Language is power. It carries the ability to create representations and narratives that inform our daily lives. With approximately one language dying every two weeks, this shocking statistic suggests that language is not a stagnant entity – it evolves. Most importantly, language’s ability to evolve alludes to the fact that it should adapt by incorporating new ways to reflect our ever-evolving cultures, our lives, to ensure its survival.

“We live through language. It is what creates culture and a sense of belonging. It’s important to evolve African words to either reclaim old language or to create a new one where queer sexualities are positive,” says Manosa Nthunya, a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, highlighting the importance of language and how it informs relations to other people.

Founded by Khanyi Mpumlwana and Nobantu Sibeko, Find New Words is a South African initiative working with the LGBTQQIAP+ community and any invested stakeholders to create new, positive African words to define the LBTIQQIAP+ community. Most of the words that currently exist to identify members of sexual minorities in South Africa and the continent are consistently derogatory or non-existent. This gap in definition and disconnection from a positive African queer identity is what Find New Words is attempting to address and ultimately alter the narrative around queer identities, in the hope of a more inclusive society without the cloak of Western influence. Find New Words believes this starts with influencing our home languages.

Language is the principal vehicle for behaviour – when language changes, narratives change, and behaviour will follow.

“The project of developing an African queer identity is not complete without looking into the language that shapes the way in which we express our queerness. As Find New Words, we strongly believe that language is the principal vehicle for behaviour – when language changes, narratives change, and behaviour will follow,” explains Mpumlwana. The project undertakes the quest to create a lexicon of the full spectrum of queerness beyond terms that focus on sex but on “who we are and not sexual acts”, according to Mpumlwana.

Another Community Consultation Photo By Nontokozo Tshabalala

Find New Words consults with communities by setting up workshops via local community organisations. Mpumlwana stresses the point of getting as many people as possible to increase “diversity of thought and experience”. “From there, we break up into groups and brainstorm words, based on an understanding of our languages. Most of our terms are compound words; where people have combined existing words to create new ones.” The consultations they have had to date have generated 151 new words and the number will increase to include all other official (African) South African languages.

The African language of queer sexualities died when colonialism arrived and dictated a specific way of being.

The initiative aims to also tackle the misconceptions that cause many African communities to view queerness as ‘unAfrican’; as an experience that arrived with colonialism, yet there is evidence of words that describe homosexuality in certain old African languages and cultures. “Colonialism came with religion. It deeply set off the notion that it is wrong to be ‘the other’. The African language of queer sexualities died when colonialism arrived and dictated a specific way of being; of seeing the self,” Nthunya says.

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Mpumlwana shares the same sentiments in regard to colonialism setting the scene for the erasure of positive African queer identities. “Without thorough introspection, we adopted new ways of existing that allowed for a skewed discernment on what was or was not acceptable in our societies. This then created an environment where culture, belief and language were used as vehicles to oppress and exclude certain groups. We have not, in our collective discourse around decolonisation, fully interrogated this historical context in relation to queerness; which is why we find ourselves with the terms that exist today,” she says.

Consultation with female elders of the community Photo by Chester Makana

Find New Words is rooted in decolonial values as it aims to expand the discourse around LGBTQI+ issues to have full expression in our home languages. In the past, engagement around sexual minority groups has only been in English – coming out happens in English as well. Mpumlwana says that this inherently creates barriers in understanding, regardless of proficiency levels. “For example, some people hold the position that something is unAfrican if you cannot express it in an African language. As a result, that position has allowed people to deem queerness as unAfrican because of the limitations that exist for us to express our queer identities,” she concludes. 

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One of the biggest problems of undertaking a project as complex and expansive as Find New Words is the access to people in the communities who are willing to consult with them. Another interesting challenge they have encountered is the difficulty people face in engaging queerness in a new African way, as Find New Words requests of them. “Over time, a considerable distance has grown between our generation and the way in which our languages work. That, combined with a group of people who have three hours to think about their queerness in ways they have not before, has been one of our biggest challenges,” says Mpumlwana. 

Through creating these new words, the Find New Words team hopes to contribute to “living dictionaries” and, with the use of a variety of mediums like social media, television scripts, music and books, disseminate the new lexicon they have collated into the mainstream of popular culture. Find New Words may be in its early stages but the vision is giant enough to shape an African queer identity that will have complete expression in its mother tongues. This framework can be adopted across the continent – and that is one of their eventual goals.