guest post: the right to be at peace/ musa okwonga
tiata fahodzi are proud advocates of Fly The Flag, a campaign marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and celebrating what those rights bring us as individuals and as artists. We’ve commissioned poet and polymath Musa Okwonga to write about what human rights mean to him.
I owe my entire artistic career to the fact that many people I will never meet continue to fight for my human rights. It is because of them that I am here, that I am able to write, speak and live so freely, and it is genuinely with each new piece of work that I try to honour them.
In case that sounds pretentious, please let me explain. I am very aware that there are countless places on this earth where my existence would not be nearly so enjoyable. As a man who identifies as bisexual, I react to the news of violence against gay men with particular horror. As a black person, I am now and then overwhelmed by the thought that there are those whose first waking thought each day is murderous hate against people like me. Some of those hateful souls live only a short train or taxi ride away.
In some ways, that hate does me a favour; it reminds me not to be complacent. We are in a time when several questions that we thought settled have returned with a vengeance. The hate doesn’t inspire me – it doesn’t deserve that credit – but it does tell me to remember my heroes; the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the footballer Eudy Simelane, the activist Steve Biko. Each of these people went about their lives knowing that, given the danger of the work that they were doing, they were fighting for a future that they would likely never see. They were all killed in ruthless, brutal fashion, but not before they had moved the world thrillingly forwards.
Here is a true story. It may sound unbelievable, but here it is anyway. A few months ago, I was in my favourite restaurant in the east of Berlin. Every Sunday evening, they have a special treat for their customers; they lower the price of their signature dish, the schnitzel, which is essentially a slab of meat covered in breadcrumbs. (If you’re German or if you’ve gone native, as I have, there’s a good chance you’ll find this meal delicious). I normally dine alone, as it’s a chance for me to reflect and hopefully celebrate the week that has passed, whilst looking ahead to the new one.
One particular Sunday, as I was finishing my meal, a black woman walked in, and saw me at my table by the bar. She nodded at me, as black people – scarce as we are in that part of town – often do – and then came over to say hello. I don’t know what inspired her to say what she did next, but here’s a rough version of it. See these streets we are living in, walking in, she said, smiling. See where we are living now. Yes, I see them, I said, smiling back. Imagine, black people living here. Imagine, all those years ago, all those black people, fighting and dying so that we could live like this. Imagine all the blood that has been spilled just so that you can sit here, and so that I can walk in here and talk to you. Let’s have a drink, to them. Yes, let’s do that, I said. She went to the bar, and I can’t even remember exactly what she bought now. It was a warm evening, so it was possibly a white wine, which would have gone well with the schnitzel I had just eaten. She brought my glass over, but she didn’t sit with me – we touched our glasses, then we both raised them to some vague point in the air, where we both hoped the ancestors could see them. She then returned to the bar, finished her drink at a gentle pace, and then waved just before she wandered out through the doorway. Good night, she called, good night.
Hate doesn’t inspire me – but that woman does. She showed me what it was all about, what I am striving for. The truth is that I am not the most successful of artists – there are times when I wish I were better known, better paid, but I am not sure I am either talented or hardworking enough for that. What I do know, without doubt, is that nothing makes me happier than what I am doing right now: writing at a desk in a warm, comfortable flat, flanked by two windows through which pours glorious natural light, in the knowledge that my friends, some of the best people this world has surely produced, live just two streets away. That, for all the challenges I might otherwise face, is my daily reality: that I have the privilege of moving with relative ease through this city and many others, the privilege of speaking my mind on a wide range of platforms, the privilege of being within reach of those who love me as I am. And that is why I will always defend human rights; because they have given me, however briefly, the right to be at peace.
Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications.