Ep 16 | Jun 28, 2023


Arya Jeipea Karijo on “our existence is our truth”

Adele Vrana: Hello Arya. It’s really great to have you here. Thank you again for sitting down and having this conversation with us. And for starters, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, who you are, what you do, and how do you define yourself?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: Thank you, Adele. Thank you for having me. How do I define myself? There’s the classic one I like doing in interviews and on social media, but really it’s kind of describing myself using absolutes. So I normally describe myself as a human being and then I describe bits of that humanity. So for example, I exist as a transgender woman. I love as a lesbian. And then sometimes I like describing my politics. So I fight as a feminist. I love the work I do, but yeah, I like to move away from that and put in the center my humanity. But yeah, going to the more standard introductions, I am a trans activist in Kenya and also a communications person and then storyteller. That will be me in a nutshell.

Adele Vrana: Yes, thank you. I really love that you started with the introduction that brings you the most joy but also really aligns with your values and our values. So it was beautiful. Yes, we are human beings first, so thank you for that. So one of the things that you already know is that we run this global multilingual campaign to center the knowledges of marginalized folks like us, the majority of the world. And we also have a global campaign to make marginalized women, especially black, brown, trans and indigenous women visible on Wikipedia. And the broader internet question for you is, do you know and use your Wikipedia?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: When I was trying to figure out my identity as a trans woman, like… I didn’t have the words for it. I didn’t know the word to describe myself as transgender. I actually got my first internet connection and then spent a whole month searching online and I would lie to my sister and be like, “I’m doing online work”. I was actually researching and being like, “Oh, what’s wrong with me? Is there someone [else] like this? And so the first person I found was Lea T and she’s a Brazilian model. And at the time, yeah, she was, you know, she was visible. That was my first point. And interestingly I did not find on Wikipedia, it was like on all these other sites, but while that search came to me in that way, it was still powerful in seeing this person online and I mean, she’s half a world away from me, but just seeing her online and I was like, okay, there’s, there’s people like me out there and this is the thing that’s been out of sorts with me for the last decade or so.

It was a powerful thing to come to because for the first time I had words to describe. And I think that’s what every online platform holds, you know, that power of information just to affirm people. Like when someone sees themselves online, they can validate their own existence. Last year Lea T followed me on Instagram. So the internet affirms this whole possibility of knowing yourself, connecting with people like you and yeah, it’s beautiful in that way. Wikipedia, I mean it could - because there’s that trust or the first point where people go to. I think it should have more and more of this, you know, representation so people can see themselves.

Adele Vrana: You touched on so many things that I want this conversation to be about Arya and you talked about why visibility matters regarding validating one’s existence. You talked about these spaces to go and really look for information about yourself, but others to see, others as these spaces of affirmation. So we wanna talk about all of that. And I think the first one is, you mentioned the fact that when you were looking for information about Leah and you were at the like beginnings of your journey around your identity, that Wikipedia was not the place that you could find information. Nowadays if you go and look for biographies, you look for things that are meaningful to you and to your multiple identities. Do you find content? And do you find that the content and even the images that you’re finding are affirming to you?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: I think the only Kenyan transgender woman you’ll find on Wikipedia is probably Audrey [Mbugua]. So I think there’s still a gap and the challenge maybe is not really with the platform, but the fact that the platform depends on society to inform what they consider what is being put there. So if you have a society like ours where, well ours I’m speaking about you know, Kenya and East Africa and, and this part of the world where our identities are considered maybe not valid, then if the platform is relying on our society to uphold us so we can get onto the platform - we’re never gonna get onto it. And that’s the challenge. I think Audrey got onto it because of litigation and taking the government to court on so many occasions to recognize transgender people. And I think she was at that point she could not be ignored.

But yeah, the threshold for people to get on Wikipedia is different for the minoritized majority of the world or marginalized communities or whatever the name we give to these other groups that are not treated as equal human beings to others. So that becomes even an extra step. I think that’s the difficulty. And last year I had the chance to upload my own picture in [Wikimedia] Commons and that was a good thing. Because someone will search for a Kenyan transgender woman and they’ll find my picture. That was like a really… it was an affirming experience. Like we also have some power in contributing to that. And I don’t know, maybe things have changed for younger trans people, like the young 20-something-year-olds I’m meeting now, possibly they will then go on Wiki to find me. They look for me on Facebook or Instagram. Yeah. But it’s still nice to have that whole body of information there.

Adele Vrana: Yes. And you know that we use Wikipedia as this proxy for online public knowledge in a place which is community-oriented. But my next question to you was - so if Wikipedia has ways to go in terms of visibility and affirmation and acknowledgement, right? What would be the other way or other places like even proprietary sites or the social media sites that you know, and you have been mentioning that right now if a young trans person would like to reach out to you and to know more about you, they would probably not do that via Wikipedia, but they would use other places. So can you tell us a bit more of what the experience is then? Is the experience all positive or how is it to be on these other websites?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: I think it’s important to split things like visibility and knowledge. When I was trying to understand things, Wikipedia was the choice but visibility, like the proprietary platforms, Facebook, Instagram, are important to help other people know, you know, we exist, like we are there. But if someone was making like, you know, seeking something more in depth. Let me try and find an example. So from one of my tribes of origin in Kenya, they used to have what we’ll now call transgender people. And they were regarded as the medicine people of the tribe, the diviners, these divine spiritual leaders believed to embody a world feminine spirit, which will balance out the power of the warriors. So if I go seeking out knowledge like this or history that affirms that people myself existed in the past in that form and now exist in the present in this form, I’m not likely to find that on Facebook or Instagram or even on Twitter.

But having such things on Wikipedia will be useful to the community because there’s, knowing we exist and then there’s having knowledge that validates our existence. And so when I’m putting out my posts on social media, it’s obvious to say, no, our existence is our truth, but also knowledge is needed to, to represent truth out there. Right now when someone says, you know, being transgender is not African or being a lesbian is not African, then the only place you can go to bring out this knowledge is like in, you know, ethnographic studies and some anthropology works, which sometimes are written in a very skewed way. So for example, about the lesbians among some of the Kenyan peoples, so the Kikuyu had lesbians, but the ethnographer I wrote about that was Leakey and Leakey wrote thousands of pages about the Kikuyu people, but only spent two pages talking about the lesbians in the community.

And when he was asked about this, you know, he felt that they’re not valid and saying in his words, he said, “I spoke only to the men.” And Leakey was a British European. Another colonizer also wrote about lesbian women in Africa, he was named Lugar. And Lugar always said, “I feel that they can’t be in a relationship”, that it is clear to him. He believes that one woman is a slave to the other. So these skewed ways in which colonizers represented people like myself or people whose identities are embodied now are still the ways that can be found in their geographies. And places like Wikipedia offer us a chance to back up our truth in knowledge. So it’s still important in those ways because right now I think we live in a world where truth is being challenged and the threshold of challenging truth seems lower for the people who put out myths and put out falsehoods. But the people actually represent the reality of things. And this is not only for Africa, like we’ve seen trans people in the US being put- the validity of their existence being challenged. I feel this is one gap that a platform like Wikipedia could address.

Adele Vrana: You mentioned when we look at knowledge online and even knowledge in general and especially around being a transgender human being you are gonna find that really skewed by the colonizer’s perspective. And as we talk about before here, if we’re centering our knowledges, then we are the authors of our histories and stories and that’s one key problem in the content as you pointed out. What would be the changes that you would like to see in the way ethnographers or academia in general or even journalists or Wikipedias that are volunteering to write that encyclopedia? What would be the changes in the way they talk about transgender people, the way they create that content, the way they don’t only talk to the men when they are doing their studies? So what would be some of the changes in behaviors that you would like to see for folks that are creating that content?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: I think the first draft of our Wikipedia article should come from the people living the reality. So I can write the history of my people and whatever transgender identities that are embodied, you know, with the Meru [sp] people, with the groups that are now considered tribes of Kenya. And that first draft should come from the groups or the people living that kind of reality. And then after that, editing can take place. But that whole idea that it doesn’t exist until sources like, you know, the skewed sources I’m mentioning. I think that’s wrong because those skewed sources will make sure my existence is a rift. But if that initial first draft, maybe it’s not you know, academically written or academically cited, but if that can get on Wikipedia and it can be there as an article that needs, you know, citations and needs backing up, then that’s a good starting point for all of us because it’s there, like the presence is the first step and maybe these are things wiki the need to consider, like, like having all these tabs of articles like that threshold should come down to the level where communities can put up their truth, whether they were all traditions, whether there were some of it was captured in bits and pieces of ethnography, what in whatever way they are written by.

Yeah, that holding of a starting point where all of us can access that. For me, I guess it’s, it’s really, it’s really important.

Adele Vrana: Yes, yes. It starts with who it should start, that’s at the heart of the centering us, right? And this knowledge, and I think we are talking about spaces like Wikipedia that I hope a lot of the wikipedians that listen to our podcast will hear this, will listen to you because you’re pointing out such great things for the movement and for the folks that are writing the encyclopedia to consider. But I do, I’m curious to know if there is any place that right now you feel is doing a good job at really creating a space of affirmation that you can actually embody all of your identities and feel that you are safe, you are seen and you are affirmed. Is there any concrete example, and it could be to create knowledge, but it could be for visibility, but just wondering if there’s a place that is doing right in safeguarding creating this environment of safety and affirmation and joy for you at the moment?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: I think there’s a bit of privilege for me. Like my interaction with those knowledge just opened up for me. You know, this whole idea that my relieved reality was also knowledge and this was a big difference from the point I was figuring out my identity because I was seeking knowledge from outside. Like I needed to see Leah T somewhere for me to see myself. But also it can be the other way around that me seeing myself makes me able to go and look at this whole ethnographic and say, but these two pages were being written about African lesbians or you know, this Mugwe [sp] who in Grade Three [of school] I was told or medicine men were actually, you know, non-binary, gender non-conforming kind of people or literally trans women in my words. Now I guess just also having a voice that challenges platforms to keep getting better, that is important.

I think that’s enough for someone to start not just be outward seeking for knowledge coming in, but also be confident as a generator of knowledge or a person who can piece knowledge together. I mean all these things I’m saying now, like the people who lived in this, you know, land and embodied all these identities, at some point I will never have thought to go seek out this knowledge or even believe it exists until I could see myself in this way whose knowledge is speaking about decolonizing the internet. And that’s all someone needs to hear that one voice that says there could be more and this could be better. Then it gives courage for someone to go out and be better. Another example I have, apart from whose knowledge there is one of my favourite organizations called SoulForce and SoulForce challenge quote unquote what is called “religious truths”. So yeah, I think that dissenting voice is, has been something for me and I think it’s important for more and more people to keep hearing it – that every who has it frees themselves first and again becomes like a contributor to all this dismantling of systems that hold in captivity.

Adele Vrana: You were just pointing out like dismantling this historically in current systems of power and privilege and oppression. It’s not going to take one voice or one community. It’s going to take all of us to decolonize inside and out. And she joined these complex social movements that are trying to change it. And in the beginning of this conversation we talked about visibility and we talked about #VisibleWikiWomxn as one initiative within Whose Knowledge? that has changed the internet that we experienced today. And I wanted to go back to it because you already mentioned why that’s important, but I want to come back to it and ask you is making the trans community, trans human beings and the people that carry that identity visible online something important. Why, why does that matter?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: There’s a whole group in society that keeps saying, you know you people, you lesbians and trans people, you know, you could just go live your life quietly. You don’t have to rub it in our faces. But the fact is that everything that was not us, everything that was, you know, straight, cisgender, white Christian, all these things were not just rubbed in our faces that kind of made to represent the world for us. So we are so far gone on the one path that we can’t see anything. That’s not what we’re indoctrinated to believe. So visibility does the opposite. It says the world is multiplicity, the world is diverse, the world is rich, it’s countering this one narrative that we were taught from when we were kids. And so it’s important for, especially in my context here, just for people to see difference because difference is or challenges people to be, to be better human beings.

So you see a trans woman and they’re visible online and then if someone is actually seeking to be a better human being, they’re like, oh wait, maybe we are not exactly just two genders or one way of loving people and maybe I need to open up my mind towards a richer way of existence. So visibility, it’s important not just for me as a trans woman or for younger people who are trying to, you know, figure themselves out, their gender or sexuality. It’s important for the world to become a more humane world. Difference is part of being human. It’s actually part of being nature because nature is very diverse, very different, and while you accept it in nature, somehow we kind of resist it in our humanity and people need to keep seeing differences. Having differences visibilized will make us a better human race.

Adele Vrana: As you were saying that so beautifully. I was also thinking about the theme of the #VisibleWikiWomen campaign this year, which is Hope and Healing: creating feminist memory online. Yeah. And just hearing you talk about difference in this way brings me hope and healing. I want us to talk a little bit about that because I wonder if you think it is possible to create trans feminist and intersectional memory online, and if so, how can we do that?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: Well, I’m, I’m not sure about– [laugh], but I feel it’s important. It’s important again, I think for the world because right now a lot of ways of being that […] involve extraction, extraction from the planet, extraction from each other as human beings. And the world needs to see, to see feminism not as this anti-man being that they kind of try to represent it, but people need to see it as the new way of nurturing and taking care of the planet, putting a human being above the economic value, the economic value that we’ve pegged on the human life and splitting that and saying, you know, the human being comes first and this for me is what you know, feminism is a lot of times also with our movements we come at it from a point of being oppressed. So if I’m in Kenya, I’m fighting to have my identification documents, we want to get married, it’s really caught up in the trenches that we miss the point that the reason for all this is so that the world becomes a better, more humane place to be in. And I think this needs to be spoken about more. It’s not just about, you know, addressing the injustice and correcting policy, but once we start addressing all of this, not just a righting of wrongs, but a recreation of our way of being and a recreation of our interact with our world and with each other as human beings, building from those roots and those kind of foundations, then the fight for rights takes on a better meaning. We’re not just fighting oppressive systems, we’re proposing a new way of the world to exist.

Adele Vrana: Absolutely. Thank you so much Arya. This was really inspiring and I am sitting here thinking if there’s one thing or a message that you want to leave to our community, to the people that are going to listen to this conversation about trans memory online and what is the word, but also the internet that we want to dream about and to co-create together.

Arya Jeipea Karijo: The one thing I want to say, like, you know, our existence is our truth. And normally when I put that in my social media posts, I’m usually referring to, you know, existence as trans people like that being embodied in, known in our bodies. And this is our truth, this is our knowledge, but I think our existence as humanity then is also our truth. And people should start looking at that, put humanity, humaneness and the human being at the center and then now build everything else around that. What is knowledge that upholds humanity? I think that would be like a really strong basis to rethink about our lives. If we have that as an anchor, then it means everything else is open to challenge, everything else is open to growth.

Adele Vrana: Oh, so beautiful. That was the last question that I had, but I do want to offer you the opportunity to say anything that we didn’t cover or anything that I didn’t ask you about that you would like to add and include in this conversation. Is there anything left?

Arya Jeipea Karijo: I don’t think we left anything actually. I think we need more of these conversations that, you know, they make us really reflect on the wisdom of the work we do and our being and all those.

Adele Vrana: Yeah. Yes. I absolutely think we should do more of this and it was an absolute joy and inspiration to be with you today for this. So thank you so much.

Arya Jeipea Karijo: Thank you. Thank you for having me. That was awesome.

This episode was originally published on June 23, 2022 in the Whose Knowledge? website

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