Activists By Chance

Rupert Walder

Two British musicians took a trip to Cape Verde on a whim, and ended up becoming HIV/AIDS activists. Watch the video they created with Cape Verdeans!

At the end of 2006, musician Damian Montagu and filmmaker Christian Banfield took a spontaneous trip to Cape Verde. "We didn't really know what we were doing. We just both loved Caesaria Evora's music, and thought we could maybe meet up with local musicians," Damian explains.

On their first morning on the island of Mindelo, the two sat on their hotel veranda, not really believing that a spontaneous idea in a pub in London had actually got them to Cape Verde, and not really sure what to do next. As they drank their coffee and considered their options, a procession of school children and musicians danced by on the street below. It was December 1, and the procession was a World AIDS Day event.

"It was one of those moments," says Damian. "I looked at Christian, and we both realized that we should be working with those musicians, and letting them sing about HIV and AIDS." The resulting collaboration, as filmed by Christian, paints a haunting but beautiful picture of older and younger generations of Cape Verdeans realizing quite what an impact HIV and AIDS is making on their communities.

On World AIDS Day 2007, Damian returned to Cape Verde and submitted the film to the national and local media, all of whom were much taken by the high quality of the film and the strength of the message. "It involved local people who don't usually get access to decent recording and broadcast equipment," says Damian. "It was a collaboration, a real collaboration for me as a musician. But I do feel we gave something back, rather than just turning up, tuning up, playing and then disappearing back to London."

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During his visit, Damian presented the film to the Mayor of Mindelo to an enthusiastic response. CVT, the Cape Verdean national television station, broadcast the film repeatedly during World AIDS Day, and also featured it in the main news show. Additionally the Cape Verdean national radio station broadcast the song and interviewed Damian about the project. The song has also now been circulated amongst the youth orientated radio stations and their DJs and is receiving strong support. And local health authorities are now integrating the film into their awareness programme for 2008. In addition a leading local doctor will now be incorporating the film into his HIV/AIDS awareness program.

The film was also presented to universities and schools across Mindelo and was shown to large groups of students. These screenings were followed by lectures from head teachers about the message of the film and the response from the children has resulted in the schools now incorporating the film into their teaching programs.

Before the December 2007 trip, Damian and Christian and DJ and music producer David Hill established World Awareness Recordings. The team is now working on an `African Sessions' project which wants to create further collaborations in other African countries including Mali, Senegal, and Ethiopia.

By his own admittance, Damian became an HIV and AIDS activist by chance.

"If you had asked me three years ago what I would be doing today, I would probably have told you I would be worrying about the music for the next Budweiser or Audi advertising campaign," says Damian. "But in Cape Verde, we started something that we want to continue. We had no idea what we were doing when we got there. But local musicians spoke to us, with their music and about their lives through that music."

World Awareness Recordings is looking for future partnerships with musicians, and anyone else interested in spreading empowering and resonant awareness about HIV and AIDS. Speaking to Damian and David, I get the distinct impression that they are a little surprised that they have ended up as HIV and AIDS activists. But this innocence and honesty gives them the space to be creative without preaching, and collaborative without being condescending – a refreshing approach which many an agency and organization would do well to take note of in their HIV and AIDS campaigns.

HIV Activists/Gay Men Sentenced in Senegal: The Other Side of Rick Warren’s “Humanitarian Issue”

Scott Swenson

The distance between Pastor Rick Warren and the sentencing of nine gay HIV activists in Senegal can be measured in inches, not miles. This is a real humanitarian issue Pastor Warren, not a fight to protect the privilege of heterosexual marriage.

Pastor Rick Warren is right about one thing, gay rights is a humanitarian issue and a human rights issue.  The problem is he offered those comments in defense of retaining the privilege of heterosexual marriage, not as a result of the sentencing of nine men in Senegal to eight years in prison.

The Associated Press reports:

Nine men, including a prominent activist, have been convicted of
homosexual acts and sentenced to eight years in prison, a gay rights
group said Thursday.

Diadji Diouf, who heads an organization that
provides HIV prevention services to gay men in Senegal, and the others
were arrested Dec. 19 in a raid on Diouf’s apartment.

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The men
were sentenced Wednesday for unnatural acts and criminal conspiracy,
said Joel Nana, Africa research and policy coordinator with the
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Cape Town,
South Africa.

"This is the first case that we’ve heard of in
Senegal where people actually got sentenced," Nana said. He called the
sentences long and harsh. Diouf’s organization, AIDES Senegal, provides condoms and HIV treatment out of his home.

arrests came just weeks after Senegal hosted an international AIDS
conference that included gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender

"It is a strong message of hatred, a strong message
of division when we know it is critical at this point to address HIV in
these communities," Nana said.

Senegal, a primarily Muslim nation
in West Africa, is one of 38 countries on the continent that
criminalize homosexual acts, Nana said. South Africa prompted
continent-wide controversy in 2006 when it became the first African
country to legalize gay marriage.


By contrast Pastor Warren, often lauded for his work with HIV/AIDS and in particular in Africa, essentially said that because gay people were such a small percentage of the population, they should not be allowed to marry, adding, "This is not even just a Christian issue. It’s a humanitarian and human issue." 

Warren also said, “Some people feel today that if you disagree with them then that’s
hate speech. Either if you disagree with them you either hate them or
you’re afraid of them. I’m neither afraid of gays nor do I hate gays.
In fact I love gays but I do disagree with some of their beliefs.”

Christianity is a belief, a choice. Sexuality is gift from God, for believers. I am gay, I don’t "believe" I’m gay, and I never had a choice, for which I thank God everyday. And in spite of many reasons to turn my back on faith as many have, I continue to believe Jesus has a bigger vision than Rick Warren of how we should treat our fellow humans. 

The distance between Rick Warren and the law in Senegal that has sentenced these nine gay HIV activists is measured in inches, not miles. I have defended President-elect Obama’s decision to reach out to Warren, from a position of strength that Obama has in his own beliefs and to attempt to model civility. 

It is up to Warren to move toward Obama, and he can start by denouncing this sentencing — as a humanitarian and human rights issue — and working to see that laws in the nations his missions work in are changed so that all God’s children are treated equally. Perhaps in all his work on AIDS Pastor Warren has yet to realize that it is the shame and stigma put on sex and sexuality by people like him that is at the core of the rampant spread of the disease, and that gay children who are loved, embraced and celebrated with an option of loving committed relationships — as opposed to growing up living in fear and shame — would make wise decisions about their sexual health. We see where thousands of years of stigma has gotten us. Could it be we are supposed to learn something from all the disease, like how to treat each other better?

Behind the Mask is a group that monitors human rights abuses of lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people throughout the continent of Africa.  You can learn more about Senegal’s discrimination here. Will someone please forward that link to Pastor Warren and urge him to make a real humanitarian response, not use Christianity to fight to protect privilege. Historically that hasn’t worked so well.


Mamma Mia! Finding Feminism Where You Least Expect It

Sarah Seltzer

Who knew that below the '70s kitsch exterior of Mamma Mia! beats a matriarchal, sexually free feminist heart?

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers
for the nearly plotless musical film Mamma Mia!

It’s almost unfathomable to
those casually acquainted with Mamma Mia!, the ABBA musical, that
a staunchly feminist heart might beat beneath its 70s-kitsch exterior.
In fact, I used to mock the women who slavishly lined up for tickets
to the Broadway musical, convinced that they were spending money on
something commercial and contrived.

But then last weekend, when the
weather was hot and I’d already been mildly traumatized
by Batman: The Dark Knight, I stepped into the nearest theater
and was wowed by the most feminist mainstream movie I’ve seen in ages — it
trumped Sex in the City, for sure.
Mamma Mia!
might not be about feminism, or seek to advance feminism,
but it takes many of feminism’s principles as a given,
and works (or works it, if you will) from there.

The movie is ostensibly about
a young woman, Sophie, who lives on a Greek island with her mother,
an aging hippie and former pop singer. She invites three of her mother’s
former lovers to her wedding, hoping she’ll figure out which of them
is her father so he can give her away. Her mother Donna, played to the
hilt by Meryl Streep, is an unabashedly sexy overall-clad woman whose
surprise encounter with her former flames proves to reinvigorate more
than just her memories.

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It’s a thinly-constructed story,
mostly an excuse for the characters to jump around and sing ABBA songs
with joyful abandon. But Mamma Mia! is also a movie
in which female sexuality is celebrated without its objectification or punishment for its protagonists, and female sexuality is presented from young womanhood
all the way through middle age and beyond.

The women express their sexuality
through mildly raunchy dancing and jokes, a pleasant departure from
the screen-archetype of the sensual female defined by languorous pouting
and seduction. Some viewers have wondered whether it’s problematic to see the
actresses acting "vulgar;" but away from patriarchal norms, actual
women are not demure and coquettish, but just as funny, silly, and randy
as their male counterparts. And the tousled gorgeousness of Streep and
Amanda Seyfried, who plays Sophie, promotes an outdoorsy, natural kind
of sexiness at all ages that is a welcome contrast with SATC’s urban

Furthermore, the movie’s central
premise — a wedding between two young people — never comes to fruition.
At the end of the film, Sophie, unmarried, leaves with her fiancé to
travel the world, rejecting the idea of settling down too early. Donna,
as an afterthought, ties the knot instead with one of her old loves, after
shocking the local priest with the revelation of her sexual exploits
during the year of her daughter’s conception. Then Sophie declares
she doesn’t care about said exploits, because she has grown to love
all three men.

Presumably, none of the men care
either, as they agree to share fatherly duties and turn themselves into
one, big, irregularly-shaped but affectionate family. It’s this conclusion
that "love makes a family" that led film critic Dana Stevens to declare of Mama Mia!: it’s "a transgenerational,
pansexual paradise that’s so deeply queer that when one of the characters
comes out of the closet late in the movie, the revelation seems superfluous."

And incidentally, instead of
having one of her three dads give her away at the outset of her abandoned
nuptials, Sophie walks down the aisle with her mother by her side.

It’s hard to imagine a movie
that’s come out recently that is, at its core, as offensive to the
right wing’s so-called family values. The film’s women — including a mother
and daughter — accept each other as sexual beings. Donna isn’t punished
for her earlier promiscuity, and Amanda isn’t forced to get married
despite her clear sexual maturity. The concept of three men revolving
around a matriarchal family core is celebrated.

Admittedly, there are many feminists
out there who will never love, as Stevens says, a "sunny, goofy gynotopia"
as a vehicle for feminist values. And it’s likely that a lot of
Mamma Mia
!’s audience probably doesn’t identify as feminists — they
identify instead with the female-centric joie de vivre of the
musical. But this is okay. In its way, the movie may reach more people
as a stealth advocate of sexual egalitarianism — which could be just what
its nearly all-female
of production,
writing and direction (a Hollywood rarity) had in mind.

The movie, seen so close in proximity
to the more acclaimed Batman flick, did have me thinking about the part
gender plays in what we determine to be serious. While The Dark Knight
dealt with themes of power and violence, Mamma Mia! was about
the more domestic, but no less universal, themes of family and forgiveness — but
both films were primarily interested in showy visual sequences. Critics slobbered all over themselves heaping praise on
the former, while many admitted being embarrassed by Mamma Mia!
The contrast between the way the two have been received makes one wonder
why, to start with, we consider singing and dancing showpieces to be
"silly" while Batpods, metal suits, and improbably-rigged explosives
are allowed be taken quite seriously. We’re quick to forgive the tokenization
of female characters as villain-bait in superhero movies, but critics
whine when men in movies like Mama Mia! and Sex in the City
are relegated to love interest status.

We have a long way to go when
it comes to onscreen parity, but in its kitschy way, Mamma Mia!
has helped bring us closer there. Let’s hope its success paves the
way for many more female collaborations
and feminist plotlines