In what may appear shocking to the progressive people of the world, a Malawian gay couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, was found guilty on Tuesday of “unnatural acts” and “gross indecency,” following their engagement ceremony last year. Their ordeal is but a sign of worse to come.
The case has drawn worldwide attention as one emblematic of a widely held, deep antipathy towards gay rights throughout Africa. This decision comes as Uganda is considering a law that would have a provision for actually executing homosexuals in some circumstances. Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa described the couple’s crime as “buggery”, ironically using language from Malawi’s British colonial past when the current law was written, rather than traditional sociological or cultural explanations of the charge and conviction. Usiwa said both men were guilty of “carnal knowledge” “against the order of nature” and that this “transgresses the Malawian recognised standards of propriety”. They may now face 14 years in jail when sentenced on Thursday. Malawi custom traditionally views homosexuality as either non-existent or something that must be suppressed.
Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, an independent civil rights NGO, said the couple could appeal on grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted actually violate the country’s constitution. However, the court denied earlier attempts by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on such grounds.
In April, Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika, called homosexuality “evil and bad before the eyes of God” and something “we Malawians just do not do”. Mutharika’s comments may just trigger the memories of The Daily Maverick readers of similar comments from other, local politicians.
The two men had worked at a Blantyre lodge together and have been in jail since late last year after they held an engagement party that drew dozens of uninvited guests, not all of whom wished the couple well.
While the majority of Malawian society seemed to support the conviction, there were demurs. Dunker Kamba, an Aids counselling centre administrator told the media, “As much as I expected a guilty verdict, I still hoped for a miracle”, while Undule Mwakasungula, a human rights activist, called the verdict a sign of the country’s rejection of “gayism”.
Mwakasungula added, “We can’t keep denying that we have gay people in Malawi and that they deserve to be treated with understanding and justice.” While Michaela Clayton, of the Namibia-based Aids & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, said the verdict was “extremely disturbing”, and could both encourage anti-gay sentiment and set back the fight against Aids. The reason for the latter is that gay people, whose sexual preference and behaviour is forced underground in Africa, will be unlikely to seek counselling or treatment for Aids.
Meanwhile, the accused have taken note of the prejudice directed against their behaviour in very personal terms. Monjeza said his relatives had told him they were disgraced and would never welcome him back home, while Chimbalanga said his family thought he was “bewitched”, though he said they had still supported him during the trial.
The prosecution was obviously in a less loving frame of mind. Prosecutor Barbara Mchenga asked the court to “consider the scar this offense will leave on our morality. The two showed no remorse and were somehow proud of what they did.”
Notwithstanding the Malawian prosecutor’s view, this case is now a flashpoint for gay rights throughout Africa. Lest The Daily Maverick readers feel too smug too easily in considering contemporary South Africa in contrast to the Malawian court’s actions, readers should recall the ill-tempered response to evocative LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) art by the country’s minister of arts and culture last year, let alone the brutal, sexually demeaning treatment meted out to lesbian South Africans by some in their communities, even now. Moreover, undoubtedly many will still recall repressive law and police attention directed at LGBT individuals during the apartheid regime.
Homosexuality remains officially illegal in at least 37 African countries – including Malawi. On the broader scope of things, this Malawian case has now become the contemporary fault line – for Malawi, for Africa, for the world – between an open acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle and a sense that this is, somehow, antithetical to the canons of behaviour as divinely laid out as part of history.
Shocking and difficult to believe as it is, the Malawian anti-gay judgment is only part of a new movement happening throughout a world increasingly strained by crises of all kinds. It is a world that is seeing a return to extremes, where enlightenment is under attack and racism, nationalism, religious hatred, homophobia and xenophobia are clear and present dangers. Fasten your seat belts, progressive people of the world, this particular ride is gonna get much more bumpy.
By J Brooks Spector
For more, read the New York Times, the AP, and the Independent (UK), as well as Wikipedia’s comprehensive summary of anti-LGBT treatment in African nations, along with a recent Human Rights Watch report on the same topic. REUTERS/Eldson Chagara