Picking Up the Pieces in Malawi

-Mark Canavera, RPCV Burkina Faso

Editor’s Note: Peace Corps has had a long time presence in Malawi. Many current and past volunteers work(ed) in rural locations as educators and counselors teaching HIV/AIDS prevention strategies to their Malawian communities. Peace Corps Response is currently recruiting RPCVs to serve one year assignments as HIV/AIDS Technical Advisors working on prevention and education approaches at the local district level for the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. The information in this article will highlight one of the challenges facing current and future volunteers in Malawi involved in such programs.

Before the outsized international human rights outcry. Before the world had even heard of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga. Before their chinkhoswe ceremony – akin to an engagement ceremony although more complex – landed these two in prison, then convicted for “indecent practices between males,” and finally sentenced to 14 years of hard labor. Before the President of Malawi reluctantly pardoned the convicted parties. Before the couple split, leading to massive speculation about Monjeza’s motivations and no small amount of head-scratching.  Before all of this, activists were acting up in Malawi.

“Our organization was born out of the need to fill major gaps in HIV service delivery,” explains Gift Trapence, the director of the Lilongwe-based Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), a human rights organization working on behalf of at-risk minority groups, including people in same-sex relationships, sex workers, and prisoners. When Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested in December, this relatively young organization, founded only in late 2005, was propelled to the forefront of a movement whose butterfly wing flaps would create maelstroms around the world. “Steven and Tiwonge’s case has brought a lot of attention,” modestly admits Trapence, whose organization has been balancing the pressures of high-level international advocacy with their need to ensure ongoing services to its target populations of marginalized individuals.  CEDEP’s tightrope walk has only become more nerve-wracking now that Monjeza has, according to Malawian press reports, left Chimabalanga, taken up residence with a woman, and suggested that he was “coerced” into gay acts, a claim that contradicts earlier statements.

In addition to overseeing Monjeza and Chimbalanga’s legal defense strategy, CEDEP was one of the few organizations willing to visit the two in prison to ensure their wellbeing. Dunker Kamba, CEDEP’s administrator, traveled over 400 miles round-trip each week – and sometimes twice a week – for prison visits despite never having met the two prior to their arrest. “The first week after their arrest, it was difficult to visit them because the situation was hot,” explains Kamba.  “People were thinking, ‘Who is the kind of person who would like to meet with these people?’ and the prison guards just told me that they weren’t there.” Eventually, however, Kamba was able to visit Monjeza and Chimbalanga, bringing them food, basic toiletries, and most importantly, he believes, hope and encouragement.

Before this headline case upended their activities, CEDEP was busy steadily building a portfolio of cutting-edge work for sexual minorities. The organization laid the groundwork for its HIV-prevention activities with a groundbreaking 2006 study on the knowledge, attitudes, and practices of Malawi’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations despite the overwhelmingly hidden nature of these groups and the complication that the concept of LGBT has little cultural currency in the country. In 2008, CEDEP contributed to another landmark piece of research on men who have sex with men, or MSM (an acronym common in HIV circles that seeks to emphasize behavior rather than identity), in Malawi. They discovered that the HIV rate in the MSM population was a jaw-dropping 21.4 percent, nearly double the prevalence rate of the general adult population. Over 95 percent of these men were unaware of their status.

CEDEP has used the findings from these pieces of research to raise awareness with men who have sex with men, running a resource center that provides these men with accurate prevention information. This work is not without its dangers, however. Earlier this year, two CEDEP staff members were arrested and briefly detained for allegedly distributing pornography. The pornography in question? HIV-prevention pamphlets tailored to men having sex with men.

Despite the risks, however, CEDEP has enjoyed some noteworthy successes, not the least of which is the recent pardon and release of Mojeza and Chambalanga. Another small victory was the inclusion of MSM as a target group in Malawi’s recently developed national HIV prevention strategy, running through 2013. Also, Dr. Mary Shawa, the secretary for nutrition, HIV and AIDS in the president’s office, expressed her support for a human rights approach to HIV-prevention that reached out to men in same-sex relationships following her attendance at a CEDEP-supported conference on HIV prevention with at-risk groups. Dr. Shawa was the first high-level government official to take such a stance and sparked large-scale debate.

That debate is still raging, of course, and CEDEP’s battle remains steeply uphill. Despite the president’s pardon, the effects of Monjeza and Chamblanga’s case are likely to linger, driving the MSM community in Malawi even further underground. Indeed, in granting his pardon, President Bingu wa Mutharika made it clear that he was doing so only under international pressure, reiterating the illegality of Monjeza and Chambalanga’s actions and his unhappiness with granting the pardon. “I do not agree with this,” he said, adding, “these two… were wrong – totally wrong.” Likewise, public attitudes remain firmly opposed to same-sex relationships. After the sentencing, for examples, some crowd members outside the courthouse jeered for harsher sentences. Christian women representing a number of churches likewise recently joined hands to pray against “outbreaks of measles [and] homosexuality.”

Internal to the organization, challenges face CEDEP as well. One of these is the inclusion of women who have same-sex relationships in its activities, a group that it has not currently reached. Monica Mbaru, the Africa regional coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, one of CEDEP’s key partners, indicates that lesbian women in Malawi may face issues specific to women – like so-called “corrective rape” – that are not yet being addressed. “Although we cannot yet ascertain the scale of the problem,” says Mbaru, “we know from some lesbian women in Malawi that they are subjected to corrective rape or other violence within their families. Their families believe that they have simply not found a proper man to induct them into having sex, so they start making advances, and these women close up and end up dying in their own spaces.”

After months of the manic activity that accompanied Monjeza and Chambalanga’s court case, CEDEP is taking a deep breath and taking stock. “Since December [when the two were arrested], we have been running up and down,” says Trapence, “and of course we are proud of what we have achieved,” noting that the contributions of the international human rights community were crucial in obtaining the presidential pardon. CEDEP, however, is keeping its eyes firmly on its goal of human rights for LGBT communities in Malawi. The organization has developed a three-year strategy that focuses on training, capacity building, and advocacy. CEDEP hopes to help media outlets, especially radio and television, to better cover LGBT issues, and they want to engage religious groups and parliamentarians on the issue as well. Its leaders also hope to ensure that LGBT rights are included in the activities of other human rights organizations and campaigns, building a stronger coalition. To that end, CEDEP has already put together a working group comprised of ten like-minded actors.

Whatever twists and turns the case of Monjeza and Chimbalanga takes (and surely there are more to come), CEDEP’s staff members are keeping their eye on the prize of human rights for all.  Continuing this work will require fortitude, a quality that this small organization’s team members have demonstrated in spades. “I’m doing this work out of the human rights heart that I have,” explains Kamba. “Human rights are universal. I will always say that, even if they put me in jail.” © Mark Canavera

This article, originally published on the Huffington Post is the first in a series profiling organizations and individuals in sub-Saharan Africa promoting the rights of sexual minorities.  The slightly different version which appeared on the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-canavera/picking-up-the-pieces-in_b_596371.html includes links to many of the information sources for the article. The next article in the series will feature the coalition of actors working together in Uganda. This article does not imply the sexual orientation or gender identity of any person mentioned herein.

Mark Canavera can be contacted at mark.canavera@gmail.com.

Malawi: Is She a Girl or is She a Woman?

-Abby Stamm, RPCV, Malawi

I have had little trouble as a woman in Malawi. At school the teachers treat me as an equal, and most students treat me as they would a male teacher. The exceptions are the boys who pretend they do not understand English when I give them an order. Usually I ask another student to translate to Chichewa or Chiyao, the two local languages, because these boys cannot understand simple English. That makes the whole class laugh and tease them. The students almost always obey then.

Many people in my village ask me the same two questions. First, “Are you married?” I ask if it matters and why. I have never heard a good reason. Second, “Do you have children?” I am usually honest, and again ask why. “No, I don’t want any.” A former volunteer at my site told me that because she did not want any children, the villagers assumed she was barren. If they think the same of me, that’s fine.

My neighbor often teaches me about Malawian culture. Once he described his cousin, whom he started to call a man. Then he changed his mind and called him a boy. I asked what the difference was. He said boys are not married. I asked if that made me a girl, since I am not married and don’t want to be. “No,” he said, “you are an exception.” I asked why, but he never told me. Maybe it’s because I am educated, or because I am a foreigner. Some days later, he and I were walking back from church (we are both Catholics) when he asked me, “Why don’t you become a nun?” I did not want to say that I was not that devout, so I replied that it was for the same reason I had told him I do not want to marry. I do not want to be tied to a convent any more than I want to be tied to a man. That answer worked.

Only twice have I been harassed. The first time, I had just moved to my site. A stranger followed me uninvited into my fenced-in backyard. In Malawi, that is taboo. I was polite, asked what he wanted, and told him to go away. He said he wanted to meet the new white woman. He left after I ordered him to for the tenth time and I have not seen him since. I told my neighbors and I think they knew him and told him to stay away from me.

The second time was after several months at my work site. I was in a crowded part of my village market. Out of nowhere, a man deliberately grabbed my breast. He let go and vanished back into the crowd before I had time to react. I was angrier that I was unable to retaliate than that he had grabbed me.

I teach Life Skills in Form 3 (11th grade). The class encompasses everything from AIDS to democracy to self-esteem building. In short, I can do anything in it. One day, we were discussing culture (I can’t “teach” in that class since I do not know any of the material) and one of the students asked me about differences between Malawian and American cultures. I chose clothing, mostly because it was the only “safe” topic I could think of. I said in America, I could teach wearing trousers and go to the “market” in shorts.

They told me that if I wore trousers to their class I would be seen as immature and in shorts, I would be called a prostitute. I only wear skirts and dresses in my village, since it is a conservative, predominantly Muslim area and so hot most of time that nothing else is comfortable anyway.

Abby Stamm can be contacted at anabiyeni@yahoo.com.

Questioning Malawi

-Peace Corps Volunteer, Malawi

“Are you married?” It was a question I’ve been asked many times before. “No, I’m not.” I always go for the truthful answer. “Ah, but you are 29 years; why are you not married?” Now here is where I pull out one of my Standard Answers. I have them for each of the Standard Questions one is inevitably asked upon making a new acquaintance in Malawi. “Are you married?” is almost always accompanied by “What is your denomination?” to which I always give the perplexing answer of “I don’t have one,” which is easier to explain than “I was raised a Catholic, but I don’t practice anymore.” Then there is “What are your hobbies?” to which the best answer would be “Watching football,” which is only true insofar as I like watching England’s David Beckman play.

I find it more comfortable to just say that I’m not married, and that unmarried 29-year-olds aren’t uncommon in the States, which is definitely true, than to make up another story about a girlfriend back home. A friend of mine keeps a picture of a friend from home around so that when he’s asked this question, he can just pull it out and pass her off as his fiancée. What I’m really not comfortable doing, however, is telling my friends here that I’m gay, homosexual, a man who for reasons he can’t quite explain loves other men.

I’ve read stories about gay Peace Corps volunteers in West African countries who seem able to live as openly gay men, at least to a small degree, during their service. I don’t know if that has anything to do with a difference in cultures between West and East Africa, or if it’s just chance that a couple of guys there have made that bold choice independently. I’m sure that the laws aren’t too dissimilar. Most African nations have similar laws against homosexuality.

In fact, here in Malawi a teacher at an international school was recently convicted under the sodomy statues. In truth, the man was taking street children, tempting them with nice things like good food, clothes, and money, and then molesting them. It was really a case of a pedophile, but it was portrayed in the media as being mostly about homosexuality. The teacher now spends time in a Malawian prison, which interestingly enough is the only place where the Government AIDS prevention outreach program offers outreach to men who have sex with men.

Recently, at an In-Service Training program attended by volunteers and our local counterparts, we had a presentation by a representative of the National AIDS Control Board, who mentioned during her presentation their outreach to prisons. One of the gay volunteers, who was surely just trying to cause a little rise in the crowd, raised his hand and said, “I don’t understand. Why are prisoners a target community for your prevention strategy?”

The presenter just turned the question around to our local counterparts, wanting one of them to answer the question. To my mild surprise, one raised his hand. “I believe it’s because they are….ah…exercising together.” Well, I thought, that’s an interesting way to say it. But the presenter wouldn’t let it rest. “What do you mean by exercising together?” It took him a few blushing seconds to say it, but he did say something about men having sex together.

I was a little surprised by this exchange. There’s no recognizable gay community among Malawians, only a loose network of volunteers and aid workers. I have never heard homosexuality openly acknowledged among the people I regularly interact with. Yet homosexual activity definitely happens, even if it’s not labeled as “sex” even by those taking part. One of my expatriate friends acquaintances has more than a few stories of dalliances with Malawians from all over the country, and he reports it isn’t just mzungus (foreigners) with local men, but that the local people are enjoying each other, so to speak, as well. There are also instances of “beach boys” offering sex for money at certain beach resorts on Lake Malawi. One also wonders about older students at boarding schools who have close relationships with some of the younger boys.

While heterosexual transmission officially accounts for about 92% of HIV transmissions in Malawi, I have a hard time believing that all homosexual transmission is taking place in prisons. Underreporting is sure to be a problem in a country where male to male sexual activity might not even be considered sex by many. The national AIDS prevention strategy doesn’t yet address this fact. Of course, this is just one of many challenges in stopping the spread of AIDS in a country where officially 10 to 20% of the population is infected, and unofficially up to 30% or more have the HIV virus.

Before coming to Malawi, I have to admit that I generally didn’t find myself attracted to men of color. But after a year here, my tastes have definitely changed. I find myself more and more attracted to the local men. However, considering the many cultural and legal issues to consider here, I’ve decided that there are just too many risks associated with “exercising” locally.

Because of the topic discussed in the article and the social stigmas related to homosexuality in Malawi, the author remains anonymous. If you’d like to contact the writer, email the editor at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org, and we’ll forward your email to him in Malawi.

Back to the Warm Heart of Africa

-Carl Haley, RPCV Malawi

Most RPCVs wonder how life at their site has changed since they left. I’ve often dreamed of returning to Malawi where I was a volunteer. The dream came true last October 11 when I once again set foot on Malawi soil. Although Malawi has a new multi-party government, I was pleased to see that the citizens are still the same friendly, outgoing and warm-hearted people I knew seven years ago.

By the time our plane landed, I was very excited. Prior to my departure, I decided I would bring some scientific calculators for my old school. After mentioning this to some friends, they encouraged me to send a letter to my family and friends asking if they wanted to donate money or items for the school. By the time I left I collected over $2700, which translated to 134 solar scientific calculators, 9 graphic calculators, 13 soccer/volleyballs, a microscope, text books, protractors, compasses and a variety of office supplies.

The Blantyre airport had no other planes on the ground. So we pulled right in front of the terminal where I could see about 200 spectators on the “observation” roof of the building. As I walked down the stairs from the plane, I looked for familiar faces but in all the excitement, I couldn’t see anyone.

The first Malawian I greeted with a “Mulibwanji” (How are you?) was the passport control officer. He looked up with a big smile when I greeted him in Chichewa and responded “Ndilibwino, kayainu?” (I am fine and you?). Next I picked my bags off the luggage carts and quickly chose the customs agent who looked the youngest and the friendliest. Once again I started with “Mulibwanji?” He replied in English with a formal “I am fine. How much do you wish to declare?”

I had written the value of my luggage as $200. I explained that everything was donated for Thyolo Secondary School where I used to teach. He said that I owed him 5000 kwatcha ($280) in customs fees. So I started in on my story, hoping that he would wear down first. And he did. I got everything into the country without paying any excess charges! That meant that 100% of the money donated would go toward school supplies.

As I left customs, the first face I saw was my good friend, Francis, a fellow teacher from Thyolo. The first thing he said was “Ah, you are so fat!” This is Malawian for “you look good.”

I weighed only 130 lbs. when I left Malawi, so indeed I had gained some weight. Francis, like many Malawians, had not aged in the least. He was the same skinny friend with a big smile I had missed for over seven years.

We picked up the Avis rental car and I turned the wrong direction out of the airport. I had forgotten the way to town. I was very glad to have Francis with me. I had thought so often about returning to Malawi one day and here I was actually living it. I cannot describe how wonderful it felt to be home again.

Thyolo Secondary School, my old school, had been painted recently, so it looked better than I remember. The familiar sight of students hanging out on their day off brought back many memories. We first went to Francis’ house where I greeted his wife Grace and son Yamakani, who was only two years old when I had last seen him. I also met their two daughters, Chikonde and Chrissie, for the first time. We spent a good part of the afternoon talking about our lives for the past seven years.

Soon the other teachers began to come by to say hello. About a third of the teachers I had worked with were still there. It was great to see everyone again and meet the new teachers. That evening after a wonderful meal of nsima, chicken and vegetables, we went to the staff room to meet the other teachers and the headmaster. I was pleased to see that the staff room still had signs and posters that I had made seven years ago.

I spent a week at the school talking to classes, visiting old friends and enjoying the school life. Leah, the current Peace Corps teacher at the school, is also a good friend of Francis and Grace and their family, and we had lots of fun comparing stories. The school’s population had grown considerably from 500 to 800 students without any extra facilities or teachers. Class size of most classes had grown from 45 to 75. The new government has said more students need to be educated so they have filled the classrooms to the brim.

When I was a volunteer, most of my PCV friends knew I was gay. I had been warned by the Malawian trainers against coming out to the Malawian teachers at my school. Culturally, homosexuality is not accepted and is invisible. As a result I never came out to any Malawians. I’ve grown up a lot since those years. I now have a lover of seven years. I sing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. My closet door is WIDE open. But what would happen now when I went back to Malawi.

Although I talked with Francis about my lover, Terry, I never felt comfortable explaining that we were more than just friends. Even all these years later, there is no gay community in Malawi. It’s still hard to be gay there. The decency laws have recently been changed and women can now wear pants. So I guess gay rights will take some time. As I traveled around the country and met other volunteers, I found it easy to come out and speak openly about my life. I was surprised that no one knew of any “out” volunteers.

Education is still the key to Malawians’ future. More educated people mean a more productive society. One of the greatest rewards for me was visiting my former students who have now become teachers. Walking into their classrooms and seeing them sharing their knowledge with others showed me how life moves on and grows.

I still value my time in Malawi as some of the best years of my life. Part of me will always be in Malawi. Who knows if I’ll ever come out to any of my Malawian friends? Even if I don’t, I will still treasure their friendship and look forward to seeing them again.•

Carl Haley, was a math teacher in Malawi from 1988 – 90. You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.