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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Antonia McGrath

Photo of Antonia McGrath.

COVID-19’s impact on educate. and life in Honduras

Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in. 

I’m one of the directors of a non-profit called educate. that supports community-driven educational projects in Honduras. We’re a volunteer-run charity, with a team in Honduras and a team in Amsterdam (where I live), so we are quite used to communicating digitally, but both sides of our work are being deeply affected by everything that’s going on at the moment. Here in Amsterdam, our fundraising has had to shift because we’ve had to call off all our fundraising events, and in Honduras many people in our community have lost their whole household incomes due to the lockdown, with no government safety net to provide support. Personally, I’m spending a lot of time on the phone with people across Honduras, especially our teachers and community project leaders, as well as supporting our Amsterdam team in shifting our work online. I also work as an au pair here in Amsterdam, so I’m doing home-schooling with three little kids on the side!

In Honduras, the government has imposed a strict and total lockdown: people are allowed outside once per week in a time block decided by their ID number, but the country has a 66% poverty rate and a huge informal sector, so for many people a lockdown means no way to put food on the table. That includes several members of our team in Honduras, so we sent some emergency funds over last week.

In general, though, I am struck by the positivity and resilience in the conversations I have with our community in Honduras. I think it comes from the fact that we work with a lot of teachers, and teachers are just the kind of people who are always supporting people, always looking for ways to rally together and make things work – especially a lot of the teachers we work with, who are used to working with limited resources and in tough conditions. They are endlessly driven and dedicated to the wellbeing and education of their students. Even without internet access and in some cases even electricity, teachers are making sure their students are safe and can continue learning even with everything that is going on.

Here in Amsterdam, things are, in many ways, more straightforward. We’ve have had to call off all our fundraising events for the upcoming months, but our team has been coming up with different ways to make sure we continue to raise the necessary funds for our ongoing projects, and to support our community through this time. I feel incredibly lucky to lead a team that has been so positive in coming together to make quick and often logistically difficult changes. Our grants team have expanded, our events team are taking our whole six-month event programme online, we’ve launched an emergency crowdfunding campaign that our community has been so generous in supporting, and our schools team who usually organise school-based service learning and fundraising partnerships, are working on a postcard project using student artwork from Honduras. I’m mostly focused on coordinating everything and leading our online communications across our different platforms – making sure we continue to share what we’re doing, telling stories from our projects, finding ways to raise awareness about the situation in Honduras, and promoting our fundraising campaigns and online events.

Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project? 

At the moment, we are sharing a lot of videos on our social media channels from parents, teachers, students and project leaders from our community across Honduras, who are talking about their experiences, giving advice, and sharing some words of solidarity. For us it’s a great way not only to raise awareness about the situation in Honduras, but to strengthen our community through these shared stories on our platform.

We also have a blog that has some interesting articles on it about our work, which supporters of the Shiloh Project might find interesting.

How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?

educate. is all about community and community leadership, so we’ve been finding ways to keep our community strong despite being physically isolated from one another. We’ve been talking with our student and teacher community across Honduras more than ever, asking people to share photos and videos about what they are up to, and making collaborative video messages to share.

One of the teachers at a school we work with in Honduras, in a small village called Las Lagunas, asked if we could make a video from our Amsterdam team for her students sharing some advice and words of encouragement, so we got all the Spanish speakers on our Amsterdam team to record a message and we put them together for the kids in Las Lagunas. We’ve had photos and videos back from several of the students and people there. So we’re really trying to stay connected, and make sure everyone knows they’re not alone in this, even though our experiences may be vastly different.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Series: Mmapula Kebaneilwe

A Bit about myself:

I am Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe, a Womanist scholar and Senior Lecturer of Hebrew and Old Testament Studies at the University of Botswana. I did my PhD with the University of Murdoch in Western Australia, and completed in 2012. The title of my Thesis was “This Courageous Woman: A Socio-rhetorical Womanist Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” (The thesis can be found online here.) I have a wide range of research interests, including; women and the Bible; HIV, Aids, the Bible and women; women, gender and the Bible; the Bible and environmental issues; rape culture, gender and the Bible. Above all, my keen interest concerns gender justice and hence, researching on issues relating to women is important to me. The quest stems from my own context, which is patriarchal and marred by gender-based violence.

What I have been up-to during the COVID 19 Lock-in

To be honest, COVID 19 has left me confused, worried and without motivation or energy to do much. However, as the lock-in proceeds into the third week in my country (Botswana), I seem to be unstiffening a bit and I guess I am now getting accustomed to my ‘new normal’ of being just at home. I believe I am also getting to grips with the current reality and learning to live with the fact that the entire world is faced with a pandemic and everyone is affected in some way or other. On a more positive note, I have been doing what I enjoy most, which is gardening. I have started a small vegetable garden, which I have mixed with my usual plants and flowers that I tend every day. I find this very healing to my soul.

I also have a lot of academic work to do during this time (much of it is backlog from a few months ago). The work includes co-editing for a volume on ‘Mother Earth’, a book project, which is a collaboration with different scholars who presented papers at the 2019 Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, held in Gaborone, Botswana. I am also working on my book, which is adapted from my PhD thesis and which has come back from a second round of the review process, just a few days ago. I have also received back reviews for a chapter that I am contributing to a project on #Jesus Too, edited by Jayme Reaves and David Tombs.

Aspects of my work, past and present that might of interest to the Shiloh Project supporters?

I think some of my work that might be of interest to supporters of the Shiloh Project may include first, my PhD Thesis (2012). This is so because in that I explore some of the issues that relate to the intersection between, the Bible, culture (in this case Botswana culture) and women. Attention is paid to the portrayal of a woman in rather strong and affirmative ways in Proverbs 31:10-31. Such is not commonplace in the Bible. I bring the portrait into engagement with how women are treated in my culture, especially in relation to their male counterparts and in relation to marginalization and disadvantages for women on different levels. My conclusion is that the text of Proverbs 31:10-31 unapologetically advocates for gender equality.

Another of my past works that may be of interest is an article titled “The Vashti Paradigm: Resistance as a Strategy for Combating HIV.” Ecumenical Review 63/4 (2011): 378-384. As the title suggests, in this article I see Vashti, a female character in the biblical book of Esther, as a heroine. Her subversiveness and defiance in the face of male oppressive authority celebrates her dignity as a woman. I advocate that Vashti can speak also to those who find themselves in similar situations of oppression. My conclusion is that despite the potential danger in challenging oppressive systems, cultures and contexts, like Vashti did, ‘it is never too late to say no to oppression’. 

A forthcoming article might also be of interest, “The Untold Story of Mrs Noah: The Hebrew Bible, Gender and Media: An Intertextual Critical Discourse Analysis.” This is forthcoming in the BOLESWA Journal of Theology (2020 sometime). This piece is co-authored with a colleague and friend, Dr Sibonile  E. Ellece, from the English Department of the University of Botswana. We try to reconstruct the life story of the wife of Noah. We argue that because of its androcentric nature, the Bible tends to omit the stories of many women, including that of Noah’s wife. We call the otherwise unnamed woman ‘Mrs Noah’ in order to problematize the un-naming, which not only obscures but virtually erases her identity. Our conclusion is that in our patriarchal contexts, too, women often suffer from a lack of media coverage, conveying the sense that their stories do not really matter, at least not as much as men’s stories. But in reconstructing Mrs Noah’s story, using intertextual critical discourse analysis, we maintain that she was a woman of courage: a wife, a mother, a home-builder and Noah’s pillar. She, too, like her legendary husband, must have professed strong faith, ensuring her survival and that of her family, while most of the entire world perished.

What is helping me most during this unprecedented time of COVID 19?

Like I mentioned before, gardening and decorating my home is something I enjoy doing. I spent my first day of lockdown painting one of the rooms in the house. I love it. I then started spending mornings and evenings doing some gardening, which includes planting vegies, trimming duranta plants, cultivating the soil around my little roses and other flowers, and just cleaning the yard – stuff I often do not have much time to do under normal circumstances. I have since been doing some yoga and pilates each evening in order to stretch my otherwise aching joints. This has been very helpful and is making me feel good, both physically and emotionally. I have now added some skipping rope exercises where I do 300 skips a day and that makes me feel fantastic. Of course, I am also trying to stay away from frequent visits to the kitchen and the fridge for some nibbles, because though these are particularly accessible ‘places’ currently (given the stringent restrictions on movement) it is not such a good idea to spend too much time there.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Dawn Llewellyn

I’ve never used the phrase ‘these are strange times’ as often as I have over the past few weeks! On the day my Department closed its doors, I went into my third year class at 2pm and when it ended at 3.30pm, I was told we were being sent home and had to leave the building by 6 o’clock. I quickly grabbed books and papers that I thought I might need, rescued my office plants, and colleagues and students said goodbye to each other without the usual hugging! For the final year undergraduates, they have been deprived of the traditional ‘end of year’ closure – the stress and celebrations that go along with writing up dissertations and their last assessments, and all  students felt the abrupt end to the academic term. In some ways, I’m enjoying working from home, pottering in our small back yard, undertaking a bit of DIY, doing on-line exercise classes, keeping up with household chores that never get done (yep, the skirting boards and shower tiles are gleaming), but I know it is a privilege to live with my partner, Bran, and for us to be relatively safe and secure, and to continue working. I am, of course, missing our lively Department and the bustle and business of term time, but we’re staying in touch with virtual coffee every day (we do this in real time too!). I’m so impressed and heartened by the way our students are adapting and coping with studying at home, some of them in challenging and very difficult circumstances during a very anxious time for them and their families. They are supporting each other and us  brilliantly,  and with good humour that brightens up the day. Yesterday, during a 3rd year catch up on TEAMS, two of them turned up with superimposed images of Trump and Johnson on their heads…they sort of know my left-leaning politics.

Like everyone, my usual routine is out of kilter. This coincided with the spring vacation, when I took some annual leave and switched off email, admin, and writing for a week or so.  In January, we had arranged to remodel our kitchen during March and April, and before the lockdown we had ripped out our existing cupboards and cabinets, and unplugged the dishwasher and oven; it’s a shell of a room at the moment. For five weeks we’ve been cooking on a two-ring camping stove on our living room floor, washing up outside, and contributing heavily to the local Chester foodie scene by relying on the places that are offering take-aways. I keep telling myself we’re glamping and it’s an ‘adventure’.

I’ve got a few projects on the go. I’m working on a chapter on methodology in the study of religion and gender for a Handbook edited by Emma Tomalin https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/142/professor-emma-tomalin and Caroline Starkey https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/1161/dr-caroline-starkey  – I’m a qualitative researcher so enjoy getting my methodological geek on. My new book, Motherhood, Voluntary Childlessness, and Christianity explores women’s religious reproductive agency in Christianity and their narratives and experiences of ‘choice’,  and I’ll be getting that finished for Bloomsbury during my research leave later on this year. I’m also working with Sian Hawthorne https://www.soas.ac.uk/staff/staff31080.php and Sonya Sharma https://www.kingston.ac.uk/staff/profile/dr-sonya-sharma-57/ on the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality series https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/series/bloomsbury-studies-in-religion-gender-and-sexuality/ , and we’ve just launched a call for chapters for a new Bloomsbury Handbook on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality that we are editing together. We’d be delighted if Shiloh readers and members considered contributing! https://bloomsburyreligiongender.wordpress.com/

How am I coping? Well, I’m a swimmer and usually train about 4 times a week. April is the start of the open water swimming season when the rivers, lakes, and seas start to warm up enough to stretch out in ‘skins’ (just a swimming costume, no wetsuit). Normally, I’d be prepping for  5km and 10km events in the summer but instead I have taken up some surprising hobbies. I’ve started taking our friend’s dog, Sidney, for walks (they’ve just had a baby) and have found him to be an excellent listener as I talk at him (he’s great on career advice); I’ve discovered Radio 3; I have found out that I really like trashy TV (Making the Cut and Next in Fashion, anyone?); I’ve bought a hoola hoop; and I’ve completed a jigsaw. I barely know myself.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview: Susannah Cornwall

Tell us about yourself.

I’m Susannah Cornwall, Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter. I’m the author of various books on Christian theology, sexuality and gender, of which the most recent is Un/familiar Theology: Rethinking Sex, Reproduction and Generativity (Bloomsbury, 2017).

What have you been doing and are you able to work during this COVID-19 lock-in?

I’m Director of Education with responsibility for all our undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes in Theology and Religion and Liberal Arts at Exeter, so this has been a spectacularly busy time, working out details of changes to assessments and exams, moving teaching online, and ever-changing contingency planning in response to the latest advice. We are also working out what will happen with admissions over the summer, and helping our students with a wide range of academic and pastoral issues raised or exacerbated by coronavirus. As ever, I’m in awe at their resilience, patience and good humour.

Work from home is really challenging now that it also involves full-time childcare: my husband (also an academic) and I are doing alternate work and childcare shifts. I’m fortunate to be in an institution that has made clear that it appreciates these are exceptional circumstances and that something has to give, and is encouraging us to prioritize our own and our dependents’ wellbeing. I have colleagues elsewhere who are being told that the expectation is that there’s no drop to their productivity during this time, which is terribly unrealistic and inhumane. However, there’s no getting around the fact that a constantly shifting mode and getting no uninterrupted time to work is going to have knock-on effects, and I hope institutions are going to take seriously the fact that there are equality, diversity and inclusion implications to all this that will impact on many academics’ pay, progression and job security for years to come.

Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

I’m currently working on a constructive theology of gender diversity, and coronavirus is highlighting the fact that lots of the precarities trans people face are even more heightened in a pandemic. These are extreme times and big decisions are being made centrally for the sake of what we’re told is a common good, but of course there’s going to be collateral damage. This is a time when life looks almost unrecognizable, so there are all kinds of possibilities. People are learning about ways of life they didn’t know before; new relationships are being forged that didn’t exist before. So that’s exciting, but it also means there’s even more marginality and precarity than there was before.

But it’s an opportunity, too. When the world goes back to normal (will the world ever go back to normal?) what will gender look like? How will things be for trans and intersex people? What do all of us, cis and trans, endosex and intersex, want to carry over into our new world?

How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?

I have it so much easier than many people: I have secure employment, a safe place to live, more than enough food, a garden, internet, and more. I live within walking distance of green fields and the edge of countryside. I’ve started running again. I’m enjoying doing more “slow cooking” (but not slow-cooking!) than normal, and my son is revelling in having everyone at home. He’s very used to one or other parent being away for several days or having had to leave early before he gets up in the morning. So I’m enjoying the fact that he’s enjoying it! I think I’ll also look back with gratitude at having had this unexpected extra time with him at home every day before he starts school in the autumn.

I love the small creative acts of kindness that people are doing around the neighbourhood: setting up WhatsApp groups to ensure everyone is okay and has enough shopping; some kids in the next road have set up a pop-up library (with hand sanitizer!) outside their house; people have been chalking murals and adventure trails on the pavement for children to enjoy during their walks; someone has made their front garden into a safari zoo with toy snakes, orangutans, birds and big cats to spot. All that said, I’m also finding it really hard. I feel sad that my son is missing out on so much time with his friends and amazing teachers. I’m feeling lethargic, powerless, and like I have only just enough energy to tread water and survive, when I somehow want to be making the most of this weird time. I’m feeling frustrated that I’m too exhausted to be creative or generative, or even think about grand schemes like “theology in the time of coronavirus”. I’m feeling angry that it’s taken this situation for people to realize how scandalous it is that nurses, care workers, supermarket workers, food producers and distributors are the people on whom society really relies and yet continue to be underpaid and badly treated.

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Professor Cheryl Anderson: Why #MeToo Matters for LGBT Inclusion

Cheryl B. Anderson is professor of the Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Earlier in her career, she was a practicing attorney with the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Professor Anderson is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church (Baltimore-Washington Conference). She is the author of Women, Ideology, and Violence (T&T Clark, 2004) and Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies (Oxford University Press, 2009). Her current research interests involve contextual and liberationist readings of Scripture in the age of HIV and AIDS.

In the video below, Professor Anderson explains why #MeToo matter for LGBT inclusion.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview: Laurie Lyter Bright

Since shelter in place began in Wisconsin, I’ve been balancing pastoring a church through a virtual Lent and now Holy Week, executive directing a non-profit that supports peace-building through interfaith schools in Palestine and Israel, working on my dissertation, and keeping two very small children alive and happy. My husband’s a full time grad student in nursing, so our days are full. Work takes place in the margins around our new reality, and maybe that’s closer to where work should have always been in terms of priorities. I’m surprised by how the preciousness of time has been illuminated in this crisis.  When writing can only happen between the start of nap time and lunch, you learn to write very efficiently.

My dissertation work emphasizes the role of the Christian church (particularly U.S. manifestations thereof) in co-creating rape culture and is seeking ways for the church to be a part of disrupting rape culture instead. My new work in progress for the Shiloh Project series with Routledge Focus is exploring the role of the prophetic in both the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements.  Getting to interview and collaborate with scholars in these fields has been an absolute privilege and I’m grateful for the access to technology that allows me to keep moving forward on both projects even in a time of lock-down!

I am running the full gamut of feelings in this season and allowing myself space for all of those emotions is what’s keeping me going.  I am profoundly thankful – that my family are healthy, that my kids are too young to be scared by what’s happening, that my partner is also my best friend, that my work can be reasonably accomplished remotely, etc.  I am profoundly sad – at the loss of life, the co-morbidity of the weight of poverty and racism in my country, the suffering that was preventable, and more. I am angry – at the pathetic excuse for leadership in my government, at our collective fear responses. I am proud – of the community spirit that rises above, the difficult but necessary questions and conversations that are rising to the surface.  And I am baking right up to the edge of an unhealthy amount of cookies.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview: Tom Muyunga Mukasa

Tom Muyunga Mukasa is originally from Uganda. He was resettled as a refugee in the USA. He is currently in Kenya. Tom is HIV Care and Global Health Specialist; Manager of the House of Rainbow HIV/AIDS Protection and Advocacy Consortium; and Co-founder of Advocacy Network Africa (AdNetA). He works towards enshrining human dignity by leading a number of campaigns. These are aimed at refugee integration and protection in host communities, the elimination of violence against women, the promotion of wellness that integrates Universal Health Coverage (UHC), and at ending TB, HIV & Malaria by 2030. AdNetA is also active in the campaign to end COVID-19.

  1. Tell us about yourself and about what you’re doing and what you’re working on and how, during this COVID-19 lock-in.

Thank you so much. Right now I am in Nairobi. In August 2019, I came here to Kenya as a student volunteer from St Mary’s College of California, USA. I went to do volunteer work in Nyeri Town, which is about 200 kilometers from Nairobi. I lived at St. Mary’s Boys’ Vocational Rescue Centre and Secondary School up to November 2019. This is a combined vocational and rehabilitation school for boys aged 3-20 years. I facilitated the establishment and development of community organisation frameworks that enable Lasallian Volunteers to participate in effective change activities during their African experience tours. (La Salle, or the Lasallians are a Catholic order established in 1679 by John Baptist de La Salle. Today the Lasallians minister to around 900,000 students in universities, schools, educational and welfare institutions in more than 80 countries all over the world.)

While working in Nyeri, my own focus was on the Secondary School and how its communities could engage the large youth population in sports, livelihood, vocational skills and other capacity-building. Together we came up with tailored programmes to provide younger people with opportunities to improve healthy and purposeful living, self-esteem and to avoid  drug-use due to peer pressure and other factors. The Lasallian volunteers helped facilitate these sessions.  I developed a strategic plan for 2019-2025 hinged on economic development, orphan support and rehabilitation. We presented this to the local government and they promised to support it fully. Alongside my volunteering, I was engaging in my own research work in drug-use disorders, conducting fieldwork in three informal settings in Mountain Kenya, Eastern and Central regions. Into this research, I incorporated queer refugee issues. I developed my findings into abstracts, which were accepted by the International AIDS Conference 2020 among other conferences.  I had worked on preparing twelve presenters, all, like me, queer refugees. All abstracts were accepted and we were rearing to go! But… COVID-19 restrictions are now in force here in Kenya and the conference will be held via virtual sessions.

Fast forward to lock-down, or lock-in here where I am now, in the Matasia zone of Ngong in Kajiado County on the outskirts of Nairobi. It is one of the largest, most urbanized and most densely populated areas of Kenya. Right now I am managing a community health awareness programme run by volunteer refugees. Some refugees are now resettled in Kenya, others are waiting to be resettled in a third party country. But, they agreed to work with me and have brought into the campaign their lovers, friends and acquaintances. Our campaign is growing in numbers! At the core are people I had earlier identified as key-Informants. While we were still able to do research work or data collection in the field, I found 7 persons living with TB whom I immediately connected to health care facilities. I had some little money on me and provided them with a month’s supply of food. All 7 are now 4 months along a steady healing process.  These 7 enabled us to penetrate deeper into their networks and we have linked more and more TB patients to care and hope to continue with this.

As a trained infectious diseases specialist, when I heard of this particular kind of infection, rumbling across from China to other places, I knew I had to act fast. There was no way Africa would escape! Given the health care facilities as the risks posed by increased hospital attendances, there was much to do, and fast. This is much on my mind.  We have been able to secure 4 months’ medication supply for the TB patients. Those who are HIV positive were also given the same amount of medication. This is called aligning medication supply. I connected patients to AMREF, Red Cross, different CSOs and local government hospitals where they are now getting more support beyond what I could provide. 

I am now embarking on training mobilisers to become Anti-TB Champions and I am integrating COVID-19 Response and Prevention into this campaign. What I have not yet mentioned is that I am connected with the Switzerland-based WHO division on TB. I engaged with them and advocated on behalf of TB patients back in November-December 2019 already. I did it because I felt my voice could add to finding ways to meet their needs. I even wrote a concept note on TB prevention. I felt I owed the communities I had visited during data collection. I wanted to give back in a small way. So, I have designed what we call the TB Prevention Communities of best practices. This is an iterative model with 15 steps that is both pedagogical and a heuristic.

The best practices are hinged on: Identification, Participation, Access, Hygiene, Adherence and Self-Esteem (IPAHAS). When a patient is identified, the Anti-TB Champions catalyze full participation of the person to be evaluated for TB, going through all the nine yards from testing to taking medication for the first crucial 8 weeks and then beyond. The Champions help with access to housing, nutrition, transport and with medication not being disrupted. Given the present situation, we have had to adapt, so I have shown them how to use WhatsApp groups and Facebook or Zoom to communicate, inform and educate. 

Most of our TB and HIV patients live in one-room houses.  We got lucky in that the organisations we linked patients to have provided food rations, masks and aromatic detergents, which they can use to wipe surfaces, clean toilets and bed pans or night pails. The practices for helping people with TB and compromised immunity also help with limiting the spread of COVID-19. I have come to note that COVID-19 restrictions are now making it easier for TB patients to be less stigmatised. Wearing masks no longer leads to stigma: it no longer signifies disease but precaution, self-care and care for others. The sweet-smelling detergents have made the dwelling places less unpleasant. Food is shared around in these hard times – because life is restricted and hard for everyone just now.  (I have written a short perspective report intimating  this tendency.) I am sure the Anti-TB Champions continue to be motivated, not least because they are receiving food rations too and they are helping one another, as well as relatives and friends. 

Personally, I am staying in, as instructed. I am concentrating my efforts and trying to keep expenses to a minimum. I am training my teams via zoom, video calls and email instructions. I continue my work as Social Justice Practitioner in whatever way I can. Motivated by the UN SDGs, I focus on a range of community activities, focusing most on conservation, Universal Health Coverage (UHC), elimination of violence against women and on ending TB, HIV, and Malaria by 2030. These are all connected. But now, I am also integrating COVID-19 into my work, because this is pressing. I make virtual work activities and share them online. I have become busier while I am following up my patients from home.

  • You have added COVID-19 to your earlier campaigns which included preventing transmission of TB, HIV and Malaria. You also have years of experience of advocacy for LGBT rights and you are passionate about ending gender-based and sexual violence. Tell us more. What drives you and what do you do?

Ha-ha! Professor Johanna, I am humbled by the statement and question. A long time ago in Uganda as a younger medical student I volunteered with the Rotary Club. We were taken to an island far into Lake Victoria to popularise immunization and digging and using latrines. You know, we were young and from the ivory tower. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. We were given this opportunity to see the world’s realities and to relate them to our book learning.  

I was touched and after my return asked to be included on a list of those who would volunteer regularly. Little did I know that this was preparing me to polish my social face of medicine! This was a time when almost everything was ‘medicalised’, if you get what I mean. There was an expectation that medication was the solution to so many things, a whole laundry-list of issues. Not all of these, however, actually required medication (tablets, drops, operations…) at all. They were health matters but what they needed was something else. I’m talking about such things as domestic abuse, sexual and gender-based violence, husbands using up their wives’ savings and giving the lame excuses of ‘I am the man of the house: I do as I like!’  I was a witness during a meeting in which a woman had brought a case against her husband. Guess what it was about, Professor? The woman had come to report the husband for not beating her when she made any mistake like when they had just met! No, seriously Professor! Her expectation was that when your husband beats you, it means they love you and when they ignore you, it means they have someone else who is special (enough to be beaten). 

I come from a family of nine mothers and many children. I know so many other families like mine. I think I was made an activist subconsciously, without realizing it, through my close relationships with women and children, who often suffer the brunt of patriarchal violence. Or, maybe, I am correcting things, or reconstructing things and it is just plain rebelliousness on my part! My passion about ending gender-based and sexual violence is rooted in what I grew up seeing at home, in my communities, in wider African society. It is rooted too in my joining the organizing committee of a San Francisco-based Women’s March, where I have served since 2013.

Professor, knowing you and how you guided us in sharing real lived stories [for the report, see here. Tom is in the picture, wearing a crown], I am dwelling so far on the positive side of things. Let me share how it might have begun as well. I knew I had to be part of the solution to put a stop to the mentality that women are regarded as inferior. But funnily enough, in my earlier days, being male, not White, and without money, in Africa, I met with the most vehement of barriers. Being a male, people, including women, called me names whenever I appeared in meetings on women’s and girl children’s rights. You should have been there! But hey, they did not know me that well. I am a very determined and different male but they did not know this at first. So, I just went on doing my work. Well, to cut a long story short I am here still and I am a social justice practitioner among many other hats I wear.

Thank you so much for supporting my work. You know and have seen me at the frontline where you have been as well. I am sure all your faculty colleagues are ‘radicals’ (ooooops, sshh, do not say I said this!) But, what I mean, is that on behalf of many others, thank you so much for coming into our lives. You asked what drives me. I enjoy passing on skills to others and to see them turn into self-driven actors too. This takes patience and guidance but when results start showing, I go to bed and sleep like a log. I have seen the people I train become the better version of who they could be. I have seen transformation manifest before me. I have witnessed people who gain the skills, change into adopting healthy practices and behaviours. They turned out to be recognised and this increased their being dependable and admired by others who work with them. It is this that drives me! Thanks.

  • How you bearing up and what is helping you, or would help you, most?

Professor, is this a trick question?  But, let me answer it as I feel it in my heart and belly. I am scared. My life has had so many turns and all of them following each other in sequence. I am not a biblical Job! I am just a Black male striving to be good. I want to be a scholar and not a raw field epidemiologist, for crying out loud.  I made a decision to improve myself scholarly-wise and chose to take on the discipline of Political Science. I hope to complete every requisite and to be taken on to a PhD programme (they write ‘program’, that other side of the Atlantic) at Princeton University. I was given a promissory letter and the conditions I need to fulfill. Part of my coming to Kenya to do community work, was to prepare me and give me an advantage to get into Princeton. I am competing with 45 others but I am not scared at all.

But now, COVID-19 has come along. I am wondering how I can return to the USA, say in December 2020! These things go on and on and they require vaccines. Nothing else can hurry things along! For now, I have tried to put all my worries aside and have engaged in anti-infection activities with which I am so very familiar, given my earlier, medical incarnation. I am helping a team here and more people, too, via phone. I have written perspective reports which are read widely and I am so happy there is a sector that asks for my opinion.

Professor,  I know I am going to be here until December. I have given myself that period. Keep the Shiloh Project moving please, we read it here. By the way, I also follow your University of Leeds Faculty colleagues via Twitter. I like the themes you cover. They are so heart-tugging, they make one realise how comfortable they have been to the point of exuding a self-righteous air about them, and they are so ‘radical’.  I realise I am slowly learning to effectively ask questions that make our society more involved in healing.  Maybe one day I shall ask to come there as an exchange student to sit down and get trained or just converse! Thank you.

[From Johanna: Tom, we need you here! You could give us a good dose of reality and maybe wake us up to and make us embarrassed about our self-righteous airs. Thank you for giving some insight into much greater struggles than most of us contend with. If you do come over as an exchange student, I will keep you busy with speaking engagements. Be well, be safe, and thank you so much for your words.]

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Adriaan Van Klinken

The first week of this lockdown I spent closely following the news with updates about the pandemic across the globe, which became depressing. I also felt sad about having to cancel a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where I had a friend’s wedding, a holiday with my husband, a conference and two book launch events lined up – a trip I’d been planning and looking forward to for months. After that first week or so, I decided to only check the news twice a day, and to take a distance from social media, especially WhatsApp where groups were constantly buzzing, and instead to make the most of “working from home”. 

I’m lucky that I’m on research leave at the moment – so I could ignore the many emails that the University sent about student education related matters, while feeling sympathy for my colleagues who suddenly had to experiment with online teaching methods. My planning for research leave has been greatly affected by the current crisis – in addition to cancelling the South Africa trip, I also had to postpone a trip to Kenya in May to launch an AHRC funded research network, not knowing when I can reschedule; I’m also uncertain whether or not I should start preparing for my inaugural lecture that’s planned for June. In recent days I spent quite a lot of time planning the sessions of the African Religions unit for the AAR annual meeting in November, with on the back of my mind the idea that the meeting may soon be cancelled. 

With all the uncertainty, I decided to prioritise a couple ofprojects I can actually easily do from home: preparing the launch of a documentary film, completing a book manuscript, and processing and analysing the data of a research project. Each of these projects might actually be of interest to Shiloh readers! 

The film is called Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and is related to my book with the same title that was published last year. The film features an LGBT church in Kenya and the work they are doing to create an affirming space for LGBT Christians in a mostly conservative society. The actual production of the film is done by Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian film maker who is a friend of mine. I’ve been giving feedback on drafts, communicating with relevant stakeholders, and preparing educational resources for using the film in classroom settings. Unfortunately the African Studies conference where the film was to be launched has been cancelled, so we’re currently making alternative plans. 

The book I mentioned is titled Reimagining Sexuality and Christianity in Africa, and I’m authoring it with Ezra Chitando, a colleague in Zimbabwe. It’s aimed at a non-specialist audience of students, religious leaders and activists, thus requiring a more accessible writing style than the typical academic monograph. The book seeks to interrogate the dominant narrative of Christian homophobia in Africa, demonstrating how Christianity also serves as a site to imagine alternative possibilities of sexuality in African cultures and societies. Thereto we discuss a number of African thinkers, ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to feminist theologian Mercy Oduoye, but also a range of creative and cultural expressions, such as novels, films and poetry.

Then, with my Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert I’ve been working for the past year on a British Academy funded project for which we work with a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees based in Nairobi, Kenya. It focuses on the life stories of participants, and how biblical stories can be used to narrate and signify their experiences, struggles and hopes. The group we are working with is truly amazing – in terms of their creativity and resilience – and so is Johanna as a very inspiring colleague and collaborator. Going through the transcripts of interviews and focus group discussions brings back many wonderful memories. The creative bible studies we did, about Daniel in the lion’s den and about Jesus and the “adulterous woman”, resulted in drama plays that have been video recorded. This project is also supposed to result in a book, and the lock down gives us the time to start working on it. 

So, after the initial setback I’m now managing reasonably well. I intersperse my working hours with gardening – hooray for the goldfish that we were able to buy the weekend before the lockdown started, which make the garden pond so much livelier –, with a daily run along the canal, and checking in with friends and family nearby and far away to try and help them cope with the current situation. The reports I get from friends and colleagues in Kenya and other parts of Africa do worry me – the lockdown there has an enormous impact on people’s livelihoods. The whole situation makes me aware, again, of my own privilege and makes me reflect upon what solidarity means in these times. As much as it’s true that the virus does not discriminate, the effects of the pandemic are felt most severe by communities that are already vulnerable and marginalised. (On that note: If anyone reading this is able to offer some support to the above mentioned group of Ugandan refugees, who really struggle economically in the current crisis, please get in touch.)

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Daniel in the Homophobic Lion’s Den

Here’s a post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert about her second research visit to Nairobi, where she participates in a project with Ugandan LGBTQ+refugees. The project has the title “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”and is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. Its lead investigator is Adriaan van Klinken

The project is focused on stories: life-stories, stories of the Bible, and stories that combine the two. At its heart and centre is a group of refugees, a collective called The Nature Network. Johanna talks about the project and its intersections with Shiloh-relevant themes, such as religion and vulnerability to violence, in an earlier post. Here are some of her reflections on the project’s recent developments. 

Stories and Lives

Stories matter. In my life certainly stories and story telling have played a major part since as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was the youngest member of a multi-generational household and even before I learned to read stories, stories were told and read to me. I loved folk stories and fairytales but I especially liked stories about me, set in the-time-before-I-could remember. I loved the stories of when I was very small, about the funny or naughty things I did. 

I demanded to hear such stories of my earliest life over and over again. I demanded details and eventually heard multiple versions, with different embellishments (and probably some exaggerations and inventions). Those stories somehow linked me to the protagonists of other stories; they made me feel important, an agent. They linked me to the past, to a bigger, world-connecting meta-story. I like stories to this day.

My academic work focuses on the study of the Bible. It was the stories that first drew me in but also the people I met through studies and teaching – and their stories. Approaches of biblical interpretation have become more honest about how our identities and experiences shape our interpretation and increasingly, life stories and Bible stories have been coming together for me.

Nairobi Stories

Adriaan has been travelling to Kenya, making friends, hearing stories, making stories, and gathering material for his publications for some years. When he and the people who move into and out from The Nature Work developed ideas around life stories and Bible stories, I was eager to get involved. By then, I had also become involved in a number of other projects, all of them relevant to the Shiloh Project, that explore the use of stories and images derived from the Bible to open up discussions about gender-based violence. Because the Bible – while variously interpreted in different settings – is a shared text, it has been an effective medium for connecting me with people whose identities, lives and experiences are very different to mine.

I have only been to Nairobi on two short visits – the second was last month, in January. My impressions of the city are a succession of little snapshots – of bustle and crazy traffic, but also of sweeping parks with leafy trees; of roadsides displaying an array of wares, from potted plants to double beds, playground items to beaded bracelets; of colourful roadside fruit and vegetable markets and little enterprises selling cut flowers or grilled corn on the cob. We drove several times through Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum, which is highly concentrated with busy-ness – washing drying, wood being cut, tiny shops crammed together selling everything from cellphone units to clothes alteration. Sometimes, such as in the large malls, I could completely forget where I was – other times, in Kibera, or seeing grazing warthogs by the roadside, marabous perched on monuments, or monkeys on the walls of residential buildings, you knew you were definitely in Kenya.

But back to life stories. When something sharp happens in our lives, when we are, for instance, accused of something we haven’t done, then the telling of our stories becomes more carefully constructed. We choose our elements with care, so as to recount vividly and persuasively what really  happened. This also happens when we are treated unjustly in other ways – and many of the stories we heard at The Nature Network reported being accused of ‘recruiting’ minors, of being willfully deviant, of choosing depravity to dishonour family and community and religious affiliation. The life stories collected as part of this project were invariably told with vividness and fluency. The refugees were used to telling their stories – they were often telling them for survival, including as part of their efforts to secure resettlement with UNHCR. 

The stories told featured rejection, threat, violence, vulnerability, condemnation from family and community and church representatives. Sometimes there were stories of a painful past and of a present in which the story was turning towards more hope. New families were formed within The Nature Network, families not of blood ties but of ties of love and solidarity and acceptance. New religious networks were established, with prayers that bonded together and with a God who loved unconditionally – a God who created queer and whose image was therefore queer. 

The Story of a Project: Tales of Sexuality and Faith

The first stage of the project consisted of collecting life stories of refugees associated with The Nature Network. The majority of this was conducted by two members of the Network one of whom, Raymond Brian, is its co-founder. During interviewing, contributors were asked about the role and presence of religion in their lives and whether they had a favourite Bible story. Some interesting things emerged here. Many stories – from all over the Bible – were sources of inspiration. Jesus was repeatedly identified as an ally – as someone who embraced those on the fringes of society and who spoke out against condemning others. One interviewee mentioned identifying with David in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The reason was that the interviewee felt small and up against a Goliath of mighty and imposing challenges in day-to-day life. Like David they had little to work with – a small stone, metaphorically-speaking. But that small stone could be utilized to achieve something bigger and assert their rights and be vindicated. A second story that popped up was Daniel in the Lions’ Den (Daniel 6) – because the interviewee this time identified with the threat all around but simultaneously with a strong sense, too, that like Daniel they had done nothing to justify such threat and hostility. It was this story that seemed like a good one to draw on more.

Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den

Before Adriaan and I arrived in Nairobi, the members of the Nature Network spent time reading the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and discussing it in groups. By the time we joined them the story was quite familiar. Now it was time to relate it to personal experience.

On 12 January we all gathered at the Network’s main venue, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We shared breakfast and introduced ourselves and each other; we discussed expectations for the day – which ranged from the practical (to receive a refund for travel expenses) to the experiential (to learn, be entertained, and form connections and new friendships) – and rules (to respect one another and listen, and to all participate). 

Next, Chris gave a summary of the earlier meeting – where the text of the Bible was read and discussed in focus groups. A decision was made to read the text again – this time with the specific plan to try and make the story relevant to the present.

In our groups, as soon as we sat down with the biblical text, printed out on paper, to read it aloud together, a mood of seriousness descended. I think this is discernible in the pictures.

When we all got together to pool what had taken place in our groups, the discussion got very lively. We looked together at the characters and at the events of the Daniel story – who and what could these be in the present setting?

In the Daniel story there is a king, King Darius, who is somewhat sympathetic to Daniel but none the less submits to his governors who remind him of the laws. Who is this king today? Who are the governors?

Suggestions came in thick and fast: the king is the government of Uganda, or the President of Uganda. The governors are oppressive elements of African culture and pastors using the Bible to condemn, as well as members of parliament. Daniel is the LGBTQ+ community – being unjustly persecuted. The lions are maybe family members who are sometimes harmful and obstructive but not always, or enemies within the LGBTQ+ communityitself who sometimes deny their sexuality, or who choose to blackmail others when it suits them to do so. The den is identified as Kenya and as prison… Some spoke up to say they found the punishment of the governors’ wives and children wrong, others saw this as collateral damage, or as the punishment of those who didn’t speak up but benefited from their powerful family members’ privileges. 

After some discussion, a play was put together, performed and recorded. This all happened very quickly– from discussion to completion of the recording took no more than 3 hours. The idea of weaving stories together and of transporting an ancient story into the lived present was quickly embraced and vividly imagined and reenacted. There were some fabulous spontaneous ideas and there was much articulate expression both of condemnation encountered and liberation desired.

The King is the President of Uganda. (In this reenactment he has a consort.)

The governors are members of parliament and representatives of churches, as well as a mufti from an Islamic congregation. 

Daniel is a representative of the LGBTQ+ community.

The den is prison.

There are also in this reenactment members of the police force, of the press and supporters of Daniel.

God’s voice can be heard at the beginning and end.

Here is the recording, ‘Daniel in the homophobic lion’s den’. Enjoy.

It was a real joy watching the play at each of its various stages. The strength of feeling and the power of story telling really come across. There is a new immediacy and resonance to the old story of Daniel. I, certainly, will never read this story again in the same way. And when we all watched the completed recording together everyone was very engaged and delighted with the end result.

In time, we – members of the Network, Adriaan and I – hope to publish a book about the project. 

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 14 – Megan Robertson

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Megan Robertson and I have recently completed my PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. My doctoral research focused specifically on investigating how the lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) co-constitute the institutional cultures and politics of the Church. Since 2018 I have had the privilege of working at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, at UWC. The Centre seeks to contextually, theoretically, and methodologically challenge asymmetrical systems of power. It thus allows me a space to research and teach in ways which bridges the false binary between academia and activism and places justice at the centre of the work I do.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

The picture of me in this blog is taken in front of Church Street Methodist Church, the congregation which I was a member of until my late twenties. For me this is a site of my own identity negotiation and also the space which continues to drive the activism which is integral to my research. The church which I grew up in not only shaped my belief systems but perhaps more significantly provided me with a place to which I felt I belonged. As a teenager and young adult I became more involved in the broader provincial and national structures of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) and thus more aware of how the Church which provided a ‘home’ for me was also deeply patriarchal, heteronormative, racially segregated and hierarchical. I was also quite actively involved in the Church at the time when a minister, Ecclesia de Lange, was excommunicated for declaring her intention to marry her same-sex partner. Therefore, for me, the church and religion became both a place of significant belonging as well as a space for a great deal of injustice. These experiences inspire my research which explores how different people navigate religious belonging and exclusion and indeed transform those spaces in positive ways.

In my research I incorporate activism by exploring how politics of belonging, body politics and politics of the domestic and erotic are evident in the narratives and experiences of queer clergy who occupy positions of power and marginality in the Church. I argue in my work that the MCSA’s internal conversations around the inclusion of women and same-sex marriage are too narrow to do justice to queer experiences of exclusion, discrimination and violence in the Church. For the MCSA and other denominations seeking to become truly inclusive of queer, women (and all other) members, bringing lived experience into conversation with institutional cultures in research sharpens understandings of how the church can indeed be a place of inclusivity instead of rejection. In my work I am also interested in the activism participants themselves are engaged in as they inhabit the norms of the institution. In a complex religious context where gender-sex identities are contested I found that participants engage in activism in relatively covert ways through living their domestic and erotic lives, embodying clerical and Methodist identity and through silence. In illuminating these subtle forms of activism, the political project of my research explores the possibilities that varied ways lived experience can trouble normative powers of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

My fuel for doing research is activism. Before beginning my PhD and working in the Desmond Tutu Centre, I was disillusioned by academia and bought into the idea that dismantling social injustices and researching them were two separate tasks. However, I soon realised that the binary between activism and academia was a false and unhelpful one. It is my anger and frustration that continues to drive me to work towards a just and equitable society and it is in academia where I am able to make productive meaning of that anger and frustration.

Through the writing up of my dissertation, I have continued to be in conversation with some of the clergy who participated in my doctoral research. In these conversations we have begun to explore the ways in which my research findings can feed into the committees and activism work which they would like to pursue. Further, in my post-doctoral research I want to further explore the nature of queer activism in South Africa. My other passion is dance and theatre and I hope to explore the ways in which popular artists and performers in Cape Town interrogate the intersections of religion and sexuality on stage.

 

 

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