(Updated August 2014)

History and Rebirth

There are two stories to describe gay Zambia: about an oppressed criminalized minority hiding in the shadows of a highly homophobic country; and another about a playful cruisy subculture that parties, drinks and talks politics in the evenings at half a dozen clubs in Lusaka. (Photo right: Lusaka skyline)

From the outside, Zambia LGBT life barely registers on the world scene, not surprising since there has been no organization for over ten years as queers and dykes have hidden in the safety of nightlife after a disastrous experiment in gay activism in the mid nineties. “We were scared. After Legatra we felt not just frightened but betrayed,” said BMJ, a lesbian activist and Mathies a gay spokesman.

These two people, along with half a dozen other activists help organize Legatra in 1997 driven by the zeal of Alfred, a Zambian with grandiose ideas that Zambia was ripe for conversion from homophobia to liberation. With the thinly veiled goal of HIV education, events were held that made the evening news, enthusiastic meetings and even a “shocking” public coming out on TV by one member, Legatra stepped into the public eye without understanding the enemy.

After some attention-grabbing activity (distorted and exaggerated by the media) the LGBT leadership thought they were stepping into the present world of progressive gay rights—until the conservative authorities struck back with legal, political and police action. Decrees were issued in the press from government ministries, parliament and police to cease and desist from illegal homosexual advocacy or face the hammer of the law.

Gay folks were well aware of the statutes criminalizing sodomy and other ‘unnatural’ acts but thought the time was right for change. It was a naïve miscalculation: threats of arrest were issued in the press and on TV and radio against this offensive un-African activity. Police came looking for the activist who outed himself on TV but luckily was helped by IGLHRC to escape from Zambia to pro-gay South Africa. The organization quickly disbanded, the office cleaned out and members scattered to their closets.

In the confusion and chaos Alfred disappeared for the most part taking with him the sum of Legatra’s funds, which somehow morphed into a comfortable house owned by Zulu. Members were—and still are–outraged and felt betrayed but there was little they could do within the justice system since their house of cards had no registered standing and no legal status.

So for ten years LGBT community stayed off the Zambian social radar screen. Internationally they had no presence as the tide of religious, political and judicial homophobia continued its norma level. Homosexuality continued to be criminalized and considered a western disease. Straight life carried on its usual marriage-with-kids tradition, with no exceptions. That’s how the government wanted it then and now.

Except that another tide—a tsunami—had meanwhile intruded into the country and across the continent: HIV/AIDS. Over the past 25 years this insidious incurable disease has mowed down millions, the vast majority of whom have been heterosexual. The claim of a gay disease, in the west, was here washed away in the torrent of death of mothers and fathers, leaving countless orphans.

The major responders to the vast emergency were western government and non-government organizations bringing health care, technology and medications. Invisibly and not surprisingly many of the personnel in these hundreds of organizations (NGO’s)—religious, social, charitable, medical—were dedicated LGBT workers driven in part by compassion for their own community, even more so since homosexuals were not at first included in national strategic HIV plans in Africa. (Today the uphill struggle to include MSM’s as a targeted population is resisted by most African government ministries of health; Kenya is an fortunate exception.)

HIV work has served as a quiet entrée for the gay community into homophobic countries across the continent. Nevertheless, many African countries still do not acknowledge homosexual activity as a mode of transmission despite the dedication of LGBT caregivers affiliated with the disease, not as victims but as rescuers.

So it was perhaps no surprise that in 2007 the American-based Centers for Disease Control in Zambia (the CDC functions around the globe) proposed a research study of MSM in Zambia, a first in that country; since homosexually active men are not officially acknowledged as part of society here they have been ignored by HIV education programs emerging from the Health Ministry in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital of 1.5 million people.

The study of course has to be done by gays who can network within the community to gather valid data on sexual behavior of MSM, even though a significant percent of these men do not identify as gay and often make contact in secretive places that only other MSM’s know about. African men, mostly straight and married, are known to have porous sexual boundaries and will engage with another man—or woman–just for the pleasure of the moment without connecting to (in total denial of) the gay/homosexual ‘syndrome’.

Rainka–the New Generation

So Friends of Rainka was born as a research advisory group composed of several gay men and one lesbian. As of March 2008, the DC was still awaiting official approval and clearance of the study from within the labyrinth of government agencies and ministries (ethics, health, justice, home affairs).

In the past, such a proposal recognizing the existence of same-sex contact would have been rejected out of hand but governments change and new minds come to power. Presently there is a high-level official with influence who, after meeting with International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) African staff members and CDC officials has been urging other high administrators to support the study.

The official is acutely aware of married Zambian men’s furtive sexual behavior and it’s relationship to the spread of HIV into the non-gay and female population. Even so, funding of the MSM program by such liberal donors as Holland’s HIVOS will have to be indirect, coming via another NGO that is registered with the government, and the proposed study will carefully avoid any hint of LGBT advocacy.

The Board of Rainka are survivors of the Legatra debacle and are much wiser this time around. Even though the social and political milieu is slightly softer than ten years ago it is still distinctly homophobic and Rainka does not identify as a gay organization. Early strategic planning is focused exclusively on the research for the CDC to get data as accurate and comprehensively as possible since it will be the source on which funding proposals will be based and outreach programs developed.

And Rainka’s future depends on it as well. The plan is to perform a valued social and official service in the name of health education to an invisible and ‘deadly’ population who have been marginalized by denial. Through their research and subsequent outreach education activities Rainka will quietly become known. Its volunteers and staff will also be available and knowledgeable to inquiring minds in a safe place as a community of trusted friends. No advocacy, no banners, no public ‘outings’.

The difference between Rainka in the future and the current informal network of casual friendships (often interacting at loud and crowded mixed clubs and bars) will be a more formalized organization with an office and specific public and confidential services.

Then, as needed, Rainka hopes to offer private personal counseling, social support for people coming out, medical referrals to gay-friendly clinicians, a safe-house for those rejected by their families and a phone hotline will be available. It’s a big hope but this time the approach will be much more realistic.

Gay Leaders

Some of the core Board Members of Rainka are a seasoned team of queer men and lesbians who have survived not just the near-miss of Legatra but each in their own guerilla manner the indifference, ignorance and discrimination of their heterosexual families and society at large.

Mathies, 36, and Ben, 28, my first interviewees, have battled and soothed their way to become an 8-year couple despite personal differences and dramatic problems. They live together in Mathies’s family house in the Lusaka suburbs. Ben is studying hospitality management at a local college.

For two of their eight years these brave guys owned an openly but unadvertised gay/mixed bar—among other bars–on the outskirts of the capital that was the unofficial ‘center’ of LGBT life. The bar became successful because of it welcoming atmosphere but its success unfortunately led to its demise when the landlord got wind of this ‘golden egg’ in his building and decided to more than double the rent. Unable to meet such a demand Mathies and Ben were forced to close leaving behind their whole investment and unable to open a replacement venue. They hope to find other investors in the future.

Meanwhile, the vacuum has been filled by several other mixed gay-straight bars and nightclubs in the suburbs, such as Club Zone, Alpha Bar, Times, Zenon disco, Kilimanjaro Bar and Mayela Nite Club (where I visited one night with Mathies, Ben and gay friend Matthew—very loud music, lots of drinking and various types of cruising). Each place appears to have it own ‘class’ that gather round, from lower working folks to high class business people with shiny cars as people from different socioeconomic levels seek their own kind.

Mathies is out to his entire family; everyone knows and he is not ashamed although he does prefer his name be changed in this story since discretion is the better part of survival. When he first came out his twin brother (married with kids) was hostile and rejecting but over the years they have rebounded and are now close again.

He and Ben live together at his house since Ben’s family does not know about his sexuality (“they are in denial”) even though they know Mathies very well and welcome him, as a friend; they no longer pressure Ben toward marriage, perhaps holding in silence what they don’t want to know.

They count as friends other couples who have been quietly together from two to eleven years each with their own stories of tactical survival behavior, hiding, revealing, denying, or marriage.

Indeed, it is such friendship circles that make up the ‘other story’ about gay Zambia, a networked community of lesbian and queers sharing meals and gossip together in private homes, restaurants, malls or night haunts without active harassment or stalking from authorities.

None of the folks I met had recent horror stories of police brutality, serious confrontation with authorities or court-imposed sentences (maximum is 25 years in prison). Even though homosexuality is illegal, it is the act of sodomy that has to be witnessed in order to be prosecuted by the law.

More often an alleged culprit is detained for a day or two and released with a fine/bribe–if they are not caught in the act. If they are they risk being taken to court but then it’s one person’s word against another’s and often the case falls apart. And when problems arise friends turn to other friends for advice and help or money; there’s no such thing as a gay therapist in Zambia. (See Zambia News Reports for a biased story about gays who were busted at the University.)

Riva the Outspoken One

Two other articulate activists I met were Riva and BMJ who are also on the Rainka Board affiliated with the proposed CDC study.

Riva is a 29 years old university educated gay man employed by a prominent NGO in Lusaka, which promotes social health care to families throughout Zambia.. (Medical care is free in Zambia for senior citizens and infants; all other must pay the fees although there is private insurance as well.) He is expressive, outgoing and proudly gay. More than a few times he has confronted homophobes head-on to challenge their ignorance or bigotry.

He has conducted sensitivity training for the staff at his workplace and other agencies, educating them about homosexuality—what it is and is not—and the needs and feelings of LGBT’s who seek help from his and other public agencies. He has also co-authored (with a research doctor who writes a weekly column about AIDS) letters to the newspapers countering wildly gay-hating mail occasionally sent in by a reader.

One of Riva’s (photo right) major complaints is the lack of any gay expression in the country: “We need to make basic information about homosexuality available to the public—not advocacy but just simple information, especially to people coming out and don’t know what’s happening to them”, he said over lunch at the Times café (one of several gay-friendly watering holes in Lusaka) in the upscale Arcades Shopping Centre (mall) a few kilometers from the city center.

“There is no public forum; we need to publish a book about homosexuality—like they did in Nairobi and Kampala (‘Understanding Homosexual People in Kenya’ published by gaykenya.com; ‘Homosexuality-Perspectives from Uganda’ published by Sexual Minorities of Uganda).

Riva reiterated the need for a ‘safe-house’ for LGBT’s who are in danger or are homeless and also serve as a lounge and resource center for information about issues like safe sex, personal care (most men in Zambia are not circumcised which has been shown to increase disease risk, and many have poor dental care) and HIV, and be surrounded with social and emotional support.

He is outwardly courageous although not foolish, knowing when to confront and correct ignorance and when to keep quiet. “I’m not afraid of homophobia like some in our community who shrink away. Sometimes I laugh at someone’s face and tell them to ‘get their act together’ and stop being stupid and bigoted—someone in their own family might be gay! If you are always afraid that’s no way to live. I try to be playful with these foolish people and make jokes or pretend to come on to them. That’s sometimes better than anger.”

Riva’s confidence most likely derives from the ground of unconditional love and comfort his mother gave him until she died at the age of 36 from a strange illness. Her death left a void in his life and, at 16, he started to reach out for intimacy from other men, finding his first love in high school. (Another laughable sexploit occurred when a seducer claimed to Riva that “the keys to my spare bedroom are missing so you will have to sleep in my room!”)

As well as working at his NGO, he is involved with the upcoming CDC-MSM research and is also chairing the advisory board for Rainka that includes Mathies, Ben, BMJ and others. Having a bit of influence has made small but important differences; one of the group’s targets has been the language used in the National AIDS Council ‘Tool Kit’ for World AIDS Day 2007.

Instead of using negatively-associated words like ‘AIDS orphans’ and ‘homosexuals’ more neutral words have successfully been inserted such as ‘children affected by HIV’ and ‘MSM’s’.

Such changes, said Riva, contribute to a shift in attitude by healthcare providers toward these estranged people and be served in a non-jugmental manner.

The photo (left above) shows a publicity shirt given out by one of many HIV volunteer counseling and testing centers (VCT) throughout Africa. Zambia’s VCT is called New Start VCT with which Riva is affiliated.

Riva reminded me that Zambia’s reputation for homophobia is only part of the gay story here. The government’s position and the crime of homosexuality—as well as this Christian nation’s anti-gay attitude–portray an incomplete image of real gay life—at least in the major urban areas.

There are no sex police here checking IDs in suspected bars (Mathies’s and Ben’s bar was never raided) or trapping people in sting operations.

“There is a ‘glass ceiling’ of political action that we can’t move beyond—yet. But below that gay life can be quite comfortable, sociable and fun. We have parties and social activities among ourselves. Most people in Zambia are passively tolerant and easy going and don’t look for trouble. We rarely hear about gay bashing. Live and let live is their attitude which makes it easier for us to be expressive in our own way—and will allow Rainka to survive.”

Riva observed this was one of the ways that gays can best proceed, by working at the grass roots level and letting other people know who they are, one neighbor, one person, one neighborhood at a time doing good work such as health education and helping with local projects.

BMJ and the Lesbians

Mathies, Ben and Riva were clear that as Rainka came into being that it would include women as well as men. “We don’t want a separate organization for women,” they said, referring to the separate groups in Tanzania. (Coincidentally, as we talked in Lusaka an important meeting of lesbians—the Coalition of African Lesbians—was taking place in Maputo, Mozambique. (See Mozambique News Reports)

To prove their point, I was introduced to one of Zambia’s most outspoken articulate and active lesbians, Buumba Sikumba or BMJ, (photo right) currently a board member of Rainka. Dressed in a colorful African headband and pants she offered a broad smile and strong assertive eyes. She is a freelance journalist, radio producer (interviews and short documentary-like reports) and “one of the best DJs in Lusaka” said one admirer. With a history of advocacy work in South Africa she helped form and support Legatra in 1997 until it collapsed.

Now she feels more solid and confident that Rainka will serve a valid cause and will survive the challenges. Repeating what Riva and Mathies said, she said, “this time we have more than an imaginary and risky program to offer. We will have real data (after the CDC research study) that will give a reason to exist and provide work to do. HIV is not going away soon so our work will be here for a long time. As our organization continues the HIV work people will come to know who we authentically are, not just as ‘queers’ but as real people doing helpful things that people need. No one wants to get sick and telling them how to avoid HIV or getting medical care if they are HIV+ will bring us together with them.”

BMJ is confident that once Rainka has more definition as an LGBT organization that “the lesbians will come to our meetings” and affiliate themselves as they feel comfortable trusting this is not another hype like Legatra.

“Our community is large and afraid to come out because of the national law against us and the anti-gay culture, but many gays are also HIV+. We very much need each other on this matter. We want funding so we can be more available, to open our own clinics across the country where trusted staff can help those hiding or afraid or ignorant. The key is education, first in Lusaka then across the country.” She agreed that funding should at first come through another organization, TALC (Treatment Advisory Literacy Campaign, currently aimed at all HIV+ people).

A realist like the others, BMJ knows that Rainka will not be allowed to register with the government as long as it directly deals with MSM. But this is now and the small breezes of change are softly blowing. To wit, the government recently registered an MSM organization called PRISSCA (Prison Sexual Counseling Association ) started by an ex-convict Godfrey that deals with same-sex behavior among incarcerated men.

Gay Zambia is being ‘reborn’ and this time it intends to have a solid purpose, get registered and be around along time and join hands with the international community.

Further information about lesbian Africans can be found in an informative book published in 2005 in South Africa, ‘Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives’ that focuses on the difficult lives of lesbian women in Africa and includes personal stories of self-discovery and attempts to have normal lives and loves. The text if the book is available on line.

Victoria Falls– Final Destination

The main reason for Zambia as a tourist destination is the phenomenon of Victoria Falls. This gigantic force of nature is stunning to behold and humbling to be near–on foot or in a helicopter–as billions of liters spill over the 500 foot cliff every minute into the rocky gorge below spewing mist hundreds of feet into the air. Nearby is the modest growing town of Livingstone, just across the Falls from Zimbabwe.

I was referred to a gay man living and working here. Henry is a 37 yo Zambian currently employed by a government bureau. Originally from Lusaka he wanted to come to Livingstone to put distance between himself and a disappointing relationship as well as a change of pace from the brash and crowded big city scene.

Sitting across from me on a lounge sofa in the café/restaurant at Zig Zag B&B he reflected on his move to this small town where he has only one gay friend. This does not displease him as he feels self-contained and likes his time at work and at leisure. But he is feeling the distance from his family and friends back in Lusaka. “Perhaps I will give it another year,” he said softly.

He is reserved, calm and easy moving in his own skin. “I don’t mind being gay most of the time. The moments I feel awkward are at family gatherings where everyone is married with kids and I am not. Even if I bring a boyfriend no one knows he is my partner, just a friend, so I still feel out of place.”

But he is mature enough not to let such moments undermine his self-confidence. He is, like most black gay Africans, very aware of the limitations imposed by his homophobic culture, by a ‘survival’ income (over 50% of the economy of Zambia comes from foreign aid; an average monthly wage is less than US$100), by the laws against homosexuality and—in an invisible daily manner—by his own internal self-restraint, an unwilling but self-imposed closet of self-expression. It’s called survival—at work, in public, with most family members, at church if one attends. And within this acceptance of the ‘gravity’ of life LGBT Zambians must construct a satisfying life according to the circumstances.

His parents are deceased; death comes early in Africa so pensions are distributed at 55 years instead of 65 in the west. (An average monthly check is less than $100.) “You have better health care in the West and longer lives,” he said, “55 is considered old here.”

He has ten siblings, one deceased as most others are married or living abroad. He helps support the four youngest ones (in their teens) with school fees and clothing while one of the older sisters watches over them.

He gets HIV tested every 6 months at the local VCT he said, even though his opportunities for sexual contact are very reduced here.

Henry’s life has little to do with ‘gay life’ in Zambia other than his personal identity, which he does not share with anyone local–not unlike countless rural gays in Zambia. There is no expression of his true self here. Despite his calm words and acceptance of his work-a-day routine I wasn’t sure he was a satisfied man and not sure how to portray him except as an isolated and quietly frustrated gay man living the distant provinces of this huge agrarian country that knows nothing about sexual varieties.

He is separate from any intimacy and from inclusion with other gays and from his family other than as a financial contributor to his younger siblings in Lusaka– seven hours away by bus (16 by train).

It’s the best he can do and he accepts it. That’s one of the essential verities to life in this country. Resisting reality too much only brings more suffering, especially if a person is different from most others.

Also see:

Gay Zambia News & Reports 1996 to present
Gay Zambia Photo Galleries