Gay Malawi

Introduction: Despite it’s low profile on the world stage, the small southern African territory called Malawi contains a wondrous variety of scenery, tribal traditions, modern innovation and a nascent and determined gay organization focused around health education and human rights. Within this conservative homophobic culture LGB citizens have found effective ways of survival.

By Richard Ammon
Updated February 2015

Malawi is one of the smallest countries in Africa and is often considered one of the most impoverished countries in the world. But such a label is too simplistic and shallow for this complex culture of ancient tribal traditions, ambitious entrepreneurs and natural beauty, such as the enormous Lake Malawi (photo right).

The label does not account for the rugged survival attitude among its citizens, certainly not it gay citizens “We do what we can to build an organization with little resources, and look what we have here. At first we didn’t think it was possible, but come and see our office,” said Stoney, a thoughtful and articulate gay activist with the Center for Development of People (CEDEP) in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital in the south. (The political capital is Lilongwe 200 miles north.)

Stoney’s point was that grass roots determination brings results over time. For gay organizers in Blantyre (population one million) the victory of CEDEP is its continued existence in a homophobic country of mighty heterosexism and Christian traditions that few dare to challenge.

Center for Development of People (CEDEP)

Under the leadership of its program director, Gift Trapence, a tall soft-spoken man in his thirties from Blantyre, CEDEP came to life through his and other CEDEP founders’ efforts in 2005 with a vision of health education and social support for the Malawi gay community. Their mission from the beginning also included sex workers and prisoners–disenfranchised groups where HIV is notoriously high.

Three years later CEDEP now has its own offices in a modest 6-room house in the outskirts of downtown Blantyre. “Our target population is the LGBT community and sex workers and prisoners because they are left out of the government’s AIDS services and health education, which aims only at the larger hetero society. They think MSM do not exist so we try to educate them about gay issues and human rights as well as educate our community about safe sex and being proud of who they are,” said Gift. It’s a tall order and a daunting challenge.

To that end, CEDEP’s leaders (three and a half paid staff) and some of its few hundred members across the country, mostly from urban areas, conduct outreach workshops focusing on health and human rights (the constitution offers equality to all citizens, but rights are much abused) and make lobbying efforts to the National AIDS Commission (NAC).

But progress is slow with a limited budget, small staff and a conservative government. “Our success in the prisons is not much. They are rejected people and if they have sex with other men they are rejected twice despite the high rate of infection,” explained Stoney. (Read more: Malawi News & Reports)

He continued, “however, over the course of three years the NAC has become more willing to listen and is warming up to CEDEP’s presence even though CEDEP proposals and requests get delayed in the shuffle.” One important goal for the near future includes a Volunteer Testing and Counseling (VCT), a program well recognized across Africa for testing and educating people about HIV and AIDS.

For their work CEDEP receives financial support from international funders such as the Dutch HIVOS, AmFar in America and the Open Society (founded by George Soros). The financing allows CEDEP to pay modest salaries and rent their offices, which have also become an unofficial social center where gay people can hang out among their peers, watch movies or eat snacks. The office at this time cannot support a food or residential program for people who have nowhere else to go.

CEDEP as a Second Home
CEDEP holds two meetings a month-–called Bring to Life–at their offices (photo below right) where members (15-20 at any one time) gather to talk about personal or organizational matters. A local psychologist facilitates the meeting as issues are raised such as sexual behavior, sexual identity, relationships, health education, coming out, and family/marriage issues.

For some members it’s the first time in their lives they have ever been surrounded by other gay people talking openly about their sexuality and personal lives. The experience for newcomers (and ‘old timers’ as well) is like no other time in their usually closeted and secret lives. Being able to ask about deeply stirred feelings and suppressed ideas is powerful–a combination of church confession, giddy queer club, psychotherapy and a social party.

For most it’s an important release from the stress of a double life and–perhaps by chance–a safe place to cruise others for sex or friendship. More than one couple has formed from the Bring to Life meetings. It is indeed the one identifiable safe place to cruise in Blantyre although CEDEP prefers not to emphasize this.

“Gay sex contact around town happens just as any other but there are no organized or specific places where gay people meet as such.” Said Darrow, another member of CEDEP. “People meet each other anywhere the very same places where heterosexual people meet such as night clubs, sports centers, pubs, buses, in church, on the streets, the Internet, through others…. anywhere and anyhow. Many communications are by phone because that makes it easier since no one wants to risk by converging at the same place every time.”

There are, of course, various less respectable places that hold the risk of arrest, blackmail or unsafe sex.
For sports activities there is a CEDEP men’s netball team (similar to basketball but without dribbling the ball) as well as basketball.

Unfortunately, at the present time there are no women members because “they are invisible—we can’t find them; they are afraid to be known to others beyond their close friends”, said Gift with some disappointment. “We want to include them but they are hard to mobilize for fear of being seen. It’s hard for us to find just one. If we could, we would then network to others, but they are suspicious.”

As well, young adult women are carefully supervised by there families and going out alone or after hours is not as easy. Protective parents are more on guard with girls than boys in this male-dominated society. Girls learn early in life to be cautious and obedient and self-censoring. No girl in her right mind would risk exposing her lesbian identity to strangers in public since it could bring horror and shame on her family.

Historic Sexual Health Research Project
As we sat in the sparse but comfortably furnished CEDEP offices with the usual gay and HIV-themed posters on the walls, Gift described CEDEP’s most ambitious effort. In 2008, this modest organization conducted landmark research called KAP (Knowledge, Attitude, Practices) that proposed to survey Malawi men who have sex with men (MSM). (See Malawi News & Reports)

To find a sample of men, twenty CEDEP members outreached to friends and acquaintances who outreached to others to reach 200 people in the sample including three hesitant lesbians. (After the final data was presented to the interviewees at a meeting the three women have not come to any other CEDEP activities.)

The size of the LGBT community in the Blantyre area is significant, numbering in the thousands, estimated Tijan, a handsome (some would say ‘sexy’) articulate staff member. Even though there is not a unifying gay organization in the city, friendship circles overlap to eventually connect everyone. The majority of these folks are closeted and fear anyone finding out beyond a few trusted friends. Closeted gays would never consider being seen with or being interviewed by a known gay person or an organization with gay members.
(Photo left: HIV and AIDS brochure)

Nevertheless, CEDEP’s reputation has continued to grow since its founding in 2005. Many LGBT citizens in Malawi now are familiar with its existence to some degree whether they are nearby in Blantyre or in far distant towns. (Malawi is only about 600 miles from north to south and 120 miles at the widest point–about the size of the US state of Pennsylvania. Making the trip from the capital Lilongwe takes about four hours by bus.) Many rural CEDEP members cannot afford the bus fare or a place to stay over in Blantyre so CEDEP attendance remains mostly urban and southern for now.

CEDEP came to national and international attention with the publication of this landmark 2008 MSM study, the first of its kind that forced health authorities to sit up and acknowledge the danger of ignoring this high-risk group.

In addition to it being a health study, the research proved to be valuable as a cultural study in that it reveals–with facts instead of gossip–the sexual practices of many Malawian men, which most people, men and women, would prefer not to have in the public eye.

Although not valid as a true random sample (it is rather a ‘snowball’ sample of affiliated acquaintances) it does reveal some insightful data.

Most notably it revealed that 56% of men who have sex with men also have sex with female partners, whether they are wives, casual or anonymous partners. Nearly half of the sample had a steady female partner.

The mean number of male partners MSM’s had in the previous six months was a 3.9 and 1.5 female partner; 17.5% had had six or more male partners. Sixty-three percent had also had at least one sexual contact with a woman in the same time period. Not surprising, in the 18 to 25 age group about 75% had multiple male sexual partners averaging 14 in a period of six months.

One third of all men consistently used condoms in casual sex with other men but only a quarter with women. With casual male partners 22% ‘sometimes’ used them, 2.5% rarely and 10% never, with the remainder not having casual partners. With casual female partners12.5% ‘sometimes’ used condoms, 5% ‘rarely’ and 3.5% ‘never’, with the remaining 53% not having casual female partners.
Only a third regularly used water-based lubricant for anal sex and only 2.6% said they ‘always’ used both condoms and a water-based lubricant.

It was an alarm bell that could not be ignored–the HIV infection rate, according to the study, was an alarming 21% for MSM’s (the overall national rate is 12%). Very disturbing also was the fact that 95.3% of the men were unaware of their HIV status.

The majority of about 76.5 % indicated that no health professional had ever recommended that they be tested for HIV.

An important hidden issue here is that advising a man to get tested or use condoms suggests an accusation that he is promiscuous or unfaithful, which virtually all men will deny and may elicit defensive hostility. If a wife wants her husband to use a condom the implied accusation can cause serious marital problems.

Subculture Revealed

The study thus provided a realistic picture of a previously invisible subculture. Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi and punishable by up to 14 years in prison (rarely imposed but always threatening), which has prevented the development of an open gay community or even public discussion of this lifestyle and associated health issues.

As a result, human rights abuses on the basis of sexual orientation have been high with about 39% of the research MSM’s being victims of crimes or being denied healthcare and/or housing. Eighteen percent of the sample said they had been afraid to seek health services because of their sexuality; 18% had been blackmailed; 8% had been beaten up by the police or government officials, and 11% had been raped.

The data were presented at last year’s National HIV and AIDS Research and Best Practices Dissemination Conference, held in Lilongwe in June. The aim was to inform policymakers, program planners and implementers about using the research evidence in planning and implementing HIV and AIDS interventions in Malawi. The impact of the study was indeed impressive and unavoidable. (Read more: Malawi & Reports)

Because of the survey methodology, the study was not a wholly accurate representative sample of Malawi MSM men. It was skewed toward an educated young urban population. The mean age was 26; 91% had secondary education and 70% were of urban origin in this overwhelmingly rural country.
In one indication of rapidly changing (urban) sexual opportunity and mores, 44% had met sexual partners on the Internet. In another measure 12% had at some time injected drugs, though the survey did not (could not) pursue this avenue of behavior.

Being ‘out’ as gay or bisexual was rare; only 6% had told immediate family members about their sexuality and only 14% were known by a member of their extended family.

Fifty-five per cent of MSM’s said they currently had an ongoing boyfriend, 47% had a girlfriend and 26% said they had both male and female steady partners. Forty percent defined themselves as gay or homosexual, 53% as bisexual and 7% heterosexual.

The data here is all the more remarkable since Malawi men in general do not discuss issues about their sexual and reproductive health conditions. But through the process of anonymous written interviews, many were willing to ‘talk’. “This information from the study has been the missing link in the country’s HIV/AIDS drive,” said Gift. (Read more: Malawi News & Reports)

Some Progress
As a result of all this data gathering and publicity it has become impossible for the government health ministry to ignore this serious issue. Recently, Florence Kayambo of Malawi National AIDS Council, who has in the past questioned the visibility of MSM, attended a post-research CEDEP workshop.

After listening to the presentations, Kayambo encouraged MSM’s in Malawi to come out, mentioning that she has seen people who are “open” about their real identities in southern African countries such as Kenya and South Africa. But the word will spread only if and when the government responds effectively; homosexual issues remain a ‘sticky wicket’ in Malawi. As a result, many months later, CEDEP is still awaiting new policies to be issued by the National AIDS Council regarding HIV education outreach to MSM’s throughout the country. As in most of Africa, homophobia seriously impairs serious health advocacy and care.

Advocates to Decriminalize Homosexuality
In addition to their health education work, CEDEP continues its efforts to revise laws against homosexuality. By criminalizing sexual practices between two consenting adults in private, it threatens a citizen’s constitutional rights to privacy, dignity and freedom of association.

CEDEP has urged the Malawi Law Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of penal statutes to determine whether the criminal offenses they create are consistent with constitutional and international human rights standards. “ As a type of law, its distinctive mark is that it adopts a technique that is essentially condemnatory and authorizes the use of violence against citizen and the deprivation of certain rights and freedoms,” said a CEDEP statement to the press. (Read more: Malawi News & Reports)

‘Gay Marriage’

In America and Europe march and lobby for the right of gays to marry thus creating great social divisions on either side of the issue. But in Malawi many gay men and women (at least 20%) don’t bother with that struggle; they are already married without the political and personal drama of the West. Add to this percent the countless gays who are not yet married but who intend to marry around their 25th birthday and the percentage goes much higher.

(Indeed, from the health research study done in 2008, it was revealed that 53% of men who have sex with men are bisexuals, whether with are wives, casual or anonymous partners.)

The only caveat is that ‘gay marriage’ in Malawi means something quite different: the marriage is to women, not other men, and lesbians married to men.

The reason for self-acknowledging gay people to marry is both simple and multi-layered; simple meaning survival, multi-layered meaning the following:
(1) First of course, is family and peer pressure, a commonality shared the world over. If a man or woman is over 25 and not married the gossip starts. What is wrong? What is the problem that he or she is still single? Are they sick or impotent, or worse, are they gay? It’s harder for women since being unmarried lends itself to the destructive rumors that she is a prostitute. Once the label is circulated it becomes difficult for her to find a mate since she is considered unclean.

(Prior to marriage and within friendships, it is not uncommon for a close companion to occasionally visit overnight. Since many middle and lower class homes are small with only two bedrooms it is expected that the visitor will share the same bed with his or her friend if they are the same gender. If the visitor is opposite gender, the guy gives up his bed and sleeps in the living room. Such a custom makes it easy for two young adults of the same sex to be lovers for a while, but time runs out on this convenience as the marriage age approaches.)

What is not simple is the willingness of so many queer folks to marry the opposite gender. At lunch with three gay married men one afternoon, I asked them about their marriages (discussed more below.) “I knew I was gay long before I got married”, said Mario across the table at the “somewhat cruisey” Chichiri Shop Rite mall just outside downtown Blantyre. “I also knew from an early age what my family expected. There was never any hope to be openly gay and have a boyfriend and live together with him or live in a gay community.”

When there is no other choice open, the expected standard, the imposed one, over time, becomes inevitable, tolerable, bearable and then acceptable. Being a gay man married to a wife and having a child is “OK”, said three of the men although a fourth added, “but its not all OK. Someday maybe I can break away and be free.”

(2) Behind this heavy family demand is a ghost that haunts homosexuals in Malawi: “By the time I am 25-27 the gossip will start that there is something spiritually wrong with me,” said one. Most damaging is the strong belief that a person is cursed with satanic spirits of some sort, possibly homosexual satanic spirits. “It is the worst thing that can happen to you because people will then avoid you, including your family; they will be afraid that you may spread the evil spirits to them,” explained Daren, one of the three.  (Photo left: ritual mask)

Africans (mostly rural) are fervent believers in spirits that manifest in many living forms, from tree spirits that cause fruit to blossom to spirits that cause disease, infertility or mental illness. Evil spirits can cause a person to die. (If a woman’s husband dies she is expected to have sexual intercourse with the husband’s brother—or a relative–once or more to cleanse her from toxic spirits.) Witch doctoring is very common especially among pastoral tribes where ancestral beliefs are not easily challenged by modern medicine. (The Chewa museum in Mua town is filled with ritual masks used in purging spirits from suffering people.)

(3) To add further weight against gays, homosexuality is not just a satanic curse; it is also illegal in Malawi as well as an insult to a family’s honor. The British imposed their homeland laws of morality on their African (and Asian) territories based on their (4) Christian beliefs systems that were guided by skewed homophobic Biblical interpretations thanks to the multitude of Anglican missionaries who arrived soon after the conquering troops in the 19th century. The famous explorer Dr. David Livingstone identified first as a missionary and second as a medical doctor. In recent times, numerous African countries have become more and more religiously conservative and fundamentalist—especially since the ordination of the American Gene Robinson as an Anglican Bishop, which has polarized many other clerics to the far right.

Add to this the weight of ancient tribal traditions that ostracized same-sex behavior under any circumstance. Across the vast lands of Africa, it is generally understood that same-sex activity can never be an acceptable standard of behavior, as far as custom and research reveal. The need to procreate appears to have very ancient purposes such as creating descendants to help worship departed ancestors or, more practical, giving birth to helping hands for the endless daily farm work that defines the vast majority of lives in mostly agrarian Malawi and Africa.

Yet another nuance, easily overlooked, is the gay-married population found among countryside inhabitants (with no electricity, running water or secondary school education) who simply don’t know what homosexuality is despite their feelings. Any erotic or emotional feeling one might have for another same-sex friend has no name or description or permitted behavior. Such ‘aroused’ people grow up and follow tradition without understanding any validity to their homosexual affections.

That said however, reading about the sexual history of Africa before and during the colonial period, there were circumstances under which same-sex activity commonly and knowingly happened among poorly educated laborers, such as ‘mine marriages’ where younger workers were chosen by older miners as protected concubine-wife substitutes since the miners spent long periods away from home.

Whether the intimate sex act was actually intercourse or ‘thigh sex’ is difficult to determine—dependent on the individuals involved. Doubtless most miners were essentially straight, some bi-sexual while others leaned toward a homosexual orientation which governed the type of sex act between them. Other work conditions such as herdsmen, migrant farm laborers, railroad workers that kept countless men away from their villages and wives left the drive for sexual release open to various furtive experimentations.
Sexuality, as ever, remains a fluid drive that varies according to circumstance, whether ancient or modern, urban or rural. (For more see: ‘Unspoken Facts: a history of homosexuality in Africa’, 2008)

Marriage as Future: Gay Husbands
These 6 mentioned layers of social expectations, ignorance, superstition, fear of criminal indictment and tribal traditions are, for the modern gay person, usually too heavy to escape.

Marriage becomes an unavoidable ‘choice’, to accept the majority way, in order not to be seen as odd. It becomes a convenient inauthentic hiding place as marriage and family become the present and future for these secreted queer folks.

How is it for these three married gays, mentioned above, to be in a sexual relationship with a woman? “I close my eyes and imagine I’m with a guy,” said Tijan, a compact muscular guy who also uses his gym time as a reason to get out of the house. His wife likes sex two or three times a week and she has learned she has to be the initiator to get Tijan aroused, which usually happens since he is young and virile.

Mario, in his young forties looking like a straight businessman, doesn’t mask his distaste for heterosexual intercourse. “I go to bed and go to sleep so my wife doesn’t wake me up. Perhaps two times a month I can’t avoid her,” he explained with obvious lack of desire as we spoke.

Daren, an athletic young man in his twenties who uses his time at the gym to indulge his desire to admire other men, said he and his wife average a couple of times a week for sex, mostly due to her “skill” at getting him up long enough for her purposes.

Despite their hetero-activity all three men identified as gay from a young age. “I loved my times with men. It was very right. But I had to screw with some girls in school just to keep up the image with my peers,” said Tijan as Mario and Daren nodded their heads in agreement.

Do you think your wife suspects your real nature? “I think she knows—she must,” said Mario as he considered his usual lack of enthusiasm for husband duties. “I think they are suspicious, but she will never ask. If she did I would say ‘what would you do if I was gay?’” Why would she ask?”

Because some of these men work in fields that involve issues of health and education, it is likely that their wives possibly suspect but will not ask since any disruption in the family status quo can bring very disruptive consequences for them and their children. A single divorced mother is one of the least desirable types of woman an unmarried man looks for.

However, when asked about their children (each man has a child) the strained voices of these married gay men shifted to soft adoration as they told how they really liked being a parent, guide and provider for their little ones. None of them would ever now want to be rid of their child so it appears paternal instinct competes highly with sexual orientation among the mysteries of the mind.

Boys will be Boys: Secret Affairs
But boys will be boys and gay men will seek each other out for friendship and/or sex wherever they are in the world.

To complicate–or compliment–matters, each of the three married men also had a secret gay affair of one sort or another. Stoney (who joined us halfway through our lunch) has had one boyfriend for the past year. Tijan sees more than one guy at a time. Daren has been seeing the same man for four years. Mario has an occasional fling. Not surprising, two of the men’s secret partners are also married.

This raises the age-old question of second wives and secret affairs: how far or long or deep can they go without falling apart with frustration or dissatisfaction since none of these men intends to leave his wife—at least not in the foreseeable future. Certainly these affairs are self-limited because of the marriage expectations placed on all the lovers by their own families. And will they ultimately fail because there is no societal standard, peer support or internal expectation that gay relationships can last or be emotionally sincere?

This latter reason may be the most significant force that keeps gay fuck-buddy/lovers from becoming serious long-term lovers. There is no room, no cultural (religious, political, criminal, familial) support for such a construct as a primary gay relationship in the Malawi culture. Within the heterosexist tradition there can be no future, no stability, no legality for an enduring male couple. One night stands or short-term efforts seem the most common workable option, with a few exceptions, of anything long term.

However, Daren appears to suggest differently with his four-year relationship. His boyfriend is also married with kids so the parameters of the relationship on both sides are pretty much set. Neither anticipates anything more than what it is now. The arrangement is convenient, mutual, affectionate and enclosed. Their relationship began after their marriages and has adapted around their family duties and routines.

Their private meeting times and places have become mostly routine, like any other daily or weekly ‘chore’. Their families know the lovers (and their families) as friends and have become accustomed to their presence. If there is one trait that captures the African spirit it’s gregarious effusive friendships, made all the more important because they are free and don’t require money, which most don’t have; having numerous and ever-present friends and extended families is a normal fact of social life here. For best friends, male or female, holding hands and touching is not uncommon.

So the emotions of married gays are cross current, variable, anguished, loving, resigned and contained. For them, choice in life is ‘imposed acceptance’ since there is no way to change their culture or their own orientation. But these are true Malawians; they are survivors: durable, patient, realistic and kind.