Written by BRIGHT MHANGO
We have seen the men: Steven Monjeza, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Fortune Banduka. But have we heard from the lesbians? Are there any in Malawi? Brace yourself, writes Bright Mhango
Mercy Kumwenda, 23, says she is tired of living in the shadows and has come out to declare that she is a lesbian and she has called on “whoever makes the laws” to leave lesbians alone and to protect them.
“People think that you are a witch, abnormal, satanic or you just want to make money but for me its inborn. I mean how do you I sleep with a man if I have no feelings for a man, I have tried dating men but it didn’t work,” said Kumwenda.
Kumwenda was speaking on the sidelines of a women’s rights consultation meeting organised by the ministry of gender in conjunction with Oxfam and Gender Coordination Network at Wamkulu Palace in Lilongwe on Wednesday.
The meeting was aimed at hearing the voices of rural women in preparation for the next set of millennium development goals and among the invited was Mercy Kumwenda.
Kumwenda is of medium height, with an unforgettable face owing to a scar on her face. She harbours no shyness about her plump build and played confident as she mingled with the rest of the delegates.
The first question I fired at her was if she was sure of coming out in the newspaper, which she said she was, this despite her admitting that she hasn’t told her parents about her being gay yet.
“Currently only people from my work know…there are millions of lesbians out there but they cannot speak out because they fear being called names and jeered at in the streets,” said Kumwenda.
She however said that without coming out, like she did, government would not help her and her friends would continue to suffer oppression.
She denied any possibility of being a learned lesbian saying she found out about her being gay in standard eight when she got very attracted to her best friend who later became her lover whom she claims she continues being very close to.
“We actually have a name Mathanyula for it showing that being gay is not from the West, it has been in Malawi for a long time,” said Kumwenda.
The horrors that gays face in Malawi are well documented starting from those sanctioned by capitol hill where being gay is punishable by a jail sentence that can go up to 14 years, almost all Malawian gays according to literature occur in underground networks.
“My friend sustained a broken arm after being beaten at a club for kissing a fellow lesbian. The hospital also looks at them in askance when we want to access medical care for STIs and they ask us to bring partners which we cannot do because we would be picked on therefore lesbians go to private hospitals if they can afford, ” she said.
She said lesbians do not need to come out to prove that there are out there, she said whoever wants to quantify them should commission a research.
Kumwenda said she knows about 40 lesbians in Blantyre and Lilongwe and with the secretive lives they lead, potential partners are identified through these cells of friends a point she stressed eliminates fake lesbians from real ones.
“If you are a fake lesbian you wouldn’t know the connection lesbians have by merely looking at each other,” she said.
A member of the Assemblies of God church, she believes that homosexuality is not a sin arguing that an inborn natural phenomenon cannot be a sin. She insisted that man should not rush to judge because there is only one judge: God and that he is yet to call for the judgment day.
Asked what she had to say to the framers of law who made homosexuality illegal, Mercy said she doesn’t even know who made the law and where he got the authority and the law makers and homophobic Malawians, Mercy had a brisk message:
“Leave lesbians alone. They are human being no matter what people say. Let them be, make laws to protect us we were born here and there is nowhere else we can go.”
Homosexuality in Malawi took the agenda when a gay couple Tionge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were arrested after holding public engagement ceremony in Blantyre, Malawi in 2009. Late President Bingu wa Mutharika has equaled gays to dogs and a pastor in Lilongwe has called for the death of gays reflecting the harsh homophobia on the streets.
The constitution guarantees nondiscrimination on Chapter Four/ Section 20 but this is sharp contrast with the penal code which promises 14 years to all gays.
Malawi President Joyce Banda has been shaky in the face of the debate; she at first gave hope and hinted at suspending homophobic laws but upon local pressure from her electoral competition relented and said it is up for the nation to decide.
Human rights activist have long argued that homosexuality needs to be decriminalized in Malawi because its discrimination and fuels HIV. Current figures indicate that HIV prevalence is at 21% among gays way higher than the 14 percent of the rest of the population.
Research conducted on the subject blames the current HIV rates on the fact that gays are not targeted with HIV messages and are forced to sleep with each other in their crammed cells owing to the dangers of coming to the open.
It remains to be seen how Mr. Kumwenda will react to their daughter coming out but what we can tell here is her coming out is a milestone, she is the first ever lesbian to come out in Malawi.
I support Kumwenda with all my journalism. To be gay is not a crime.
Bright Mhango writes at mutafire.blogspot.com