I wrote the following report for Gay City News:
In most of Africa, where 36 countries continue to criminalize homosexuality, being gay and out is fraught with danger. This was underscored when the news broke on June 7 that a Malawi gay couple who had been imprisoned under a 14-year sentence for holding a marriage ceremony, then released after an international outcry, had split up under homophobic pressure and threats of re-arrest.
Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20 (left), had been arrested in December in the commercial hub of Bantyre after having conducted a symbolic marriage. Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi, a landlocked southeastern African country known as Nyasaland when it was a British colony, during which time a sodomy law had criminalized same-sex conduct.
The couple had spent five months in prison under brutal conditions, deprived of adequate food and medication. But less than two weeks after their release following their pardon by Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika, the couple announced their separation.
“I am no longer in love with Tiwonge Chimbalanga,” Monjeza told Agence France Presse. “I am in love with a woman called Dorothy Gulo. We are planning something for the future with Dorothy.” He added that he had “learnt my lesson from my prison experience and I don’t want to do anything with homosexuality.”
According to the pro-government newspaper Daily Nation, “Mr Monjeza said he was no longer interested to be associated in what he called ‘gay trash,’ accusing ‘hidden hands’ of engineering their marriage. He could not mention the names behind their engagement. He said on the day of their engagement, he was drunk and he could not know what was going on, claiming that he was offered to be taken outside the country as a token for the engagement.”
But Chimbalanga gave a completely different version of the wedding and the breakup. He told AFP, “What you should know is that nobody forced him when we did our symbolic wedding in December.”
Chimbalanga said Monjeza, who lives in Kameza village — six miles outside Bantyre — had been “pressurized by his uncle” and relatives to leave him and instead seek a woman as a lover.
The uncle, Khuliwa Dennis Monjeza, said, “I will make sure that Chimbalanga does not seek a reunion with Monjeza,” adding that same-sex marriage was “alien and unheard of in our culture” and that his family had warned Chimbalanga “not to set foot in the village... They threatened they would deal with him.”
Britain’s best known gay rights activist, Peter Tatchell, leader of the militant gay rights group OutRage!, who played a leading role in the campaign to free the couple, confirmed Chimbalanga’s account.
“I was in communication with Steven and Tiwonge for over four months, via prison visitors who I arranged to deliver them food, medicine, shoes, and clothes,” said Tatchell. “In messages passed to me by the prison visitors, the couple affirmed their love. I believe it was genuine affection and commitment.” (“Prison visitors” is a term used in the UK and its former colonies for individuals empowered by the government to look in on prisoners, whether or not they are allowed to see their family and friends.)
Tatchell, who has been involved with human rights in Malawi since he visited the country in the late 1970s to launch a campaign against inhumane exploitation on British plantations there, added, “It is a tragedy that homophobic threats and abuse have forced this couple apart. They were deeply in love. The pressure has got to Steven. Very understandably, he wants a quiet, safe life. This would not be possible if he remained with Tiwonge. Both would be at risk of violent attack. Some people have threatened to kill them. I respect their decision to split. It is up to them.”
The extreme 14-year prison sentence meted out to the two men provoked an international outcry from human rights groups and from donor countries to aid-dependent Malawi, including statements by European political leaders and President Barack Obama.
Weeks after the sentencing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “The United States strongly condemns the conviction and harsh sentencing. The criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable, and this case mars the human rights record of Malawi. We urge Malawi and all countries to stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for arrest, detention, or execution.”
President Mutharika eventually pardoned Chimbalanga and Monjeza following a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who personally appealed for their release. But after doing so, Mutharika declared, “These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion, and our laws,” and said he had issued the pardon on “humanitarian grounds only, but that doesn’t mean I support” homosexuality.
In a June 2 interview with Agence France Presse during a Franco-African summit meeting in Nice, Mutharika acknowledged he had issued the pardon only because of concern about preserving international aid for his country. “I am looking at our donors now... what they will say about the pardon,” the Malawian president said. “Is it possible to stop aid to Malawi because of two people who are insane?”
Malawi’s minister of gender and children, Patricia Kaliati, was quick to point out that the pardon related only to the specific charges for which Monjeza and Chimbalanga had originally been sent to jail. She was quoted on the BBC website saying: “It doesn’t mean that now they are free people, [that] they can keep doing whatever you keep doing.” She warned that the couple could be arrested again if they “continue doing that.”
Britain’s Tatchell, now in his fourth decade as a human rights activist, said after the couple’s breakup, “I feel sorry for these star-crossed lovers. Like Romeo and Juliet, their love has been destroyed by prejudice and hatred.”
“Tiwonge and Steven never set out to be political,” Tatchell emphasized. “Their engagement ceremony was not staged. No one was coerced and no one pressured them to do it. They did it solely out of love for each other. It was their idea. They did it themselves, without outside help. There was no payment to anyone involved. No one has gained financially from this case.”
Tatchell argued that while there was no political premeditation in the couple’s marriage, the fallout has created enormous progress.
“Malawian and international human rights groups had no contact with the couple prior to their arrest,” he said. “We did not encourage them. The only role of human rights organizations was to support them after they were arrested and jailed… Whatever their feelings for each other now, Steven and Tiwonge have done more for gay and transgender rights in Malawi than anyone else. I salute them. They are lions of Africa. They have helped continue the unfinished African liberation struggle by pursuing freedom for gay, bisexual, and transgender Africans. Thanks to them, same-sex love is now visible in Malawi. There has been a huge public debate. This awareness and discussion is positive. It has helped break down homophobic ignorance and prejudice.”
Reflecting the fact that official government homophobia is a relic of the nation’s colonial past, Tatchell explained, “Not all Malawian people are anti-gay. Many are just curious, some believe in live-and-let live, and others support the couple’s right to love. Steven and Tiwonge harmed no one. They defended the right to love. In the long run, all Malawian lesbian and gay people will benefit from the trail they have blazed.”
Even as the Malawian situation has grabbed most of the attention, other parts of Africa are suffering through yet another wave of public homophobia.
In Ghana on June 4, the country saw its first-ever anti-gay march when more than 1,000 demonstrators braved a downpour to express their condemnation of recent reports of gay and lesbian parties in the oil city of Sekondi-Takoradi Metropolis.
In reporting the demonstration, AfricaNews said that it was organized by “the Muslim community in Takoradi with support from other religious groups and concerned citizens... The leader of the demonstrators, Saeed Hamid, told AfricaNews that the demonstration was meant to draw government’s attention to the conduct of the gays and lesbians in the country, particularly in the Western Region.”
Hamid was quoted saying, “How would you feel, if someone puts his penis into your anus?” and claiming that most of those involved “have health problems and wear Pampers.” AfricaNews reported that Western Regional Minister Paul Evans Aidoo promised protesters that the government would “address their concerns.”
On June 7, a member of Ghana’s Council of State, the Reverend Dr. Nii Amo Darko, warned that “Ghanaians will incur the wrath of God if homosexuality is not checked.” In an interview with radio station Luv FM, the minister “expressed surprise at how gay clubs are springing up in the country, and said the situation calls for immediate government attention to curb it.”
In Zimbabwe, a trial was set to begin on June 10 for two gay activists arrested in a May 21 police raid on the headquarters of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). In the raid, the police arrested a GALZ staff member, Ellen Chadenama, and a visitor to the offices, Ignatius Mhambi, charging them with possession of “dangerous drugs” and “pornographic material.” The authorities also confiscated educational material. On May 27, the Magistrate Court in Harare granted bail to Chadenama and Mhambi after they spent six days in detention.
According to The Zimbabwean, a daily newspaper, “The police returned to the GALZ offices on May 23 and tried to force their way into the office but the guard did not have keys. They later went to the house of the acting GALZ director Chesterfield Samba on May 26 and confiscated his birth certificate as well as magazines, books, and business cards.”
The two defendants facing trial now also face charges of “undermining authority of or insulting [the] president” because the GALZ office displayed a placard making a critical reference to Robert Mugabe, the nation’s octogenarian dictator who has ruled for three decades. Mugabe is a notorious homophobe who has said lesbians and gays are “sexual perverts” and “lower than dogs and pigs.”
“We don’t believe they have any rights at all,” the president has said of gay men and lesbians. Speaking at a ceremony marking International Women’s Day earlier this year, Mugabe said, “Those who engage in homosexual behavior are just crazy.”
Unfortunately, the two sides in that nation’s currently dormant but long-running civil strife have been engaged in something of a homophobic slinging match in recent months. Accused by Mugabe’s Zanu PF Partyof wanting to insert gay rights provisions into the new constitution being drafted under a power-sharing agreement between the president and the MDC Party’s Morgan Tsvangirai, the prime minister, the MDC responded with a denial, then added, “It is well-known that homosexuality is practiced in Zanu PF, where senior officials from that party have been jailed while others are under police probe on allegations of sodomy. It is in Zanu PF where homosexuality is a religion.”
Five human rights organizations — the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Arc International , JASS-Just Associates, and Protection International — have in the past several weeks called on the UN to investigate the raid on GALZ, the arrest of its activists, and charges that they had been tortured while in custody.
The groups’ release said the raid was “politically motivated” and that “other GALZ staff members, including some who were out of Zimbabwe at the time of the arrests, are afraid to return home or to the GALZ office, and the work of the organization has effectively been halted. GALZ, the only organization of its kind in the country, provides critical HIV/AIDS and psychological support and services to the LGBT community in Zimbabwe.”
The website of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) is at galz.co.zw/.