Malawi is homophobic, but is learning about gays

In 2010, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were sentenced to 14 years in prison after announcing their engagement. They were later pardoned.
In 2010, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were sentenced to 14 years in prison after announcing their engagement. They were later pardoned.

Malawi President Joyce Banda says her country is not yet ready to repeal its laws against homosexual activity, but nevertheless many Malawi citizens have at least been trying to inform themselves about the lives of sexual minorities. That’s apparent from the recent series of articles published in the Malawian newspaper The Nation.

The reporter, Bright Mhango, wrote the series, despite difficulty finding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Malawi who would speak to him. In part, at least, that’s because LGBT people in Malawi are stigmatized, and the law provides for prison sentences of up to 14 years for same-sex relations.

The introductory article in the series, “Being gay in Malawi,” contrasted stereotypes of homosexuals with the reality of one gay man who called himself Fortune Banduka:

Fortune, 32, is not the gay type you have in mind. His ears are not pierced, he is not dressed in pink and when he speaks, he is not pitching his voice like a musician on auto tune. He is normal and if a passer-by was asked to choose between the reporter and Fortune, the gay would be the reporter with his bright blue shirt.

Fortune tells about unsuccessful attempts to change his sexual orientation through religion and by dating women. He changed churches after people there learned about him.  As a result:

Friends stopped coming to chat at his place. Some sent him messages explaining that they cannot go on chatting with a Satanic. One person went up to the point of throwing a rock at him as he walked by.

He doesn’t tell people at his new church, but he remains a believer.

Fortune insisted that he is a born again Christian, a bonafide CCAP [Church of Central Africa Presbyterian] member. He said he has not told his current congregation that he is gay, fearing a repeat of what happened the last time he came out. …

He said Jesus never spoke out against gays.

“If I am heathen, then let God be the judge, not humans. As far as I know, I am a born again Christian,” he said.

No LGBT person agreed to be photographed for publication. Subsequent articles in the series focused on other aspects of homosexuality in Malawi:

  • “Please accept us.” A second gay Malawian describes gay life in “a conservative society such as Malawi.” He calls it “hell” because of people’s hateful, homophobic attitudes, but says that homophobic Malawians stop short of violent attacks.
  • “If we only knew the truth.”  An editorial states “If anyone thought that the debate about homosexuality is going to be easy, that person is naive. The way ahead is going to be painful, full of deception, political posturing and lies.”
  • “Are gays born or made?”  An article about the Malawian version of debates over whether homosexuality is genetically based or learned.
  • “Who should fight for gays?”  A discussion of why LGBT people in Malawi tend to be largely invisible and politically inactive, especially compared to countries with active gay-rights groups such as Uganda, Kenya and Cameroon.
Malawi President Joyce Banda
Malawi President Joyce Banda

Issues related to homosexuality in Malawi have created international news twice in recent years.

In 2010, two men — Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20 — were sentenced to 14 years in prison after they held an engagement ceremony. After an international outcry, particularly from countries that support Malawi with foreign aid, President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned them. The couple later split up.

After Mutharika’s death in April 2012, Vice President Joyce Banda assumed the presidency and said she would seek to repeal the laws against homosexual activity. Last month, though, she said that the Malawian parliament has not moved in that direction, and that the nation shows no sign of supporting repeal.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor/publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


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