Sunday, October 9, 2011

Culture, law, collide with gay rights (originally published in The Daily Times)

Dressed in a blue lace skirt and blouse with matching headgear and eye shadow; 'her' face smoothened with face powder and lips painted red, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, popularly known as ‘Auntie Tiwo’, stands out in a crowd with ‘her’ catwalk, feminine mannerisms and confidence.
Auntie Tiwo became a household name in Malawi in December 2009 after 'she' was arrested for holding a traditional engagement with now estranged Steven Monjeza.
Their arrest sparked debate over homosexuality in the conservative country where same-sex liaisons are frowned upon and viewed as evil and satanic.
Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi under sodomy laws and many members of the clergy, chiefs and traditionalists are against it.
Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa described it as the worst of its kind and passed a 14 year ‘scaring’ sentence so that “the public must also be protected from others who may be tempted to emulate their horrendous conduct.”
It also created tension between Malawi and some donor countries from the west who appealed for their release and equal rights for the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. Pressure from the international community eventually led to the two being pardoned by President Bingu wa Mutharika.
More than a year  later, Chimbalanga, 24 who has since gone into exile to South Africa has no apologies, insisting he is a woman and feels like one. Auntie Tiwo also identifies himself as a transgender person and a ‘she’ which forms part of the LGBTI community.
“I’m Auntie Tiwo till I die, no one can change me. When I wear trousers in the village people wonder.
“God will judge me because I have been treated like a murderer. If some call us dogs, all we can say is ‘thank you after all’, we’re poor and nonentities. We are many and are supposed to have freedoms. Luckily, I get along well with my relations and they defend me when others mock and want to harm me.
Auntie Tiwo striking a pose

“The ones who don’t know me are the ones who harass me, the rest know me. When I was a child I started wearing dresses, even in school. I used to wear dresses from the age of six, I hate trousers and shorts, would wear skirts and hang around with girls. No one asked me anything,” stresses Auntie Tiwo while speaking in Chichewa as she gesticulates to emphasise her point.
She appeals to Malawians to love one another citing Romans 13:8 which reads “owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
She is also grateful to the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep) which “helped me a lot when in prison and out with assorted items and I also got money from abroad when waiting to go into exile.”
Presidential spokesperson Hetherwick Ntaba said the Malawi government does not know the extent of the local LGBTI community and if there really is a gay community.
He said no one is in vigorous pursuit and trying to enforce laws when things are done quietly. According to Ntaba “no one is in pursuit into bedrooms—only when it is done in public.”
He highlights how homosexuality is not in keeping with the country’s cultures and decency but there will be no pursuit as long as they do not affect  the public.
“The information we have is that Steven and Tiwonge were funded to test the waters for homosexuality. Homosexuality is not an issue in Malawi but if one, for example, kisses in public, it will not be looked at positively,” says Ntaba.
Last year, Parliament ‘debated and passed’ an amendment to the Penal Code including Section 137A which criminalises homosexuality between women.
Since then only two women have identified themselves as Malawian lesbians but have prefer to remain anonymous. Both are adults over 21 years of age and claim to have been physically attracted to fellow girls from a young age while in school.
Surveys on high risk groups for contracting HIV usually point at bisexuals — also not accepted in the country — who prefer to operate underground.
However, Benjamin Canavan, Public Affairs Officer and Acting Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Lilongwe says LGBTI rights are human rights and that human rights are universal with no group or individual falling outside the framework of human rights protections.
When asked in an e-mail questionnaire what exactly is the current US policy on the LGBTI community in African countries including Malawi, the US diplomat answers that “internationally, our priorities for advancing LGBT equality are to eliminate violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
“In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the first ever UN resolution on the human rights of LGBT persons. The United States worked with the main sponsor, South Africa, and many other countries to help pass this resolution. It will commission the first ever UN report on the challenges that LGBT persons face around the globe and will open a broader international discussion on how to best promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.
“The US government stands with advocates of equality around the world in leading the fight against laws targeting LGBT persons and attempts to exclude LGBT organizations from full participation in the international system. Domestically, the Obama Administration has made significant progress towards achieving equality for LGBT Americans. For example, the President has taken steps to eliminate discrimination against LGBT Americans in housing programs and in the workplace.  His Administration is also working with educators and community leaders to reduce the threat of bullying against young people, including LGBT youth,” adds Canavan.
“Naturally, the US Embassy follows and reports on a range of pertinent issues relating to Malawi’s political, economic and social landscape. Human rights are a core part of these issues.  As diplomats it is our job to maintain dialogue with a diverse group of Malawians both inside and outside of government.
“The United States does provide assistance to all human rights defenders globally who face emergency situations regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  We can say that some of our most important and lively conversations are with Malawians who may not agree personally with UN or U.S. policy on LGBT rights.  We welcome this kind of dialogue, which is similar to the kind of frank exchanges we also have in the United States about LGBT rights.
“We appreciate that attitudes on sensitive topics change gradually over time. The way forward depends on open dialogue between Malawians based on mutual respect.  No one should be harmed because of who they are or who they love,” concludes Canavan in response to the questionnaire.
It is yet to be seen how many conservative countries mostly in Africa and parts of Asia will heed US President Barack Obama’s call for equal rights as homosexuality is still not culturally and religiously accepted in many countries.
But President Mutharika has vowed that his administration cannot decriminalise homosexuality as doing that would be against culture and religion.

*This story first appeared in The Daily Times newspaper.

Took this picture of children in Milange, Mozambique admiring visiting Malawian children

Tracing footsteps to lead me home

Greetings from the Warm Heart Africa, Malawi.

I'm a Malawian journalist who grew up in many countries including South Africa, Belgium, then West Germany, UK, Washington DC and New York in the US and I love New York.

Trying to come up with the production of my life and by compiling some of my 1000 poems into a book called ‘Tracing Footsteps’ to lead me Home with excellent photography.

I also plan to film award winning documentaries based on the history of this ancient land called Malawi and the mysteries of the Sirius star. this space.