Inspiration, vision and planning

The ‘I AM’ project has been on my heart for the past year and finding out about the opportunity to host it as part of my Communications Practicum paper as part of my Master of International Communication qualification at Unitec Institute of Technology has been nothing short of amazing. For the past year I have been immersing myself in everything that pays homage to the diverse African cultures. My interest has mainly been on how individuals in the diaspora express their Africanness and how they connect to it. Being a member of the ‘transitional generation’, I have been trying to situate what home means to me and what my identity is as I am a product of Zimbabwe and New Zealand despite my physical appearance. In addition to my interest in the different African cultures, is my interest for social/community development using the creative industries as the catalyst. After watching a documentary about Fela Kuti and his use of music as a tool for empowerment and unearthing the corruption that was happening around him, I came to the realisation that the creative industries are not just for entertainment, they are a powerful tool! 

During my research and interest in expressions of Africanness, I came across Project Tribe, a project based in the United States of America that is a platform to inspire the ‘Queen’ in women. On the project’s site it is states that:

“Our vision was to spread positive energy within our community. Plurality and decentralization of knowledge and power is what Project Tribe believed in. We noticed that within our communities, women working in a variety of creative occupations were making a huge difference. Their inspiring, real stories were so touching and enlightening. So we created a movement, inspired by positive actions and shared experiences that worked as a platform where these women, a • {Tribe} •, communicated their message to the world, doing what they loved.” 

Image source: Project Tribe 

The element of the project that birthed ‘I AM’ is the community/collective element, the use of social media as well as visual methodologies for self-expression. They say a picture speaks a thousand words and I believe that through the creation of new imagery that is created by people of African descent we can make a difference to the one-dimensional narrative that is presented in the media. After conducting a literature review titled ‘Media Representation of People of African Descent’, in 2015, I established that there is a lack of action regarding how to counter the negative narratives presented in the media. Just as it is important to debunk the patterns of distortion and biased narratives represented by the media, it is also important to include the untold stories with consultation and involvement of the community to better enable their settlement into their new homes in New Zealand. In conducting the literature review it became apparent that while they was research conducted regarding the implications of the biased reporting they was a gap in research (especially in the New Zealand context) that used participatory and visual methodologies to create new images and narratives to counter the negative one-dimensional imagery. In creating new imagery that resonates with the reality of people of African descent, we are providing a full humanistic picture of our reality. Full human representation of people from minority backgrounds is necessary to debunking stereotypes that hinder full community participation, enable social cohesiveness and adjusting to life in the New Zealand society.

What is a home without a house or in this case an organisation?

After submitting the project proposal to my lecturer and paper leader, a road-block was hit. I shouldn’t even refer to it as a road block, it was one of those bumps in the road that almost have you hurtling to a crushing stop but you rise above. Saving the dramatics for another time, the road-block was Africa on My Sleeve could not be the only hosting organisation as the whole purpose of the Practicum paper was to gain experience which meant reporting to a supervisor from a hosting organisation who would ensure objectives and targets were met. While I thrive to be an honest individual who is transparent especially when it comes to Africa on My Sleeve, it didn't make sense that I report to myself so I had to look for an organisation that would align with the project's vision and purpose. 

When that was all unraveling and I was scrabbling around trying to find an organisation that aligned with the vision of the project, I received an email from Julia Glover, a photographer that I had worked with to photograph African inspired collections in 2015. She wanted to know what I had planned next for Africa on My Sleeve as she was interested in photographing the African community in New Zealand. We immediately made plans to meet up and plan a way forward, for me it was affirmation that the project was supposed to happen. How could someone I hadn’t heard from in over a year contact me with a similar idea, it was meant to be. I assured myself that even if I couldn’t host the project as part of my Practicum project I was still going to go ahead with the project.

Image taken on the project that Julia and I had worked on together. Photo Credit: Julz Glover Photography

Image taken on the project that Julia and I had worked on together. Photo Credit: Julz Glover Photography

In the process of making plans with Julia and even establishing research avenues, finding photographic work of Africans in the diaspora, creating a project timeline and everything needed to start the project, it hit me that they was an organisation that aligned with the purpose and vision of ‘I AM’. This organisation was Love, Cover, Protect, an HIV prevention programme for Africans provided to the African community by New Zealand Aids Foundation. The programme is focused on preventing the transmission of HIV and providing support for people living with HIV. In addition to working to reduce HIV prevalence, one of LCP’s objectives is to empower the community and this is achieved by facilitating youth workshops, training programmes and partnering/sponsoring community events and projects. Although the ‘I AM’ project is not directly linked to HIV and AIDS, the project’s objectives and goals are directly linked to the empowerment of the community and strengthening of community action through creative supportive environments as stipulated by the organisation’s partnership guideline.

I was first introduced to Love, Cover, Protect in 2006 and in the last ten years I have been trained by them as a health educator, spoken on behalf of the organisation at events aimed at empowering women and young people, mc-d community events sponsored by LCP and have had events/campaigns sponsored by them. I am thus familiar with the organization’s work, which enables me to design my project in a way that fits within. When that realization hit me, I made contact with the Auckland Community Coordinator with a one-pager document about the project as well as a meeting request.

During the meeting, a conflict of interest had to be established between myself and my father who is the programme’s Programme Manager. The meeting was electric and it was agreed that the project’s idea and intended outputs would serve the programme’s purpose as well as align with their community empowerment objective. Due to the conflict of interest another meeting with Love, Cover, Protect had to be established with the General Manager. 

The show must go on

As they say the show must go on and the show went on, in my head they was no way this project was not going forward. In the background the posters for the social media component of the project had already been printed, I had managed to reach out to friends to photograph them so when the campaign begins I have a few images to share. In addition to that, it would mean the message would spread to their networks and as influencers within the African community who believed the premise of the project, it meant they would have access to members of the community that I wouldn’t (after all not all Africans know each other). 

When we had our second meeting with the General Manager for New Zealand Aids Foundation about Love, Cover, Protect being the hosting organisation I nearly had a heart attack. At one point during the meeting the alignment of Love, Cover, Protect with the project was questioned on the premise that although one of the stereotypes faced by people of African descent is that they have HIV/AIDS. While beign positive is not a death sentence, there is a stigma within the community and they were concerns aired about how that might impact the project. In the end it was agreed that the project aligned with the organisation’s objective and instead of the project being hosted by Love, Cover, Protect they would endorse it and I would work together with Yehuala (Auckland Region Community Coordinator) to use the project as tool to raise awareness about the programme amongst youth of African descent in Auckland. 

This was a lesson in reaching negotiations with an organisation as well as working together to establish what the best outcome for the project is. It’s safe to say I walked out of that meeting with a weight off my shoulder. Now that Love, Cover, Protect was on board as the organisation that was going to endorse the project, it was time to really focus on community participation for the social media component.

At first we printed 50 copies of the postcard because in my head, I had said at least 30 people will participate and I thought I would have to reach out to each of them individually but I was proven wrong. After sharing the photograph of Chanwyn and Shakiah (below) on the first day of the campaign I was in the post office the next day sending postcards to London, Toronto, Harare, Hamilton, Wellington and within Auckland. I was in awe of the power of community and it was in that moment that I realized this project has been birthed from the spirit of Ubuntu – all for one and one for all – and here the community not only in New Zealand but overseas is receiving the project and participating with the same spirit. Although the project was mainly for the New Zealand audience I did not want to restrict it as digital technology transcends boarders and time zones plus it meant a chance to test how far an e-activism project hosted in Auckland, New Zealand would reach. 

Mo’ money mo’ problems, no money mo’ problems

So from the beginning Julia and I had zero dollars and zero cents between the two of us for the project. We were like they are so many grants and funding portals out there surely we will get the whole project funded and as the project was not generating any profit, we thought what government agency wouldn’t want to fund this project. The answer is all of them and with no money to our name we just kept going, taking money from our savings and from our rent money to fund the project. It had to come to live and we had hope that it would all work out.

It did work out and we received sponsorship from a printing companies, ACOFI (African Communities Forum Incorporated) assisted with funds for securing the venue, we recievied donations to the sum of $700.00 via Givealittle, our friends who have businesses did the design work, offered to serve their drinks as brand promotion at the exhibition and a friend provided us with African inspired throws to add an African flair to the exhibition. This meant that while we did dip into our pockets it wasn’t going to be as dear as we thought it would be. I remember sitting on the floor of the exhibition gallery in tears on the Monday completely overwhelmed with emotion at how everything had come together and then proceeding to sit in the car with receipts everywhere wondering how was had actually done it. 

Another element of the project that we allowed to take flow with of course some control was the participants of the gallery exhibition component. Initially the project was supposed to document the stories of youth of African descent in New Zealand and we ended up featuring people above 35. The reason for this was because we wanted to understand what the experiences were for people in different age groups. In addition to that one participant Wanjiku Kiaire-Sanderson has been living in New Zealand since the early 80’s and we wanted to establish if she felt a difference about life as an African in New Zealand then and now. 

Munhu, munhu nekuda kwevanhu - I am because we are

Words fail me as I begin to think of expressing the gratitude that Julz and I have for your support through the duration of the 'I AM' project. The campaign wouldn't have been a success without the support of what we call our extended family - which is you. The two of us have been on this journey for the last year and to say the support has anchored us is to simplify the efforts, love and cups of teas we received from family and friends. I for one know they were moments when I was just unbearable to be around because the weight of the project was getting to me and for those moments I thank everyone who held my hand and listened to me think out loud about what to do next.

This journey began with exchanges of emails between Julia and myself, we both had a similar idea but we did not know how connected and aligned our visions were going to be until we met up to discuss the project and begin the journey. What was supposed to be an exhibition of the lives of Africans in NZ has now become a documented piece of academic, photographic and emancipatory work. The framework that guided us as we were executing the different components of the project was the spirit of Ubuntu - all for one and one for all. They were moments when we thought this isn't going to work, for all the creatives out there you may know it as the creative graph where you go from yes to oh my goodness what the f%cK are we doing, to oh this is going to be okay. At one point we had done a planning sheet and it dawned on us that to execute the project we were going to need at least $10,000. Where were two young women going to get that much from?! We fretted of course but at the same time we knew that the idea had been placed in our hearts to execute because it was necessary. 

We went ahead and did everything as though we had all the resources at our disposal. At times we questioned how we were doing it and how it was going and we credited it to a higher power as well as the love and support of our family. To all the participants that shared their stories with us and gave us the honour of resharing them to the public, you are our heroes. It is not easy to share your experiences especially having to answer questions that relate to the core vulnerable aspect of your being and to have those answers shared to a public, wow. Listening back to the interviews, looking at the images and reading the stories, all we can say is we are in awe of the people you are, such brilliant people who ooze brilliance, courage and above all soft magic. 

To everyone who participated in the social media aspect, thank you for listening to the call and supporting the movement. You weren't getting paid and at first we attempted to do giveaways but even without the enticement of anything you still participated, thank you so much. Initially we expected that 30 people or less were going to participate and I remember stating that even if two people share their photos, it will be a blessing and what do you know more than 60 of you participated, thank you.

To everyone that reached into their pockets when we needed to subside the $1,200 for framing the images, thank you very much. Every single cent that we received truly helped. 

Thank you to:
Our participants; Mahlete Tetseke, Nefsie Dawit Tetseke, Wanjiku Kiare-Sanderson, Rowen Paul Alexander, Kiden Brown, Janina Asiedu, Kamal Sunker, Naima Ali and Chiedza Nyangoni

Friends & family of Makanaka Tuwe & Julia Glover for their love, support and guidance

African Communities Forum Incorporated

Associate Professor Evangelia Papoutsaki

Yehualashet Aboye and the Love, Cover, Protect team

Dorina Jotti for artistic guidance and curating the show

John & Rainer from The Digital Darkroom for printing the artwork

The team at Studio One Toi Tu & Auckland Council for their support and hanging of the work

Jay and the team at Factory Frames

Brent Monastra and the Copy Centre team

Laura and Adrian from Xoriguer Gin providing us with delicious gin & tonics

Meghan from Cardrona Distillery

Once again thank you very much, being a part of this project that we expect, hope and pray to play the role of a catalyst that will provide the impetus to start exploring different participatory and alternative methodologies to countering the one-dimensional representation of people of African descent in the New Zealand context. This project has strengthened my belief in the spirit of Ubuntu and that when we come together we can overcome and do amazing things.

Tatenda (thank you),

Makanaka Tuwe