Decolonizing urban taboos through celebration

Decolonizing urban taboos through celebration

This dialogue explores the potential of celebration and performance to catalyse public discussion and action around urban taboos in African cities

This session explores the potential of celebration and performance to catalyse public discussion and action around urban taboos in African cities. Calls to decolonize public debates in urban Africa have made the case for re-centering discussions on matters essential to the women, men, girls and boys, who make and inhabit urban spaces. Numerous participatory approaches and bottom-up processes have been set up to voice endogenous concerns and re-ground interventions amidst tremendous power asymmetries, and exogenous constraints.

But what about urban taboos, understood both as subjects that are difficult to debate publicly and as social norms which govern acceptable behaviours? By nature, taboos are often unspoken. They might serve purposes of protection and cleanness or restrict some practices and relations. They might silence the existence and experience of residents and institutions to the profit of some and the detriment of others. In most cases, they do not make it to political agendas and are thus reproduced, carried over generations, without public and collective reappraisal.

In this session, we propose to explore celebration and performance as means to decolonize discussions and tackle taboos across African cities. The session will draw on insights from the OVERDUE project, which interrogates sanitation taboos in urban Africa, and has to this end organized sanitation festivals in the cities of Beira, Mwanza, and Freetown. The session will further engage in a dialogue with other experiences of celebration and performance which have catalysed public discussions on taboos surrounding disability, sexual violence, racism, homosexuality, menstrual pain, death, and infertility.


Host: Overdue /Just Sanitation

Maputo, Beira,(Mozambique); Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania); Freetown (Sierra Leone); London (United Kingdom)

Session Summary

Decolonising urban taboos through celebration was a wonderful, collaborative and multilingual session in which issues of menstruation, disability and sanitation were not only centred but celebrated. The session had hosts and audience members who spoke English, French and Portuguese as their first language which made for an eclectic multilingual conversation space. It was structured around three videos each highlighting and celebrating a different taboo followed by an audience led discussion with the respective project champions.

The session brought joy, laughter and humour to taboo topics which are usually brushed under the table or spoken about in whispered tones. The project champions for each of the three focal issues – sanitation, menstruation and hygiene – discussed how they had used acts of celebration such as drawing, dancing and storytelling to raise awareness around these subjects. As a result of their work, each champion was able to facilitate confidence gains for those affected by these issues – particularly menstruators and persons with disabilities. They were also able to change public perceptions around these issues particularly in areas where discussion of such issues is especially controversial.

Overall it was an insightful and collaborative session and serves as a methodological insight into how such issues might be tackled by other organisations/persons going forward.