As if being an early teenager is not complicated enough, you just had to be different. You deal with the normal confusions of what it means to grow into yourself – hairs where none used to be and attention to parts of your body that didn’t exist before – but also wade in the anxiety of not being like other people. For the longest time, you had noticed that you did not like boys the way other girls do, and soap operas did not quite feel like they were made for the kind of romance that you longed for. On top of that, you ended up in the Christian Union leadership of a Catholic high school. Lucky for you, it is not quite like the other Catholic schools. The priest in charge of your school is one of those cool ones who are not shy to talk about topics like sex, so you decide to approach him once after a service to find some answers. To ask if there is a space in heaven for people like you.
While you cannot quite remember how that conversation goes, you remember he said something along the lines of ‘you are still too young and too confused to think of such things.’ He doesn’t admonish you with threats of hellfire, but he dismisses you. You do not know it at the time, but as you turn away from religion afterwards, this will not be the last time you rebel against a system.
You end up in Scotland, a place people do not talk the same English you were taught. They eat up a lot of their words and use others that are not in the dictionary. And they drink like it is the one thing they ever learnt to do correctly. You are here to study architecture at the University of Edinburgh. It sounded chic when you chose it, but then you quickly realize it did not come as advertised. It is too rigid. But not for lack of a good reason. You are being taught to build functional buildings; offices and houses where people are actually supposed to live and operate in. The ideas you come up with need to be concrete, to work in real life.
And that is where the problem is. You do not thrive in structure and practicality. You wonder. You dream. That is why when it came to the Math, Physics and tech, you fall so far behind. Lecturers think you are trouble, and you let them. You do not open up to explain what your problem is. They do not quite bother to find out either. But then when it comes to the arts and design side of things, you are Harry Potter and his book of spells. There is nothing you cannot imagine as impossible.
Instead of homes and office parks, you find yourself more inclined to building recreational spaces. Like museums. Temporary places that people only use in transit. They are not meant to raise kids and a dog called Fluffy in the spaces you envisage; they are just meant to fleet through.
This is why you find music festivals appealing.
See, when you arrived in Scotland, the first thing you did was look for the LGBTIQ community, in which you found the kind of home you could never find in the Christian Union back in high school. You’d met people like you, and quickly, life was beginning to make sense. You go through your second puberty in your twenties; do the things you couldn’t do in your teens like everyone else; your first real kiss, and the giddiness of an innocent love.
You’d found an identity for yourself, a definition to who you truly are. A pansexual. When people refer to you, you’d rather use the pronoun they or them. Not she/her. It is simpler than many people prefer to acknowledge. When people ask, “Where is Arafa Hamadi?” you are supposed to say “They are at the bar getting their second round.” Not “She is at the bar…” Refusing to do that – especially after many takes – is mere disrespect. English grammatical norms be damned. It is almost the same way someone would insist on calling you John instead of James for no reason. Only that this one carries the weight of pain with it.
With this family- a gaggle of international students from all over the world- you spent your weekends chasing music, and in particular DJ Chris. He played everywhere, in all clubs and gigs and you guys were drawn to him like a moth to a candle flame. So when you heard he was going to be scratching at the Kelburn Garden Party, you went.
If there was a moment you’d look back now and call it your epiphany, it would be at this festival. This is where you find the kind of architecture you always dreamt of practising. It is an attraction that would draw you to volunteer to at the festival the next year and the years after that, just so that you learn how to build massive immersive stages. Stages like the Never Ending Glen; a thirty-minute walk dotted with artwork and sculptures.
It’d felt like walking inside a painting.
2017 comes with certain realizations. You had delayed to graduate because you could not quite get along with the lecturers. Then when you did, you had to go back to Tanzania. A home in which you do not feel welcome because it has not accepted your queerness. Then there is the hysteria of getting a job. A real job that needs you on a desk from 9 to 5 with an hour break and a manic longing for weekends to come faster. It does not help that the industry is very competitive and your tug of war with architecture in uni did not leave you with such good grades.
Then come two saving graces in the form of two women. The first is the manager of Nafasi Arts Space- an artists residency in Dar. Her name is Asteria Malizi. She hires you as an intern and it is under her wings that you find your true North. Six months later, Aziza Ongala walks into your life with an offer. She is the daughter of Remmy Ongala – people who know music know Remmy Ongala – and would you be willing to be a set designer for a music Festival she is throwing for her late father?
This year, the same that had begun with uncertainties of a fresh graduate – is the same one in which you get to build your own set design for Ongala Music Festival. You decide to collaborate with a Sudanese artist to build a giant installation made of wood and CDs and records. Just like everything else you have always wanted to do, it does not make sense to people. You’d rather build it first, and it ends up explaining and defining itself.
This opportunity comes with the validation. This is precisely what you were born to do. There is space for you in architecture. And that festivals do not always have to be about LCD screens, moving lights and Hennessy.
Success comes slowly at first then all at once. One time you are struggling to get a foot in the door, and the next thing you know you are working for one music festival, and then after that other music festivals want to work with you, and then you apply for residencies and you get accepted. When all these are happening it does not feel like they happen consecutively, because of the anxiety of living in the moment. in hindsight, after doing the Ongala Music Festival, you did the 2018 Kilifi New Year party where you build this 10m wide electronic Hidden Valley Stage, made of bamboo. When you looked at it right, it seemed like a blooming flower, for those who could see.
Then in 2019 you apply for funding and residencies and got into Collab Now Now. With this, you went to Jo’burg and Maputo to collaborate and create installations. To build the kind of things you always wanted to build in uni. You become an artist, not just a brain for hire. So it is not quite a surprise that you are called back to Kilifi New Year for a second bite at the cherry. Only that this time, you weren’t going as a set designer, but rather the Art Director for the show.
To get this done, you arrive in Kilifi at the end of November to set up camp. The way you want to pull this off is to get people like you to help. Good thing about having a title as lofty as Art Director, is you get to choose your own team. People you can connect with and can understand your vision. If they are young, East African, women and queer, the better. They do not have to be all those things, just in part. People just like you.
When the sky whistles at midnight and things explode and little fires fall everywhere like rain, you are inside your Baobab Mama stage. You are soaking in the moment when someone walks up to you to say “This…” she says waving her arms around, “…feels like walking through your head, and it is amazing to be in your dreams.”
If you do not cry, it is because you are trying hard not to.
Everyone had plans for 2020, and all of them went belly up the moment this stubborn virus landed on our shores. The best-laid plans of mice and men. By the time you receive a phone call in November to interview for Facebook’s #RealPeopleRealStories because of the work you put up on your Instagram, nothing feels real anymore. By the end of the first quarter, all the festivals and residencies you’d been contacted for have either been cancelled or made virtual.
Since you had stayed behind after the festival, the lockdown in Kenya finds you in Kilifi, and you fell in love with it. Even after the lockdown is lifted, you do not want to leave. When you do, it is to go back in Dar, but even when you are there, you are thinking of Kilifi. You are thinking of relocating permanently. It gives you the peace to dream and explore. To explore your queerness in relation to your Swahili Culture and the idea of feeling at home away from home.
At the moment though, you are a little busy with the Bakanal de Afrique Festival. They are one of those who went virtual after the pandemic struck. The idea is that the participating artists make their art and showcase them online for people to see.
When people ask you who you are, you tell them your name is Arafa Hamadi. You tell them you are a twenty-five-year-old Tanzanian non-binary artist based in Kenya. You tell them you love who you love, and so long as you have two able hands you will make the things you want to make, and if there is no space for people like you, you will make space. There is a certainty in your voice when you say these things.
And it feels good.