The brunt of my graduate work is connected to Malawi, a small country in sub-Saharan Africa and, agreeably, one of the poorest areas of the planet. Despite intense poverty and incredible challenges presented by malaria, HIV/AIDS, TB, non-existent infrastructure, widespread illiteracy, low levels of education and health care, they have a functioning central government, don’t kill each other in deep ethnic squabbles, and are normally some of the friendliest and kindest people on Earth. I love Malawi. It is truly one of the most endearing places I have ever been.
However, the story of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza troubles me on several levels. Tiwonge and Steven are the first Malawi gay couple to openly challenge the deeply conservative rejection of homosexuality that exists all over sub-Saharan Africa. Last year they attempted to have a traditional Malawian engagement ceremony that turned into a public spectacle and sent waves over all of SSA, whose residents often deny that homosexuality exists on their continent. This, in addition to the proclamations of Uganda’s President that homosexuals should be met with the death penalty, have exposed the deep seated and backwards bigoted attitudes that the majority of Africans have toward people who choose to enter into relationships that differ from traditional male/female pairings.
Tiwonge and Steven released an entirely brave and inspiring statement, that spits in the face of worldwide intolerance of homosexual relationships:
Tiwonge said: “I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless.”
“We have come a long way and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will not and never stop loving Tiwonge,” said Steven.
As a reward for their bravery, Tiwonge and Steve have suffered public humiliation, imprisonment and now have been sentenced to 14 years hard labor, for the sole offense of being in a relationship that differs from the majority in this deeply conservative continent. It has to be said that 14 years in Chichiri prison, where these two have until now been housed, is tantamount to a death sentence. It is likely that neither of these men will last two years in the deplorable conditions of what is possibly one of the worst prisons in the world.
As a researcher in public health and as a political liberal, my views on homosexual relationships and personal sexual choices should be clear. If Tiwonge and Steven’s story had occurred in the United States, I would consider packing up shop and moving out of the country. I am absolutely positive that a large number of Americans favor the death penalty for homosexuals and would rejoice at seeing homosexual couples jailed and eventually killed. However, despite a conservative rhetoric that gets thrown around at election time, we have political checks and a functioning economy that keep the worst from occurring in 2010, in part due to a sick and bloody past of social exclusion and intolerance. Granted, we still have much work to do.
Screaming and writing blog posts by citizens of wealthy states on the societal faults of poor and struggling countries will be seen at the worst hegemonic and at the least hypocritical, given our own troubled histories. A cruise through the comments section of a recent article on the House Resolution aimed at Tilongwe and Steven’s plight is both illuminating and disturbing. The west is largely seen as the root of homosexuality in Africa. We are seen to be exporting our moral depravity with the aim of decimating the African family and spreading HIV (not as if heterosexual Africans don’t do a good enough job already). In addition, they accuse us of violating their sovereignty by imposing a moral will on a small, impoverished country. But I applaud the Congress for even making this relatively toothless resolution, calling for the recognition of human rights in a struggling and developing country. If Malawi is to expand, it must, like all countries, unveil and exorcise it’s moral demons, just as we have to do on a daily basis. Granted, the Congress is drawing resolutions against Malawi and not wealthy human rights hell-holes like Saudi Arabia.