Jean Ngozi is a cheerful man. Animated, alert and smartly dressed, you would never guess he lived through a brutal war in the tiny East African nation of Burundi. Ngozi, who now calls Ottawa home, was extremely disheartened when, in 2009, Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, signed Article 567 into law, criminalizing homosexuality. Under this law anyone caught engaging in homosexual sex faces two months to three years in prison and could incur steep fines most Burundians could never afford to pay.
While Ngozi says he always knew he was gay, growing up middle-class in the capital city of Bujumbura, he never experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation firsthand. However, he is aware that some acquaintances have been persecuted because they are gay, and he says those who are targeted have little recourse in Burundi.
“They can’t go to the police,” Ngozi says. “If you tell them you were beat up, they’ll ask you why, and instead of protecting you they’ll just inflict more pain.”
Ngozi says there is no word for gay in his first language of Kirundi. To many Burundians, the entire concept of being gay or lesbian is foreign, as if it does not exist.
A leading Burundian researcher and journalist who asked to remain anonymous claims Nkurunziza implemented Article 567 as a political ploy to secure reelection in the predominantly Catholic nation. The link between politics and religion is nothing new in central Africa; in recent years several American evangelical organizations have sought to influence legislation in this part of the continent.
“It’s the extension of the anti-gay culture war that clearly has been lost in Canada and seems to be on the losing side in the United Sates,” Stephen Brown, professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, says. “They are exporting it to other countries and whipping up an anti-gay hysteria to which governments respond. They are attempting to reassert their own moral centredness or their own morality by enacting very severe legislation. They often portray homosexuality as moral decadence or as something imported from the West, which completely contradicts local history.”
Amnesty International Canada’s Burundi coordinator, David Smith, cites interactions with missionaries and American evangelicals for the ideological shift toward a negative attitude about gays and lesbians in many parts of Africa.
As for Canada’s influence, MP Randall Garrison, the NDP’s lead critic on queer issues, says Canada can and should do more to ensure human rights violations in Burundi and elsewhere are addressed.
“It is important for the government of Canada to take a strong stance on the issue of human rights, which include the rights of LGBT people around the world,” Garrison says. “I think it’s also important to call on other organizations, like La Francophonie, of which Burundi is a member, to create stronger rules to ensure that all member states meet a minimum level of human rights, which includes protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Canada’s ambassador to Burundi, David Collins, also serves as ambassador to Somalia and Eritrea and is high commissioner to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Smith says Burundi is most likely the lowest country on Collins’ list of priorities. He instead urges action through the UN as the best way to assist gay and lesbian Burundians.
“[The UN is the best option] partly because of how public it is. If an ambassador goes to the government and makes a complaint, they can sort of shrug it off,” Smith explains. “Whereas a full human rights review in public at the UN is something more substantial. You have to actually have arguments that hold up when you try to justify a law that is inappropriate.”
In addition to his diplomatic duties, Collins is a permanent representative to the UN Office at Nairobi. Correspondence with Collins’ office in Nairobi was not returned at press time.
In October 2011, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird joined other leaders of Commonwealth countries in an attempt to take steps toward decriminalizing homosexuality. However, the recommendation was rejected and British Prime Minister David Cameron later threatened that the UK might pull aid from those countries that continue to ban homosexuality.
Baird’s office did not respond to Xtra’s request for comment.
Justine Semonde, charges d’affaires at the Burundian Embassy in Ottawa, also declined to be interviewed on this topic.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Burundi, several small gay rights organizations are fighting Article 567. Humure and the Movement for Individual Freedoms (MOLI) are two such groups bravely facing the harsh opposition to the rights of sexual minorities.
Brown encourages Canadians to consult with these groups to determine the most appropriate way to offer assistance, as there have been cases where intervention by foreign governments ended in more persecution.
“Sometimes donor countries will take unilateral action and can wind up harming people locally. This was the case in Malawi. When the British suspended aid and cited gay rights as one issue, that led to a backlash against local LGBT people. Obviously this is counterproductive; they then got blamed for aid being suspended. That is not helpful to LGBT causes,” Brown says. “For LGBT individuals across the world, often what they need is not freedom of religion but freedom from religion. Some people’s specific religious perspectives are being imposed on the population at large and not respecting the rights of alternative sexual identity and sexual behaviour between consenting adults.”
Since coming to Canada as a refugee in 2000, Ngozi has taken it upon himself to give back, just as he hopes Canadians will do for gays and lesbians in Burundi. He has volunteered at a local clinic for several years and says his motivation for doing so has changed as he has helped more Canadians in need.
To his Burundian compatriots wrestling the strong arm of oppression, Ngozi offers up a French saying.
“I would tell them, ‘Tranquille la vie et l’espoir.’ Meaning, as long as there is life there is always hope. Even here in Canadian society it took some time; it didn’t start yesterday. It took time for people to get involved and get rights and be protected; it didn’t just start like that. The main thing is to be patient. We don’t need to prove anything. As long as you are yourself, everything will work out. That’s my belief.”