February 16, 2016
Saving the world is not just an emotional-draining job, it is also a full-time and often low or no-paying job. I know this all too well.
I am a passionate workaholic. I graduated from university with a second class upper division in theatre, but my career shifted away from acting in 2004 when I came out as gay on national television in Nigeria. Since then, for the past 14 years, I have worked in HIV and LGBT rights. I received my master’s degree in politics and public policy from Birkbeck College. I have worked with organizations such as Naz project London, HIV I-base and Kaleidoscope Trust.
Until February of 2016, I was a lecturer at Humboldt University in Berlin. My students regularly told me how my class has opened their world views beyond the Western narrative lens they were so used to seeing the world through.
But I also devote countless unpaid hours writing articles, giving lectures and media interviews, and offering one-on-one help to people who reach out to me.
To put things into perceptive, I receive on average 10 Facebook messages per week from LGBT people around Africa desperate for help. Many are at their most vulnerable state; their house broken into, their families are about to force them into marriage, they have been arrested by the police or have just escaped a mob lynching and needed a place to hide. Their stories haunt me in my sleep. It often feels like for every one person I help, there are four more waiting in line.
On top of this, I have been under the burden of debt for over two years and while I work hard, the debt burden has restricted the work that I wish I could do.
This led me to make the decision this year that I will cut back on any advocacy work that will not pay. This is a very hard decision to make especially since there are millions of people out there whose lives are touched by the work we do. There’s the woman in Shrewsbury last week who came to me crying after my lecture, saying it had given her hope. There’s the lady who walked up to me on the London Tube and told me how empowering my Moth story was for her. There’s the old man who said my coming out story was all he needed to walk out of his sham heterosexual marriage and live a meaningful life.
These are experiences that millions of dollars cannot buy. I will not build a mansion out of these stories. They are not currency I can use in Tesco or Boots, but the reality is, when all is said and done, those stories give my life meaning and help me know that I am not just a passive passenger on the train of life.
Many of us never wanted a life of luxury, but a life good enough to wake us up in the morning with a very strong determination to do more than we did yesterday.
But we must also pay our bills. Recently, because of my financial situation, I decided to do a conversion course to go into law — not because I am passionate about it, but because, at least, it is a way out of poverty.
It’s not just me who faces these challenges, of course. This weekend when I logged onto Facebook, I saw a plea for financial help from Maurice Tomlinson, aleading Jamaican LGBT activist, lawyer and lecturer. He moved from Jamaica to Canada after several murder attempts on his life because of his activism.
I have always admired his work, from his brave engagement with Jamaican police to taking the Jamaican media to court for refusing to air an LGBT advert. This man is a true hero. But what Tomlinson wrote in his Facebook was alarming and telling.
He has unashamedly advertised on Facebook that he is in debt and if he is to continue the Human Rights work he is doing, then he will need people to come to his aid and help pay off his debts. I personally, think this is very brave of Maurice.
The battle we fight is a very power one. To borrow from a chat I had with Maurice on Monday: “If we were evangelical preachers selling hate in our own countries we would be RICH! We deserve to be unencumbered by debt so that we can do our work effectively AND take care of our obligations. The liberation movement is being stifled by to many activists being forced to exist from hand to mouth.”
Many people might argue why not go get a job. Well the answer is we do have a job or have had a job in the past. I was a university lecturer until few weeks ago. Maurice was a law lecturer as well. Many of us have impressive qualifications however, when you are faced with impacting lives and making money, to many of us, we don’t have the luxury of choice.
The challenge is not just about money, but also about activists’ mental state. Last year a very close friend and a mentee told me how much his mental health has been impacted by the advocacy work he is doing. Recently the famous Ugandan activist Kasha Jacqueline Bombastic Nabageser, wrote on Facebook how she has been struggling with the burden of the work she is doing.
There is also the undeniable danger to the lives of activists. They put their lives on the line everyday. They face abuse from online bullying and trolling to actual physical and psychological attacks.
How best do we support activists across the Global South who are sacrificing their time, lives and energy to create a better world? When activists are left hanging, emotionally and financially, who will save the people saving the world?
Maybe the answer is in what my uncle once told me: “I think I will have to talk to our friends and see how we can support you financially while you keep doing the important work you are doing as I think it is extremely needed.”
There are many activists like Maurice out there who, because of pride and shame, might not be able to ask for help but who desperately need it. The reality is, the work that needs doing deserves full-time attention that needs full-time financial and mental support.
So, I appeal to you, help those who are helping to save the world. And start by helping Maurice pay off his debt.
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Originally published on Slant