A three part commentary by a gay Ethiopian living in South Africa. He tells of threatening conditions and persecution of LGBT people in his native country.
The entire contents of this story are from the highly valuable and useful Pan-African web site Behind the Mask which has useful information about 36 countries on the continent.
Part 1: A concept of homosexual life in Ethiopia
I want say much about sexual orientation and in addition to this much more about the circumstances of gay people in terms of the law of the country of Ethiopia as well as culture and religion.
Before this I would like introduce you to you some detail about Ethiopia. Ethiopia as large as France and Spain combined, has an area of 1,235,000 square kilometer about 65 percent of the land is arable, with 15 percent of presently cultivated. There are two seasons, the dry season prevails from October through May, the wet season runs from June to September.
The population is estimated at 55 million, over 50 percent of whom are under 20 years old. The average number of inhabitants per square kilometer in 49.
About topography, Ethiopia has an elevated central plateau varying in height between 2,000 and 3,000 metres. In the north and central parts of the country there are some 25 mountains whose peaks rise over 4,000 metres. The famous Ethiopian river, the Blue Nile, runs a distance of 1,450 Kim from its source in lake tanner, to join the white Nile at Khartoum in Sudan.
About economy of Ethiopia, it is one of the poorest countries in the world; about 90 percent of the population earn their living from the land, mainly as subsistence farmers. Agriculture is the backbone of the economy and the principal export from this sector are coffee, oilseeds, pulses, flowers, vegetable, sugar and food stuffs from animals. There is also a thriving livestock sector, exporting cattle on the hoof and hides as well as skins.
In terms of language and scripture, Ethiopian has got their own alphabetical scripture in addition to a multi-ethnic state with a great variety of languages spoken in the country, of which there are 83 with 200 dialects. The main languages are Amharic, Tigrigna and Oromigna, English is not widely spoken.
There are several religions. The main one is Islam from 50 to 55 percent, Orthodox or Coptic Church makes up 45 to 50 percent, others like, Catholic and Protestant Christians make up 5 to 7 percent of the population.
(Editor’s note: In May 2005 the following message was sent to GlobalGayz.com by a reader, seemingly a cleric of a religious organization in Ethiopia.)
“Come this notice from Ethiopian community.we looked your site about Ethiopian gay. This is very nasty. So for now we don’t say anything but you have to remove this site within 24 hours otherwise Ethiopian community will find out who posted this site.
“The Ethiopian, who was the first of the Gentiles to receive from Philip by revelation the Mysteries of the Divine Word and was the first to return to his native land and preach the Gospel of the knowledge of God of the Universe and the sojourn of our Savior which gives life to men, so that by him was actually fulfilled the prophecy which says, ‘Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands to God’ (Ps. 67:31 68).
“The Ethiopian Orthodox Union church, an autonomous Christian Church headed by a patriarch and closely related to the Coptic Church of Egypt, was the state church of Ethiopia until 1974. About 40 percent of the people of Ethiopia are Christians, and Christianity is predominant in the north. All the southern regions have Muslim majorities, who represent about 45 percent of the country’s population. The south also contains considerable numbers of animists. Most of the Christian belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose 4th Century beginnings came long before Europe accepted Christianity. A further small percentage of the population adheres to traditional and other beliefs, including Judaism.
A sect known as Beta Israel or Falashas, who practice a type of Judaism that probably dates back to contact with early Arabian Jews, were airlifted to Israel in 1991 during Ethiopia’s civil war. You have to know all this history please.” (End of message. The apparent protest had to so with correcting the religious information about Ethiopia rather than with the gay information presented. GlobalGayz responded asking for reactions to the gay material but there was no further reply.)
Now that I have introduced the country I would like to begin my main aim for writing – about gay life or homosexuality in this particular country.
Across Ethiopian or according to most Ethiopians, homosexuality is regarded as a white disease and an inexcusable sin. There are three legal systems in Ethiopia, tribal, religious and state law. Homosexuality or being gay, according to this law, the penalty is often death. So homosexual life is extremely difficult to live openly. Even to mention your sexual orientation is feared. Rural people in Ethiopia don’t know about it. If someone knows that you are gay they won’t shake your hand; they want you burned in the everlasting flame. I think this is how 98 percent people think.
If you are lucky, God gives you your partner who will have the same sexual identity. But if you are not lucky, you will be suffering mentally and emotionally until you eventually get one of your own.
Do you see how much gay or homosexual life is difficult? I am surprised with one point still now, not one human rights activist from the country or from out side the country ever criticised the government for human rights violations or abuse in terms of minority freedom and rights.
Updated July 2006
With my last edition I promised to mention about the discrimination against the gays and lesbians and how their rights are violated in Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia this moment many gays and lesbians are living with intimidation and harassment under state, religious, and tribal law. So some of them cannot explore their sexual orientation freely and openly.
In this moment there are so many political, social and economical issues.
In terms of social issues, there is the aggravation of poverty, AIDS and HIV, gender issues, children’s right, education, health ,and so, all that besides the current emergency issues for that country – economic privatisation, free market, corruption and allegations, as well as investment issues.
As we know politicians, economic experts, human rights activists, NGOs and observers have said much more about the country’s crisis. But no one from in the above mentioned bodies or organisations blamed the government officially about gays and lesbians and the violation of their rights.
In addition, I would like to say some about this sexual orientation issue; this is directly related to social, economic, and political agendas. We can’t split it out from these. Each and every right without sexual rights or freedoms are incomplete.
So I want emphasise to Ethiopian gays and lesbians that international human rights commissions must force this government to respect and accept each and every persons rights.or agendas in Ethiopia. Most political activists in and out of the country criticise the government about human rights, real democracy, free speech and press freedoms, about multi-party and free and fair election. Especially in this time Addis Ababa University students and teachers protest about academic freedom. These are the current political issues.
I tried to mention in the last edition that there are so many gays and lesbians living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – but they live undercover, unconfident and in fear.
Speaking to fellow Ethiopian gays who live in South Africa I tried to get a picture of life back in Addis – my own experience there being so limited. One man shared with me his sexual experiences as well as telling me about other gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in Ethiopia.
His name is Rush, he is 26 years old, and he came to South Africa in the last months of 1998. He started his gay life when he was 7 years old around his village when he was playing with his friends. He said, “I don’t forget that day, that was really fabulous and exciting.”
And I asked him to share with me about gay people, those who live in Addis. He said, “Of course! I know plenty gays people in and outside of Addis, especially around Piazza, Arat Kilo, Ambassador Theatre house, in province Bahar Dar, Awasa, Nazareth, Dera Dawa, there are many places that you find gay people.”
My next question was how can they communicate with each other? Is there a specific place like, bar or other places like in South Africa?
“We have our own code language or words. For example, “I am nation” means that I am gay. About places to meet, we had specific places, in addition we could make contact in our home vicinity as well.”
Can you tell me about the circumstances or major problems for gay and lesbian people in Ethiopia?
Rush answered, “They have so many problems, specially this state, tribal as well as religious law, as you know their sentence is death so our life is in disaster there. For most of us we don’t have plan to stay in our nation, this is why I left my place of birth, my country, Ethiopia.”
Do you know any one who has been victimized by the government?
“Yes! I know two gays who were executed by the government.”
How do you compare your life from Addis Ababa and South Africa?
“Indeed there is a lot of differences between in Addis and South Africa, especially in terms of my sexual life. Now I can explore freely, it is clear for any one how is difference in terms of legal or constitutional system as well as people’s awareness.”
Do you have any message for your gay friends and for other people who have same sexual orientation?
“Yes, when I came to in South Africa I was thinking that homosexuality is as a disease or abnormality, but now I understand that it is natural, so each and every person must understand as this is a part of nature.”
“Meanwhile, each and every Ethiopian should emphasize, what is the sprit of democracy? Where is the starting point of human rights?
I think still we don’t understand the sprit and principle of democracy and the culture of human rights. Let us see the experience of other developed countries in terms of this question. They are based on giving respect for differences or identification, for the beginning of democracy and the culture of human rights.”
Official name: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Capital: Addis Ababa Head of state: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
State: multi party democracyPopulation: 65, 9 million
Languages: Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromigna, Guaragigna, Somali, Arabic, other local languages, English
religion: Muslim 45%-50%, Ethiopian Orthodox 35%-40%, animist 12%, other 3%-8%
Status of homosexuality: illegal
Age of consent: 15
Laws covering homosexual activity: Sections 600 and 601 prohibit homosexual acts between men and between women, with a penalty of 10 days to 3 years’ “simple imprisonment”. This penalty may be increased by 5 or more years when the offender “makes a profession of such activities”, or exploits a dependency relation in order to excercise influence over the other person.
The maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment can be applied when the offender uses violence, intimidation or coercion, trickery or fraud, or takes unfair advantage of the victim’s inability to offer resistance. The maximum sentence can also be applied when the victim is subjected to acts of cruelty or sadism; when the offender transmits a venereal disease although fully aware of being infected with it; when an adult is charged with committing homosexual acts with persons under 15 years of age; or when distress, shame or despair drives the victim to committing suicide.
Background information and government attitudes: One lesbian is known to have been granted asylum in 1995 by the US (IGLHRC AP)
Ethiopia voted against ILGA having consultative status at the UN in January and on April 30, 2002. Berhane Meskel Abebe, the Ethiopian representative on the UN Committee on Non-Governmental Oganisations, said his country voted against ILGA in january because homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment in Ethiopia. “It doesn’t go with our society’s belief and general culture and practice.” He is reported to have said.