Published in 2011 and reviewed in 2016
As we speak in the quiet of my hotel restaurant in Tanzania, it is clear that both Allan and Jon (not their real names) are apprehensive about being overheard.
“The person to your left is staring at us and I don’t feel safe,” writes Jon on my pad. But shortly after, the man leaves and we resume our topic.
Such cautiousness, I ask Allan, is it really necessary? Has anyone actually been busted? “Yes,” he replies, “in 2010 a man in Zanzibar was caught in a sexual relationship. He was sentenced to 34 years in prison. The term was later reduced to 30 years.”
But this is personal to Allan. He narrowly escaped capture in 2010 when he was dating a younger man whose parents found out about them and called the police. When the officers showed up at Allan’s residence he was not at home and the cook said Allan was out of town. However, he was only three-doors away. Afterwards the cook reported Allan to the authorities and immediately he had to leave town for several months until the heat was off. Sadly the young man was later estranged from his family and Allan couldn’t go near the parents’ neighborhood even though they do not know his face.
“I’m always nervous,” he says. “You cannot imagine how it is to always feel threatened by such a legal rule.”
Jon says the consequences for being ‘outed’ are dire. Jobs, reputations and family honor are at stake. Allan attributes this to poor education, the conservative culture, narrow-minded religion and rigid adherence to heterosexual traditions, all which inhibit personal freedom and cast a shadow on the progress of pro-gay efforts.
Allan has lived in Dar-es-Salaam for most of his adult life. For twenty of those years he lived with his beloved Abdul whom he originally met at the bank where they both worked together, until it was discovered they were a gay couple in 1996. They were fired because they were a “bad example”, with no recourse to legal action. Allan’s entire family of seven siblings knows about his orientation.
Unfortunately Abdul succumbed to AIDS in 2005, more accurately from incompetent homophobic medical treatment than from the virus.
On the other hand, Jon originally worked for a government agency that approved construction projects during the socialist period after independence. But eventually the ministry was made redundant as privatization replaced state controlled agencies and industries. More recently he has been engaged on occasion as a contractor with his class-seven licensed building company based in Dar-es-Salaam, which has built a number of residential buildings. He also has seven siblings, two of whom – brothers – are also gay.
In 2005 he campaigned for a seat in the parliament and learned the hard way about corruption, greed and turf wars among government ministers and MP’s with not-so-hidden agendas for manipulating power and money to their favor.
“These are evil people, terrible. They are criminals, becoming rich while so many people are living in poverty; we have such bad roads and chaos in our cities and streets,” he decries in a moment of heated frustration.
However it was Allan’s dismissal from his job at the bank that led him and Jon to starting the Community Peer Support Services (CPSS) in 1997, which is an organization for gay men, claiming over 475 members in Tanzania. CPSS has ten sub-groups or zones across the land. Allan is the chairman and Jon is the program coordinator. Together in Dar-es-Salaam they design programs intended to advance equal rights, increase awareness of diversity and educate people about HIV preventions and care.
Much as these courageous men are proud of their work, and despite being in a major metropolitan city, they still operate within a society that is filled with anti-gay negativity, harmful gossip and rumor that can humiliate and ridicule vulnerable people, destroy reputations and careers and even break up families.
In Tanzania homosexuality is a criminal offense which forces funders from liberal pro-gay countries such as Holland and Norway to find ways of spiriting money to groups without offending authorities. As part of their protective guise, CPSS has established a ‘cover’ organization with a different name through which foreign donations can be received – common tactic throughout homophobic Africa.
“This is the way we want to work, as a community organization so people come to know us as their friends first and then only maybe later, if it comes up, about our sexuality. By then we hope we are known as good helpers and educators and sports sponsors and not as a label of ‘gays’ that scare people and turn them against us. We don’t push a gay agenda,” says Jon, “we do it the African way.”
As I finish the conversation with Allan and Jon, I realize that gay activists in Tanzania have a great challenge ahead of them, to begin a delicate dialogue with the government to reconsider the criminal status of same-sex behavior and open a small window of tolerance in a culture that is ignorant and prejudiced against sexual difference within its population. It is this work that might cost them their lives.
Featured image by Ben Curtis
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