Unspeakable Evil – The Longtime Oppression Of Homosexuals In Tanzania
On 29th October, the regional commissioner for Dar Es Salaam, Paul Makonda, made a startling announcement to journalists – an outright crackdown on homosexual activity in the region, which is already criminalised under the current penal system. Makonda also made allusions to information shared on social media, and asked for citizens to make conscious efforts to inform on their neighbours if they suspected them of being in breach of these laws, referring to ‘ad hoc teams’ which would ‘get their hands on them’. While abhorrent, there is the sense that such open expressions of violence toward sexual minorities in East Africa are all too familiar – but to comprehend the status of gay people in Tanzanian society fully, we must first look at the history of the nation and its culture.
Despite popular belief, Tanzania, along with many other parts of Africa, was inhabited by a large number of ethnic groups with liberal and accepting attitudes towards a broader array of sexualities than today, such as the Maasai tribe in which it was not unusual for male initiates to don the garments and makeup of women during ceremonies. However, social conventions were altered significantly upon the invasion of the European colonists. For example, it the penal code enacted when Tanzania was a trust territory under British administration which criminalises male homosexual activity. The implementation of a Judaeo-Christian value system which served to oppress swathes of the population due to their minority status, supplanting indigenous beliefs and social structures, is surely one of the most horrendous legacies of the German and British empires. This deep-seated Christianity has been culturally replenished over the years by the influx of American evangelism in the region well into the late twentieth century and beyond, cementing the rigour of puritanical society even as the laws are updated to reflect this repressive psychology continually. Also, a hindrance to homosexual emancipation in the country is the prevalence of Islam, another Abrahamic religion with a discriminatory and mostly unwavering approach to gay people.
Though horrific, such a vehement attack on gay Tanzanians is not unprecedented in the 21st century. Vigilante justice against presumed homosexuals has not been uncommon, plus tourists and even advocacy groups have been protested and deported for seemingly advocating for LGBT causes. Here is the great irony of Tanzanian bigotry. Such actions are performed in the name of patriotic defence of Tanzanian values, although such phraseology is often simply a euphemism for Christian or Islamic values, which are themselves not inherently local to the region but were imposed upon in, during the era of colonisation, a process inextricably linked to the slave trade. It is this cultural amnesia, as well as an African resistance to what it sees as modern western interference, that plagued the gay people of the nation so much today.
Despite the government has officially stated that Makonda is acting independently without their support, homophobia has been on the rise since the election of John Magufuli in 2015 who is most renowned internationally for his regressive social policies regarding LGBT people, including anti-public health measures, particularly those aiming to provide support for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, and a hardline approach to sexual crime. Indeed, Magufuli initiated his homophobic crackdown this year targeting media outlets and illegally detaining foreign human rights lawyers. This behaviour mirrors that exhibited in 2016 by justice minister Harrison Mwakyembe who attempted to suspend the charitable status of any nongovernmental organisation believed to support same-sex unions. What we can see from these recurring incidents is that homophobia is a staple of Tanzanian politics and resurfaces as often and as naturally as any other issue like electoral reform or campaign finance, and that, for most gay Tanzanians, these repetitive crackdowns on their lives are simply public moments which punctuate a broader, ongoing crackdown which has been continuous throughout their entire lives, partially due to the pervasive social conservatism which means much of the policing is done naturally by the public.
The largely homophobic populace has responded in force to Makonda’s appeal for information, all too keen to report on those around them they suspect of immorality. The renewed hostility has forced many into hiding and more still to relocate in other regions, though Makonda’s close ties to Magufuli means that it is difficult to find anywhere in Tanzania that feels safe for gay people. Despite the condemnation of Makonda’s statements offered by the United Nations and other international organisations, western criticism is seen by many Tanzanians as evidence that they are asserting African and national values, and that the backlash is simply European anger at having lost control of East Africa. Although I rarely wish to end my articles on such a normative note, this cultural dissonance, with all its ethnic overtones, is causing great harm and suffering to the queer communities of Tanzania and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, along with all its supporters and advocates, particularly Makonda and Magufuli. No religion can legitimise oppression anywhere in the world and must be criticised universally and transnationally by all who consider themselves believers in equality and justice.
[Image Credit: Sijuinanivile]