Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

Joining the Pan African Conversation in Support of Shailja Patel

For those of us who live in the US, there is plenty of outrage here in our fight against racism and sexism to keep us busy. The events in Ferguson, the murders of Tjhisha and Angelia, the sexual assaults against black women by Daniel Holtzclaw, the recent gang rape, burning, and I would argue lynching of a black woman by three black men, just to name a few. Our days of activism and writing could easily be full without looking beyond the scope of our nation. But we cannot afford to maintain a US-centric perspective.

Today, I found out that Pambazuka News, the Pan-African social justice weekly, re-posted one my pieces in support of Kenyan-Indian feminist Shailja Patel, after her alleged sexual assault by Tony Mochama. Since I found out about the alleged attack on Patel, I’ve been outraged. I learned that it happened 17 days after she’d returned home to live in her native Kenya. I am posting a new piece on my blog every day for 17 days in support of her. I am honored to be part of a Pan-African progressive conversation, and encouraged by Pambazuka’s statement that accompanied my post: “There can be no excuse for the sexual assault of woman. And no one should be silent regarding the violence allegedly perpetrated by Kenyan columnist and writer Tony Mochama.”

Shailja and I have known each other for nearly fifteen years. In 2000, we were among a group of Bay Area slam poets who competed in local poetry slams together. Shailja has always been an unflinching and fierce writer about gender, colonization, migration, displacement, and resistance. We performed on many of the same stages, and both went on to develop solo work in spoken word theater. In the last decade, I was deeply inspired to see Shailja jump wholeheartedly into the activism and advocacy for true democracy in Kenya. I was also in conversation with her about how writers continue to move forward after their movements suffer significant defeats, like the ones the Kenyan progressive movement suffered. More recently, I was sad to see her leave the Bay Area to move back to Kenya, but I know Shailja has always had an international life, and our paths will cross again.

As a woman of African heritage in the diaspora, I always feel ignorant. I feel like I don’t know or understand enough about African politics to weigh in. This ignorance is not for lack of interest. I minored in African history at Harvard. As a minor, I was required to take the only two courses they offered at the time. One was simply called “Africa,” and was expected to cover the complete history of the entire continent in one semester. This, in contrast to courses like “The French Revolution,” which devoted the same amount of class time to a single country over a ten year period. At the time, Harvard also offered no African languages. Harvard, the oldest and most lavishly resourced educational institution in the United States could not be bothered to have any meaningful engagement of the diversity and nuances of African politics. They would rather gloss over an entire continent and keep the discourse in the language of the colonizers.

And yet, these days I have found myself starting to speak up about African issues, despite my ignorance. I wrote a piece called “Looking for a Hero to #BringBackOurGirls” and it was posted on the blog AfricaIsDoneSuffering. I pushed past my feelings of unpreparedness to put my voice out there to show solidarity and caring.

In taking on 17 days of blogging in support of Shailja, as a working artist mom, I’m not able to give each piece the level of painstaking, sometimes even nitpicky polish that I am accustomed to in a weekly blog. While I’m proud that Pambazuka News picked up the piece, the perfectionist in me is slightly aghast that such a raw version of the piece has been reblogged, forever out of my editorial reach. But as Audre Lorde says, in “The Transformation of Silence Into Language And Action,” we can’t wait for the ideal opportunity to speak, or the luxury of fearlessness, or the perfect words. Shailja’s right to be safe and at home in her body trumps my desire to have every word I send out into the world buffed and polished to a perfect shine. And these words for Shailja have long to travel. I need to, in the words of Amilcar Cabral, “mask no difficulties,” including my own. I have decided to prioritize the need to speak daily and fiercely and against sexual violence, in support of Shailja, and to an international audience. As a result, I get to humbly join the Pan African conversation about how we need to treat each other as men and women and humans in the struggle for freedom from the effects of colonization and male domination.


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This entry was posted on October 9, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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Aya wins first place Independent Publisher Awards for UPTOWN THIEF, THE BOSS, THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS

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