/ 12 March 2009

The love that whispers

Homosexuality is still illegal in Zambia, and it’s possible to be prosecuted and jailed for sodomy. So although it would be a bit too extreme to say that it’s underground or hidden, it does take a little luck or effort to find.

I recently had the good fortune to meet a couple who agreed to give me some insights into gay Lusaka. Joshua Banda (35) and his partner Greg Mbewe (28)* have been together for eight years, having met in 2000 through mutual friends.

Judging by what they say, they are at the hub of a vibrant and lively gay community in Lusaka. Their stories and experiences make it clear how ridiculous it is to claim, as some still do, that homosexuality is ”un-African”.

Both Banda and Mbewe realised at a fairly young age that they were different from other boys and, beginning in their teens, each slowly began to find others like themselves. Around 1998 Banda saw an advertisement in a newspaper for a new organisation called Lesbians, Gays and Transgenders, or Legatra. He contacted it and became a member. Through a friend he made at Legatra he met Mbewe. ”It was love at first sight,” Banda says.

Initially Legatra had about 15 members, but it didn’t last long. Banda believes that is because it tried to be too vocal and visible. The social and political climate wasn’t right and eventually the chairperson ended up fleeing to South Africa to escape the police.

Since then, it seems, gay men and lesbians in Lusaka have carved out a space for themselves by being unobtrusive. ”Being gay in Lusaka is not difficult if you don’t cross people’s paths,” Banda says. ”In my community they all know I am gay but I make my space. Certain places I stay away from.”

He and Mbewe have their regular haunts — all straight bars, restaurants or clubs where they are tolerated. Some of the places they name are very popular and well known in Lusaka. Club Zone in Matero and Times at the Arcades shopping centre. Northmead, close to the city centre, is home to several popular bars and clubs they frequent: Alpha, Fahrenheit 24 and The Lounge. Aside from that they gather at parties and at friends’ homes.

According to Banda, there are many different types of gay men in Lusaka: those who are in good jobs and so don’t want to show, the ”township queens” and those who are ”in between”, who play things cool.

The government continues to deny that homosexuals exist in Zambia. It’s still risky being gay. Both Mbewe and Banda tell stories of entrapment by police. They say there’s a myth that gay men have money and tell of situations where their friends have slept with men who then claim to be straight and threaten them with exposure unless they pay up.

Mbewe and Banda have lived and worked outside Zambia — in the Maldives, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and South Africa. They say they were never bothered anywhere, even in the Islamic countries, but did enjoy living in South Africa, where they could freely go to gay bars in Braamfontein and Hillbrow.

Still, being gay in Lusaka is easier than in other places in Zambia, with Kitwe, on the Copperbelt, in second place. But the gay community is expanding: ”It used to be that everybody knew everybody else,” says Banda, ”but this is changing.”

The internet has become an important part of gay life — people identify one another and meet through the aid of sites such as Gaydar. But even this is no guarantee of anonymity and safety, as they must use internet cafes because computers are unaffordable for most people.

Ten years ago Banda was in the struggle that was about to begin in Zambia for gay and lesbian rights. Since that nascent organisation collapsed, nothing has happened. Now he and Mbewe are trying to start a new organisation or loose coalition for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersexed community. They plan to call the fledgling organisation Rainka, a combination of ”rainbow” and ”kankra”, a word they use among themselves that Mbewe says is based on the Bemba word for fruits.

Their aims are modest. They don’t want to fight for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, as they believe this is still too risky and confrontational and could take them back 10 years. Rather, they simply want to get a campaign going for gay-friendly health facilities so that they will no longer be turned away at clinics when doctors or nurses discover they have a same-sex partner.

Banda says they’re looking to the examples of gay men and lesbians in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana and, for now, plan to fight the battles they think they can win.

* Not their real names
Brett Davidson is a freelance media consultant, journalist and trainer. He is based in Cape Town but works extensively across East and Southern Africa