4 min

Zimbabwe activists have an uphill battle

'Worse than dogs & pigs'

Credit: Tyler Stiem

Although there’s no sign on the front of the building, many people involved with international HIV/AIDS organizations know exactly where to find Gays And Lesbians Of Zimbabwe (GALZ). But since freedom of speech within the country is being restricted, GALZ is finding it difficult to get its message across to other Zimbabweans.

“Today in Zimbabwe it does not matter if you are gay, lesbian, black or white, a minority ethnic group, a church or civic organization,” says GALZ’s gender program manager Fadzai Muparutsa. “If you are perceived to be an enemy of the state, you are targeted.”

Muparutsa was in New York this past spring to receive the International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s (IGLHRC) Felipa de Souza Award on behalf of GALZ.

“At a time in which democracy and governmental respect for human rights are closing down even more forcefully in Zimbabwe, GALZ continues to provide life-saving services and programs,” stated IGLHRC executive director Paula Ettelbrick in a press release announcing GALZ as this year’s recipient.

In the face of widespread persecution – Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe has publicly called homosexuals “un-African” and “worse than dogs and pigs” – GALZ strives to normalize the presence of queer people amidst a climate of intense denial.

Founded as a social club in the early 1980s GALZ shifted its focus to advocacy work in 1990. It was the first group to struggle for human rights for queer people in Zimbabwe and one of the first to provide HIV/AIDS education.

In 1995 GALZ received international attention and caused a stir at home when it was barred from setting up a table at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. GALZ received support from mainstream human rights organizations in and outside of Zimbabwe, eventually winning the right in court to have a presence at the event.

In 1999 the organization made a submission to the government-led Constitutional Commission arguing that sexual orientation should be included in the new national constitution. It wasn’t, but the phrase “natural difference or condition” was and has been widely interpreted to include queers.

In the last five years the group has turned away from direct lobbying as the Mugabe government has passed a series of laws undermining the ability of human rights organizations to carry out work.

“These issues are not just about sexual orientation but violations that queer people and the general population of are facing,” Mupar-utsa says. This “closing down of democratic space” has prompted an exodus of foreign-funded organizations working on a variety of issues, from HIV/AIDS to food aid.

In 2000, Zimbabwe’s Public Order And Security Act criminalized public demonstrations and speech that is derogatory to the president. A pending bill will bar Zimbabwean organizations from receiving foreign funds or donations and prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations from registering in Zimbabwe if their focus is political advocacy. Any organization perceived to be a threat to security could be shut down. Muparutsa says GALZ won’t be directly affected because it has shifted its focus to providing grassroots health and education services for its members.

GALZ’s grassroots approach to education is drawing attention from North American human rights and HIV/AIDS organizations including the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT). In April, Tyler Stiem, communications coordinator at ACT, arrived in Harare expecting to find the 11-room house GALZ calls home in disarray after hearing that several nongovernmental organizations had been raided by police.

It turns out only organizations such as World Vision, which reports on food shortages in Zimbabwe, were targeted. GALZ was spared. In fact, executive director Keith Goddard informed him that local police officers occasionally drop by to use the photocopier and plainclothes officers assigned to monitor the morality of a GALZ-sponsored drag show have given the event good reviews.

Stiem spent two months travelling through Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, visiting various HIV/AIDS-focussed organizations on a Rotary International professional exchange. In his research preceding his departure, GALZ was one of the only queer-focussed organization he could find in the four countries.

Unlike other HIV-educators, he says, GALZ faces a particular challenge. Not only is staff doing HIV outreach, they’re facing off against the taboos around basic rights for queers. Stiem kept a detailed travelogue from his trip and posted his conversations with Goddard and health officer Samuel Matsikure on ACT’s website.

“The media make it sound terrible for us, but in all honesty, there are much, much worse places in Africa to be gay,” Goddard told Stiem. “Here the abuse is verbal rather than physical most of the time.”

“You have a lot of people in the closet and you have cases of blackmail, especially among the professional classes,” health officer Samuel Matsikure told Stiem. “There are openly gay Zimbabweans of all classes, white and black.”

Matsikure says the derogatory Shona word for faggot, “ngochani,” is being reclaimed. “Now it has a softer edge, kind of like the word ‘queer’ in English.”

Homosexuality is still met with incredulity in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa, and many immigrants bring those attitudes with them when they move overseas. The majority of African immigrants to Canada settle in Ontario. They make up less than one percent of the population, yet accounted for about 10 percent of 2002’s new HIV diagnoses in Ontario.

One problem hindering outreach workers in Toronto’s African communities is denial.

“It’s difficult to convince the population to take responsibility and to get tested,” says John Wasikye Kirya, outreach coordinator at Toronto’s Africans In Partnership Against AIDS. “Most Africans only discover their HIV-status when they have full-blown AIDS.”

Since many infected people generally show no symptoms, Kirya says, the response from the African community during HIV outreach is “show us the proof.”

Another issue is the extraordinary stigma associated with homosexuality in many African cultures. Many African immigrants come from countries where homosexuality is criminalized.

“The majority of these people remain in the closet,” says Kirya. “We are making every effort to get into these communities and say, ‘This is okay, this is Canada and we can talk about it.'”

In addition to cultural barriers, mainstream HIV organizations such as ACT can be intimidating. Kirya says many African-Canadians tend to prefer African-focussed organizations because they have more of a homegrown feeling when they walk through the door.

“The African-Caribbean community is typically informal,” says Kirya. “Some of our clients go to the mainstream organizations and they bounce back to us. They say, ‘That place is a little too sophisticated for me.'”

Stiem says activists in Africa and Toronto need to put their heads together to understand the cultural barriers and taboos that often discourage many in Toronto’s African community from getting tested.

ACT will also lobby to secure scholarships to bring African activists to the AIDS 2006 Conference in Toronto next year.