12 min

A good day in Ghana

Gay Liberian refugees survive in West Africa

Credit: Paula Stromberg
It was in Ghana, West Africa, that I was asked the most troubling question by an interview subject. Homosexuality is illegal there, but after phone-text promises of anonymity, two gay men met me in a suburban café outside Accra, Ghana’s capital. They had fled West Africa’s bloodiest conflict, a vicious civil war in Liberia, and now live 44 kilometres west of Accra in the Buduburam Refugee Camp. Being refugees, gay, unemployable, poor and despised by locals: could life be any more difficult? I was about to find out.  
We position our red vinyl chairs to ensure we can’t be overheard and settle on pseudonyms. Real names are dangerous. “Sekou Grear,” 35 years old, is slim, five-foot-nine, wearing jeans and a striped, long-sleeved T-shirt. When he sees my camera, he runs his hand over his closely cropped head. “I ha hai’ exsensions til las’ wee, bu’ I cu’ ih off because o’ de espens.” ( I had hair extensions until last week but cut them off because upkeep is expensive.)
The second man, wearing jeans and a blue wax-cloth short-sleeved shirt, wants to be named “James Gayee.” He is petit, with a sharply defined face and hollows under his cheekbones. He tugs his earlobe, showing me it is pierced. “When I go to bas, I wea’ a blue stone,” but the rest of the time, he says, an earring is too dangerous.
Sekou, James and I need patience to communicate. “How are you?” is “How you comu on?” Everything is expressed in the present tense no matter when it happened. It occurs to me that, given their violent backgrounds as war orphans, perhaps existing only in the present moment is a wise choice. The Liberian accent swallows endings of words and other consonants. The word “thing” became “ting”; “get” and “it” have no “t.”
I ask James how easily they meet other gay men. “Is there a gay community in Accra?”
“De area nah, dis’ da’ de Tensionwire in Kasoua. An’ each ge’ abou’ tree or fou’, boh dey ge’ little, little monay,” (The area under the power lines in Kasoua — we get three or four men a week, but little money.)
It is apparent that Sekou and James are sex workers. Even after living in Buduburam Refugee Camp eight years and taking vocational courses provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), foreigners are not welcome to hold regular jobs in Ghana. In this conservative, religious, homophobic country, gay sex is a precarious undertaking.
They look down in silence when I ask their HIV status and realize I’ve bumbled against a social stigma. Thanks to the government’s public campaign, “AIDS is real,” Ghana has the lowest HIV infection rate in West Africa, under three percent, but discrimination is rampant. A research text by more than a dozen Ghanian academics, Sex and Gender in an Era of AIDS, claims there are almost no homosexuals in the country and that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is brought mainly by women porters who prostituted themselves in foreign countries.
The question about HIV status passes unanswered. James suggests that he and Sekou will trade turns eating and being interviewed. “Save time, awrie?” We laugh as we struggle to understand each other. (For the purposes of this story, our conversations will be reported without the Liberian accent.)
James orders chicken and fried rice. Sekou begins talking about life in Ghana. “We are in hiding. Because of the Liberian war violence in 1990, I ran over the border to Ivory Coast. My father died a year earlier when I was 14. According to our traditions in southeast Liberia, my family wanted me to marry my late father’s new wife. I could not do it — take a woman who lived with my father. They demanded I follow the custom. Have sex with my stepmother. You don’t know what it is to be African.
“After I ran, I went to bars, lived among town soldiers in Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast. Not bush-fighter soldiers; only town soldiers had money. Guys liked me. They fed me and I could sustain myself.
“In a crisis era, gang rapes are common. We are not given the right to have MSM (men who have sex with men), but the war made rapes common. Children, women, everyone. People take advantage in armed conflict. You have no means of surviving. Men with guns can do anything to anybody.”
Sekou does not tell me how he managed to avoid being conscripted as a child soldier. I don’t ask if he avoided being given brown-brown, the cocaine and gunpowder mixture dispensed by jungle fighters to anesthetize users to killing.
“If you want to be part of the big guys with money, you let them do what they want. If they rape you, if they like you, you can go to parties.”
The waitress delivers beer for Sekou, orange pop for James and I. Sekou pauses to pour Star beer in a fingerprint-smudged glass.
“Ivory Coast also had civil war, so in 2003 I ran over the border to the Buduburam Refugee Camp here but just missed the UN deadline for registration.” UNHCR registered refugees and issued ID cards only between May and October 2003, and Sekou arrived in December — two months late. “Without a refugee ID Card, I am not eligible for benefits like food, school or career training,” he explained.
“It is hard to find work in Ghana, but I volunteer as a peer-educator with a non-governmental organization (NGO) about HIV awareness. As a peer educator, I talk with people in the Settlement and Kasoa neighbourhood. Then, by using my cellphone I connect people, tops and downs. That is the only way I make money to sustain myself,” he says. Phone cards cost just 60 cents for dozens of calls and texting.
“People question how I can afford to go to clubs and dress well when I’m not working. Thieves break into my room in the Settlement, but they never discover anything. Sometimes we get invited to gay parties in Accra. I know of a hundred gay people. Some in high places.” 
Before I am tempted to ask Sekou for details about gays in high places, I turn to James Gayee, who has been listening as he ate his way through a grilled chicken leg atop a mound of oily rice. 
James takes over as Sekou orders a similar meal. Chicken rice is considered a treat, as is grasscutter (rat) soup. Staple fare is fufu or banku, softball-size wads of starch, served with thick broth, accompanied by tilapia, a pig foot or goat shin. “When the 1990 war started in Liberia, I was 15. We were hungry. I ran over the border to an Ivory Coast refugee camp. I know I was gay since 14 years old,” James says.
“I met a boyfriend with nice clothes who gave me money for the market. I cooked for him. He was a prostitute from Abidjan. He helped me get to Ghana in 2002. I could not stay with him because of community pressure. If you live with one person, how can you make money to sustain yourself? I always have to meet new MSM customers for money. Because Sekou is an HIV peer educator he has contacts.
“A good day in Ghana is difficult. If I meet sex customers and make money, I can sustain myself. If I’m lucky I get 20 cedis, but 5 cedis ($3.50) is usual. I meet men through Sekou. He helps me live.”
At 35 years old, both James and Sekou are considered middle-aged. In Ghana, life expectancy is 57. More than half the population is under the age of 20. No wonder everyone looks so shiny, slim and muscular.
“Customers don’t let me into their life,” James continues. “We go to a cheap room for ‘hit and pass,’ a few hours or a night. I cannot stay with one man. A bad day in Ghana is when I am hungry. I took auto repair training, but no one hires foreigners. Without sex customers, I don’t get water to wash myself.
“If I want customers, I must spend money. There is a big club called Waikiki, near Nkrumah Circle [Accra’s equivalent to Times Square in New York] with prostitutes, lesbians, gays, everyone. Wednesday nights, you pay 10 cedis admission ($7.50 Canadian), and Saturday nights is 20 cedis. It is hard to live.” He quietly looks down.
“Why don’t you go back to Liberia?”
“I lost my parents in the war. If I go back to my community in Liberia, I start from zero. I have no education. Here no one from my village knows me, so I can work as prostitute. In Liberia, I would feel shame.”
* * *
It is now almost 3pm. We’ve been talking intensely since noon. My head hurts. Sekou, James and I step outside into the pounding African sun.
Journalists say the most important revelation can come at the very end of the interview, just after you close the notebook. I nearly missed it in my stupor. As we parted outside the café and I turned to flag a taxi into town, Sekou called me back. “You have asked us questions for three hours. Now I want to ask you.”
We’re standing about six feet apart. He gives me a tight, lingering smile. “Do you think I would still be gay if I hadn’t been raped so much as a boy? Could I be gay because of the war? Because I had so much sex with men who gave me food that I grew to like it?”
I close my eyes a moment. “Um, in North America and Europe many gay people — well, medical professionals, too — believe we are born this way. People are born gay. So my answer is no. Lots of boys get raped by men but they grow up straight, have sex with women.”
We look into each others’ eyes. Sekou nods. “It is very good to talk,” and walks away with James.
I go home and write up my notes. That night, Sekou’s question is gnawing at me. I fear my answer was reckless. The African moon shines through my window. I punch my pillow into shape and think of Amnesty International and UN reports on child rape, mutilation, war orphans, child soldiers, sex slaves, gang rapes and other horrors. Just days ago, I read clinical studies about children facing violence whose brains are flushed with the chemical cortisol that may influence subsequent neurocognitive development. Sekou’s question crawls through my chest like a blood-soaked rat: “Could I be gay because I was raped so much as a boy, and given food and care, so I grew to like sex with men?” A hierarchy of needs, life-and-death question of Being, the most troubling question I have been asked in an interview.
At 7am the next morning, I phone him. I can hear the neighbourhood hubbub at the Buduburam Camp, people shouting, pots clanging, water being poured, engines revving, radio music. “Sekou, I was awake all night because of the question you asked me.
“Oh.” He pauses, “I didn’t sleep either.”
I know I would sound crazy if I burst into tears, said I wanted to fly to him, or used words like “superficial” or “presumptuous.” I get hold of myself. “My answer to you yesterday was too fast. It is an answer only from North American thinking. I have not lived through the Liberian war. So who am I to answer your question? I don’t know anything. We could talk more. Only you can answer your own question.”
“Yes, I was going to call you. I can meet today.”
* * *
This time we meet on Oxford Rd, in Accra’s Osu neighbourhood. Sekou wears a fresh-out-of-the-cellophane pumpkin-coloured tunic and trousers stiff with starch. Again, we spend several minutes positioning ourselves for privacy. The waitress places our fizzy drinks on the table splotched like a map of the world.
“Tell me about your longest relationship.”
“In Ivory Coast, I was night watchman at an NGO in 2000 and met a Frenchman named Roger. He squeezed guys’ arms, always touching everyone. Men did not like him. One day I told Roger, ‘We are the same.’ Roger replied, ‘I’m French and white. You are Liberian and black. How are we the same?’ All I could say was, ‘You and I both know what we know.’ In Africa, we can never speak these things out loud. We drank palm wine. Roger was handsome, not fat. We stayed together five months, but when his NGO assignment changed, he left.
“I was safe then. Community people thought I was a playboy. I was a high-level local footballer, playing as a midfielder, then a striker, but I did not make much money.”
Because of his reputation as a player, Sekou says he was approached by three barren young women, wives who were about to be scorned by their husbands’ relatives because they had not borne children. “I helped them out. All three got pregnant,” he shakes his head.
“Wasn’t it hard to have sex with women?”
Sekou leans back and gives me a rumbling look. “I am African.” He is nice about it, but his look says I am a hopeless outsider. Sitting across the continent-splotched table, he continues, “I have my own child back in Liberia. No wife. A child.”
I almost burst out, You said you were just 14 when you left Liberia. Instead I say, “Fatherhood starts young in Africa.”
He smiles. “I already spied on big guys when I was 12. One talked like a lady playing the Down. People gossiped, but he was too big. He carried a purse with money and helped people, so he had protection. I’d say, “I like your moves. You look beautiful. I’d like to be your friend.” He patted me and said, ‘You are just a kid; we’ll talk when you are older.’
“By age of 15, I was meeting lots of hidden gay men at drinking spots. We’d find each other with special handshakes and a right earring.”
I ask him to show me how guys communicate about sex. It’s important here. Mistakes can mean lynching, jail or death.
“Nothing is ever said. When a Down meets a guy. . .” Sekou grabs my hand in a handshake and presses one finger into my palm. Then he switches, pressing his thumb repeatedly on the back of my hand. “The Top signal.”
Sekou adds a note of self-promotion. “Most guys in Ghana play the Down, so a Top is a big package here. Everyone wants a taste of a Top package.”
Girlfriends provide the best social cover, he says. “Top guys keep a girl so his community accepts him. You create something to make people believe you are like everyone else. Guys father a baby, then run. Sometimes hidden gays drive trucks, are in sports or church pastors.”
I write furiously. Is it coincidence that I have just finished a string of stories on NGO activists who enforce Ghana’s domestic relationship laws and convince fathers to pay child support? In the past week, I’d interviewed three new mothers who were abandoned by their church minister husbands or evangelist boyfriends. One of the women told me her departing pastor husband had ripped up their marriage certificate so she would not have paperwork to file for divorce.
“Travelling evangelists and truckers are always moving, so they are free. If you remain in your own community, it is difficult to be gay,” Sekou tells me.
I recount my own experience from the previous Sunday at Accra Mall, the place fashionable Ghanians congregate to see and be seen. I had stopped near a row of ATM machines. Lounging beside me was a lanky Ghanian, maybe 23 years old, in a blinding white suit with tight trousers that barely contained his loaf. I could hear a woman sobbing on his cellphone.
“I got no money. Yeah, I’ll be coming home. When I’m done church.” Ice cubes rattled as he slurped his fountain drink. “What you think I’m doing, bitch? A pastor has responsibilities. You know Sunday is my working day.”
I admit I was astonished by the contrast between the crying woman on the phone and the avowed pastor flicking his eyes over shoppers strolling in the mall. 
Sekou just shrugs. “We all hide in Africa.”
“Okay, how would you change your world if you didn’t have to hide?”
He answers after a moment. “If I could be straight, I would. My hope to live a free life and work for myself. When society is against us, we cannot be open.”
This is the closest Sekou comes to answering his own question about being gay.
He is not sure whether Ghana has a gay rights movement. “It’s dangerous when people pretend to be gay.”
Opening my laptop, I show him photographs of the Vancouver Pride parade, with go-go boy floats, corporate support and moms and kids applauding. I show my own photos from Saskatchewan, of a railcar spray-painted with graffiti, Homosexuals Rule, that rumbled across Canada.
“That is very interesting,” Sekou says staring intently at the Homosexuals Rule train grafitti. 
Imagining I might “increase capacity,” the favoured goal of NGO workers, by sharing examples of low-cost international activism, I add, “In Singapore, 4,000 GLBT supporters with pink shirts or umbrellas gathered for photographers. They formed a huge pink dot. And in Russia, gay activists…”
Sekou puts his hand on my forearm, interrupts. “These actions are good, but I cannot think this. Each day in Ghana we worry about money for drinking water. I hope international human rights groups will encourage the Ghana government to pass anti-discrimination laws. So many gays are trying to survive.”
This summer, gay pride parades across USA and Canada will celebrate our hard-fought victories in human rights. For the Pride parade in Vancouver, BC, where I live, I’m going to carry a banner for Sekou Grear and James Gayee, two of the millions in the world who dare not speak their name.