GAY in the Warm Heart of Africa…part 1 of 3
Tonight was special because a controversial film on a topic that is still considered by many to be too taboo to even utter, “homosexuality,” was to be screened right before my eyes here in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. The documentary film entitled “Umunthu” was contentious because it was setting in-motion a different kind of conversation on sexuality in southern Africa.
In attendance were dozens of locals and azungu (aka non-Malawian or white) ranging from the US Ambassador to Malawi, Virginia Palmer, and the President’s Advisor for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), Mavuto Bamusi, to other dignitaries from international and civil society organizations and scores of young Malawians. They congregated, eagerly, to engage in a rare (and for some, their first), sobering discussion on homosexuality.
But let me take a step back. You may be wondering, just as I did a year ago, where is Malawi?
Malawi is a small southern African country that removed its shackles from the British and gained independence 50 years ago (Malawi — The world factbook, 2015 ). It is landlocked and wedged between Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the east. It has a population of about 17 million people — of whom are majority young and rural subsistence farmers. You may have heard about Madonna’s adopted children being from here or the debilitating AIDS epidemic; however, Malawi is more than just abject poverty and gross sickness. The last ten months have revealed to me Malawi’s true beauty: its people. Malawi is nicknamed the “Warm Heart of Africa” for a reason, and in my opinion, rightly so. Just ask any muzungu transiting through. Malawians are honest, compassionate, hard-working and God-loving, and they fervently want to see their country progress, both economically and socially.
And the film, Umunthu, is a testament to this desire — or at least an attempt — to get the spokes turning towards achieving real progress.
What does it mean to be GAY in Malawi?
Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersexual in Malawi is still illegal and punishable by prison (The state of gay rights around the world, 2015). Unfortunately, this is still the case in roughly 70 other countries around the world (and still punishable by death in a dozen) — and shamefully, still denounced in parts of my home country of the United States. The penalty is stiff. The Malawian Penal Code states that, “Carnal [relating to sexual] knowledge against the order of nature,” or “acts of gross indecency between males” and likewise, females, is a “felony and liable to imprisonment.”
In the latter part of 2009, this law was thrust into the spotlight — both locally and internationally — when two Malawian men were arrested for holding a traditional “engagement” party (Malawi suspends anti-LGBT law, 2014). They were found guilty and charged with committing “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between males.”
They were ordered to serve the maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. However, because of an international outcry from the likes of the United Nations, Madonna and former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the two men were pardoned by then President, Bingu Mutharika, and subsequently released from prison.
In 2012, the new President, Joyce Banda, suspended the law — a suspension that remained until 2014 when there was a shift in government. Fierce resistance from churches and lobbying groups derailed its suspension, and the “anti-homosexuality law” became the law of the land once again. In March of this year, the issue of homosexuality came up again on the front page of a leading Malawian newspaper. The Malawian government had applied for a grant totaling about a half-million US dollars from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (No plans to drop anti-gay laws, 2015). The grant was to combat HIV/AIDS among LGBTI persons. At last, it seemed like the government would be softening its stance against homosexuality — but I was mistaken.
In the interview, a Member of Parliament and Minister reiterated the government’s stance by saying, “It is still a crime to anyone engaging in the practice…There will be no change in laws on homosexuality.”
Homosexuality in Malawi is still condemnable, and not just by law. It is perceived by many as an abomination according to religion and tradition. It is a hot-button issue that corners people into a personal dilemma when they have to choose between adhering to their faith and societal norms or embracing social justice and equality.
Next week, I hope to shed some light on this issue through the lens of a film entitled “Umunthu” — a southern African principle meaning “humanity”; and how this non-Western framework was applied by local Malawians to understand “homosexuality” from within a southern African context.
GAY in the Warm Heart of Africa…part 2 of 3
Can “Umunthu” pave a way for tolerance for the LGBTI community?
Umunthu is a film that was directed and produced by a young Malawian, Mwizalero Nyirenda, and supported by the Art and Global Health Centre Africa (AGHCA) — a partner of US-based, Global Health Corps (GHC), which is a community of emerging global health leaders that I became a part of in July 2014.
According to the film director, the film’s objective was not to serve as a mouthpiece, but rather as a platform to engage Malawians in an open discussion on homosexuality. The film contained interviews from perspectives of both supporters and opponents of homosexuality, and these excerpts came from university professors, human rights advocates, faith leaders and regular Malawian citizens.
The film set a lively stage for a sobering discussion afterwards. Among the common barriers to recognizing LGBTI rights in Malawi mentioned, were again religion and tradition. This high level of religiosity in countries most stridently opposed to homosexuality often finds its way into mainstream culture, highlighting the reality that homosexuals face when people judge and race behind their God as their main objection. One faith leader in the crowd highlighted how religion and social norms do not accept same-sex relationships. Others mentioned how Malawi is still “religious” and “vastly rural and traditional.” One even charged homosexuality as being “not African.” However, in rebuttal, one young person refuted that,
“Societies and cultures evolve and adapt,” asserting that societies can embrace LGBTI peoples — as they did with women rights and feminism and Christianity.
Additionally, the US Ambassador to Malawi likened the issue to a personal experience during Apartheid in South Africa when she dated her black, South African boyfriend — her now husband. She talked about the constitutional illegality of her relationship because she was white and her boyfriend was black. Her story underscored her message that people should not be denied the right to choose who they love, and she reaffirmed this by saying,
“Homosexuality is not an LGBTI issue, but a human rights issue,” a sentiment echoed by others in the room.
In contrast, the President’s Advisor of NGOs in Malawi appeared to take a more precautionary stance. He acknowledged that it was still unlawful in Malawi to be a homosexual, but said that he was proud that he lived in a “democracy where people can talk about it openly.” He also commended the film makers for producing a film that can open up discourse on the topic so that, “Malawians can make informed decisions.” However, he stopped short of any claims that the government would repeal the “anti-homosexual law” and amend the penal code.
Umunthu seemed like the perfect title for such a controversial film, and it sure was as it turned Lilongwe briefly upside down. The literal translation of umunthu is difficult to define.
As an outsider, I cannot truly understand it, but it is a “way of life” shared across southern Africa. Its simplistic meaning is “humanity.”
According to one Malawian in the film, “Umunthu means people can disagree with one another but at the end of the day still respect them.” It is a tradition that exemplifies love, compassion and mutual respect regardless of who they are, the tribe they are from, their nationality or religion. By examining the issue of homosexuality through the lens of “Umunthu” as a moral principle can we set the stage for tolerance and equality for the LGBTI community in Malawi and beyond.
Thus, can a traditional principle — valued to many southern African people — open up an opportunity to embrace diversity irrespective of gender, religion, tribe and now, sexual orientation?
Can we script the critical, first moves of tolerance and coexistence to steer peoples emotions towards humanity and social and economic progress?
Next week, in the last part of my blog series “Gay in the Warm
For part 1 of 3 of this blog series, “What does it mean to be gay in Malawi?” see [part 1 of 3]
GAY in the Warm ❤ of Africa…LAST post of a 3-part series.
Coming OUT of the closet [again].
I may have seemed biased from the start, and I proudly am. You may think that this is a personal matter that should not be shared, but I say to you, homosexuality is everyone’s business.
Everyday LGBTQI people right here in Malawi and around the world are being forced to live discreetly in fear of alienation, humiliation and assault.
I may be criticized for what follows, but I can no longer stand on the sidelines of injustice. I have relatives who are gay — my own family and blood. I have close friends who are gay — people who have inspired and have been there for me. There are politicians, faith leaders, athletes, actors and actresses and your average citizen out there who identify as LGBTQI. But more importantly:
I am gay.
I was born this way and it was not a choice. I have beat myself up countless times before because I felt ashamed, conflicted, and immoral — feelings that I now realize were unwarranted. I came out three years ago, but one year ago, I felt obliged to return to the “closet” because I was moving to a country where homosexuality is considered illegal. I feared for my personal safety and the prejudice that I would face. However, I soon realized that going back into the closet was not only demoralizing, but also harmful to my emotional health.
Being discreet and private limited my relationships with Malawian friends and my career.
After four months of living in Malawi, I decided to come out to my Malawian and African colleagues as I could no longer hide behind the lies. Since then — with their support — I have been emboldened and empowered to simply be “me.” Some may not truly understand what it means to be gay, but with open, honest dialogue, I hope to dispel some of the misunderstandings, stereotypes and prejudice.
Coming out, a second-time — and this time on the African continent — allowed me the opportunity to tell my story, and to show that regardless of my sexuality, I can be just as effective as any other person working in global health.
I am committed and passionate about my work in youth empowerment, social justice and health equity, but working in an environment that does not accept me for who I am can pose many challenges. I recognize that this process is lengthy and, as of today, I have not fully shared my story. However, with time, I hope that I will be able to make those around me sympathize and side with justice.
As my one-year fellowship comes to a close in Malawi, I have become more confident to voice about what I firmly believe in, which is universal social justice and health equity.
These are not concepts that are philosophies of “the West,” but moral ideologies that all GHC fellows share, regardless of nationality. We have the responsibility, as young global leaders, to raise the uncomfortable questions and to challenge one another to critically analyze the underpinnings of injustice and inequality.
I believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer/intersex persons should love whomever they want just as heterosexual, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, White, Asian, Latino, Arab, African, or any other identity group.
Demystifying (de-taboo-ing) homosexuality through discourse and action.
Love is unconditional — not traditional, religious, racial or limited to which continent you live on.
In Malawi and southern Africa, homosexuality still remains obscure. However, through dialogue, only then can societies begin to transcend prejudice, discrimination and bigotry, and learn to love their neighbors for who they are: fellow human beings. The film, “Umunthu,” has set the precedence for public discourse on homosexuality from a local, non-Western perspective in Malawi. It has inspired me to come out and endorse such a strategy as a way to get people talking, and to move the discourse from taboo to one that is a fight for human rights.
This discourse on homosexuality should not end here, so I call on you to have these discussions with your workmates, friends, spouses and families. Raise these uncomfortable questions. If you find yourself uneducated about the LGBTI community, then make yourself more informed. Only through knowledge and awareness can you dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding homosexuality.
My hope is that we all come together in solidarity against prejudice and hate, and truly embrace the quintessence of Umunthu.
For blog 1 of 3, “What does it mean to be gay in Malawi?” go to [part 1 of 3]
And for blog 2 of 3, “Can “Umunthu” pave a way for tolerance of the LGBTI community?” go to [part 2 of 3].
*Mahalo to those who inspired me to write this blog: Aisha, Barbara, Julie, Perry, Tali, Orrin, Mervin, Natasha, Joe, Umba, Helen, David, Nohea, Jess, Carrie and the extended GHC ‘ohana.