The saddest circus in the world

Some of you might be familiar with the story of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the two men arrested and charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” after they had a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi, in December of 2009. Since their arrest they have been held separately in a maximum security prison, they’ve been asked to take a “test” to prove whether they had sexual relations, and they’ve been denied bail “for their own safety”.

The case has drawn international attention for its human rights implications, and because it is a very real example of the prevailing homophobic attitudes in much of Africa – attitudes that must shift in order to implement effective policy changes to meet the challenges of AIDS and HIV transmission on the continent. In this concise article posted in January on the Amnesty International site, the friction between policy and practice is made clear:

In the formulation of Malawi’s National AIDS Strategy in 2009, the Malawi government consulted widely, including with MSM [Ed. note: men who have sex with men], on ways of combating the spread of HIV in Malawi. In September, the government publicly acknowledged the need to include MSM in its HIV/AIDS strategy.

– From “Malawi: Amnesty calls for unconditional release of gay couple,” posted to amnesty.org.uk

On Friday, March 12, almost three full months since Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested, the Washington Post published “In Africa, a step backward on human rights,”  an opinion piece by Nobel Peace Prize laureate archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

In the piece, Tutu broadens the discussion to include not only the case of Monjeza and Chimbalanga in Malawi, but also the consideration of discriminatory legislation in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. And, like the Amnesty International author, Tutu exposes a link between homophobia and the struggle to find an effective response to AIDS and HIV on the continent.

Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters across Africa are living in fear. And they are living in hiding — away from care, away from the protection the state should offer to every citizen and away from health care in the AIDS era, when all of us, especially Africans, need access to essential HIV services.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

When Craig drove me through Mdantsane Village way back in September 2009 I was puzzled by the presence of a massive tattered tent at the side of the road. The wind pushed against the torn grey fabric and I could hear a soft, forlorn whistling as it jettied through the holes. I turned to Craig and wise-cracked, “What’s that!? The tent from The Saddest Circus in the World?”  To my horror and embarrassment he explained that these were funeral tents, and that here in the Village people were dying in such numbers and with such regularity that sometimes they didn’t even bother to take the tents down.

I’ve been back in Canada for five months. Necessarily, my work with this blog has shifted focus. I have enjoyed concrete success in finding grassroots ways to make positive differences through soccer, and my sense of achievement has been profound. But when I think about the immense challenges facing gay and lesbian and transgendered people in Africa, and the numbers of people dying from HIV and AIDS – and the way those things are connected – I think that indeed, this is the saddest circus in the world.

And except for adding my voice to the protest, I’ve no idea how to help. There are some things, it would seem, that a soccer ball just can’t fix.

Related Facebook groups:

Statement by African Civil Society on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda
Protest Jon Qwelane’s Appointment As SA Ambassador to Uganda!
Free Malawians Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga
The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The saddest circus in the world

  1. Craig

    And that tent in Mdantsane is still standing almost 5 months later. At this point, it’s hard to imagine it ever coming down. A shack-cum-funeral home has now been erected a few hundred feet down the road.

  2. Pingback: Good news for a change « Personal S.A.

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