alleged to have been encouraging people to stop taking their HIV treatment. Thus, in a range of ways, African religious organisations in the UK are challenged to address their positions on morality and sexuality by engaging with organisations such as the AHPN, because of the need to respond to the pastoral concerns of the people they serve.

As an activist I feel that the process of transnational dynamics is very much part of this work and it often takes place without me or other activists being aware of what is happening. So, for example, within the HIV course for clergy we acknowledge that people have a wide range of views about sex and sexuality, and (p.74) different theological understandings, but as part of the course, we emphasise the complexity of HIV and the fact that it affects people from all walks of life. We emphasise that HIV is global and is no respecter of religion, politics or ideology. As we do this, the clergy and religious leaders from the different theological traditions can see that HIV and AIDS is more than just a health issue, that it is deeply complex and that there are no easy responses to the HIV pandemic. It is then the responsibility of the individual clergy to think about what they believe about sexuality and their theology and how they might then respond from their theological position.

In training clergy and developing policy we have extensive local and global networks. Transnational dynamics also take place through these partnerships and networks. I find that I am often liaising with people from a range of global networks and organisations both in the global South and in the global North. This engagement leads to exchanges of ideas, awareness of different practices, access to research and access to dialogue that may be taking place within the global South or North. This for me is a lived example of how I experience transnational dynamics. The discourse takes place at community level here in the UK within the African community, but it is also influenced by discourse happening in Africa and at the international level.

Experiencing Transnational Dynamics On Hiv and Human Sexuality at International Levels

At the global level I encounter transnational dynamics in two key areas, one being HIV and the other being the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights. These two movements have some overlap because the struggle for access to HIV treatment and prevention for men who have sex with men is also a justice issue. The World Bank (2001) reports that the effectiveness of HIV prevention is undermined by the criminalisation of homosexuality and by the lack of adequate HIV prevention for men who have sex with men. At the heart of the debates about the response to HIV, and questions about sexuality and human rights, are for me also questions of politics, power and theological conflict.


In April 2011 I was privileged to attend the UN Civil Society Hearing on HIV and AIDS. It took place in New York and for me was an occasion to see transnational dynamics at work in a very obvious way. The aim of this meeting was for civil society organisations from around the world to have an opportunity to deliver strategic messages which would then be used to influence the development of a (p.75) new UN declaration on HIV and AIDS, and to feed into the policy development process. It was also envisaged that in this way civil society organisations from across the world would have an opportunity to build stronger partnerships with their own country governments, as well as with each other, through the sharing of civil society perspectives and positions on both the local and global HIV response.

Prior to the hearing day, a series of pre-meetings were held and these meetings provided an opportunity for exchange of ideas, for learning, and also a place for developing global civil society priorities. It was interesting to see this movement and process at work. The way in which the dialogue aimed to be as balanced as possible, with both southern and northern voices being listened to and valued, was deeply fascinating and a key example of the way in which transnational dynamics take place. It also provided a very good opportunity to hear about work that is being undertaken within the respective countries and regions, and it provided an opportunity to discuss the complexities involved in responding to the pandemic on the ground. Despite the diversity of the geographical regions which delegates had come from there was a strong consensus in the room about the main priorities. In the midst of this global meeting the transnational dynamics led to a strong consensus about action and priorities.

As a faith leader, I recognise that key populations – men who have sex with men, sex workers, and intravenous drug users – are particularly affected by HIV. HIV is not a moral issue and therefore I believe that working with and supporting these groups is critical in the HIV response. The Civil Society Hearing showed that the marginalised of this world are strong. They organise, they advocate and they challenge governments and the powers that be. There is a passage in the Bible that describes them. They are people ‘of whom the world is not worthy’ (Hebrews 11:38). Transnational dynamics are seen in minority groups that organise themselves and support each other, as in the Naz Project London. There is a level of solidarity that empowers individuals and enables them to lead their lives and manage their health and well-being. They organise themselves – often transcending national boundaries – and as faith leaders and people within academic institutions who have our own power and responsibilities we must show solidarity and support them.

Human Sexuality

When it comes to dialogue about sexuality, in my experience the dialogue and the dynamics are far more polarised and difficult. The situation in Uganda which led to the death of David Kato shows transnational dynamics of a different kind, with the struggle for gay equality in the US finding a new arena in Uganda. These struggles are also taking place in other societal institutions such as churches, often with churches from the global South taking a more conservative approach to sexuality than churches in the global North.

(p.76) The situation in Uganda has shown how polarised the debate about human sexuality has become. There are claims from African political and religious leaders that homosexuality is un-African and is imported to Africa from the global North. Accusations are made by activists from the global South against conservative churches from the global North stating that some of these church leaders have actively supported and inflamed anti-homosexual persecution in Uganda. An example of this is the current case brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda and the US Centre for Constitutional Rights against the US church leader Scott Lively.

Despite accusations from religious leaders within the global South that homosexuality is a Western influence and un-African, it isn’t. There are a range of lesbian and gay voices showing strong locally led activism on this issue from a variety of civil society organisations based in the global South. There is also a history of LGBTI activists from the global South lobbying the Commonwealth to encourage decriminalisation of homosexuality. There is a vibrant LGBTI movement of activism in the global South even though religious and other societal institutions are in conflict and are divided over the issues. The key question in the midst of these dynamics is ‘how will it be resolved?’ I think that these dynamics can be harnessed to enable us to find resolution at both community and national levels.

For me as an observer of all these different kinds of dynamics, one of the key issues is finding resolution at community level, because this is where the impact of homophobia and violence against LGBTI people is experienced. It is felt by the LGBTI individual as they seek to go about their daily life and find that they are discriminated against, harassed or persecuted. As a priest and an activist in understanding the gospel the key issue for me is one of life, of human flourishing and recognising the Imago Dei (the image of God) in my fellow human being. I think that the recognition of the humanity of others and the need for compassion is actually lost within the North and South dynamic when it comes to homosexuality. In some way it needs to be regained, but new organisations are emerging which may make it possible to draw on the global dynamics to find a way forward at community level.

The Kaleidoscope Trust

An organisation set up with this compassion at its heart is the Kaleidoscope Trust (www.kaleidoscopetrust.com).This charity has been set up in the UK to work globally to promote diversity and respect for all regardless of sexual orientation. The aim of the organisation is to deploy resources and expertise to support people at community level who are working for LGBTI human rights within their own countries. The Kaleidoscope Trust hopes to encourage dialogue and cooperation between countries and will include capacity building at community level in countries where hostility towards gay men and lesbian women is particularly severe.

(p.77) As an organisation, through the process of transnational dynamics the Kaleidoscope Trust aims to facilitate network development between countries that share historic, cultural or other affinities. Through opinion forming and dialogue Kaleidoscope hopes to change negative attitudes towards sexual diversity by facilitating debate at all levels including the media, political arenas and in public life. Kaleidoscope hopes to use transnational processes to improve life and indeed protect the life of many people who are currently threatened. This will not be an agenda led by the global North but a process of dialogue and campaign led by activists in the global South. The role of the Kaleidoscope Trust will be to lend capacity and show solidarity with LGBTI activists outside the UK in the global South and to build capacity so that people can struggle for human rights in their own countries with the support and resources of Kaleidoscope.

Within this global movement for change the issue of faith has deep significance. My role within this organisation is to develop faith-based responses to religious-inspired homophobia. This work is at a very early stage and will involve transnational dynamics through discussion with religious leaders in the global South but also with a range of NGOs such as faith-based development agencies. The aim will be to facilitate dialogue and some form of reconciliation and to demonstrate some of the wider implications of the criminalisation of homosexuality, showing that such moves can undermine health and development in the global South. It is hoped that our work in this area will also show how criminalisation contradicts the Christian ethos of love and justice.


My practical experience as an activist working across a range of religious and secular organisations illustrates that within the issue of responding to HIV and debates about human sexuality, there is much social change that is brought about by transnational dynamics. People may not always voice their opinions about these issues but will act on them within their personal lives and within their local communities. In a sense the different organisations that I work alongside subvert conservative agendas in a way that might not be readily apparent. They do this by empowering individuals to reflect on their personal experiences and their needs and to then reconcile all of this with their religious and cultural beliefs. Together with others in the community and as part of movements for social change individuals are able to negotiate their conservative cultures or religions and find new ways of living within them.

(p.78) References

Bibliography references:

African HIV Policy Network. 2009. HIV and Faith: Discussion Paper, Engaging Muslim and Christian Leaders on the Issue of HIV. http://idoitright.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/HIV-and-FAITH-discussion-paper.pdf (accessed 8 June 2012).

House of Lords Select Committee on HIV and Aids in the United Kingdom. 2011. No Vaccine No Cure: HIV and AIDS in the United Kingdom. House of Lords, 1 September.

Naz Project London. 2010. ‘Annual impact statement’.

Naz Project London, 2011, ‘Annual impact report’.

World Bank. 2001. Global HIV Epidemics among Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM): Epidemiology, Prevention, Access to Care and Human Rights. June. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTHIVAIDS/Resources/375798-1103037153392/MSMReport.pdf (accessed 10 September 2011).