In August of 2019 the district of Jamestown in Accra, Ghana hosted the 9th annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival. Chale Wote is the largest street art festival in Africa and runs for two weeks in the nation’s capital city. This year was the first year that LGBTI organisations in Ghana came together to participate in the festival as a visible movement and community. Representatives from COC partners Courageous Sisters Ghana and Alliance for Dynamics Initiative, two Ghanaian LGBTI organisations, shared their perspectives and experiences participating in the event.
The Chale Wote Street Art Festival began in 2011 as a small local one-day event and has since grown to attract approximately 50,000 visitors over
the course of two weeks each year. Chale Wote does not only host visual
artists, but it is also a space for music performances, theatre, photography exhibitions, film screenings, parades, and cultural gatherings. LGBTI organisations in Ghana had been hesitant to join the festival in the past as they were unsure what reaction they would face from the public. As this would be a high-visibility event, organisers had significant concerns about safety and security for the LGBTI participants. However, in 2018 several LGBTI individuals had participated openly in the festival and were received positively by the public, inspiring organisers to come together and participate as a unified LGBTI movement in the following year. Chale Wote has not only been a place for heterosexual and cisgender artists, but also many of the artists involved in the festival over the years have a part of the LGBTI community in Ghana.
Taking the risk to take part in such a high profile event was an important step for LGBTI organisers in Ghana. Their motivation was to increase visibility to attract new allies, to map out new community members, and to show a sense of belongingness in the larger society. Participating in the Chale Wote festival would also allow LGBTI organisations and individuals to come together and celebrate their community after not being able to host a Pride festival in 2019 due to limited funding.
At Chale Wote, the partnering LGBTI organisations hosted a variety of activities such as rainbow face painting, education sessions on LGBTI issues for the public, matchmaking sessions between LGBTI people, allies, and organisations, and peer support group sessions. They also offered on-site HIV screenings alongside HIV counselling and referrals to health services. Particular focus was paid to LBQ women and Trans representation. A key goal of these activities was to educate the public on misconceptions about LGBTI people, and to create new allies who are educated on LGBTI issues.
The LGBTI presence at Chale Wote was met with excitement without serious backlash from the public. Many people were interested in learning more about the LGBTI community and becoming allies, and those who already considered themselves allies were able to better connect with the community. LGBTI individuals and parents of LGBTI children were also able to come and connect with organisations and learn more about gaining support and building a network as a community. The police also supported the event and offered protection to the LGBTI organisers.
While organisers knew they would not get 100% acceptance from the public, the backlash that they did face was not overly significant. During the event, a small church group came to pray and make a bit of disruptive noise in front of the LGBTI stand, however, the participants did not pay much attention to them. The media reports about LGBTI participation in Chale Wote were also a mix of positive and negative perspectives, and some accused the participants of looking for cheap publicity.
However, the outcomes of participating in Chale Wote have been overwhelmingly positive for LGBTI organisations in Ghana. Since the festival, many LGBTI people and allies are getting in touch with the organisations and new networks of allies and community members are being built. This experience has shown that the LGBTI community in Ghana can be more visible, and has demonstrated to the community that being visible does not mean that you will be attacked. This visibility has also inspired organisers to come together and plan a Pride event for 2020.
Chale Wote is a festival to come together as a community to celebrate the talent and creativity of Ghanaian people. LGBTI participation in Chale Wote is an acknowledgement that LGBTI community members also have talent and creativity, and can share that with the public. From this experience, the public can see that sexuality is only a small percentage of what the LGBTI community has to offer, and LGBTI individuals have the opportunity to show that being LGBTI does not mean that you cannot be who you want to be.