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.