Inside the feminist circle of Giramata

Saturday August 24 2019

Amata Giramata is considered one of Rwanda's

Amata Giramata is considered one of Rwanda's leading poets having performed at the 20th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Washington DC, in the US and the 20th Liberation Day at Amahoro Stadium in 2014; the 2015 Rwanda Day in Atlanta and recently at the 25th Liberation Day at Amahoro Stadium on July 4 this year, where she was the lead spoken word performer. PHOTO | COURTESY 

JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
By JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
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At only 23 years old, Giramata has made a name for herself as a poet, blogger, feminist, gender activist and a grass roots community organiser. It was the latter three endeavours that made her come up with Sistah Circle last year.

In her own words, Sistah Circle is "a black feminist and womanist grass roots community dedicated to black women's lives and narratives told through radical love and storytelling.

"Sistah Circle hosts storytelling programmes and events that are considered safe spaces for experience and intellectual exchange for women to build and advance feminist values.''

It may sound too complicated and abstract to many 23-year olds, but not Giramata. Her life experiences have been leading her to this space.

She is currently studying for a PhD in Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona, US.

Her research is on black feminism, African feminism, intersectionality, reimagining trauma narratives, intimate/gender-based violence and cross-cultural studies. Her focus is on South Africa, Rwanda and state of Indiana, US.

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She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Development Economics and Policy, Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies from DePauw University in Indiana, US (2017).

But who is Giramata? Born Amata Giramata on January 29, in Rwanda, the first born in a family of four girls and one boy, she attended La Colombiere and Green Hills Academy for her primary education before joining St Mary's Kitende in Uganda and the Green Hills Academy where she completed her high school in May 2013. She joined DePauw University later the same year.

No stranger to the public, and preferring to use just one name, Giramata, she is considered one of the leading poets in the country having performed at the 20th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Washington DC, in the US and the 20th Liberation Day at Amahoro Stadium in 2014; the 2015 Rwanda Day in Atlanta and recently at the 25th Liberation Day at Amahoro Stadium on July 4 this year, where she was the lead spoken word performer.

Background

She credits her upbringing and experiences for making her sensitive towards women and gender activism.

For example, her mother only has sisters after her only brother was killed in the Genocide against the Tutsi.

Many other male relations were killed or died too, leaving Giramata surrounded by aunties and their women friends. All these women formed a very close bond around her and created a space for her to listen and learn through observation and storytelling.

Giramata the poet and activist making a point
Giramata the poet and activist making a point at a past presentation. PHOTO | COURTESY

Being an inquisitive person, she also observed the power dynamics between the married people in her circle and her girlfriends as she grew older.

She was particularly affected by the death of a close friend at the hands of her husband who physically abused her, and eventually killed her.

It did not help that she could not reconcile herself with the so-called words of wisdom being passed on to brides at bridal showers that women have to endure pain and that is what it means to be a woman. All these experiences made her seek answers in feminism.

At first she thought she could use feminism to save other women from the injustices of society but she unlearned that notion and started working on herself and to share her lessons with other women in safe spaces such as what she later called Sistah Circle.

This past June 20, she held a series of Sistah Circle events in Kigali, on the role of women in African art and history where she hosted famous Malawian poet Upile Chisala as a chief guest panellist as well as Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro. The former was this year named among the 30 under 30 on the Forbes Africa list in the creative category.

Giramata (in the middle in grey t-shirt) poses
Giramata (in the middle in grey t-shirt) poses with participants at last month’s Sistah Circle event in Kigali. PHOTO | COURTESY

Giramata shared her ideas on feminism which she describes as life experience that caters to the lives of women, structurally and systemically, and provides them with the resources to reimagine social norms, unlearn ideologies that disenfranchise them from living wholly, freely and thriving.

She insists that feminism targets women more than men because it is women who perpetuate societal norms whether sexist or not.

Patriarchy for example, is sustained by women who have internalised sexist ideas and that unfortunately patriarchy will survive with or without men's input unless women unlearn it.

And that because mothers are the ones who teach children how to be girls or boys as per laid down norms, Giramata believes formal education alone cannot deliver feminist ideas.

These have to be taught within the basic level of family structures set by society such as personal relationships, gender power dynamics and resource allocation. And having spaces such as Sista Circle is one way to teach feminism.

Demystifying the notion that feminism means men-hating, she argues that in a nutshell, feminism is about granting women the grace to be angry about their trauma and pains the way they choose to, and be sympathetic enough to ask why they are angry and genuinely listen and understand their point of view.
Birth of an idea

When Giramata first moved to the US in 2013 for further studies, there was something similar to Sistah Circle called Feminista. And she credits the movement for keeping her in college because it offered her a safe space where she could talk about her experience of college in a new life where gender and skin colour was an everyday issue.

Most times she was the only black person in her class and the university had just about only 25 Africans in the entire student population. It was not only a scary but also hard time for her as there were also violent white supremacists protests.

Feminista offered a space where black women talked freely and found safety and support. The members even offered to walk with her to class and sometimes even sit in her classes to make her feel comfortable. It was here that she learnt about sharing experiences, black feminism and womanism and Sistah Circle became a thought in her mind.

She envisioned Sistah Circle to offer the same kind of space, and expanded it to include mental health and cultural construction.

Past events shaped future

Giramata is also trained on how to curate mutual self-respect spaces and has been training other women in Rwanda who are interested in running Sistah Circle events. This development was possible because of Rwanda's violent history. And Giramata had already worked in this space.

While still in high school, she was involved and led her school’s Imbuto Foundation talks (Imbuto Foundation is an initiativee by the First Lady of Rwanda devoted to uplifting the lives of vulnerable populations in Rwanda, and in particular those of widows, orphans of the Genocide against the Tutsis and poor families).

She worked at survivor shelters and housing programmes both in Rwanda and abroad. And before joining university, she did volunteer work with a group of women who were trying to establish a support system for survivors of violence.

They had formed a collective and were putting money together to start small business, offer health and legal resources to help the survivors lead normal lives.

This meant working at the grass roots level, and she did this for two years into her undergraduate studies. When she moved to the US she also sought more grass roots involvement with similar groups in the state of Maine.

It is therefore not hard for Giramata today to reach out to women across board for her Sistah Circle events because she attends many related events, conferences and community rallies. It helped to shape her perception of organising. Besides, she also uses social media, a blog, and writes poetry for more options. She also uses Instagram for visuals.

Giramata leading a troupe in an acting and
Giramata leading a troupe in an acting and spoken word performance at the 25th Liberation Day at Amahoro Stadium on July 4 in Kigali. PHOTO | COURTESY
But her work is not without challenges. For example, when she invited Chisala, she struggled to raise funds to get her a plane ticket to Rwanda and also for her accommodation.

Funding also affects her other initiatives. She says it is frustrating trying to convince sponsors that investing in programmes that focus women and scholarship are worth their money.

Her next fundraiser is for a black feminist library and she is hopeful that her work and efforts will open more minds and bring with it financial support.
Inspiration

Giramata says she ventured into poetry through journaling.

Her poetry was in the form of summaries of her journal pieces. But since most of her friends were into poetry, she found herself gravitating towards the same through their influence. They encouraged her to write down her my feelings.

But she says the first recollection she has of writing a poem was when she was eight years old, and it was about her experience with a couple of boys in school and it involved body shaming.

As she grew older, she expanded her poetic space and became an activist and academic at the same time. She used all these experiences and utilised the rich history of art within writing, storytelling and speaking to articulate narratives about women.

For example, she cites the women groups in Rwanda and how they established Imigongo art or basket making collective. She says art is a very indigenous way of documenting experiences and knowledge.

She is of the opinion that her artivism is informed by acknowledging this bit about her community as well as her personal passion of using artistic ways to communicate her experiences and also in pursue of the academic knowledge.

Her favourite quote is fro Audre Lorde: ‘‘Poetry for us women is a way of survival it is not a luxury.’’

In her free time Giramata listens to African music and learns about instruments from different communities. She also reads extensively works by black authors and recommends All About Love by Bell Hooks.

When not reading she journals, or writes poetry as a way of way of documenting experiences and knowledge.

She draws inspiration of activism from Miriam Makeba, Audre Lorde, Mariya Yohana, Pauline Opango, Ousmane Sembene and her favourite is Ugandan fiery academic Stella Nyanzi.