Dispatches is UK TV channel Channel 4’s highly successful, sometimes controversial pioneering documentary series that critically covers a vast range of topics and areas.
In a recent episode entitled ‘Africa’s Last Taboo’, Sierra Leonean filmmaker and reporter Sorious Samura traveled across Africa.
In Mtwapa, Kenya, the scene of an attempted pogrom of gays which followed false reports of a 'gay wedding' earlier this year (see our reports), he begins to discover the levels of hate and prejudice that are driven not only by communities, but also religious organisations and governments, and meets some of the young men who have suffered because they are gay.
"They would have burned him alive." "Because he's gay?" "Because he's gay," he is told.
Amazingly Samura asks some of those who participated in the pogrom, "if I was to say to you now I was gay, what would have happened?"
A local Imam and bishop confirm to him that gays should be killed.
The man dragged from the HIV clinic in Mtwapa, Kenya, HIV/Aids clinic - in pictures which went around the world - tells Samura that he had been warned by police that he would be killed.
He says he lives in fear. His mother supports him but his father does not.
Another Kenyan gay man tells says Samura of how he was attacked and had paraffin poured on him.
I heard someone shouting "put a fire on him".To those who did this he said:
I cannot say anything to him. I think we have no rights, gays have no freedom.Samura tracks down a riot leader caught on video who says if it is his brother who is gay or "my son, I will burn him."
In an interview with an HIV+ gay male sex worker, who is raising his young sister in a hovel, the common belief of his often married clients is that anal sex is less risky than vaginal sex.
This attack on a clinic providing HIV-focussed services, including to gay men, highlights how same-sex transmission is often treated, or more usually ignored, in much of Africa. "Many [gay men] are dying needlessly", says Samura.
Unfortunately Samura does not report on the follow up work which civil rights groups did following the attempted pogrom. This work shows that such homophobia can be countered by well supported grass-roots work.
Mbale in Uganda, host of a large anti-gay rally in April, is where Fred Wasukira and his then partner Brian were arrested and were held in custody. Samura conducts an astonishing interview with the local police about how they were caught and this results in the policeman interviewed pontificating on the 'use of the anus'. He speaks to the doctor who examined them to prove they'd had sex. The doctor agrees that in doing this he was violating their human rights.
Samura interviews Fred, now in Kampala and staying with his sister. She say that customers in her restaurant have threatened to desert her because of her support for her brother: "they don't want him to touch plates, our drinks or anything."
At a bar in Kampala where gays are accepted and can "queenie around" Samura meets a man who a gay activist has had a crush on. Told by the man that "I've already says no", Samura asks "You're not going to give up?"
The activist, Gerard, tells him about his life in Uganda: "it's about being abused every day."
He attends a Christian rally where Lou Engle, notorious American anti-gay activist, is in attendance alongside numerous white Americans. The Ugandan pastor says that the disavowal by US evangelicals of Uganda's 'kill the gays' bill is 'just for the media'.
Samura confronts the pastor with a former worker for his church who is gay (it's Gerard, the gay activist). He dismisses him saying "homosexuality is a Western colonisation."
After a pointless hour's discussion, where the pastor says tells him he should be imprisoned, Gerard says:
Whether they like it or not, we exist. Whether the laws are here or not, we shall be here.In Malawi he asks human rights activist Dunker Kamba outside the trial of Stephen Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga about the idea that homosexuality is 'un-Africa'. Says Kamba, how come we have a traditional word for a homosexual from before the British colonialists imposed a law?
Samura visits Tiwonge in prison and comes away moved and shocked. He speaks with gay men, who are disguised, in Malawi. "Everybody's afraid, we are living undrground", he is told.
Malawi's our home. Where we are supposed to live? But it seems as if we are somewhere where it is not our home.He visits Tiwonge after his release. Tiwonge says when the pardon was announced that the other inmates "lifted me up in the air. They were dancing, some were crying."
We want to be free.
Asked about his challenge to Malawi's attitude to gays Tiwonge says:
Everyone is born free. Freedom is for everyone and should not be limited.
I cannot change. I won't change. I'll be this way until I die.
Samura wrote for Channel Four about his experiences making Africa's Last Taboo and the prevailing attitude towards sexuality in Africa.
According to an old African proverb, or should I say according to conventional wisdom, 'a child doesn't just get up and walk, it will first of all learn to crawl' – and the same goes for every race on earth.
There's a lot of talk in the Western media and even classrooms today about sexual attitudes but in Africa we still find the word 'sex' extremely difficult to mention, let alone discuss. Even now as a full grown man with my own children, I cannot talk about sex, or menstruation or even childbirth with my old man because to him all these are taboos, and he gets really angry whenever I try to.
There are a lot of things my dad and his mates would not entertain, but the one thing that makes them go mad even today is when somebody tries to talk to them about gay and lesbians. 'They are devils, evil bastards or nasty animals not fit to be amongst human beings'. These are just some of the words my father and his friends would use to describe gay people and this was exactly how my friends and I, and millions more across Africa, were brought up to view homosexuals.
Somehow we used to be a bit tolerant towards girls, because it was always rumoured that girls in boarding homes tend to have sex with each other, but we always concluded that this was something they would outgrow.
I was one of those who would tease and provoke you until you broke if we suspected you had gay tendencies. We would perhaps set you up to fight with girls we believed could beat you up – and once you lost that fight we would then start giving you all sorts of female names – but that was as far as it would go. We just had no way to talk about it to our parents, even when found two boys having sex, or dressing or behaving like girls. We would simply refer to them as dirty.
But we never even knew the word 'homosexual' existed. For me and for most of my friends, the word 'gay' or 'homosexual' only made it into our vocabularies when we were in our mid or late teens.
So it was a real challenge for me personally to make this film. It was really tough to confront some of the men who were now standing up against gay men in my continent because I knew exactly where they were coming from and what they would think about me – and it wasn't long before respectable men like Bishop Oyet in Uganda started questioning my sexuality. I spent a lot more time off camera answering questions about my sexuality than I spent interviewing some of the characters in the film.
We found out in some of these countries we filmed that, on top of coping with the rejection by their communities, it was pressure from religious leaders that has made it more difficult for gay and lesbians to come out about their sexuality in Africa – and not only African religious leaders either. We found American Christian preachers who had come over to help their African brethren in their fight against homosexuality. We also found out that not only has this homophobia led to a lack of sexual education but it also plays a significant role in the increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
There is no doubt that this topic is clearly one of the last few taboos that still remains in Africa. As the Western world was some 30 years ago, the people of Africa are still on a journey of understanding, learning to crawl before they can walk.
- The documentary can be viewed on Youtube.