“I’m Always a Wanted Criminal” — James Ouma, Tanzania
The passion and weariness are evident in his voice — the voice of a veteran advocate for the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Tanzanians. Today, James Ouma’s voice speaks against a growing religious backlash in Tanzania while he calls his uncle, an Anglican priest, his best friend.
Such are the complicated cultural currents in East Africa, where Tanzania is emerging as the next front in the U.S. evangelical export of anti-LGBTI hate.
“The elections last year produced the worst government I have ever seen and we are waiting to learn if the new Parliament will attempt to pass a secret anti-LGBTI bill rumored to be similar to those passed in Uganda and Kenya.”
This is just the latest challenge in James’s life. The son and grandson of Pentecostal preachers, he was born and raised in a rural village in the Karagwe district of northwest Tanzania. Family acceptance was predictably difficult for the young gay man, but with the support of his uncle he was able to leave isolation behind, be accepted by his mother and attend university in Kenya, where he studied non-profit management. After university he moved to Mwanza and worked as an English teacher then moved to Dar es Salaam where he began his activist career working with the Tanzania AIDS Forum.
In 2009 James told his boss “‘I need to do something else.’ It was a time of major police harassment as thousands of illiterate LGBTI youth were streaming into Dar es Salaam. I joined with some friends to start an organization called Wezesha, which means ‘empower’ in Swahili. Initially we started to support and empower LGBTI people and help sex workers find other opportunities.”
Wezesha changed its name to in 2013 to LGBT Voice Tanzania and settled into permanent offices.
James and the other volunteer staff of LGBT Voice Tanzania work daily to provide direct services to clients in Dar es Salaam. With very limited funds they help young people who have been disowned by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity get back into school. They help those who have been fired from their jobs for being LGBTI find legal help and other work opportunities. They provide short-term shelter for those who no longer have a place to live.
“I’m always a wanted criminal,” James says. His efforts to affirm others’ essential humanity make him a target for harassment and arrest as local authorities claim the LGBT Voice offices are a homosexual recruitment center rather than a social services center.
“In September 2013, I was arrested along with colleagues,” he said. “We were taken to the Ministry of Internal Affairs where I made a 100 page statement over an entire day of questioning. They held my passport for three months, making it impossible to travel abroad to attend meetings. It took three requests from my lawyer to get my passport back.”
As government officials make it increasingly difficult to do his work, James declares, “I won’t leave! They can call me into their offices at any time, but Tanzania is my home.”
How much longer James and other LGBTI people can live in relative safety is an existential question for Tanzanians and a challenge to international human rights funders. LGBT Voice Tanzania’s financial needs are minimal by global standards. Just US$14,000 this year would pay all operating expenses and allow staff to expand their work to focus on stopping what could be Africa’s next “kill the gays” law. Most of their current funding is provided through an online campaign which produces very irregular results, making stability difficult.
James is tireless in his efforts to sustain the organization he helped found, but it is very possible that funding won’t materialize before reports of increased government repression in Tanzania grab headlines in the West. By then it could be too late.
LGBT Voice has receives technical assistance from Alturi’s partner organization Advocates for Human Rights.