A unique and groundbreaking new book offering vivid portraits of the lives of gay men and women in Malawi is set to be launched in South Africa by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) and the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP).
The release of Queer Malawi: Untold Stories comes just months after the imprisonment and subsequent release of two men - Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga - who took part in a same-sex engagement ceremony late in 2009. They were pardoned following a massive international outcry but split up and went into hiding thanks to public and official homophobia.
The accounts in the book portray the joys of love and the heartache of rejection, the dangers posed by homophobia and hatred in communities, and the sublime comfort of close friends and relatives.
According to the publishers, the twelve life stories are "intended to invoke compassion and support for the rights of African LGBTI people to live freely and harmoniously alongside their heterosexual counterparts in Malawi and beyond her borders".
The making of the book is fascinating in its own right: Dr Patricia Watson, an expert in oral history practice in South Africa, designed and facilitated oral history workshops in Malawi during which most of the 12 participants' experiences were recounted, recorded and translated into English.
Watson then worked with the transcripts to compose stories that were as close to the authors’ own words as was grammatically possible.
Notably, their real names were not used in the book out of fear for their safety.
The inspiring experiences in Queer Malawi are complemented by striking and intimate photographs of the 12 participants by the renowned and award winning lesbian photographer Zanele Muholi who agreed to do portraits of each of the authors.
“This book is to be applauded for making the homosexual voices of male and female Malawian nationals audible for all Africans to hear. It is through ordinary peoples’ stories that we are able to reconnect with our shared sense of humanity,” comments Fikile Vilakazi, the director of the Coalition for African Lesbians.
In the book, "Diana the Queer" talks about coming to terms with his sexuality ("Nobody taught me to be gay, it just happened.") and tells the story of how he was blackmailed by a policeman who threatened to expose him if he wasn't paid a sum of cash.
"I did not want to be on the front page of the newspaper because that would have been terrible for my family. Since this experience I don’t dance with anybody when I go to clubs and when I see that policeman in the bar, he goes out, he doesn’t like to stay, because he knows that what he did was wrong. He feels guilty,” says Diana.
He goes on to talk about the state of the gay community in his homeland: “At this time, gay people in Malawi are feeling very depressed. We do not want to go out. We are afraid to be around our friends. If I could put my friends on a bus I would drive us somewhere, where we could all live a free life in a massive gay community.”
The still pervasive belief that homosexuality has been imported into Africa remains a keystone of homophobia on the continent and is dealt with in the book, as noted by Ollen Mwalubunju – the former commissioner of Malawi’s Human Rights Commission – in the book’s preface:
“The stories of experiences of people in this book reveal that most started a gay or lesbian life style at a very early stage of their lives, and that their sexual orientation evolved outside the white person’s or foreign influence spheres. In the book, gays and lesbians have repeatedly asserted in their stories that to be gay or lesbian is not something one can borrow from elsewhere, and fundamentally reject the notion that homosexuality is un-African,” he writes.
In "Monnahrisa’s story", the author powerfully refutes the assertion that homosexuality is not innate to Africa in her own emotive words:
"Don’t be afraid because lesbians are here. Don’t be afraid, lesbians will always be. It is not that we are copying some other people’s culture. No. It is what we feel inside. It is not because we watched a movie and said we want to be like her. No. That’s pretending. Rather we say it from deep down in our own hearts, I don’t feel like getting married to a man. I want to be a lesbian. Accept the fact: I am who I am. I am a lesbian. And that’s cool!"
This remarkable book will be launched in Johannesburg on the 1st of December to mark World Aids Day. It will be available for sale in selected bookstores in South Africa and distributed to organisations throughout Africa. For more information or to source a copy of Queer Malawi contact Anthony Manion at GALA on Anthony.Manion@wits.ac.za.