Couple’s ordeal highlights gay rights in Africa

July 07, 2010

Love has been many things for Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga: complicated, illegal, symbolic, and now perhaps not even love at all.

The two men from Malawi became Africa’s most controversial couple after their engagement in December. Any happiness was short-lived, however, as they were convicted for “gross indecency and unnatural acts”.

Their sentence of 14 years’ hard labour was commuted by President Bingu wa Mutharika only after considerable international pressure.

Condemned by some as “unnatural” and “un-African”, Mr Monjeza and Mr Chimbalanga were applauded by others for challenging the homophobia that activists say is prevalent and enshrined in law across the continent.

But their campaigning role, propelling gay equality into African consciousness, may have pushed their relationship to the brink of collapse. Mr Chimabalanga appears to be on the verge of seeking asylum in Canada, while Mr Monjeza said that he was never gay.

In an interview with The Times, Mr Monjeza, 22, said that he was going to marry the woman to whom he had proposed before meeting Mr Chimbalanga, a liaison that he said was the unfortunate consequence of a drunken misunderstanding.
“I knew and proposed to Dorothy in October last year before I was arrested.” he said, sitting with his girlfriend, Dorothy Gulo, 24, in their one-bedroom brick house near the town of Blantyre. “Dorothy was bitter when she heard about my traditional engagement with Tiwo in December and then my arrest. But after my release, I reasoned with her to forgive me and she did.”

Mr Monjeza said that his relationship, and engagement to Mr Chimbalanga, was a mistake after a night of drunken confusion. “I regret every moment that happened to me and I am embarrassed that I brought shame to Malawi as a nation. This is a demonic act, there was no love between me and Tiwonge. Tiwonge is known to be gay, not me. I was forced, and I was in it for the money.”

He realised that Mr Chimbalanga, 22, was a man, he said, only after medical checks ordered by the court. “I was shocked, but I could not get out of the relationship because there was a lot of pressure from people, rich people from outside who promised us a lot.”

At the time of the engagement ceremony Mr Monjeza professed to love his partner, and told a local newspaper that he had “never been interested in a woman”.
Mr Chimbalanga, who dresses and describes himself as a woman, said he was not surprised that, under duress, Mr Monjeza had retracted those sentiments. “I am not at all bitter with the decision Steve has taken because I know that, just like me, he has been receiving threats. His family have also influenced his decision,” he said.

“Because of love, we didn’t fear how the public was going to react. But we didn’t know that the act had a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.”

The five months in Malawi’s Chichiri prison was “hell” for both men, he said. “Warders and fellow prisoners beat us, mocked us. Our prison cell was congested, with no space to sleep. They made us look like murders, worse than killers just because we are gay.”

Now alone, Mr Chimbalanga said that he was living in fear. “I am afraid that gay haters may hurt me or even kill me, I am afraid that the government is still angry with us, I am afraid that people like me will never ever be accepted in my country.”

Many countries including Uganda and Kenya are enacting repressive anti-gay legislation while in South Africa, regarded as the bastion of gay equality in the continent, homosexuals are still subjected to violence. The case has prompted accusations that Western organisations are intent on pushing their attitudes on the continent.

Peter Tatchell, the British-based gay rights campaigner, said that Western groups were “supporting gay African people in their battle for equality, and are not imposing Western values”. He said: “Gay men and women existed in Africa long before European settlers.”

For Mr Chimbalanga — although he feels lonely and lost — all has not been in vain. “I am happy that our relationship has sent a message in Africa that gays do have rights too,” he said.

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