In a recent episode entitled ‘Africa’s Last Taboo’, filmmaker and reporter Sorious Samura travels to a couple of countries in the continent in an effort to highlight the persecution of gay people in Africa, which is a major but little reported human rights issue. He discovers the shocking levels of hate and prejudice that are driven not only by communities, but also religious organisations and governments, and meets some of the young men who have suffered because of their lifestyle.
Dispatches shows that homosexuality is not an African freedom as gay people live in constant fear of rejection by their communities, physical and verbal abuse, and even imprisonment. [protected]
Africa is overwhelmingly intolerant of homosexuals. Despite dozens of countries having laws that criminalise homosexual activity, campaigns have been launched to toughen these laws in order to make it easier to prosecute gay men. ‘Even if it was a death sentence it would be Okay’, proclaims one man. Another, a respected member of the community, announces that even if his own brother or son were gay he would burn him.
Many in the Kenyan town of Mtwapa would rather die than allow gay marriages in their community, so strong are their feelings. Socialising in public in this country is deeply shocking and, in fact, illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison with hard labour. The threat of imprisionment, Samura says, ‘creates a climate of fear and emboldens homophobic attitudes’. In four African countries there is even the death penalty he reported.
Samura himself says that he was brought up in a traditional African family with traditional African values and was taught to view homosexuality as an evil vice. However, he appears to have a genuine concern and understanding when he talks with homosexual men.
The extraordinarily widespread anti-gay sentiment appears to run deep within Africa’s veins; both religion and custom have long-since denounced homosexuality. Indeed, an unlikely alliance forms in the collaboration of Muslim and Christian leaders who together spread (arguably) homophobic notions and rally the mobs that target gay men. ‘We have to respect God’, professes an esteemed Christian leader. This opinion is echoed by his Muslim counterpart.
The Christian church in particular seems to be driving homophobia. A well-known local bishop works with the Ugandan government to enforce stricter rules that would widen what are considered homosexual acts that are ‘destroying human nature’, ‘hammering God’, ‘against the community’, and ‘a sin against their bodies’. He says that homosexuality is not a human right but a human vice created in the West.
The white man is blamed in a number of instances for introducing homosexuality to Africa. [protected] The bishop in Uganda says that there isn’t a single gay Ugandan that became gay by himself, it is due to external economic manipulation and colonisation. Seventeen nations continue to hold laws imposed by the British during colonisation, which is being criticised in turn for abandoning the anti-gay fight.
But it would seem that the white man is importing and promoting homophobia in Africa. Lou Engle, the American who was responsible for overturning the gay marriage law in California, visits and supports Ugandan anti-gay laws that are considered as critical to defending African culture.
Women, too, are adverse to homosexuality, as we find out when the head of a local women’s group is outspoken in her denunciations and admits to helping chase gay men out of her town.
When they are spoken to about homosexuality all of the individuals and groups mentioned above have very engrained feelings on the issue and are resolute and often heated when voicing their opinions. Yet a lifetime of oppression means that gay men appear more timid and less vociferous. One man reveals to Samura that ‘I think, in Kenya, we have no rights. Gays have no freedom’.
Gerard, a gay rights activist, is an intelligent, level-headed man who does not talk about his sexuality in order to get by. He heads a group called ‘Sexual Minorities Africa’ that gives support to gay men. Nicholas, another, does similar work. Although his picture was humiliatingly plastered across the national newspapers, he continues to warn gays of the dangers of unprotected anal sex. Over 60% of men are unaware and many are dying needlessly.
HIV and AIDS are growing at an alarming rate, partly because the demand for sex from gay men is very high. Many men feel they must conform to society’s standards and marry with children but secretly pay for sex from men from the street so live double lives.
Melvin is a sex worker because he finds it difficult to earn money any other way to support both himself and his little sister, whom his family rejected because they feared her to be a lesbian. On the average night he would sleep with three or four men unprotected. He is HIV positive. The disease spreads not only to the men he has sex with but also their wives.
Much of the reason why gay men, like almost all sex workers, sell their bodies on the street is for the consistent money they receive. Melvin says he gets paid more if he doesn’t use a condom and so the disease continues to spread because he does not inform his clients whom he fears will not offer him their business.
This documentary provides a moving and insightful picture of homosexuality in Africa. It is clear that there is much fear amongst gay people across the continent – many are against them and wish to see them persecuted or dead. Some, however, offer their love and support but it does not seem likely that Africa will repeal its anti-gay laws any time soon.
(Available on 4OD until August 11th) [/protected]