On Feminist Friendship

Feeling adrift a few weeks ago, I started reading Anam Cara- Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, a classic by Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue. I had seen a verse of his referenced by South African feminist poet Toni Stuart and was intrigued to explore. As the text unfolded so did my heart, as I began to consider the role of friendship in my life, the state of my soul, and the meaning behind the book’s central theme of anam cara, a Gaelic word meaning “soul friend”. Explaining the concept of the anam cara in the old Celtic church, O’Donahue says:

With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. The friendship was an act of recognition and belonging…your friendship cut across all convention, morality and category. You were joined in an ancient an eternal way with a ‘friend of your soul’.

Like Rumi, Hafiz and other poet-philosophers informed by the mystics, O’Donohue offers an understanding of the world shaped by an intimate relationship to embodied divinity- the divine in the self- as a space of wild earth and deep, deep love. Exploring the contours of the concept of anam cara I have begun to reflect on the life-saving and life-building, friendships of women across my life.

As I read Anam Cara, I recalled my first friends from kindergarten, primary and secondary school and university- a small group of girls turned women who remain soul friends in their capacity to welcome me whatever my state of becoming, to greet me as myself. I thought of my mother who has insisted throughout my life on finding more freeing frameworks in which to think about being and belonging, including to each other as mother and daughter. I remembered her saying to me as a teenager “I know that I am your mother, but I do hope that with time, we can become friends”. The offer was genuine, even if our attempts at it have not always been successful.

I also I recalled friendships born in activist spaces. I have spent the majority of my working life and activist engagement in feminist organising space and community, with most of this in the presence of my fellow feminists from the African continent. As with any arena of human encounter, feminist spaces are not without instances of hypocrisy and unfairness. However despite, and sometimes even in response to this, I have experienced a persistent- at times unbelievable pulse of warm hearted care, protection, offers of simple gifts that open my world and heal hidden wounds. In these spaces I have gained friends who dream when I am unwell, and send unexpected text messages with prophetic advice: ‘check your blood pressure’, ‘take care of your heart Jessica’… ‘sis, are you ok? Because I had a dream that…..’

It is this kind of symbiosis that happens when souls agree to hold each other. It does not take the obvious world of verbal statements or medical screenings to decipher when those you love as friends are unwell. Disease, as the holistic practitioners advise, always stems from a dis-ease- an imbalance in the heart, the body system, the world of unfair human power relations. And so to heal, love medicine is required.

As many celebrate Valentine’s Day, I return back to a persistent activist preoccupation of my own- the role of love not just as an act of intimacy between lovers, but as a force for radical imagination and the fuel for our movements for transformation. To all of my friends who journey and have journeyed with me as soul friends, I wish you back the same revolutionary love. I have grown in your feminist embrace, and I pledge to always offer space to grow in mine.

Photo: Jessica Horn

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(East) African feminist writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary. Women’s rights strategist and advisor on bodies, movements, feminist futures @stillsherises

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Jessica Horn

(East) African feminist writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary. Women’s rights strategist and advisor on bodies, movements, feminist futures @stillsherises