Thursday, 31 March 2011

Slaves of the lake..

'Slaves of the Lake' is a documentary about Emmanuel and Dominic, two young boys, aged around 10 and 13, whose families sold them as slaves into the fishing industry in Ghana. This film is a haunting journey through the boys' past and their memory of that past. The landscape of the film is the eerie but beautiful Lake Volta with its muddy banks and murky waters, as well as the colourful coastal town of Winneba.

In the film, we discover how Emmanuel and Dominic were taken from their home town of Winneba, in the southern part of the country, to remote fishing villages in the northern part of Lake Volta, several hundred kilometres away. Emmanuel was sold by his mother for £16 when he was seven. Dominic was sold by his grandparents when he was just two years old, for an equally small amount.

The boys spent several years in enslavement, either living in the open or in the tiny mud huts they shared with other slave children. They were often deprived of food and sleep, made to work in harsh conditions and violently beaten by the master and his family. In this film, Emmanuel and Dominic talk about their daily routine in slavery and how they passed their time when they were not fishing or diving in the lake.

Both the boys have tragic memories of seeing several of their friends die as a result of the master's beatings or because of diving in the lake. In the film Dominic talks about how he often feared for his life because the work he did was dangerous and life threatening.

Emmanuel and Dominic were rescued by a charity called Challenging Heights and brought back to their families with an understanding that they would not be sold again. In the film, the boys talk about being enrolled in school and enjoying a life of normalcy, where they play football with their friends, have lessons in school and dream about their future. Unfortunately, Emmanuel's recovery has been much slower than Dominic's. His behaviour is often erratic and he has trouble adjusting to his life back in the village. In the film, Emmanuel explains why he resents living with his aunt and what he experiences at home.

'Slaves of the Lake' is the story of two children who lost their childhood and are now determined to get it back.

Note: This thought provoking video is taken from here. The video might be available for viewing only in certain locations.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Women are heroes..

French photographer JR's "Women are Heroes" is powerful. The film, trailer above, made its debut at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival last year where it received a long standing ovation. It documents the artist's travels photographing downtrodden, poor and victimised women. The photos, the bases for his large outdoor installations, more importantly strive to empower the women featured.

JR utilises the largest exhibition space in the world, exhibiting his works freely on the streets of the world's cities, catching the attention of people who are not normally art gallery or museum visitors. Working with a team of volunteers in various urban environments, he mounts enormous black-and-white photo canvases that are spread on the buildings. These images become part of the local landscape and capture people's attention and imagination both locally and around the world. During his projects, elderly women become models for a day and children turn "artist" for a week. In this art scene, there is no stage to separate the actors from the audience..

In Rio de Janeiro, JR turned hillsides into dramatic landscapes by applying images to the facades of the favela houses. In Kenya, while working on "Women are Heroes," he turned Kibera into a stunning gallery of local faces. In 2007 JR created Face 2 Face, along with his friend and art activist Marco, which some consider to be the biggest illegal photo exhibition ever done. JR and a grassroots team of community members posted huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face to face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, on both sides of the security/separation fence/wall.

This year (2011) along with Bill Clinton and Bono, JR was awarded the prestigious TED prize. You can listen to JR's 2007 audio interview with Lens Culture here.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

'Why was I born gay in Africa?'

Taken from The Guardian of today. Quite a read..

As a child in Uganda, John Bosco remembers hearing an old wives' tale that if a man fell asleep in the sun and it crossed over him, he would wake up as a woman. "I used to try that as a kid," says John now, some 30 years later. He sits at a table in a busy cafe across the road from the railway station in Southampton, his fingers playing with the handle of a glass of hot chocolate. "I'd spend all day long lying under the sun. From childhood I wanted to be a girl. I wanted dolls. At school, I played netball. I wanted to dress up like a girl... I rubbed herbs into my chest that were meant to make your breasts grow. I tried everything, but it didn't work.."

Read more

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Friday, 25 March 2011

Joint Statement For Gay Rights Passed by 85 Countries

Office of the Spokesman
Washington, DC
March 22, 2011

At the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva 85 countries joined a Joint Statement entitled "Ending Acts of Violence and Related Human Rights Violations Based On Sexual orientation and Gender Identity." This follows previous statements on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons issued at the United Nations, including a 2006 statement by 54 countries at the Human Rights Council and a 2008 statement that has garnered 67 countries' support at the General Assembly. The United States is amongst the signatory states to both previous efforts. The United States co-chaired the core group of countries that have worked to submit this statement, along with Colombia and Slovenia.

Key facts about the new statement:

  • A core group of over 30 countries engaged in discussions and sought signatories from the other UN member states for the statement. In many places, United States diplomats joined diplomats from other states in these conversations.
  • This statement adds new references not seen in previous LGBT statements at the UN, including welcoming attention to LGBT issues as a part of the Universal Periodic Review process, noting the increased attention to LGBT issues in regional human rights fora, encouraging the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue addressing LGBT issues, and calls for states to end criminal sanctions based on LGBT status.
  • 20 countries joined this statement that were neither signatory to the 2006 or 2008 statements.
  • The statement garnered support from every region of the world, including 21 signatories from the Western Hemisphere, 43 from Europe, 5 from Africa and 16 from the Asia/Pacific region.
The full list of signatories and the text of the statement follows:

Joint Statement on ending acts of violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity

Delivered by Colombia on behalf of Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Central African Republic, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the former-Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, Micronesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Ukraine, Uruguay, Vanuatu and Venezuela.
  1. We recall the previous joint statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, presented at the Human Rights Council in 2006;
  2. We express concern at continued evidence in every region of acts of violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity brought to the Council's attention by Special Procedure since that time, including killings, rape, torture and criminal sanctions;
  3. We recall the joint statement in the general Assembly on December 18, 2008 on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, supported by States from all five regional groups, and encourage states to consider joining the statement;
  4. We commend the attention paid to these issues by international human rights mechanisms including relevant Special Procedures and treaty bodies and welcome continued attention to human rights issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity within the context of the Universal Periodic Review. As the United Nations Secretary General reminded us in his address to this Council at its Special Sitting of 25 January 2011, the Universal Declaration guarantees all human beings their basic rights without exception, and when individuals are attacked, abused or imprisoned because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the international community has an obligation to respond;
  5. We welcome the positive developments on these issues in every region in recent years, such as the resolutions on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity adopted by consensus in each of the past three years by the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States , the initiative of the Asia-Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions to integrate these issues within the work of national human rights institutions in the region, the recommendations of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the increasing attention being paid to these issues by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the many positive legislative and policy initiatives adopted by States at the national level in diverse regions;
  6. We note that the Human Rights Council must also play its part in accordance with its mandate to "promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without discrimination of any kind, and in a fair and equal manner" (GA 60/251, OP2);
  7. We acknowledge that these are sensitive issues for many, including in our own societies. We affirm the importance of respectful dialogue, and trust that there is common ground in our shared recognition that no-one should face stigmatisation, violence or abuse on any ground. In dealing with sensitive issues the Council must be guided by the principles of universality and non-discrimination;
  8. We encourage the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue to address human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity and to explore opportunities for outreach and constructive dialogue to enhance understanding and awareness of these issues within a human rights framework;
  9. We recognise our broader responsibility to end human rights violations against all those who are marginalised and take this opportunity to renew our commitment to addressing discrimination in all its forms;
  10. We call on States to take steps to end acts of violence, criminal sanctions and related human rights violations committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, encourage Special Procedures, treaty bodies and other stakeholders to continue to integrate these issues within their relevant mandates, and urge the Council to address these important human rights issues.

Author's Note: It is interesting to see that five African nations are among this group on nations, even though I am somewhat bewildered that Sierra Leone in particular has signed this Statement, when laws criminalising same-sex acts are still in force in her territory. Is it reasonable, on the one hand, to express concern at the "continued evidence" of human rights violations, which you acknowledge include killings, rape, torture and criminal sanctions, while on the other hand, you uphold those same criminal sanctions that you so publicly disapprove of?

To my mind, this inconsistency only accentuates the absurdness of those archaic laws, their incompatibility with fundamental rights and freedoms and the urgent need for their repeal.

And also, although the above is the original text of the Statement as it appears here on the website of the US State Department, the links are mine.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Poverty as entertainment?

This post is a direct response to Rasna Warah's post in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper of 20 March 2011. I came across it here where it was reposted.

I watched Famous, Rich and in the Slums (here on YouTube) when it was aired in Britain by the BBC recently and my consternation at the issues featured was directed neither at the makers of the documentary, nor at those who participated in it. My anger, instead, was directed at the authorities in Kenya, who seem to be clueless as to their responsibility towards the country's citizens and in particular, the inhabitants of Kibera, a slum area in the country's capital city. Lest I incur the angst of my readers, I make haste at this point to clarify that this is not intended as an onslaught on the aptitude of the Kenyan government singly, since such ineptitude is characteristic of the majority of the governments of Africa.

The author in the Daily Nation opined:

"There are dozens, if not hundreds, of charities operating in Kibera and other slums like it, with few significant results to show for their efforts.

There may be slightly more sanitation facilities in the slums now, but the living conditions have become only slightly less appalling - they have not improved dramatically. And the slum continues to grow."

And I ask, in all of this where are the Kenyan authorities? What function does the municipal authority in Nairobi perform when a sizeable segment of the city's population are forced to live in such squalid conditions? The author in the Daily Nation was critical of the NGOs that operate in the slum and seemed unhappy about what was referred to as "slum tourism", but I beg to differ.

Its puzzling that we do nothing about a problem and then think that we are justified in criticising the foreigners who make an effort to tackle our problem, one which we have previously ignored. Why do we become angered when westerners point at our festering sores that we have pretended did not exist? Most annoying for me is the fact that Raila Odinga, Kenya's Prime Minister, holds the parliamentary seat for Langata Constituency, which covers much of the Kibera slum.

My take on this is that it was never the intention of the makers of and participants in this documentary, (participants who in any event, include a considerable number of Kibera residents themselves), merely to provide entertainment for the film's viewers. What the film did for me was to vividly highlight the failure by another of Africa's governments to take an interest in, and responsibility for the welfare of those whom they govern. The situation is the same in much of Africa and I have written about the same thing in relation to Nigeria previously on this blog.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Paris Summit for Support to the Libyan People


19 March 2011


At the invitation of President of the French Republic, M. Nicolas SARKOZY, Mr. Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations ; Mr. José Luis Zapatero, President of the Government of the Kingdom of Spain, Mrs. Angela Merkel, Federal Chancellor of Germany ; Mr. Steven Harper, Prime Minister of Canada; Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar ; Mr. Donald Tusk, President of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Poland ; Mr. Lars Loekke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Denmark ; Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic ; Mr. George Papandreou, Prime Minister [of the] Hellenic Republic ; Mr. Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Norway ; Mr. Yves Leterme, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Belgium ; Mr. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ; Mr. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of the Netherlands ; Mr. Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States ; Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council ; Mrs. Catherine Ashton, European Union High Representative for Foreign affairs and Security policy ; Mr. Hoshyar Mahmoud Zebari, Foreign minister of the Republic of Iraq ; Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates ; Mrs. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States of America ; Mr. Nasser Joudeh, Foreign minister of the Kingdom of Jordan ; Mr. Taïeb FassiFihri, Foreign minister of the Kingdom of Morocco.

At the end of the summit, the following declaration was adopted:

Since 15 February this year, the Libyan people have been peacefully expressing the rejection of their leaders and their aspiration for change. In the face of these legitimate requests coming from all over the country, the Libyan regime has carried out a growing brutal crackdown, using weapons of war against his own people and perpetrating against them grave and massive violations of humanitarian law. Despite the demands which the Security Council expressed in UNSCR 1970 on 26 February, despite the condemnations of the Arab League, African Union, Organization of the Islamic Conference’s Secretary-General and European Union, as well as very many governments in the world, the Libyan regime has stepped up its violence in order to impose by force its will on that of its people.

This situation is intolerable.

We express our satisfaction after the adoption of UNSC 1973 which, inter alia,demands an immediate and complete ceasefire, authorises the taking of all necessary measures to protect civilians against attacks and establishes a no-fly zone over Libya. Finally, it strengthened and clarified the arms embargo vis-à-vis the Libyan regime and the rules applicable to the Libyan asset freeze, in particular on the National Oil Company, and travel restrictions against the Gaddafi’s regime. While contributing in differentiated way to the implementation of UNSCR 1973, we are determined to act collectively and resolutely to give full effect to these decisions.

Muammar Gaddafi and those executing his orders must immediately end the acts of violence carried out against civilians, to withdraw from all areas they have entered by force, return to their compounds, and allow full humanitarian access. We reiterate that the Security Council took the view that Libyan regime’s forces actions may amount to crimes against humanity and that, to this end, it has referred the matter to the International Criminal Court.

We are determined to take all necessary action, including military, consistent with UNSCR 1973, to ensure compliance with all its requirements. We assure the Libyan people of our determination to be at their side to help them realise their aspirations and build their future and institutions within a democratic framework.

We recall that UN Security Council resolution 1973 does not allow for any occupation of, or attempt to occupy the Libyan territory. We pay tribute to the courageous action of the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) and all the Libyans in positions of responsibility who have courageously disassociated themselves from the Libyan regime and given the NTC their support. Our commitment is for the long term: we will not let Colonel Gaddafi and his regime go on defying the will of the international community and scorning that of his people. We will continue our aid to the Libyans so that they can rebuild their country, fully respecting Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.


See also here

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A gay Kenyan's struggle to survive - video

Discrimination against gay people in Africa reaches a murderous peak and Guardian Films is in Mombasa, Kenya, to hear from a male sex worker who risks his life to support his younger sister.

Author's note: This looks to me like the same gentleman who was interviewed by journalist Sorious Samura when making his documentary Africa's Last Taboo, where in response to the question concerning his HIV status, the gentleman's answer was somewhat different.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A doctor in Nigeria (1948)

The 1940s and 1950s fascinate me no end. A joy to watch..

Monday, 7 March 2011

I am a mythical being, I don't exist.. A repost

Among Africans generally, same sex attraction has been a myth. It has been as much the subject of whispered conversation or gossip, as it has been talked about in absolutist, loud, angry condemning tones, usually from the pulpit, but also in the media and even in social situations. There has been an overwhelming leaning towards intolerance and there appears not to have been, until recently, a moderate middle ground. Outbursts of "This is an abomination!", "Our people don't do that!", "We will never accept this!", are familiar reactions. Sometimes, homosexual behaviour among Africans is blamed upon the "white man". Our continent's leaders have even publicly declared that homosexuality does not exist among Africans. Declarations such as, "There are no homosexuals in Nigeria", or "They have been corrupted by Europeans," are not unknown.

I heard all of this as a young person growing up in Africa, while knowing that at no time in my young life had I interacted with anyone from Europe to the extent that he would have had the opportunity to impart his sexuality on me, if at all that was possible. The only Europeans I met were those who I ran into at the supermarket, or by chance at the swimming pool at a place we called 'The Club', sort of like a country club, which was a relic of the old colonial administration. The Club was originally intended to cater for the frolicking of that administration's large number of expatriates, for whom a posting to Africa was supposed to mean a life of comfort and luxury. After independence from Britain The Club remained in existence, but it was now the domain of big-wig Africans in top government positions and their expatriate friends in the private sector, more particularly the petroleum industry; expatriates who still saw Nigeria as a veritable gold mine.

Then there were those Europeans who were fellow passengers on the very occasional flight on an aeroplane. As a youngster my movements were so tightly controlled and my parents so strict, that I simply had no opportunity to stray into the hands of a predatory African to be "corrupted", much less a European. And not even if I had actually desired to be "corrupted" and had actively sought it..(I use the term 'European' loosely, to include every person of Eurasian ancestry).

I heard these things being said and I knew they were wrong. But I had no way of pointing out to people that they could not be correct, because here I was among them, feeling same-sex attraction, having never even once been intimate with a European. This caused me sometimes to be upset and there was a strong temptation to be negative about my same-sex feelings. There are many gay men who unfortunately succumb to this temptation; self-loathing, sadly, is commonplace among gay people. But I refused to be negative. I knew categorically that I did not ask for the feelings that I had, and that I had had these feelings for as long as I had been sexually aware, which would take me back to when I was about seven years old. I was attracted to the boys more than I was attracted to the girls at school. I liked the girls too, but I liked the boys better.

There was nothing to it. I was not influenced or taught, nor was I "corrupted". And I was never ashamed of it, despite all the negativity that surrounded it in the conversations that I heard. Indeed it is in being true to my feelings that I believe I have remained pure, by staying the same-gender loving man that I was intended to be. In other words, I could in fact have become "corrupted" had I sought to become a pretend-heterosexual man, while knowing deep down that this in actuality is not who I am. I am fortunate that I did not experience to a great degree that psychological and emotional turmoil many gay men go through as they progress through adolescence into adulthood. I was always sure of who I was, but the downside was that I found myself in a very lonely place, since there were hardly any others that I knew socially who shared the same sexual feelings. And it was impossible to share these feelings with most of my peers at the time..

Over the years I have come to realise that there are many other gay Africans. We have remained hidden because our society has been firm in its intolerance towards us. But I am convinced that this intolerance is borne entirely from the lack of information concerning homosexuality among Africans. And this is where we come in, me and many others like me who through our blogs have sought to tell our story more honestly, clearly and persuasively than ever before. The result that we see of this huge unprecedented amount of information about homosexuality and Africans being put into the public domain, is that among my generation of Africans and younger, there is a greater awareness of the fact that gay Africans are real flesh and blood human beings, who are entitled to live their lives happily just as everyone else.

I see the beginnings of a shift in opinion, a shift that becomes apparent when we hear respected African men and women publicly voicing moderate opinions, and calling for restraint and caution when gay people have been maliciously vituperated in the media, as in Kenya and in Uganda recently. Nobel Laureate and Professor of English, Nigeria's Wole Soyinka is among a group of eminent African academics who have openly condemned the slaying of David Kato, the Ugandan gay rights activist and proclaimed that scientific findings have cleared the fog of ignorance entrenched by religious texts regarding homosexuality. Times are changing and I am positive that this story will have a happy ending. I just hope that I am still around when that ending does come..

Previously posted on this blog on 30 November 2009

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Homophobia within UK African communities..

Hostility towards gay and lesbian African men and women by the wider African community in the UK is reported to be widespread and on the increase. The story, first broken by Mambo, a UK based health and lifestyle magazine for Africans published by HIV and sexual health charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, has been carried widely, and not only in the gay press.

According to Mambo:

"There is just as much homophobia in the African community in the UK as there is in Africa. As a result many African gay men in the UK have kept their sexuality secret."

The current edition of the magazine reveals the experiences of gay men and lesbians in UK African communities, where people can experience lifelong victimisation, abuse and discrimination based on misconceptions and wrong beliefs about homosexuality. And although in the UK it is a criminal offence to discriminate against gay, lesbian or transgender people, Africans who are gay often silently suffer serious abuse, verbal and physical assault from their own community. Some have even been disowned by their family. The hostility means that only very few gay Africans have had the courage to openly declare their sexuality. And these are facts which I, the author of this blog, can attest to by my own personal experiences.

One of the benefits for the immigrant of the diverse and multicultural nature of modern British society, is that living in the UK can often feel like home away from home. The presence of an already existing large immigrant population guarantees that most new immigrants will find, and rely on, various forms of support from kith and kin.

I always knew that I would not live the whole of my life in the closet. My true nature was bursting to be revealed, to come out. But when I still lived in Nigeria it was almost impossible to 'come out', for the simple reason that there was no one to come out to, save for my brother with whom I enjoy a very close relationship. Growing up, I thought I was the only person in the world who experienced same-sex attraction, and it was not until after many years of lonesome self-enquiry that to my astonishment, I discovered scores of others who shared the same feelings as I did. I came across the "gay scene" in Lagos. But I also quickly realised that even though there were many others like me, almost all of them thought of their sexual orientation as something which was to be kept hidden. And of course I could understand why, since I too was well acquainted with our society's negative impression of homosexuality.

However, I did not share in that negative impression, nor did I agree with it. My thinking was that unless one agreed that to be gay is wrong, the gay person ought to embrace his sexuality and be proud of it even. I knew that there was nothing wrong with me, I was just different from most people. Meeting others who were like me only reaffirmed my conviction that it cannot be wrong for a person to be who he is. It was difficult living in Nigeria, because most others hid their sexuality and there was the requirement constantly to be careful not to reveal your true nature. This was especially essential if you were ambitious and career-minded and I found this problematic.

For me there was a sense of dread, because I knew deep down that I would not be able to maintain the facade indefinitely. And since pretence is not one of my strong points, it was not surprising that cracks began to appear in the facade. The rumour mill was rife with gossip about my sexuality, and it hurt. It hurt not because of what they were saying, but because there was no mechanism, no opportunity by which to confirm it to them once and for all, and quell the rumours. I desperately wanted to scream it at them: "YES, I AM GAY!" But I didn't, because I couldn't.

And so the opportunity, when it came, to relocate to a different country was seized with both hands, even though I had no inkling what it would be like to forge my way in a foreign land. Fortunately, I am blessed to have been born into an enlightened family. In this regard, I refer to my immediate family, and not to the wider extended family. Members of my immediate family have been supportive and very accepting of me. Unfortunately though, they are not present with me in the UK and I am deprived somewhat of that support. So I found that during the early days after I arrived in the UK to live, I had to seek out acquaintances and relatives, just as many other new arrivals have to do. And as you probably can imagine, these are people from back home in Nigeria who are now living in the UK. I soon found, however, that although I was in the UK, it was as if I was back in the same position that I was when I was still in Nigeria, people seizing the opportunity to demonstrate their hostility towards me, a person they thought might be homosexual.

I was verbally abused and I was snubbed at social events. I was even asked to leave a new job after only a few weeks, and although my boss, (a Nigerian), did not say so, I knew it was because he had heard about me. What they did not realise was that their actions only strengthened my resolve to live my life as the gay man that I am, a resolve that emboldened me to openly declare my sexuality. We are in a country where I can live my life free of their influence and I have adopted the deliberate policy of excluding them from my life. Sure, I am aware of the potential consequences, emotional and otherwise. The editor of Mambo magazine said:

"Being forced to live in the closet can have serious health and social consequences, not just for the individual, but for the wider African community. People who are subjected to abuse and ridicule can feel isolated (even from family members) and find it hard to cope emotionally, losing self-confidence or the ability to forge meaningful relationships.."

I do not feel forced to live in the closet, but there are social consequences of being openly gay too. Nevertheless, I would rather that I engaged in social contact only with those who know that I am gay, yet who accept and respect me regardless. And I believe that today I am happier for it. I have removed myself from the reach of those who will subject me to abuse and ridicule and I find myself in a relationship with the most amazing African man.

I think I can safely say that we can rise above our societies' negative attitudes. But it is also important for us to recognise that some of the responsibility for achieving change in these attitudes lies with us the gay Africans. If we accept that those negative attitudes are fed by misinformation and misconceptions about homosexuality, we owe a duty to ourselves and to future generations of gay Africans, to demonstrate through our lives that although we are different, we are normal too. As we do this, we provide to our people a more accurate description of who a homosexual person is. When we continue to hide and keep our sexuality secret, we contribute towards perpetuating the very attitudes that we deplore.

We are not immoral, many of us are upstanding and responsible individuals. Those of us who live in countries (like the UK, among others) where we need not fear criminal prosecution just for being who we are, should see this freedom from fear as an opportunity; an opportunity which must be exploited towards fostering a better understanding of homosexuality among the wider African community. It is quite possible to be gay and to be respectable at the same time. And it is our responsibility to make this known.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

On that bothersome matter of whether to distribute condoms in prisons..

This is a major debate that has transfixed many in Botswana recently, but one which has been an ethical dilemma for much of the world for a while.

Bright's story

Bright, a Zambian, was sent to prison in Zambia for two years for selling cannabis.

"I did it because of hunger," says Bright softly.

"There's not much food in prison. Sex has become the way of payment."
One day, the cell "captain" gave Bright extra food, then asked him for sex.

"I had never had sex with a man, but I did it. The first time it was painful, but I joined a group of maybe 20 men who did that.

"Mainly they were people who were condemned, or who had been jailed for 25 years. They hadn't seen women for a long time."

He fidgets as he talks, swallowing his words. His nervousness is understandable - it is illegal in Zambia for men to have sex with each other, and socially unacceptable.

The Legal problem

The difficulty with any policy that allows the distribution of condoms in prisons in those countries where sex between persons of the same gender is illegal, is that such a policy will itself be illegal, since it would be seen as purporting to promote illegality.

Many men will already be carrying the virus when they are incarcerated, but once inside it can be spread by tattooing or sharing razors. The biggest risk factor, though, is sex.

"When we gathered the prisoners in focus group discussions and asked how many had taken part in male-to-male sex, the answer was 'all of us', says Dr Simooya who heads In But Free, an HIV/AIDS intervention in prisons.

"Most said it was because of boredom. But some mentioned that it was a form of exchange. You could give sex in return for soap, food, salt and so on."

"You can't legislate against sex," the doctor says.

"Its better to be practical and ask how we can prevent the transmission of HIV. We must consider putting condoms in prisons."

The process of changing laws in any country is onerous at the least and can be extremely difficult in situations where oppressive laws enjoy popular support as the anti-gay laws in many sub-Saharan African countries currently do. Therefore, it will be unwise to consider waiting until such a time as these laws are changed before appropriate measures are taken to prevent the further spread of HIV within prisons.

Pretending that male-to-male sex does not occur in prisons is like burying one's head in the sand. It seems even greater folly to ignore this fact, when we remember that many of these inmates who do not die of the disease will eventually upon their release from prison, return into the community with the likelihood that they will spread the virus even further.

The way forward

If we acknowledge that to wait until laws are changed is not a viable option, since in the interim prisoners continue to be infected with HIV, and in Africa many still die from AIDS, then what can be done?

My view is that the example of Lesotho should be followed by all other African countries facing this moral quandary. In Lesotho where homosexual acts are just as illegal as they are in many other African countries, prison officials know that they cannot distribute condoms, so they just make them available. They simply leave boxes of condoms in strategic places and refill them when they are empty. After all, it is not illegal to be in possession of a condom. The success story is that the condom box is usually empty, and now the authorities are trying to work out how that translates into reduction in seroprevalence.

It is commonly accepted that HIV prevalence rates within prisons are higher than within the general population. Prisons are risk environments for consensual and non-consensual sexual relations, and if this sexual activity accounts for the high prevalence rates inside prisons, then creating interventions that promote safe sex should ostensibly be a public health priority of the first order.

Will the inmates use them?

No question is bigger than this one. Even if condoms are made available to inmates, will they use them?

"Surprisingly, most prisoners we've surveyed have said no," says Dr Simooya. "They think male-to-male sex is un-Christian, un-African, and will promote homosexuality." (I laughed out loud when I read this)

Bright has other reasons for thinking condoms might not be favoured by some of the prisoners, especially those serving long terms.

"One man told me he was HIV-positive and threatened to kill me if I didn't have sex with him. Those people don't want to use condoms. If your sentence is short, they want you to be positive like them and go and spread the disease outside."

Bright was tested for HIV when he left prison, but he never followed it up.

"I'm scared," he admits, catching his breath.

"When I came out of prison, I was sick with malaria, headaches, diarrhoea. I was very scared that maybe they would find me with HIV, that's why I didn't go back."

More reading: Here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Female mechanics..

I find this very heartening. Its always interesting to see a challenge to what we consider to be the norm..