To Be Gay and African Should Not Be a Crime

Time for African leaders to heed President Obama’s urgent call on gay rights.
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President Obama with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. (Photo: AFT/Getty)

In my home country of Sierra Leone, homosexuality is punishable by a minimum of 10 years in jail. My first punishment was when I came out. I was 12. I confided in my uncle. Instead of the acceptance, he beat me up.

He also called me names: “shob am na kaka hole,” which loosely translates to “ass-fucker.” His screaming and yelling brought neighbors out of their homes. They yelled at me while my uncle went to get the police, who arrested me.

At the police station, I asked the police what my crime was.

“You are polluting the community with your bad lifestyle,” a female police officer told me.

This is why it is so important that President Obama challenged leaders in Kenya this past weekend and called for gay rights in Africa.

They locked me up in a cell without even taking any statement from me. The cell was filled with feces and urine and the stench was unbearable. I was detained for three days with no food or water.

When I was released, my uncle beat me up again on our arrival at home. He then forbade me to say that I was homosexual ever again in my life. He threatened to kill me if I did, or if he even suspected homosexual thoughts or behavior.

I escaped the same night and boarded a public bus to Freetown with the help of a gay friend who lived in the village. In Freetown, I went to my father’s house and my dad kicked me out, telling me I couldn’t take the family name unless I denounced homosexuality.

I stayed on the street and slept in different friends’ houses and stores every night, but I still went to school.

They took me to the police station for questioning, where they would demand that I produce the dildos for lesbians and the lubricants we used to recruit boys.

Sierra Leone is my homeland, yet I lived in constant fear of the police and officials who arrested and detained me numerous times because I am gay. This is why it is so important that President Obama challenged leaders in Kenya this past weekend and called for gay rights in Africa. (Homosexuality remains illegal in 38 African countries.)

In 2002, I came in contact with an organization called International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) in Sierra Leone, where I started volunteering and advocating for human rights, HIV prevention, and public speaking. Inspired by the people at iEARN, I founded Pride Equality in October 2007 in Sierra Leone—the first such organization to provide services and information about HIV prevention, sexual reproductive health, and human rights among LGBTQ people in my country.

Every year, from 2009 to 2013, my office at Pride Equality was stormed by the police demanding for documents. They claimed to have information that we were recruiting boys and girls to become lesbians and gays with support from Europe.

They scattered our files and dug into our computers and never found anything against us. Each time, they took me to the police station for questioning, where they would demand that I produce the dildos for lesbians and the lubricants we used to recruit boys. After several hours, the police would release me.

I was tortured on one occasion. But the persecution didn’t come only at the hands of the police.

On July 15, 2012, I was working in the office when two men entered. They told me that if I did not give them the $2,000 U.S., they would tell the police I attempted to rape them.

They only way I could survive was to flee Sierra Leone.

Then they took my laptop and phone. They dragged me to the police station and falsely reported that I wanted to rape them. The police did not even allow me to make a statement. I was detained for two days on false charges.

On October 1, 2012, I was attacked after leaving an Internet cafe at around 11:00 p.m. in Freetown. A group of four men started shouting “homo, nor fala u kompin man batty boy!” meaning: “You should stop having anal sex with other men.” One of the men chased me and pelted my feet with stones. When they caught me, they beat me with sticks.

The worst attack came in May 2013. Two men riding motorbikes tried to kill me. They smashed my car windows and pulled me from the car and almost beat me to death. This attack came after a local media outlet ran a story (without my permission) about me being gay. Sierra Leone retains its colonial-era prohibition of “buggery” and “attempted buggery,” defined as same-sex sexual activity between males. The persistence of this legal prohibition legitimizes harassment, discrimination, violence, and the marginalization of people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

Homosexuality is an identity that most African leaders, political and religious, call “un-African.” The majority of these leaders do not want to even acknowledge that gays exist.

Yet there are longstanding traditions of homosexuality in African history.

The Mende tribe in Sierra Leone has the “sande bwake,” which means male cross-dresser. The word “mabole” means a woman who plays the role of a man and at times dresses like men, while eschewing “women’s” activities.

Even the masquerades allow cross-dressing during festivals and cultural performances. Most women who are not able to give birth are allowed to marry their fellow women for child-bearing. These women are not considered the wife to a husband, but the wife to a wife. Homosexuality is not “un-African.” We are the cradle of human life, and nothing human is alien to us.

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They only way I could survive was to flee Sierra Leone.

In 2014, I was granted political asylum in Spain. It was heartbreaking to leave my homeland. Every day I fear for my fellow LGBTQ friends who still face threats, extortion, harassment, arbitrary detention, and arrest for being who they are. African leaders should heed President Obama’s call. This isn’t just a much-needed change; it’s a question of dignity for all human life.

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