|Junior Mayema Nsamia (centre)|
By Timna Axel
It wasn't a difficult decision to leave home for Junior Mayema Nsamia – he knew he had to go when his mother nearly plunged a syringe full of petrol into him for being gay. Nsamia decided to flee his native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but had to think carefully about his destination.
“In Congo it is not easy to travel to Europe or America. I thought, there is another country in Africa where I can live my life – it’s South Africa.”He arrived in Cape Town last February, one of the many sexual refugees – gays, lesbians, transsexuals and other sexual minorities – fleeing discrimination and increasingly looking to Cape Town for a chance to live free and open lives. Godfrey Magala, 23, arrived here on Monday after leaving his home in Uganda, a deeply religious nation where homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Two weeks ago, the Ugandan parliament adjourned without voting on the infamous “anti-gay bill” – introduced in 2009 by MP David Bahati – that would have made homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment or death.
Magala was among several masked gay activists who were detained by the police for protesting against the controversial bill outside a high court in Kampala. Although he had tried to keep his homosexuality a secret by dating a woman, using two different Facebook accounts and “acting straight”, Magala’s cousin discovered he was gay soon after he received bail.
“It spread and everyone in my family got to know about it. They were so mad at me, they asked me to move out of the house. If I had insisted on staying they would have called the police.”Magala was also fired from his job as an administrator for an NGO run by his uncle, a pastor. “If I was in a different country, I could have gone to the authoritiesand told them that I’d been sacked from my job wrongfully. But I couldn’t do that, because being gay is illegal in Uganda.”
Magala now shares a twobedroom flat in Sea Point with four other men, all Ugandan sexual refugees. They include Alex Tuiisme, 35, who spent more than a month in a Ugandan prison on homosexuality charges, and Juma Baker, 40, who performed on stage as a woman named Shakira.
Roy Senyonjo, 29, was also fired from his job in Kampala when his supervisors found out he was gay. Senyonjo fled Uganda after a gang of five men entered his home wielding a machete, drill saw and a gun. The men wanted money in exchange for keeping quiet about his homosexuality. Instead of acceding to their demands, Senyonjo called the police – only to be extorted by them as well.
The Ugandan refugees struggle to meet their steep monthly payments, especially because only three have managed to find parttime jobs. “We could afford a cheaper flat in the townships, but they are too risky. This is for our safety,” said Senyonjo.
Although gay refugees who arrive in South Africa acquire broad new legal freedoms, they often find themselves discriminated against by other refugees from their own countries.
Magala was chased out of his temporary home in Joburg when his Ugandan hosts found out that the reason for his asylum status was his sexual orientation.
Nsamia was also made to leave the Senator Park flat where he was staying, forcing him to spend five nights sleeping on the street. Local groups in Cape Town are beginning to respond to the plight of sexual refugees from other African countries.
A programme to assist sexual refugees with paralegal and networking services has just been launched by People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), and in Mowbray the Triangle Project recently held its first support meeting for sexual refugees. Jayne Arnott, director of the Triangle Project, said the new support group focused on accessing employment opportunities and housing, and on finding safe spaces where they didn’t feel the need to hide their orientation.
“I think many gays and lesbians will continue to come to Cape Town,” said Nsamia. “Many of my friends in DRC, when I talk to them on Facebook, say they want to come because it is so much safer.
“Yes, I am safer, but homophobia is everywhere. Every country must create its own gay rights associations and fight against oppression.”