Book Review: Namibia’s Rainbow Project: Gay Rights in African Nation

Namibia’s Rainbow Project: Gay Rights in an African Nation. Robert Lorway, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015, 155 pp.

Namibia’s Rainbow Project is a unique ethnographic book about the way an organization working for sexual health and rights recognition takes actions in an African country. The book is based on ethnography of many years among the Rainbow project (TRP), an organization active in the health and sexual rights sector in Namibia. It focuses on the lives of “Rainbow Youth” (same-sex attracted young engaging in TRP activities), who find themselves trapped between the international recognition of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Intersex (LGBTI) group materialized by their “aesthetic of resistance” at the local level and their everyday conditions. How does this implementation affect the subjectivity of Rainbow Youth, some of whom are among the poorest poor? How can people taken into this struggle engaging identity politics and globalization against a background of lack of economic resources reconcile the construction of a sexual desire with valuing the self? Those are some of the ambitious questions that cross Lorway’s work.

One of the book’s central arguments revolves around the intervention strategies that create internal conflicts for homosexual youth in the Namibian context. Drawing on an innovative set of concepts, the author understands sexuality as a “technology of citizenship” (p. 9) that helps the Rainbow Youth grapple with the tension between sexual desires, the economic situation, and the traditional culture. For instance, in the realm of a patriarchal reality, women must give birth and stay in their dominated position. Some of the young activists among the women involved in the TRP actions are so poor that they are obliged to pe3rform sexual work for a living, which increases their risk of becoming HIV/Aids infected. In this condition, the transnational and yet “neoliberal” movement around identity politics that drive the idea of individual as sexual citizen creates a lot of enthusiasm, while the changes expected remain less visible, at least for the majority of the youth.

The book isn’t about homosexuality as such, but rather an account of how same-sex sexuality is instrumentalized both by the state and transnational activists create a specific subject in Namibia who uses sexuality as a “technology of citizenship.” Taking inspiration from scholars who revisited the Foucaldian theorization in Africa, the author builds on the technologies of the self to analyze the new sexual subject that the TPR actions generate.

The discussion is therefore around the self and strategies leading to a sexual subject versus an idea of a citizen as promoted and decided by the ruling government in this country in terms of “traditional sexuality.”

Such an argument goes beyond a dominant approach of homosexuality on the continent. So far, scholars have privileged the political homophobia’s approach by analyzing homosexuality as a way of instrumentalizing sexual issues to legitimate a moral discourse in a public sphere for politicians and other social leaders. This has led to analyzing homosexuality in two manners: either by means of opposition to Western culture or by celebration of an emerging same-sex practicing communities in Africa. Less has been said about the individuals and the impact on their daily life and subjectivities. Lorway’s book, then, offers a good insight into the lives of rainbow subjects that engaged in the “new sexual politics.”

The author’s originality is that he calls for replacing the youth subject to this identity politics in a broader perspective that takes into account not only sexual desire but also the political subjectivities it implies in a context of material and yet difficult life. Therefore, youth lives are not just studied in terms of homophobic violence but as people facing issues related to their conditions of being poor and sometimes uneducated.

The text rescues the discussion on homosexual mobilization as internationally driven, by critiquing its neoliberal approach. Indeed, by treating the sexuality and health of people in isolation, without taking into account the social, historical, and economic backgrounds in which young people live daily, this NGO helps, Lorway said, strengthen their precariousness. This occurs by resorting to neoliberal rationalities of individual autonomy and personal responsibility that undermine the chances of political mobilization, which has implications far beyond Namibians who have sex with people of the same sex. Lorway added that these programs might actually increase social inequality and generate frustrations when those neoliberal ambitions aren’t achieved. In examining the connections between a local Namibian situation and transnational activism, the book explores a controversial and yet ambivalent question of how to engage an international commitment for gender justice without undermining other issues such as poverty that are not directly connected to identity or the self as a dominant way of constructing an identity.

The core theoretical issue on this reflection is that it encompasses sexual politics with the market societies and a liberal culture. Even if contrary to the argument in Chapter 4, I don’t see transnational activism as responsible for the “foreigner fetishism.” The self, as promoted by the TRP focusing on one’s responsibility and ability to acquire better conditions by claiming right and performing identity, calls an interrogation on the conditions under which an identity politic can take root and develop in African settings. I agree with Lorway’s idea that not reflecting on the conditions of possibilities before promoting actions such as that of the TRP is the sign that LGBTI movements are not immune to the dangers of neoliberalism.

Having said that, one must recognize the shift in LGBTI movement in the North is increasingly emphasizing recognition within the terms of dominant norms and assimilation into the mainstream, rather than fundamental changes to society. When they transfer the movement from North to South, they forget that there is no homology of situations. Again, I recognize a limit to the critic of this supposed neoliberal approach. Is it the role of the LGBTI movement to stop poverty in Namibia? Certainly not. But could addressing the general change to society while working on recognition of LGBTI rights strengthen the efficacy of the mobilization? I would answer positively. LGBTI activism is facing a dilemma in Africa between, on the one hand, the recognition of individual sexual identity and the protection of health for this self, and on the other hand, the necessity of addressing the general condition by showing that promoting the self is a gain for the whole society. That is the big challenge of today’s LGBTI movement, and for that, Lorway’s analysis of TRP is a compelling one.

A major conclusion of Namibia’s Rainbow Project is that the HIV and sexual politics promoted by TRP leads to a “post-structural violence” for Rainbow Youth (pp. 125–129). This concept serves to interrogate the present transnational movement by the effects it produces when confronting the lives of young uneducated and poor same-sex practicing people situated into a postcolonial and yet unequal society. The inability to find solutions to their situation brings tensions and frustrations. TRP promises liberty and full citizenship but the youth never experienced it. While this assumption seems true, the other part of it about the “depoliticizing” effect looks exaggerated.

The question should be considered in a different way. What do we as scholars (and for some of us activists) expect from the movements we are studying? Why don’t we just recognize that recognition as such is always partial? That being recognized as a sexual subject doesn’t automatically imply becoming a full citizen. To better understand the politicization promoted by the transnational activism, one must shift from the individual as subject to the group. Working a collective sense of sexual identification therefore helps those Rainbow Youth relate to collective problematization of their sexual and yet social situation. Of course, this will never resolve issues of education and poverty, but it is a starting point.

The book offers powerful diagnostics of homosexual mobilization in the time of HIV/AIDS. It brings socioeconomic considerations of the sexual justice fight back into conversation with political situation by using many related points. Namibia’s Rainbow Project is a very important book as it helps make sense of the time the Rainbow Youth live in and of how they can transform the situations they are facing. This book is creative and formulates key questions on the current Namibia’s social, economic, and political reality that help enlighten the African situation as a whole. This book is ideal for teaching and for young researchers who need to know the complexity of projects about politics and health in Africa.

Leave a Reply