__________: a Call to Inaction

by: Gloria Kiconco

Solidarity is a word that seems to come from far away. A large bubbling concept that encompasses every fight I’m in or adjacent to. It swallows every activist. It comes as a call from an Egyptian friend of mine, to support another Egyptian wrongly imprisoned. It asks nothing of me but to share a post on Facebook. I know what happens on my timeline and I’m not ready for the unsolicited feedback. I wait and say nothing. I feel ashamed.

We, the others, the oppressed, have agreed that the problem is the system. The imperialists, the capitalists, the dictatorships, the corrupt governments, the police. The Ugandan police scare me. Their unchecked reach. The blind spot once one is in their grasp. What they can do to my body, my mind. How they can punish me just for existing. 

They don’t scare me as much as Ugandan feminists, poets, queer people, and activists. These people scare me more because they can reject me for trying to show solidarity and for doing it the wrong way, according to them. Most of my lasting wounds come from people in the same trenches as me: friendly fire. 

Here are some things Ugandan and Kenyan activists, feminists, queer people, and friends who have called on me for solidarity have said to me:

“All you do is sit there and look pretty” 

“You’re so soft” 

“You’re boring” 

“You’re so idealistic and naive” 

“You’re weak” 

“You’re indecisive” 

Words hurt. These words eroded trust. Why would I stand in solidarity with people who don’t value me at my core? Who criticize the things I believe make me a better person. 

It doesn’t matter the words they use, what they mean is: you are not ______ enough. 

I feel empathy for these same people. I’ve heard them when they say how they have been rejected for fighting for a better world. Many of them are branded “loud”, “angry”, “bitter” by the same people they are in the trenches with: friendly fire. 

It doesn’t matter the words we use, what we mean is: they are not _______ enough. 

We are waiting for them to achieve a lifetime of perfection so we can award them a Nobel Prize. A trophy, for a lifetime of tip-toeing around us and trying to be the best role models. 

We are waiting to call them out, for being rude. For saying something regretful. For using elicit substances (probably sometimes to cope with our endless criticism). For withdrawing. For retiring. 

The word solidarity comes from far and travels like a weapon. Something to yield by those with the academic or social accreditation. 

I haven’t talked about the oppressors. 

We don’t need them. We’re doing a great job oppressing ourselves through contradictions. 

Don’t make it personal… but stay human.  

Don’t repress your emotions… but control yourself and never give them the satisfaction of seeing they hurt you. 

Stop giving a F**k…  but if you don’t engage or do more than post, you have abandoned the cause. 

Protect your energy… except from me, the person closest to you. 

Does our time, energy, or well-being actually matter to the people around us?

People say solidarity and I think of Ife Piankhi. I met Ife through poetry events and she helped me, and many other upcoming poets, grow. Not just by setting an example or by showing me how to perform, but through words that continue to pull me from despair. 

In 2018, during my first solo one-hour poetry performance, Return to Sender, I made an offhand remark on stage about how my poetry sometimes sounds like nonsense, an insecurity carried over from my past. Ife was sitting to my left, nearest to the stage and I heard her clearly say It’s not nonsense, it has never been nonsense and she sounded frustrated. Not with me, but with the words I had used. Because these were words burdened on me by other poets who took issue with my accent, my references, and my non-traditional style. Up to now, when I perform or write, I think of that. Her words still hold me together. And they have held so many other people. 

Ife had a stroke in 2018. It was a shock to most of us who interacted with her regularly. She was so healthy, we said. She ate so well, she was a vegetarian. She took good care of herself. A number of people came together to fundraise to pay for the medical bills. She got out of the ICU. More people came together to fundraise for her to go to the UK for further treatment and therapy. Every so often, she posts on Instagram and I ask how long it took her to gather the energy to do so. The last time I saw her physically, she could barely speak. I still ask myself, how did this happen?

I still ask myself, where does solidarity start and where does it end?

I think of Ife often because I am tired already after 6 years of giving my time and energy to fellow artists, feminists, queers, and to my family. And I found her on the scene, decades into these efforts. 

Does solidarity only come in the aftermath of a crisis? Can it be a preventative tool?

I think of Shawn Mugisha, who has been raising money to bail LGBTQIT+ people out of jail whenever they are arrested in Uganda. I think of how his new year in 2020 started with an eviction notice on vague grounds. It was just another way to drive a queer person out of a neighbourhood. When he pulled together money to rent a more private home, he was fleeced. 

I think of how when he came to stay in a house with people who are advocates and allies of queer Ugandans, he was still expected to pay rent in the first few months. And he did. Without any resources, he and his partner extended their energy to continue surviving so he could keep doing the work he believes will change the lives of queer people for the better. 

I, and many others, stood in solidarity with him in 2020 as he raised money along with many others to bail out vulnerable queer youth who were arrested in a safe house that was provided to them. He didn’t stop fighting even when they were imprisoned for months without access to legal aid. We stood in solidarity with him in 2021 when 44 queer Ugandans arrested for holding a ceremony of love during covid-19. We raised money when we didn’t have money. When our own basic needs were not met. 

Between May and August of this year, I experienced a depressive episode that encouraged me towards death. I was ready. I am ready. To die, but not to kill myself. I was not well. But I was still expected to stand in solidarity with so many around me by providing emotional, financial, and moral support. 

Words spoken out loud are action. Speak. Say. These are verbs. Therefore actions. Therefore, of consequence

When my body ground to a halt and I was left lying broken in the silence, the world kept moving. People kept dying. Queer Ugandans were still being arrested. The oppressed continued being oppressed. On one of these days when I “crashed” or was “burnt out” and laying in my bed trying to find the strength to keep trying at living, I heard Shawn lose his temper. He was angry that the very people he was trying to make a safer space for, along with himself, were unwilling to put in more effort. It was the last push and he was in it alone, for a moment. But in that moment he almost broke and everyone was holding their breath. 

Where does solidarity start and end? 

I do not think of the oppressors. They are fine. They are thriving while we are busy policing each other. They are thriving because we are cutting each other with our words and saying, it’s not words, but actions that matter. 

Words spoken out loud are action. Speak. Say. These are verbs. Therefore actions. Therefore, of consequence. 

I walk in fear of words like solidarity because I worry about being called out for my ignorance or my vulnerability or something else I apparently should have the foresight to know is wrong. Even though I am only 31 and still learning. 

A part of me hopes to be cancelled quickly. To be relegated to the pile of defunct queers and former activists and unfit feminists. In the same way I welcome death, I welcome rejection. It is a form of freedom from your expectations. Yes, you. My friend. My comrade. It is freedom from my overgrown expectations of myself. What I truly want is acceptance, but I am not willing or capable to perform the acrobatics it seems to require. So I’ll settle for relegation.

I’ve heard nothing the last two years but calls for action and discussion around people needing rest. We the oppressed. We need rest. But we are not resting. Because when we do, we are called out. Or questioned. Or forgotten. 

We say, “be the change you want to see in the world” and reject that change when it does not serve us. Does it help if I admit my guilt first? I am guilty of demanding more from people even when I knew they were stretched to the limit. I am sorry. I am still learning. 

That there are always options. 

The next time you see these words: Solidarity, a call to action- I offer you this option:

Take time to be in solidarity with yourself. 

Take a breath. Take a long deep breath. Take another. 

Turn off all the music, the movies, the pundits on TV, the podcasts. Put down the book. 

Welcome the silence. Sit in it and do nothing. Suspend your judgement, of others, but especially of yourself. 

Ask the questions that matter.

What are my values? What are my limits? Do I have the emotional, mental, physical, financial capacity to contribute to this movement or cause?

Is what I’m being asked to do in alignment with my values and my ability and capacity to act?

Am I being asked for more than I can deliver?

Am I doing this out of fear of rejection and contempt?

Am I doing this to be liked or to be authentic?

I call you to do nothing. Until you want and feel able to do something. 

I call on you to breathe, pause, and give yourself permission to do nothing. This too is valid. Do not fear that support will be taken away when you need it because you chose to rest and take care of yourself when someone else called on you. If they care about you and are in that way in solidarity with you, they will understand. And we are so many ready to rise to the occasion when one of us is down. 

If you cannot give yourself that permission. I give it to you. 

You are permitted to rest. To not act. To think through your decision. To not be ashamed of it. To not sacrifice any more of yourself because you are reaching for a prize or some other trophy or goal in the future. You deserve better than a trophy or a platform.

You deserve to be acknowledged. 

You have the right to say no, even to allies. If they do not respect your no, that is a violation. A lack of consent by any name. 

Image by: Rogelio Vázquez

Gloria Kiconco

Poet, writer, zine-maker

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