Tag Archives: Malawi

It’s obscene to force a person to choose between life and love

Today the BBC reported that Steven Monjeza has “moved in with a woman”.

Why is this news? Monjeza is one of the two Malawi men who was jailed for six months, then sentenced to fourteen years hard labour, and, after global protests by activists (and a very public appeal by Madonna), ultimately admonished but pardoned by Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika for holding an engagement ceremony with another man – Tiwonge Chimbalanga – in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi last year.

The men were released to their respective homes and warned that they faced rearrest if caught together again. There was no impact on the law they were charged under.

How obvious, then, that Monjeza would appear now, girlfriend in tow, retracting his previous brave and steadfast declarations of love for Chimbalanga. How predictable. How gutting.

I don’t condemn Monjeza. It’s obscene to force a person to choose between life and love; we should not be surprised to see their personhood fade away as they twist on the hook, trying to come to an impossible decision.

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Good news for a change

With less than two weeks until the beginning of the World Cup, Africa is everywhere. Inspiring soccer stories share space with reports on the continuing challenges in addressing HIV and AIDS, “corrective” rape, and brutal attacks on the bodies and rights of gays and lesbians. All this press is both a welcome platform for a new agenda, and a harsh exposé, casting long shadows on the impending Cup.

Suffering from a bit of burnout, I’ve been quietly waiting for some good news. Yesterday, I got it.

Back in December 2009, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were 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. After being held separately in prison for nearly six months, the men were found guilty, and then sentenced to 14 years hard labour (the maximum penalty).

Human rights organizations condemned the ruling and sentence, and word spread on the Internet. Public protests were held in New York City and London. The Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) set up an online petition, as did Raising Malawi, an organization founded by Madonna and Michael Berg. Madonna released a statement on the site challenging the decision, and invited people to sign their name next to hers. Over 30,000 people did.

Yesterday, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned Monjeza and Chimbalanga and ordered their immediate release.

“In all aspects of reasoning, in all aspects of human understanding, these two gay boys were wrong – totally wrong… However, now that they have been sentenced, I as the president of this country have the powers to pronounce on them and therefore, I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released.”
– President Bingu wa Mutharika, “Malwai pardons jailed couple,” BBC News

It’s a curious statement, lacking in political heft, but I’ll take it.

This is clearly a victory for Monjeza and Chimbalanga, and for LGBT rights. It’s also an important step towards a better model in dealing with HIV and AIDS (for more on how these things are connected read my post, “The saddest circus in the world“).

There’s a lesson about engagement here. Social media makes it easy to gather, publicize, and comment on global issues. In this case, Facebook was an effective catalyst with multimedia capabilities: details of the story were accompanied by links to petitions and calls to action. We should remember to use these new tools. Bravo to everyone who signed petitions, stood at rallies, and shared these stories.

UPDATE:
More detail on the pardon comes from this story from The Malawi Voice. While Monjeza and Chimbalanga have been pardoned and released, they were taken to their separate homes and ordered not to see each other. Should they contravene the order they could be re-arrested.

“It doesn’t mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever you keep doing…”
– Patricia Kaliati, Malawi’s Minister of Gender and Children, “Gays pardoned but no change to law,” Malawi Voice

Looks like there’s a lot more work to be done in this campaign. It was an important step to release the men, but by stopping short of changing the discriminatory law, the Malawi government has allowed an exception to the rule rather than created a policy change. I suggest that we all (this means you, Madonna) keep lobbying. Sparing their lives was a first step; now spare their love.

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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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