Useful website for LGBT Africa: Behind the Mask
2010 April 28 – Windy City Media Group
In memoriam: Georges Kanuma, friend and LGBT activist
by Yasmin Nair
Georges Kanuma, the Burundi LGBT activist and beloved friend to many, died April 14 at age 36 after a bout with malaria followed by kidney failure. Georges was Burundi’s premier and out gay activist. He founded the Association for the Respect of the Rights of Homosexuals ( ARDHO ) , the only LGBT advocacy group in Burundi, and worked to provide resources and support for HIV and AIDS patients. I first met Georges last year, almost exactly a year ago, at a workshop I was presenting to a small group of international LGBT activists. We tend to render our dead in saccharine terms, but it is no exaggeration to write that he struck me as one of the sweetest and kindest people I have ever met. I warmed to him instantly, feeling both protective and protected in his presence. Without engaging in the flamboyance and bombast adopted by so many gay leaders, he simply went about his work quietly and effectively. My first inkling of his strength under pressure came when I saw him hastily leaving a session at a Heartland Alliance conference a few weeks later. When I cheerily asked him where he was going, he responded that a law against homosexuality had just been passed in Burundi and that he needed to take action immediately. I only found out the enormity of that law and Georges’ work around it much later.
I regret that I never met Georges again. We kept in touch over Facebook and I worried about his safety as he worked and traveled under a repressive government. I never imagined that he would be struck down by something as prosaic, to me, as malaria. While I cannot claim to have been among his close friends, Georges left an impression on me. I feel that it is imperative to let the world know how important his work was and the great loss felt by activists and friends around the world.
By sheer coincidence, some of the same people who attended the LGBT conference last year were here last week for the same event, and I met with a few of them over lunch in Boystown to talk and reminisce about Georges. The group included Rosanna Flamer-Caldera of Sri Lanka’s Equal Ground; Georges Azzi of the Lebanese group Helem; and Matthew French and Sean Casey, both of Heartland Alliance. Flamer-Caldera described Georges as a "very sensitive, soft-spoken and quiet guy who made a point without raising his voice an octave." She said that his death was "a loss for the global south; he died needlessly and his death is a blow to us all."
Casey seconded that emotion when he described Georges’ death as "pointless, frustrating and totally unnecessary." Gesturing at everyone around the table, he said, "This would never have happened to any of us here: We would all have been foreigners with insurance. Georges died because he was an activist without insurance." Casey provided details about the circumstances of Georges’ death, which came about because he suffered kidney failure. Burundi has no dialysis machine and Casey’s Heartland Alliance colleagues in the country tried desperately to get him evacuated to Nigeria for treatment. But they were delayed by bureaucratic excuses—the plane was too small, the doctor wouldn’t sign the release, and so on.
Casey spoke admiringly of Georges’ bravery, which was, he said with a laugh, almost extreme to the point of lunacy, a thought echoed by French. When the bill criminalizing homosexuality passed in Burundi, Georges had the option of applying for asylum in the United States. Yet, he decided to return, even as his friends worried about him being arrested.
Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch and a friend of Georges, also remembered that same moment when the activist could have stayed in the U.S. Speaking by phone, he said, "His case for asylum would have been an open-and-shut one. But he felt such a degree of commitment to the cause and the people he was fighting for; I had to respect his decision." Long emphasized Georges’ tremendous accomplishments in a country with a huge amount of political repression and social surveillance, "Georges took these tiny networks of MSMs, lesbians and gays and turned it into a community of activists."
Long said Georges’ death was "a reflection of the collapse of the African health system… he died from a minor and manageable disease. He was also a health activist. It’s a miserable irony that he died of the same thing he was trying to solve." Long wants people to understand that Georges’ death shows that, "We must realize that there are strong, indigenous voices of activists who have accomplished a lot in Africa. Georges’ death is an immeasurable loss but he left a story and an example for people not just in Africa but the world."
From elsewhere, the comments flowed in, speaking to a collective sense of loss experienced by the international LGBT community. From Toronto, the activist Akim Adé Larcher wrote in an e-mail, "For me, George was a friend and inspiration. I hope through his death we remember to continue the fight not just about LGBT human rights, but about advocating that governments take responsibility for providing a social net that could have prevented Georges’ death." Jawad Hussain Qureshi, South Asia analyst with the Canadian government, wrote from Ottawa: "I will remember him as a visionary and a pioneer for LBGT rights. He gave me hope. He inspired me." The Nigerian activist Olumide Makanjuola wrote a heartfelt note: "It is too soon for a man like Georges to leave us now but I am sure he still lives in our heart and community. Georges, I did not get to see you again but you live in my heart forever."
For those of us left behind, there are still the memories. I remember Georges’ kindness, gentleness and quiet strength and I am struck by the love and respect he engendered in others. Georges Azzi remembers a friend who persevered through adversity and poverty, once stranded at the airport in Paris for two hours because he couldn’t afford cab fare. But he also remembers those cold days last March as the two of them huddled together during cigarette breaks, Georges wearing a hat with a giant snowman on it, part of the incongruous winter gear he had scrounged up in Burundi. "What brought us together," said Azzi, "were the cigarettes, but then I realized how much he had done with such limited resources." And then, he said, simply, "I miss him."
21 July 2011 – MSM Global Forum
The Human Rights Status of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual in East Africa 2009-2010
by Andiah Kisia and Milka Wahu
Introduction to LGBTI life In East Africa
On January 26th 2010, three weeks after the above judgement was made, David Kato, one of the complainants in the case and one of the people mentioned in the Rolling Stone tabloid as one of 100 homosexuals in Uganda, was assaulted and killed in his home in Mukono District, 27 kilometers outside Kampala.
Until very recently, the lives of LGBTI people in East Africa have been characterized by silence and invisibility. So little was known about the lives of sexual minorities in the region that it was easy for the larger society to imagine that they did not exist at all. So it was that in 1999, during an acceptance speech at a ceremony recognising the Uganda government’s efforts to combat HIV, President Yoweri Museveni could say that male to male transmission of HIV in Uganda was not a problem because “we do not have homosexuals in Uganda.” Within a week of President Museveni’s comments, Kenya’s then President Daniel arap Moi weighed in on the issue, describing homosexuality as unchristian and un-African and vowing not to “shy away from warning Kenyans against the dangers of the scourge.”
For years, public discourse on sexual minorities has been largely confined to vague references to the “problem” of homosexuality in schools and prisons. This, coupled with a lack of representation in any media of individuals self-identifying as gay, lesbian or transgender means that the dialogue has been driven by long held and unquestioned assumptions of the newness and un-Africanness of homosexuality and other sexual and gender minority identifications and practices.
Only within the last decade have sexual and gender minorities in Africa as a whole and East Africa in particular began to speak up against the misplaced notions of who and what they are and by so doing, to stimulate debate within their societies, not always informed or productive, but always spirited, about the nature and rights of same-sex practicing citizens. Unsurprisingly, the increased visibility of LGBTI individuals and groups has resulted in a strong backlash by a conservative society…
View complete report here
8 November 2011 – LGBT Asylum News
Trying not to be afraid in Burundi
by F. Young
The title says it all. Burundi’s largest gay rights group is called Humure, which means “Don’t be afraid” in the Kirundi language, but, ironically, its leaders are afraid to come out. None of the three executives interviewed by Xtra use their real names in the media, and only one of them is out to his family. They weren’t always so guarded. When the group was founded in 2003, it was called the Association pour le respect des droits des homosexuels (association for the rights of homosexuals), and its members participated publicly in AIDS prevention campaigns. However, things changed in 2009 when gay sex was criminalized for both men and women in Burundi, as a wave of homophobia swept that part of Africa. So, a more discrete name was chosen.
Gay sex had never been a crime in Burundi and, though the group says the law is not actively enforced, it had a chilling effect. The Internet cafe that Humure operated had to close because gays were too afraid to be seen there. According to its coordinator, the group stepped back and focused more on health issues. The law scares a lot of people, he said. The daily struggles faced by LGBT Burundians are detailed in Forbidden, a collection of printed and online testimonies made by Human Rights Watch in 2009. They talk about how they have been fired from their jobs, beaten by parents and neighbourhood youth and evicted from their homes. They see the new law as a huge step backward.
The U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report for 2010 says that discrimination is not always overt or widespread in Burundi. Families sometimes disowned their children, and LGBT’s were often forced to marry persons of the opposite sex due to social pressure, with a Humure survey showing that 90% of men who have sex with men were married. At least, the situation is better than in several other African countries. With a maximum punishment of two years in jail, Burundi’s law is far less drastic than those of Tanzania and Uganda, for example, where the maximum is life imprisonment, or of Somalia and four other countries, where it is death. And, unlike Uganda, in Burundi the media are not interested in outing LGBTs, and people are not beaten in the streets.
However, Humure is concerned that the situation is worsening, due to the criminalization and increasing homophobia in neighbouring countries. A lot of people have been kicked out of their houses, according to the group’s legal representative. There are a few hopeful signs, though. The diplomatic community is sympathetic, and one political party that considers that gays are “people like others” won four seats in the last election. Humure’s legal representative even thinks that there will be a gay pride in Burundi one day." Hopefully in a few years, we will have some rights," he says. "It will come."
Burundi is a tiny country in the center of sub-Saharan Africa. According to Wikipedia, about 75% of its 8 million people are Christian and 20% belong to indigenous religions. Largely rural and agricultural, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its official languages are French and Kirundi.