In defence of homophobia

Africa, especially for a mzungu European such as myself, holds countless opportunities to pause a moment and re-consider things which one had previously thought to be self-evident truths. Many’s the time in the weeks I spent in Africa last summer, I found myself wondering whether that which I knew all along might not be precisely what I should be sceptical of.

No more so has this been the case than on my first night in Africa. I had landed in Nairobi at around 3 in the afternoon and from there, went straight to Upper Hill Campsite in the suburbs of Lavington. Upper Hill has a strong reputation for providing good food and better company at extremely reasonable prices and indeed, I had stayed there before a couple of times before. Naturally, the low rates combined with 24/7 security guard attract the poor students and backpack travellers, many of whom converge on the Campsite nightly to drink and sleep before leaving Nairobi either for another part of Africa or for home.

It was thus that I encountered two sisters from Cambridge, Anna and Elise Tinn, who were just wrapping up a long tour of East and Southern Africa. Elise, the elder of the two, studied Architecture at Sheffield University and then spent a year working at a firm in London before being offered an opportunity to over-see the construction of a school in Malawi. She moved out to the town of Blantyre in January 2010 and spent six months in the small Southern African country. While she was there, she witnessed one of the biggest news stories of the year, the homosexuality trial which saw two men sentenced to fourteen years hard labour for holding a  public same-sex chinkhoswe, or engagement ceremony.

Non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is not explicitly referred to in the Malawian constitution. Homosexual acts are illegal in Malawi. Section 153 prohibits “unnatural offences”. Section 156 concerning “public decency” is used to punish homosexual acts. Gay rights in Malawi are practically non-existent.

The two men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, were imprisoned in Blantyre, denied bail and put on trial. A British colleague of Elise got in touch with human rights activist Peter Tatchell, aware of the fact that prisoners in Malawi rely on charity and family for food during incarceration, and of the likelihood that both men had been disowned by their families. At Tatchell’s advice, the two girls visited the prison regularly whilst the men awaited trial in order to provide food and company. They found the men comparatively well looked-after, most likely due to the high profile nature of the situation.

The international response to the case was strong and severely critical.  The trial and sentences were condemned by regional human rights organizations including AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (Arasa) the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (Salc), the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) and the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR). In addition, international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and IGLHRC reacted with condemnation, as did donor entities and governments such as the UK government, Germany, the African Development Bank (AfDB), Norway, the E.U. and the World Bank, who operate under the Common Approach to Budget Support (CABS). Jacob Zuma also criticised the trial.

In my adopted home country, Scotland, pressure mounted on the government to use their ‘special relationship’ (i.e. their considerable annual aid contributions) with Malawi to ‘persuade them’ to release Chimbalanga and Monjeza. The same insinuation was made by the government at Westminster, Malawi’s biggest aid donors. According to Elise Tinn, there was no doubt in Malawi that if the men were not released, there would be serious financial repercussions for a country whose GDP is 26.2% foreign aid. Eventually the men were granted a presidential pardon (co-incidentally, just hours after the visit of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon) and are now free.

The laws used to arrest, charge and convict these men had been passed during British colonial rule. No anti-homosexuality laws had existed before then.

As is probably to be expected of a Westerner of my generation, I do not agree with the persecution of people on the basis of sexual orientation, I believe it is wrong. However, I find it despicable that a country (a weak one, at that) and its culture were effectively held to ransom by a sanctimonious and self-congratulating ‘international community’ almost exclusively made up of Western nations. These fools must really have thought they’d achieved some sort of victory when they strong-armed an African nation into going against its own grain.

From what I was told by Elise Tinn, the reality was very different. Whilst the trial had been going on, national newspapers in Malawi had begun to openly debate the possibility of homosexuality not being morally wrong – almost unheard of in Africa. The harsh sentence caused many in the area where she was living to question the fairness of the trial and of the laws broken. However, national feeling became predictably anti-Western and consequently homophobic once it became evident that Malawi had been forced into doing something it did not independently choose to do.

The arrogance of the West in its quest for its own idea of human rights will continue to do more harm than good if it is not curbed. The history of Western empires and colonialism have made many people in countries that were subjected to Western powers cynical about the preaching of certain values on the one hand, and the coercive behaviour of colonial states on the other. Who could blame them?

Why must we always assume that ‘our way’ is the more advanced, the more sophisticated, that others have simply to catch up with us rather than pursue their own separate route? We simply expect that other cultures adopt our own ways when, clearly, these issues are everywhere, not just in the Northern Hemisphere. There’s not a country in the world where a man isn’t struggling against the idea of deference or a woman isn’t struggling to have equal relations with her male counterparts. Of course it is bitterly ironic that the original cause of the Malawi homosexuality trials was a set of laws passed by Victorian colonists.

The closest Western social equivalent to the way people in Malawi feel about homosexuality is the way we feel about paedophilia in Britain. No matter who said it or how they said it, I would not, could not, ever be convinced that such a thing was even slightly acceptable. This is what the West is demanding of Africa, which is arrogant enough. But, worse still, it sees itself as so superior that it can justify inflicting severe damage on a sovereign nation such as Malawi for a cultural idiosyncrasy that runs contrary to its own.

It is immoral and it is disgusting.



Filed under Current Affairs, Tanzania 2010

8 responses to “In defence of homophobia

  1. Vicki

    A good point, well made. Fair play for putting it out there.

  2. Susie

    I’d have to say, most people I met in South Africa who were homophobic based their views entirely on Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I suppose historically, thats the teachings of Western Missionaries and a product of Colonialism. Good article Hugo!

  3. Very interesting and I know a lot about the background to this case and you make some interesting observations.

    Part of the problem is Western reporting which then Western governments react to, alongside a different set of problems with African media.

    Foreign media seem to love ‘dark heart of Africa’ stories, which is why the issue in Malawi was not contextualised and why positive developments are simply not reported. I see this all the time.

    I’m also not convinced on the strong-arming, through aid withdrawal threats, although I have to say that all the African LGBT I know want to see it done!

  4. Rowly

    We don’t ask murderers and rapists if they think murder and rape are good/bad/neither, we know better. This is not arrogance, this is fact. Homophobia, especially in Africa, is no more acceptable, especially as it leads to innumerable murders, physical abuse, assault and more.

    Another point that is being ignored is one that comes out the following – “The laws used to arrest, charge and convict these men had been passed during British colonial rule. No anti-homosexuality laws had existed before then.” We, the west, put this bullshit there. I firmly believe that when one does something wrong, one makes every effort to correct it. This, quite simply, was something wrong.

    Europe and its legacy in Africa (and let’s admit it, pretty much everywhere it colonised), is rife with embarrassments, humiliation, shame, atrocities and inhumanity. For christ sake, to condition aid on a little human decency and an attempt to eradicate intolerance, while slightly ironic coming for the states that set this system up and benefited from it from years, is still, not the wrong thing to do. And let’s not pretend that aid is given unconditionally anyway. For a long time USAID refused to give aid to clinics in the third world that are pro, or even impartial to, abortions. This, to me, is a far greater offence than aid conditional on tolerance. Being gay is no different to being black, or being a woman. It is something over which you have no control. We do not tolerate sexism or racism. Had this post been about such issues, I feel the response would be very different.

    I would not stand by while someone beat their wife, I would not stand by while someone circumcised a woman against her will, I would not stand by while someone persecuted a Jew or a woman, and I will not stand by while gay people, people born without a choice, are persecuted, simply because they are gay. Put simply, it is wrong, and we, and any country with the ability to change this, should do so.

    • I accept your point of view that the West is duty-bound by morals and by its own history to make some attempt to challenge wrong-doing in a former-colony or indeed anywhere. However, I firmly disagree that the use of economic and aid threats in order to manipulate to the desired effect is the correct way to go about it. You’re right, USAID and many other organisations did, and still do, give pre-conditions to aid they distribute.

      The key difference here is that this pre-condition was the same for any country wishing to receive aid from USAID and it did not openly challenge the legal and political systems of any sovereign nation. That is another debate, but it represents the same idea: that meddling in the private affairs of another country is acceptable.

      We both agree that the persecution of any minority group is unacceptable. What I’m asserting here is the belief that there are effective ways of going about such a delicate issue – differences of culture will always be a soft spot for people. The gung-ho triumphalism used by the West to determine the outcome of the Malawi homosexuality trials had no positive effect whatsoever other than that the two men involved were released. Some may say that should be enough – I say it does nothing but perpetuate an undesirable situation and strengthen anti-Western and homophobic feeling in Africa.

      • Rowly

        When I was a child if I was naughty, I was sent to bed with no supper and couldn’t play with my toys. These were the rules as made by my parents, the breadwinners of the family. I was not free to debate them. If I wanted food and my toys in the evening I had to behave in a manner they saw fitting. I never deemed this arrogant, immoral or disgusting; I merely learned to behave in an acceptable manner.

        And yet for some reason, when it comes to Africa, we all seem to lower our standards and pussyfoot about, and quite simply, it is bullshit. Why should we hold others to a lesser standard of decency than we hold ourselves? You finish your initial argument with the line “It is immoral and it is disgusting”, well, in my mind these double standards are a far better fit of that description. You wouldn’t tolerate that level of homophobia in Britain, yet for some reason it is fine in Africa, but let me tell you, it IS NOT fine in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter.

        Secondly, I do not agree that “the persecution of any minority group is unacceptable”. The persecution of any group is such. Preservation of culture is a sensitive issue, however it is one on which this subject bares no impact. This is not a traditional culture that has been passed down through many generations. No. It is a culture imposed by a brutal and now archaic colonial rule, that is quite frankly as outdated as unacceptable.

        “The key difference here is that this pre-condition was the same for any country wishing to receive aid from USAID and it did not openly challenge the legal and political systems of any sovereign nation.” I find this argument idiotic. It is fine for aid providers to give aid based on some things and not others? Limit the possible conditions to things that do not matter? While I agree that a problem lies in the fact that while it was a “pre-condition was the same for any country wishing to receive aid from USAID”, the same could not be said of the Malawian situation which appeared to be a once off term; I disagree when it comes to the manner of correction. To say “we will continue to support you and your legal and political system, no matter how brutal, inhumane and unacceptable to us” is bullshit. Better we set out a series of guidelines that allow both the aid givers and aid receivers to clearly see what is required of them in order to be eligible for aid, and in these guidelines we include the respect of basic human rights.

        Also one must remember that aid is NOT a goodwill gesture. A vast amount of aid given to the developing world is tied aid, and heavily conditioned aid. Look at North Korea. Do you honestly believe that the vast amount of aid that they receive comes with no political or legal implications? And why shouldn’t it be? It is money for nothing. Making it money for something, especially something that makes even the smallest improvement in the world, is a good thing. When I die, I will leave my inheritance to someone, or something of my choice. Am I not allowed to choose who or what I leave it to based on any criteria that I see fit? Of course I am. Why should a country operate under a different setup?

        Malawi has signed (and ratified) the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, as well as a number of other human rights treaties, so it could be argued that the current domestic laws are in fact unlawful (superseded by international law). This however is not something I care about. Quite simply these laws are barbaric, “immoral and disgusting”, and should the UK and other donor countries attempt to remove, moderate or debunk them, this is a good thing.

        As means to an end, I don’t care how it is done, if the end result is less persecution, the means were justified.

  5. Ed

    Good point. Very good point by Rowly also about righting the wrongs of our Western forebears. That does change the dynamics of the argument for me. Still would agree though that 9 times out of 10 meddling in the affairs of another culture is entirely wrong.

  6. Here’s another way in which this plays out

    There’s also a major debate going on in the Zambian elections about politicians even discussing the issue with foreign diplomats.

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