Grace had her fears. She wanted to tell her suppressed story for all who doubt the existence of homosexuals in the country, but she sounded sceptical about confiding it to reporters for the first time.
“Who are you?” the interviewee garbed in a chequered short-sleeved shirt with a matching black pair of jean trousers wanted to know.
“Pardon.” I bellowed with the surprise of an interviewer who suddenly becomes an interviewee.
Besides, I had fully introduced myself a few hours before when we arranged this appointment. Still, I had to repeat the ritual for the sake of journalism.
“Can I trust you?” she continued, combing her curled Mohawk hair as if to ascertain whether it was necessary to retake the ritual.
“100 percent,” I gave her my word, for it is a requirement in journalism.
“How do I trust you? I mean, I will hold you accountable if anything happens to me, if…but…?”
I cut her ifs and buts midair, saying: “That’s my job. I vouch I will if you so wish.”
This was on Friday, March 14, when Grace, a girl who dresses like most men, walks like most men and admits being sexually attracted to girls like most men, participated in a panel discussion organised by the Centre for the Development of the People (Cedep) and Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation (CHRR). Hers was an impassioned imploration for the well being of gays and lesbians.
It is encounters like this that instantly answer your first question: Do we have homosexuals, the people who are attracted to people of their sex, in Malawi?
With her spray-gun questions, flawless fluency and accent of a well-travelled learned lady; she will strike anybody with the certainty that she is not any other girl.
In her own words, she says: “I am studying for a degree at one of the popular universities in the country.”
This was verified, but to safeguard her identity, we will not mention the university. Suffice to say she could be that girl you meet in the corridors of the University of Malawi (Unima) colleges, Lilongwe University of Agriculture, Livingstonia University, the Catholic University, Shareworld or St John’s.
She may as well be the other you encounter anywhere higher education girls go, but it is her questions that mirror the insecurities many experience in her world. Some—the likes of Steve Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the men who held the first gay engagement in Malawi—have been jailed for harbouring feelings for each other. To conform to prevailing thinking and avoid stigma, others have ended up marrying sweethearts of the opposite sex they love to hate.
Although medical doctor Enoch Changamire affirms the scientific findings that people in same-sex relationship are 19 times more prone to HIV infections than those in heterosexual affairs. Fear and stigma are said to be the reason other homosexuals are compelled to go underground, seek safety in hidden places where seeking treatment, care and support services is almost impossible.
But such is life in Malawi, where cultural and religious stereotypes conspire with the Penal Code to make gays and lesbians perverts punishable by 14 years imprisonment.
“Were you born that way?” I asked Grace after regaining control of the interview.
“What do you mean?” she countered the question Uganda’s President Museveni could have asked her if she had visited the State House in Kampala before he signed the so-called “draconian law against gays and lesbians” which has earned that country notoriety in the West.
“In your case,” I asked her: “When did you realise you are attracted to fellow females?”
“I was six years old.”
But Grace’s confession that she began sensing a lesbian feeling at the age a typical Malawian child are expected to be in Standard One subtly disapprove the simplistic and widespread arguments that some girls end up in this situation due to the girl-to-girl sexual encounters adolescents tend to have in boarding secondary schools and other isolated spaces.
Unsurprisingly, sitting side by side with her and hearing her story makes even the culture warriors—the likes of chiefs—come out of the cocoon.
Said Chief Kalonga of Karonga: “Initially, I was one of the people who thought homosexuality was just a foreign agenda, but now I know we have gays and lesbians in our midst. The issue is how can we help them?”
On the other hand, Paramount Chief Kyungu’s envoy Alexander Mboma, says the existence of gays is a confirmation of the biblical imagery which likens this world to a garden where wheat and chaff must be allowed to grow together.
“If Malawians are really God-fearing, let us accept the obvious truth that gays exist and help them to avoid HIV infections and other vulnerabilities that lie in their way if we continue denying and discriminating them,” says Mboma, who plays a pivotal role in the installation of Ngonde chiefs in the country and the neighbouring Tanzania.
However, the traditional leaders feel being gay is a disability, a feeling considered archaic by scientists.
Dr Changamire explained: “It used to be considered a disease or a disability. Not anymore. Now science shows that it is possible for men to be attracted to men and women to fellow women.
“Nobody tells a boy to experience an erection when it sees a girl. Our sexual feelings are influenced by hormones.”
According to him, some gays and lesbians are born that way—with one in 20 human beings globally being attracted to members of their sex.
For Cedep executive director Gift Trapence and CHRR’s Timothy Mtambo, encounters with the likes of Grace are vital in overcoming misconception that minority rights is a western agenda to promote same-sex marriages, not a campaign for human rights.
“The Constitution entitles everybody to full human rights regardless of their sexual orientation,” says Mtambo.
And adds Trapence: “We have had a health debate for three years, but traditional and religious leaders need more sensitisation to understand this is purely a human rights issue.”