By The City Press
FOR some of us, our first recollection of Valentine’s Day is of some humiliating school-time ritual in which we had to watch our more fortunate peers receive the tokens sent to them by their admirers. But if we were left disconsolate then at our lack of any admirers, there was always the prospect that the following year we too might get to bask in love’s warm glow.
If we now hold with the more cynically adult view that Valentine’s Day is anodyne, artificially scented, saccharine-sentimental and synthetic, it isn’t for want of experience of Valentine’s hallmarks: the roses, cards and candle-lit dinners. Rather, it is because St Valentine’s Day makes love and romance seem so one-dimensional; so uniform in its expression.But if we need reminders that expressions of love can be bold and brave and not just Valentine’s Day-bland, we should look to Malawi.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, two Malawians, will spend this Valentine’s Day in Blantyre’s notorious Chichiri Prison, filled to overcrowding with individuals who do not deserve to be there – like the many men charged with loitering, too poor to pay the penalty fines, and increasingly those like Chimbalanga and Monjeza, accused of sodomy.
Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested on December 28 last year at their home outside Blantyre after having conducted a traditional engagement ceremony. Charged under Malawi’s penal code with “unnatural offences” and “indecent practices between males”, they face punishment, if found guilty, of up to 14 years in prison with hard labour. That fate may seem a world away from the frilly romance of Valentine’s Day, but the meaning of the day at its most powerful, like Chimbalanga and Monjeza’s ceremony, is as a reminder of the importance of public affirmations of love.
For each of us individually, it generally is not enough only to feel love – we want it acknowledged; we want the space in which to demonstrate our love. Nauseating as it may be, we want the freedom to kiss our partners in public spaces, to hold their hands and sometimes to have that relationship publicly sanctified. And it isn’t only the public expression of our own love that is worthwhile. As anyone who has ever stood in the arrivals hall of an airport can testify, public displays of love and affection by others can make our world a happier one to inhabit.
In Malawi, people in same-sex relationships just do not have that freedom. There is no space for public acknowledgement of homosexual love, or for sanctification of those relationships. And far from believing that the demonstration of love and commitment between consenting adults enhances the collective well-being, the judge who denied Chimbalanga and Monjeza bail made it plain that he did so believing that he was saving them from the dangers of the public’s outrage.
There are plenty of arguments to be made against these prosecutions – one of which is that the persecution of homosexuals explicitly undercuts the Malawian government’s policies in addressing HIV/Aids.
Dr Mary Shawa, the principal secretary for nutrition, HIV and Aids in the president’s office, is on record as saying there is “a need to incorporate a human rights approach in the delivery of HIV and Aids services to men who have sexual intercourse with men”. She also asked men who have sex with men to come out in the open in order to help HIV-prevention efforts. Yet that is certainly not going to happen if they face prosecution.
There is also the argument that a state has no business wasting its valuable resources on policing the bedrooms of its citizens. This is especially true of a state like Malawi, which is barely able to deliver the most basic of its responsibilities. But these arguments – rational, cogent, sensible and designed to make government officials see sense – do not really express what is at stake. Because love is insensible and irrational, and the whimsy and caprice of it are fundamental to who we are. Our ability to love, choose partners, establish intimacy and make or not make an intimate connection defies rationality – yet it is at the core of our humanity.
This year, as you choose your Valentine’s Day card and make your declaration of love, spare a thought for Chimbalanga and Monjeza, whose simple act of declaration might lead to 14 years in jail.
Fritz and Patel are lawyers with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre
– City Press