Words of Marthe Djilo Kamga, director of the film “Vibrancy of Silence: A Discussion With My Sisters”
Words of/La parole à Marthe Djilo Kamga & Frieda Ekotto : Vibrancy of Silence: A Discussion With My Sisters
In your work you have centred the role of women as artists and cultural activists in the context of knowledge production. African women makers as “primary sources” of your study and research, their voices and the relating of their experiences inform the project Vibrancy of Silence: A Discussion With My Sisters. Please elaborate on the notion of African women and the production of knowledge as the theoretical framework of your project.
First, I would like to say a few words about what my motivations were to tackle topics that have to do with womanhood, in particular with African women, wherever they might live.
The first reason is that I am an African woman in a constant dialogue with other African women. From experience, we know what it means to not be considered, to be humiliated, to be forcefully silenced, to be forgotten. We also know the meaning of the multiple overlapping vulnerabilities that come from being a woman, from living in (or hailing from) poor countries, societies in which equal rights - as well as the right to be healthy, the right to education, or freedom of speech - only exist in theory, societies where our sexuality can only be expressed in relation to that of men.
Another reason is the experience of being misunderstood. Why are African women, black women excluded from the "women" category? At least that's how I see it. We keep hearing aphorisms such as "Women bear the burden of Africa", "Bare feet, strong shoulders", "Women are owned by men", "African women have no rights, they are men's objects who can marry several of them at once" etc. Or we hear women being reduced to stereotypes - like that of the "mama benz", the rich African businesswoman- or to reproductive health statistics…
There is little word about queens in Africa. For instance, who talks about Nazinga, from the Kibongo people, who founded the Kibangu Churches as a way to fight back against proselytism? Or about the last queen of Madagascar, Ranavalona III, who rejected the French protectorate? Or Yaa Asantawa, the Ejisu queen-mother who reigned over the Ashanti Empire and resisted colonial encroachments. One could also mention the Kikuyu women in Kenya or the Bamiléké women who took part in the armed struggle for the liberation of Cameroon, the women of Mozambique, to only name a few. All these figures of resistance, all these positive examples of strong women, all these role models have been taken away from us because they go against the grain of the so-called universal sorority, against the grain of white universalism.
The third reason is the will to understand. Understand why we, African women, have come to internalize and perpetuate that white universalism at the expense of our own lived experience, of our own interest as female human beings.
I do understand why people leave – or run away from - their country to catch a glimpse of a better future on greener pastures, the same pastures that are described as the only possible space of "success", of human "civilization". Therefore, I also understand all the processes of psychological repression (both conscious and unconscious, of inhibition, sublimation, of self-censoring, as well as the need to live totally or partially "hidden" in order to preserve this life described as "more dignified". I understand the women who take enormous risks in their daily life to experience the illusion of that idealized horizon.
Finally, tiredness plays an important part as well and forms the basis of the work presented in the documentary. I am tired of the new labels that keep appearing and that serve to categorize in order to circumscribe better – and dominate more effectively. Afro-feminism, afro-centrism, afro-ascetism, etc. On my end, I experience this phenomenon as a new form of negation of my humanity and of all the things I could contribute to that Poetics of Relation, to use a term coined by Edouard Glissant, in order for it to come to fruition. I am tired of being instrumentalized by everyone, women as well as men.
I grew up in an exclusively female world. Not that men didn't exist. In practice, I would see them officially give their name to their children but, deep down, children were bound to their mothers by a matrilineal sense of belonging. Here children belong to a family through their mother, even when they carry their father's name. The maternal uncle is seen as the father.
There is also a dissonance that arises in my mind and that, today, makes me want to produce a discourse on what I can myself understand what it means to be a woman and, as a consequence, what it means to be a feminist influenced by various currents but still deeply African. Is being a woman to possess the attributes described as female by biology? Is it to be female, of the female sex, with precise roles, thought to be feminine, assigned to the female gender?
When I arrived in the West, I thought that I would be able to continue living with white women the way I lived with my sisters, my mothers. I was excited to discover them, to be like them. I even met Simone, well, her works resonated with what I was experiencing, with what I was thinking but couldn't really name. She wrote for instance:
"What I will try to describe is how woman is taught to assume her condition, how she experiences this, what universe she finds herself enclosed in, and what escape mechanisms are permitted her. Only then can we understand what problems women — heirs to a weighty past, striving to forge a new future — are faced with. When I use the word "woman" or "feminine," I obviously refer to no archetype, to no immutable essence; ‘in the present state of education and customs’ must be understood to follow most of my affirmations. There is no question of expressing eternal truths here, but of describing the common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems… One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman." (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex)
De Beauvoir used to speak to me, as many others did. But I quickly had to come to terms with a reality that I wasn't really aware of yet as it silently lurked in me for many years. I will never be a Western woman, I will always be an African woman, even if, as a so-called "diaspora African", my Africanness has been transformed.
I have been living in the West since I was a young adult. My first physical encounter with the West was, on many accounts, a real shock. I was suddenly thrown into a universe that was even more apocalyptic than I had previously realized in terms of being a woman in general. My body particularly suffered from it, it started by become "contorted", torn between the social body, the mental body, the physical body, the historical body, and the geographical body.
I learned the hard way that the "black body"—in particular the female black body—has been relegated to the margin of margins in Western society. I had to come to terms with the fact that black bodies were often represented as disembodied, dislocated, lifeless. Or that they are either associated with the ferociousness of beasts (those panthers, tigresses, and other gazelles with which we, black women, are constantly compared) or confined to the emotional and carnal part of their being ("she's got the beat"), something which leads to objectification, exoticization, submission, and sexual fetishization.
"I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect. (…) And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in the pertinence of our lives (…) My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you." (Audre Lorde)
For me, this documentary, Vibrancy of Silence: A Discussion With My Sisters, expresses this desire to redefine myself as an African through the experience of other African women. What all our trajectories have in common is the refusal to abide by the norms that were imposed upon us. We made the choice to open up and, in doing that, to give other women a chance to realize that they have the power to create meaning, knowledge.
Often represented in very stereotypical ways, the bodies of black women carry within themselves a historical and cultural inheritance. They are the repository of the passage of time and of the succession of historical events. That's another reason why I chose that beautiful painting by Papy Ekenge, a Congolese artist who works on the history of scarification. I wanted to show that particular type of silent writing inscribed on the body of so many women, in African traditions that are often still described as only possessing an "oral culture". But what is orality?
As a woman marked by the cultural legacy of colonialism, living in a Western country becomes a constant quest for the mechanisms that will allow for the construction of an identity based on a dynamic, yet stable and fulfilling balance. When I left my native country, I didn't know that I had foundations. I learned it the hard way, by staying silent for too long, incapable to express the pain that came with exile. Since then, I am in a constant quest. Vibrancy of Silence is a way for me to break that silence, to bring our different types of expertise together, to enrich one another with our knowledge, and to experiment with ways to bequeath them to future generations.
For me, Vibrancy of Silence is only one of the stages of a long process of reflection on my own condition, one of the stages of my search for identity. On the way, I crossed paths with Frieda Ekotto who's interested in questioning the colonial library, in creating new archives through narratives by and for African women.
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you." (Maya Angelou)