Stigmatized and unwelcome, Rwanda’s leading lesbian ‘warriors’ battles uphill for small achievements against a rudely homophobic country–despite one of the century’s worst bloodbaths that resulted from tribal discrimination. The government does not appear to have learned its lesson from history.
Note: since this story was written Naomi Ruzindana has emigrated to Sweden where she is active in Human Rights. Contact: http://find-hope.org/
By Richard Ammon
Updated March 2011
See recent 2016 report: http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=71954
I met one of Rwanda’s most outspoken activists, Naomi Ruzindana, outside Rwanda’s where she was keeping a low profile since she had become a persona non-gratis in her family home and native country. Her offense: being homosexual. (photo right: central Rwanda)
Rwanda is not a good place to be LGBT (gay). Just prior to my visit, another anti-gay crisis unfolded as two other lesbian activists from Rwanda were arrested on false charges on their way to a lesbian conference in Mozambique. Despite having proper papers to enter Mozambique the Rwanda authorities detained the women and accused them of have forged documents. The situation was tense but was finally resolved, two weeks later, when the prosecutor in Kigali finally admitted he had insufficient evidence against the activists and they were released. (See report) Working behind the scene, Ruzindana helped coordinate the release of the women.
Ruzindana is a soft-spoken lesbian mother who lives, off and on, with her two children outside Kigali with only intermittent furtive visits to the city to continue her activism. If she had been content to be a stay-at-home mom and follow the strictures of her family and culture she would not be alienated from her home. But her integrity and opposition to ignorance and homophobia has made her both stronger and at risk.
She is a co-founder of Horizon Community Association in Rwanda (HOCA) in 2003. At the time, she worked in a bank and from time to time her gaydar picked up LGBT vibes from certain customers who preferred her service at the bank. Over time she made casual friendships which developed into a friendship circle which morphed over coffee and dinners to the founding an organization called ‘Little Sisters of Rwanda’.
At first it was a social club but soon an agenda for action emerged as the group began to communicate with other LGBT groups in Africa and be inspired to become an activist group. When the Coalition of Africa Lesbians(COAL) held a conference in South Africa in 2004 the opportunity presented itself to ‘come out’ as an identified gay group. By this time there were about six members in Little Sisters.
Death and Rebirth
Rwanda today is a different country than the holocaust years of the genocide mid 90’s. Then, as New York Pride and summer Gay Games 1994 celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall ‘gay revolution’, Rwanda sank into one of the lowest levels of barbarity the recent world has known.
Over the course of 100 days (and years before) in Apirl, May and June 1994 about 1,000,000 people—mostly members of the Tutsi tribe but also many Hutu—were hacked, shot, tortured or burned to death as a result of years of government political tribal propaganda, an holocaust made visceral by the 2005 Hollywood film ‘Hotel Rwanda’. (photo left: ‘Hotel Rwanda’ today)
After two corrupt and vicious presidents (now in prison) who favored policies of genocide after independence from England, a younger more sane and trustworthy president, Paul Kagane, battled his way to power (with guns) in 2003 promising to bring unity and stability and healing to the country.
Since then the economy and society have improved remarkably and the capital city of Kigali now sprouts new office buildings, shopping malls, new roads and sidewalks, greenery and trendy cafes (photo right: Bourbon Cafe).
It is city of rebirth with public ethnic strife stifled by reconciliation and education of the young away from divisive ‘revisionist’ thought. Tribalism is tenacious in rural areas and still divides farmers.
One observer has called Kagane a ‘benevolent dictator’ who has done well for Rwanda in minimizing corruption (from 100% to only 50%) and increasing accountability. The cost has been in human rights and full freedom of expression in the press and in any group that varies from the heterosexual-Christian-conservative-traditional obedience to authority.
Many welcome the strict standards enforced by police (less prone to bribery now): motorcycle taxi drivers must be registered and wear helmets + carry one for their passenger, and traffic actually stops for pedestrians in crosswalks, something unheard of in most of Africa.
Needless to say these demands for conformity were headed for a showdown with the ‘alternative’ agenda intended by Little Sisters. Kigali is a ‘small’ place (a city well under one million, spread across seven rolling hills) and the authorities are aware of who is doing what.
When Little Sisters members returned from the COAL meeting in Johannesburg, they were threatened with arrest–although there is no mention of homosexuality in the statutes of Rwanda since homosexuals ‘don’t exist’ and have no legal standing. But laws are loosely interpreted by those in power, and anyone can be detained for an indefinite time without specific charges. (We drove past Kigali’s main prison and could see the prisoners dressed in bright pink uniforms!)
Returning from the COAL meeting some Little Sisters members lost their jobs—as journalist, teacher– and were sufficiently frightened to leave the country for Canada and Holland. Ruzindana was left alone and Little Sisters ceased to exist as a group. (photo left: women’s day meeting)
Not a woman to be cowed for long, she started up the group again in 2005, boldly using the same name but keeping a low profile. She quit her job at the bank to engage full time in activism and fund raising and built up Little Sisters with 17 members in Kigali and suburbs and 10 more across the country or abroad. By the end of 2007 there were 35 members and the group was called Horizons Community Association of Rwanda.
Always at risk Ruzindana and others persisted in their aim to bring some minimal level of awareness and education about LGBT Rwandans to authorities, police, parliament members, healthcare givers (dealing with HIV and prevention but without targeting MSM), and social workers. She went on the local radio as well as Voice of America to advocate for a change in attitude and in the laws. She was indeed fully out. And more than once was she hastily invited to leave a homophobic MP’s office when she announced her intention for visiting.
In June 2007 some COAL members came from Johannesburg to Kigali to offer training to HOCA in organizational matters, fund raising and networking. As well, IGLHRC’s Cary Johnson arrived for consultation. OUT organization also advised and well as Mac Darling from Uganda and Marlin Judy from RSA. In return, HOCA developed some valuable research on lesbian and gays in Rwanda.
In September 2007, Ruzindana and members attended the major World Social Forum conference in Nairobi, partially funded as a study tour by the Ford Foundation’s Sexuality and Gender division in Africa. Helping to staff the infamous ‘Q-stall’ at the Forum Ruzindana and HOCA were visible and public once again despite knowing they were at risk at home.
Not surprising, the HOCA attendees were arrested on their return home and detained for a week during which they were roughed up and were demanded to confess their Rwandan contacts and sources. Through friends and legal persuasion (and probably some secreted money) they were released and immediately left for Uganda where Ruzindana now resides most of the time with her children and partner.
She receives some funding for her protection from different human rights organizations. Based on her experiences, she has written a report on rights abuses in Rwanda for Amnesty International.
In that report she states “Despite the emergence of a small, though largely underground, movement to begin advocating the rights of sexual minority groups, many (most) in Rwanda continue to deny the existence of homosexuality in the country, or restrict its reach to limited segments of the population…
“Rwanda’s law is currently silent on the issue of homosexuality: neither the 2003 Constitution nor the 1977 Penal Code make mention of any crime related to homosexuality… Not only does the law fail to specifically prohibit homosexual acts, but the Constitution also contains a number of articles which guarantee the right to privacy, opinion and belief, which supports the right to freedom and privacy with regards to an individual’s personal life and sexual practices.
“Some advocate laws to criminalize homosexuality arguing that the state should prohibit the practice as part of the state’s obligation to protect the values and cultural traditions of the country. Proponents of this limitation argue that homosexuality is not a part of Rwanda’s cultural heritage, and as a result, it should not be accepted.”
As if this tide of homophobia were not enough to swamp any activist, a 2007 newspaper article entitled “Can Rwanda Tolerate Homosexuality,” the author compared homosexuality to “moral genocide,” and accused those who practice homosexuality of harboring “genocidal ideology.” The author believed that homosexuality is against the natural order, as humans were intended to reproduce; he equates homosexuality with genocide by claiming that homosexuals are opposed to continuation of the species. (Nevermind that a large minority of heterosexual married couples across the world choose not to have children.)
But, says Ruzindana, countering such bigoted writing, “using such a sensitive and politically inflammatory term to describe homosexuals is dangerous in an environment as fragile and sensitive as post-genocide Rwanda., but of course that was the writer’s intention.
She continued, “this argument, apart from erroneously claiming that homosexuality has not always existed within the culture, also overlooks the state’s obligation to ensure that the traditions it promotes adhere to the human rights principles and fundamental freedoms guaranteed within the Constitution.” (photo left: Nairobi Guardian report from Reuters)
These words come from Ruzindana’s articulate writings she has composed for human rights groups, newspaper editorials and media interviews over the past three years.
She is acutely aware that journalists have used their medium to incite violence and discrimination against homosexuals. She wrote about a Rwandan radio announcer who broadcast, in a distorted manner, that homosexuals convened a conference in Nairobi to network with other LGBT groups and were organizing for their rights. He went on to lament the usual tired harangue that gays and lesbians threatened the moral fiber of the country and to hunt them down and their friends and“burn them.” (photo right: best friends)
Patrick the ‘Outlaw’
Ruzindana said that in 2007, Patrick, a HOCA member, was arbitrarily arrested by the police in the area of Gikondo, in Kabuga cell. He was picked up by two men wearing civilian clothes and carrying police badges, and the first thing that these men did was to break his SIM card so he couldn’t get in touch with anyone.
The men arrested Patrick and accused him of being a homosexual, and of attending conferences outside of the country to get information and spread stories about Rwanda. He was held in prison for several days and denied access to a lawyer, but was never formally charged.
He was released after another member who knew where Patrick was being held approached the police authorities along with two other activists, and negotiated his release in exchange for a payment. When Patrick was released from prison, he had been severely beaten and was traumatized, and left for Uganda shortly thereafter…”
I met Patrick, now 24, in Kigali where he has since returned, saying that after a year or so people forget what happened. He confirmed the abuse he received in jail at the hands of police and other inmates. He was threatened with sexual abuse by cell mates and was fortunately removed to a separate cell.
Surprisingly, he said his immediate family is accepting of his sexual orientation including his parents, sister and cousin. Soft spoken with some difficulty in English he intends to continue his university education in business management in Kigali.
Refuting the myth of no native homosexuals in Rwanda, he said he has about half a dozen gay friends in Kigali who get together at various clubs or discos in the city and mix with the mostly straight crowds at places such as the Cadillac Cafe/Restaurant, the B-Club, the Bourbon Café the Sky Hotel lounge and the ever popular Planet KBC disco.
In addition to HOCA’s social and advocacy work Patrick said they gather for sports activities, cultural activities (‘Culture Rwandois’), dancing or music performances.
Serious Work Ahead
Sitting in Kampala at a favorite restaurant, Ruzindana said, “though there is no law criminalizing homosexuality–and Rwanda has clear procedural guarantees in place to govern practices for the detention, arrest, trial and sentencing of individuals accused of crimes–violation of these procedures seems to be commonplace especially for homosexuals.
As a result, gays and lesbians live in legitimate fear of harassment and illegal rights violations by the police, government authorities, and individuals in their communities…” (photo right: students in Kigali)
Ruzindana finished our interview with a list of challenges for the LGBT community in Rwanda:
-oppose the violation of constitutional rights for all Rwandans;
-end arbitrary detention of homosexuals and assuring their safety during detention;
-protest and persuade the government to punish any media that encourages discrimination or violence against homosexuals;
-advocate against the proposals in parliament to criminalize homosexuality’.
It is a tall order for a small minority. It will not happen soon but Ruzindana looks forward far beyond tomorrow to the next generation.
In addition to the HRW report Ruzindana has written two other important documents that describe in more detail the challenges HOCA faces can be read on the HOCA Reports page of this site. They make insightful reading.
Just outside Kigali cty center is a memorial and gravesite of over 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide–a nightmare story of discrimination gone mad. (photo right)
In the city center is another genocide memorial, the site where 10 UN Belgian peacekeepers were massacred the night before the country went mad in 1994. (photo left).