Africa is generally not a safe place to have a same-sex relationship - you can be shunned by society, beaten up, thrown in jail, or worse. In Malawi you can get 14 years in prison with hard labour.
In a bold move, Malawi’s Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) and South Africa’s Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) have collected the stories of 12 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) women and men and published them in a book, Queer Malawi.
The book was compiled in the shadow of the high-profile 2010 trial of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, two Malawian men charged with sodomy and indecency after they became engaged to be married in December 2009. The couple were found guilty but later released on condition that they have no further contact.
Fear is a theme that runs through the stories in Queer Malawi - fear of not being accepted by family and community, of violence and arrest. Human rights activists noted that the trial heightened anxiety in Malawi’s underground LGBT community and compromised HIV prevention efforts among men who have sex with men (MSM).
“There is the painful story of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who were arrested because they were very much in love,” wrote “Shy Amanda”, a gay man using a pseudonym, as do the other authors in Queer Malawi.
“My boyfriend and I… are afraid to stay together - we only visit on weekends. When I see a policeman passing by my home I fear that maybe today they are coming to take me.”
Many African countries, including Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and Malawi, have banned same-sex relationships, with the legislation sometimes being interpreted so as to leave individuals without adequate protection by the law and open to beatings and arrests.
In the case of lesbians, such legislation has sometimes led to “corrective rape”, in which men rape lesbians in the violently mistaken belief that this will “turn them straight”.
A foreword penned by the Coalition of African Lesbians provides a context for the stories in Queer Malawi and insight into the complex dynamics in the LGBT community, including the divisions between its men and women.
Africa’s lesbian, bisexual and transgender women remain largely invisible, and the activism and funds for addressing their needs, especially those related to health, are slight in comparison with the money allocated to assisting MSM.
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|Court case drives MSM deeper underground|
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The complex underlying dynamics of aid and HIV often influence advocacy of the LGBT community’s needs. In a highly politicised and often deeply religious context, funders and managers often link outreach programme to this population to human rights and health.
Gay, bisexual and transgender men have been at greater risk of contracting HIV through anal sex, and many funders and programmes identify them as a priority group, despite cries from the lesbian community that their low risk of HIV does not mean they are at no risk, especially with a rising level of corrective rape.
Lesbian women find it hard to stand together, because we do not have any resources or an organization that represents us,” wrote Takia. “There is one organization that does education for gays - they only support men loving men.”
After the international publicity of the Malawi court case, even HIV prevention programming aimed at MSM was compromised, as this group went further underground out of fear of arrest, CEDEP said.
The 12 voices heard in Queer Malawi all tell a love story - young love; unrequited love, heartache and acceptance of ourselves and the often rocky terrain that is love. The book also aims to dispel the negative stereotypes often attached to homosexuals.
These are business owners, church-goers and breadwinners; women who move outside of gender norms, men who strive to portray positive male role models to their children, including HIV-positive orphans in their care.
The book is not without unsettling aspects. Multiple concurrent partnerships - a driver of HIV infection in southern Africa - and cross-generational sex feature in almost half the stories. Two of the 12 writers recall that their first sexual experience was with a family member.
At the book’s launch in December 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa, GALA and CEDEP indicated their intention to release the book in Malawi, but IRIN/PlusNews was unable to ascertain from GALA whether this had occurred. For more information on Queer Malawi, go to go to www.gala.co.za