I’d like to believe that Malawi’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) citizens and tourists had a few days to breathe easier. On Nov. 5 the government suspended all laws criminalizing homosexuality. Three days later, on Nov. 8,homosexuality was illegal again.
Had the moratorium held, Malawi’s LGBTQ citizens, who constantly walk in fear and have increasingly been singled out, could not be arrested by police or be reported as engaging in consensual sexual activity with people of the same gender. Tourists would also be protected from arrest; in the past, those accused of homosexual activity could have been expelled as “undesirable aliens.”
Malawians in opposition to the government’s moratorium contest that it was not motivated by a change in heart toward its LGBTQ citizens but by a desire to appease the country’s Western donors, which, to them, is a present-day example of former colonial powers attempting to interfere in, influence and dictate African life.
Ralph Kasambara, Malawi’s justice minister, refuted his opponents’ cynicism concerning the motive behind the moratorium, saying in a public debate, “If we continue arresting and prosecuting people based on the said laws and later such laws are found to be unconstitutional, it would be an embarrassment to government.”
A few days later Kasambara flip-flopped, telling “The Daily Times,” “There was no such announcement and there was no discussion on same-sex marriage.”
Kasambara’s reversal is a direct result of pressure from the Malawi Council of Churches, a cadre of 24 homophobic churches that associate homosexuality with Satanism.
The country’s traditionalists and religious conservatives did not like the world’s interference in their business. They contend that homosexuality is anathema to African identity and cultural and family values, and that it’s one of the many ills that white Europeans brought to the Motherland. (A similar homophobic polemic is still argued among religiously conservative African Americans.) But, truth be told, the criminalization of homosexuality in Malawi and other African countries was a byproduct of European colonialism. Nonetheless, the debate over what’s “authentically African” and what’s a vestige of Western colonial influence always finds a way to deny the reality of black LGBTQ existence. Malawi is not alone: Thirty-six of 54 countries in the African continent criminalize consensual sexual activity with people of the same gender.
Malawi’s anti-gay laws are some of the world’s toughest edicts criminalizing homosexuality, so, understandably, the moratorium sent shockwaves throughout the country and around the world.
Case in point: The story of Steven Monjeza, a gay man, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a transgender woman. Because the were considered a same-sex couple, they were sentenced to 14 years of hard labor on charges of homosexuality in 2010. An international outcry and a presidential pardon by Bingu wa Mutharika brought about their release.
Malawi got its independence from the British Commonwealth in 1964, but it hasn’t liberated itself from the influence of the church, which willfully operates in accordance with colonial ideology with its ecclesiastical edicts against its LGBTQ brethren. I’d like to believe that the country’s justice minister should not have to do the same.