GlobalGayz interviews a young gay Rwandan, Alan Malege, about the strong anti-gay religious and social attitudes in his country. Despite seemingly unchangeable and overwhelming circumstances he and his gay friends display remarkable resourcefulness in finding each other.
Rwanda is a land locked country in east central Africa. It’s located between Uganda,Tanzania, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a small country originally colonized by the Belgians then the French. During the 1990s it was the scene of massive carnage as tribal rivalries took hundreds of thousands of lives.
The current government of Rwanda is not willing to listen to any views on homosexuality. Not surprisingly the Rwandan Catholic church prelate has been unsympathetic and critical of homosexuality. Alan Malege guesses about 10% of Rwanda’s population fall in the categories of gays and lesbians, but they can’t express themselves in any way. “You will find the atmosphere for gays and lesbians is not open.”
Alan Malege is a student at Kigali Institute of Science Technology and Management (KIST). He first contacted GlobalGayz asking if we had any information about gay Rwanda. Over the course of several e-mails he generously answered questions about gay life in Rwanda today. Despite daunting oppression, he comes across as positive-minded and pragmatic in his approach to daily life in his country.
(1) How easy or difficult is it to meet other gays in Rwanda?
It’s not easy being a gay in Rwanda, because there’s no freedom of expression. So it takes more than courage to look around for either Rwandies or non-Rwandies to have sex or a relationship. I did try to make contact with someone but there were some difficulties when the guy blackmailed me. That’s when I was in my second year at KIST in 2004. I was not harmed but tortured mentally, and I had to work out a bribe in that matter. He also had some friends in civilian clothes claiming to be security personal from the CID, but I could not tell whether they were really from the CID. That has been my most serious problem so far.
(2) Does anyone in your family know you are gay?
Nobody in my family knows that I’m gay. I call this my skeleton in the cupboard (top secret)
(3) Do you have gay or lesbian friends?
Yes I’ve gay friends here but mostly from the D.R.Congo and Uganda. In Rwanda most boys intend not to be known they are gay and have a lot of pretense. Also, I have a boyfriend for two years now. He is Canadian but only can come to Africa a few times a year. So I try to go where he is in Africa. We will not live together because of the laws here and because he only comes for short times. So I must like what may come.
(4) Are there any places where you can gather socially with other gay people?
Absolutely no gay community in Rwanda. Gathering socially does not happen. Any activity is underground. Most gays meet at hotels late at night and target foreigners. And here you can find out that so-and-so is gay or lesbian. We don’t meet to be with other gays but to contact strangers for sex and money. Most of these boys and girls do this to sustain their needs-–education, clothes, etc. For some of the gays they enjoy it and it becomes a good game. This is where you come across Rwandies and maybe you can come into a relationship with one of them.
(5) What is the age of consent?
Homosexuality has no age of consent But on the other side of the coin (opposite sex) it’s a bit tricky whereby if a girl is 20 and still at school and you ‘go into love’ with her and if you’re known by her parents you can be booked by the police. But if she’s 18 years and not going to school then it’s OK. So it depends on the situation.
A lot of young people have sex below the age of 16 in the main densely-populated areas. But in small villages you find different kinds of communities. It’s tight thinking due to culture laws and these young boys and girls are always with their elders.
(6) What is story-telling and how does it hurt gays?
The educational aspects of traditional story-telling are proving to be a powerful tool to fight against the expression of homosexual activities in Rwanda. Homosexuals has no positive aspect in stories. Story-telling is at the very heart of all our culture. ‘Grieving families’, as I call them, tend to preach against homosexuality through story-telling. Here you find it’s a challenging situation. We have an oral tradition that is rich with many-sided familiar literature that could suggest new structure. All kinds of meanings are told through this story-telling about our culture.
Africa has many ethnic groups (tribes) and many different ways of living. These ethnics have created a lot of problems in most Africans countries. In Rwanda are two types of ethnics–the Hutus, the majority, and the Tutsies. You will find that any child at the age of 8 already knows Hutus are bad or Tutsies are bad, depending on were he /she is born.
And all this conflict comes from the story-telling by the elders. At one time they mobilize all the young ones and tell all this kind of negative stuff and in due course wars continue. So this applies to the stories that are told in this manner and you find it’s a challenge because here you find a lot of things in the tales that say where homosexuality is a failure.
Storytelling is against most of the unwanted cultural things, such as don’t marry when you’re under the age of 16yrs; never talk to any boy if he talks love-love or about people for same sex; it’s the worst thing on earth.
So story-telling is our culture’s way of grooming the young ones. This has disadvantages and advantages. The disadvantages is that when it comes to ethnics it’s so dangerous whereby division comes in and that’s why there was a genocide war in Rwanda. Advantages are that some were boys and girls grow up in a well mannered way to fit into the African kind of culture which sometimes is not bad.
(7) Is there any violence against gays?
Anything in Rwanda concerning violence is against the law. So nobody will hit or try any mob justice. But you can be verbally abused for being a gay or lesbian anywhere if somebody knows you are that kind. The main religion here is Catholic so the priests also tell bad thing about us and people follow their words.
(8) Have gay people been arrested for being gay?
Although not stated in the constitution, homosexuality is illegal and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment on conviction. You never have any kind of discussion about gays.You have to face the law without legal recourse or help. So for that matter many boys and girls have to cross to neighboring countries where the is law not so harsh. As far as I know, there have been no arrest incidents of the kind being punished. But always the government preaches against us. This leads to discrimination on grounds of ethic origin, religion, gender, place of residence etc. As a result a study on knowledge, attitudes and behavior practices to establish some baseline information on HIV/AIDS cannot be completed.
(9) I have heard there are ‘gay spies’ in your country?
It’s very difficult for a friend to express him/herself due to the presence of some spies who pretend to be homosexual and in due course trap gays and lesbians. These are people who are given money to distribute as some boys here in Rwanda are willing to do it to sustain their needs.
(10) Please say more about the spies.
With the spies it’s funny, and I will tell you that some of these people (spies) enjoy the sex action they do, because he or she needs evidence to show really that someone slept with a gay. But they sometimes reveal that they are spies so this is how we came to know all about them. And that’s why you find nobody has ever been trapped that way. They are given money to trap us (to pay us for sex), but as you know in Africa most people live below the poverty line so they use the spy money for their own use instead. I’ve never been trapped and I’ve never came across one.
(11) How did the war effect gay people?
The culture in Rwanda is 100% against gay activity now. During the war gay ideas got bombed. Rwanda before the war didn’t have outside ideas. But after many refugees came back from other parts of the world they were modernized and saw and knew the way things were moving (including gay awareness). For a while this kind of mixture was good in all aspects and the gay thing also fit in.
What I mean is that after the war all these returning people came from different countries like Uganda and were aware and ‘polished’ to most of the newer ideas of living life. These new ideas were introduced in different situations here. Gays were doing well at last. Things like learning English came in; Rwanda was a French-Belgian colony and you could hardly find anybody speaking English. But things changed in due course as the government introduced new laws which are very strict and were against homosexuals. So now if an intention comes to create a community of gays the government shows a hard core and all gay efforts fail.
(12) Tell us about yourself.
Alan is my Christian name. My family name is Malege so it’s Malege Alan my names. By origin I’m a Ugandan born 1978 to the late Malege Tom and wife Catharine. I was late in a family of six but not of my origin. What I mean here is that before I was born my mother had already six children from a different man. My father was a Ugandan of whom I didn’t have a glance. What I know is he served as a combatant in the early Idi Amin’s army. My mother was a Rwandies tribe member and a business woman. She passed away three years after the Rwanda Genocide war in the mid 1990’s
I sprouted under my mum’s wings and she was always there when I needed her. So on her returning from Uganda to Rwanda after the Rwanda Genocide war ended, I had to cross with her to her motherland–Rwanda. So I grew up not knowing a single person of my late father’s family in Uganda.
I studied in Uganda till my O-level and then A-level in Rwanda and now I’m at Kigali Institute of Science Technology and Management (KIST) finalizing a Diploma in welding, fabrication, erection (workshop technology).
By tribe I’m a Muganda the biggest tribe in Uganda but I had to fall into my mum’s origin family the Rwandies when we returned. So I have no brother or sister of my Muganda origin.
(13) You said it’s not easy to find a partner because it is not safe to show your sexual desire, so you do not have much sex with other men?
It’s true one may take some days not having sex with another. The reason it’s not an easy thing to find a partner; mostly the system here runs on contacts so you will find your self finishing a week or two without sex. And because most boys do it for money if I tell him we do something for no money he won’t accept me. So the average I guess is around four times a month.
Rwanda men are not circumcised at all and they don’t like that. I’m not circumcised but I’m planning to do so. Most cases all partners I meet are circumcised. Only two I’ve found were not cut. I think circumcision increases sweetness and is good for penetration and is better for hygiene.
(14) I understand that some men find each other at the hotels. Businessmen arrive and make contact, both white and black.( Is there much racial discrimination in Rwanda?)
Most Rwanda gays cannot afford to meet at hotels and do not have European/American boyfriends, I think. Where else do you and your friends pick-up guys to meet? Through the circle of friends or a network? Through the Internet?. Public cruising areas? Do most Rwandan gays prefer other Rwandans or white guys?
There’s no race discrimination here and that’s so far the best thing in Rwanda I may say however most boys like Europeans because this is where money is–or black businessmen. In most causes I prefer whites.
As for meeting places, most cases for me I’ve been having sex in homes of those whom I meet However, I’ve had sex as well in hotels but sometimes it’s risky; you never know–unless it’s an inexpensive hotel and it’s a quiet place. Most of my partners are white for sure but I’ve had sex with blacks as well and these most from Ghana. I don’t mind either much so long as it’s fun. I’ve had sex with partners of my age. A recent one was a Congolese. I’m 28yrs now.
With money, it may come afterwards but I don’t bargain or discuss money. Since I’ve been a gay I’ve never demanded any money and I don’t take it as a commodity. Whatever I’m given I just take. I think that’s why I’m doing better than my friends. Several times I’ve been having sex free, other than a little for my transport to where I’ve come from. But sometimes these partners of mine stay in contact with me wherever they are and I find that they play a roll to my fees (already understood) and this has helped me a lot. But generally it’s fun.
I know that some of my friends charge not more than US$30, and sometimes it depends on how they agree on that. Most of their partners are older of course. Many of these boys are students so you would not expect him to take you in a house of his own. Some guys find new friends from the Internet and things like that. Everybody finds his own way of living because you will never have a social organization or meetings for gays here.
In most cases it’s so rare to find a boy doing it with non-businessmen or expatriates This is because for most boys it’s their way for earning. I’ve done several times without getting any money and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact if I meet one my age I’ll have to give him something to encourage him to go with me.
Regarding Ghana men: Ghanaians have influence and consultant jobs in Rwanda so they are the majority in many organizations mostly like the UN. This is how I came so much in touch with them. And Ghana has a wide range of gays. I don’t know whether you know this but in Ghana boys play sex in turn for appreciation.
(15) This information you are telling me leads to the idea that many adult gay Rwandan men do not know long-term intimacy in their lives? Only short term sex affairs? This can be sad–or not. Maybe gay men do not expect happiness with a boyfriend. What do you think?
It’s correct must gays here don’t know long term intimacy just because there’s no way to access them regularly. People (partners) come and go here. If we had our human rights then that would be fine because we would set up things like associations whereby we would be open, even on air. Here you would make many contacts and so on.
For example, in Kenya they have gay meetings, holiday outings, etc., and these things are well organized; buses carry gay boys and girls from town to town by this means when something is organized. The transport is organized by some kind of gay committee and people are picked up from the towns where they live and pay some reasonable amount of money for the transport.
I attended one event and it was fantastic in Malindi. Malindi city is on the coast of northwest Kenya. It was here for the first time that I met boys and girls in different lifestyles. Gays and boy friends are found and lesbians and their girlfriends so it’s really nice. I slept with two different Kenyans on different days and it was very sexy! They were in my same age group.
Kenya is organized better for gays and they have a gay community, though it’s not officially tolerated. But there is some freedom on that issue. By the way, Kenya gays have a web site: http://www.gaykenya.com/
But Rwanda is very sad and there’s nothing we can do. But we still like each other however and do what we can. No gays in Rwanda that I know have been couples for long. And as Rwanda is not a favorable state. I don’t think such can happen. But in Uganda I know several couples, even though homosexuality is illegal but not written in the constitution. Even Europeans can’t risk this here even though they want it. That is they can’t risk a long time relationship due to Rwanda’s laws that everybody fears.
(16) What is the AIDS situation in Rwanda?
With HIV/AIDS in Rwanda it’s terrible, However, NGOs are coming to preaching prevention of AIDS. If you can remember I mentioned before that it’s difficult to say a word on AIDS to these boys because the baseline for the information is not open. On the other hand, in Uganda I read the government newspaper, The NewVision, which is daily. Someone came out and said homosexuals should be involved in fighting HIV/AIDS in Uganda. And this is a Major in the UPDF Ugandan army. He has been with HIV for 20years now. So you
can see the the difference between the two countries. In Rwanda nobody would ever say such things in public or in any newspaper. Let me tell you even if you go to any newspaper in Rwanda and make an article concerning that, they will not allow you.
(17) You have not mentioned anything about lesbians in Rwanda. Is it easier or more difficult for them?
Lesbians in Rwanda I may say they are 150% under ground.You will never know these girls, but the small information I have is that most of them deal with European women. I knew only one girl but she’s out of Rwanda now; I think she might be around SouthAfrica. Not sure.
Alan, thank you very much for your patience, honesty and self-disclosure during the past couple of months as we put this interview together. Your personal experiences and your ideas about being lesbigay in modern Rwanda are a rare look into the fierce anti-gay repression that you face daily. I also admire the courage you have in being true to yourself as you take risks to continue your relationship and also to find new adventures in and out of Rwanda. Against such daunting circumstances I much admire your apparent positive attitude. Thank you again.
P.S. A few days after posting this story, Alan wrote again:
I just read the weekly newspaper of Rwanda this morning called UMUSESO. It’s an independent paper and is written in Kinyarwanda. Today there is a report about the statement published in the Ugandan newspaper the New Vision about homosexuals. It says they should be involved in the fight against AIDS.
But some minister of Rwanda has come out saying, “No Room for Homos!” He says he’s very disappointed by the army Major in Uganda who ‘s trying to involve gays to fight AIDS. Our minister says homosexuals are perverts and cannot even be brave enough and publicly declare their sexual behavior because what they are doing is wrong. He also says that Rwanda has a rich value of culture which is highly valued and desires to keep that way. We should never agree with the Ugandan Major and he promised to fight any gay or lesbian who comes to Rwanda or shows in public. So you can see the reaction we have on these issues. Even with the AIDS education to save lives gays are not welcome.
Editor’s note: In November 2004 the editor of this independent newspaper Umuseso, Charles Kabonero, was put on trial for printing a story that criticized the government in the capital of Kigali. He was found him guilty of “libel and attacking the dignity of a high authority” in an action brought by parliamentary deputy speaker Denis Polisi. He was fined but the judge declined any imprisonment and acquitted him of a charge of “sowing divisions” in society. Responding to the verdict, Reporters Without Borders said “We hope that Denis Polisi will not appeal and we call for Umuseso to henceforth be allowed to operate in peace,” The newspaper is Rwanda’s main independent weekly.
See recent 2016 report: http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=71954