Fear grips Tanzania’s queer people
For a little over a week he has had to live in hiding. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian from his two-bedroom house outside Dar es Salaam city centre, the human rights activist and openly gay man says: “As a community we are still living in fear.
Since Monday last week, I haven’t stepped outside this house.
We are in danger.”
The country’s queer communities are living in fear after Dar es Salaam’s regional commissioner, Paul Makonda, told reporters on October 29 that he had formed a task force to round up and arrest those people suspected of being queer. He also urged citizens to report anyone they knew who are — or are suspected of being — queer to the police.
The activist is so fearful of being identified that, not only does he not want to be named, he also believes that the use of any name — no matter how common — as a pseudonym could implicate others. “Even if you use a name like ‘John’ or ‘Joe’ for me, they will find some gay man whose name is ‘John’ or ‘Joe’ and say, ‘You spoke to the media’. You see, we are in real, real danger here.”
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Tanzania and carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Another activist, who chose to be identified as Angelo Justin, says: “The situation is so bad because it is hate speech and has created violence within our communities. Some people are running from one region to another, others are fleeing the country.”
Justin says there is no clarity about the number of people displaced by the threat of violence. “We are still doing an analysis of the situation. But it is a big number.”
Corroborating this, the first activist says: “As I am talking to you, I have 22 people who want to seek asylum. People are tired, saying this is something that is not going to stop.”
Although a statement by the government distancing itself from Makonda’s call for a crackdown was issued by the foreign affairs ministry this week, it did little to quell people’s fears.
“The government of the United Republic of Tanzania would like to clarify that these are [Makonda’s] personal views and not the position of the government,” the statement read.
The activist is not convinced. “When you look at that statement, it does not say the government regrets what Makonda did or that they are warning him not to do what he has done.”
Justin says he “would like to acknowledge the statement issued by government”, but adds: “But we are hoping they will take measures against [Makonda].”
For Neela Ghoshal, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights (LGBT), the statement is “clearly a good sign that Tanzania cares about international pressure, which is a good thing when it comes to human rights”.
“But this doesn’t necessarily mean that people are safe, because the ministry of foreign affairs has no direct control over the police.”
By the time of print, 10 men had been arrested on suspicion of being gay. Activists have raised concerns that men will have to be subjected to forced anal testing, a method often used in the country to “prove” same-sex relations.
The activist adds that it is not only the police that LGBT people are afraid of. “On social media, even people who know us will send messages saying, ‘I will send your name to Makonda and if you don’t want me to do that, give me some money’.”
His two-bedroom house, which is about an hour from Dar es Salaam, might be a prison for now, but he realises he is still in a much better position than most.
“My house is in a good area. People here mind their own business. My house has a fence, so it’s okay. And I have my dogs protecting me. But what about the rest of the community? My colleagues and I are really fearing for them.”
As for “the big number” who have already fled the country to avoid the threat of violence or imprisonment, Justin says: “I would love for them to come back one day. Because this is their home. They are citizens of this country.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian