Cameroon homophobia confronts AIDS fighters

Joel Ghislain Nkontchou (Photo par Eric O. Lembembe)
Joel Ghislain Nkontchou (Photo by Eric O. Lembembe)

Joel Ghislain Nkontchou didn’t expect all the abuse that he received, but he soon learned how homophobic his country can be.

In Cameroon, harassment has become a difficult problem that threatens to stymie the efforts of AIDS-prevention activists working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

A 23-year-old master’s student in business law at the University of Yaounde II, Nkontchou works as a peer educator for Cameroon Humanity First, a Yaounde-based organization that educates LGBT people about sexual health.

In February 2010, while living in a room in the Ekounou neighborhood of Yaounde, he organized regular educational talks about human rights and prevention of STDs, including HIV / AIDS. For about six months, about eight to ten gay men per week attended these events. Some of the men wore flashy attire, and some had a distinct sway in their hips as they arrived and left his home.

Before long, his neighbors reacted harshly, hurling threats and abuse at Nkontchou and his visitors, sometimes assaulting them. Next, his landlord told him to leave because of his “ambiguous sexuality and his visitors,” despite Nkontchou’s precarious finances and his diligent efforts to pay his rent. Because he had been estranged from his family because of his sexual orientation, Nkontchou moved in with a friend in order to recover financially.  Now he has found a new room, this time in the Ekumdum neighborhood, and has resumed giving educational talks for homosexuals. This time, however, his visitors try to disguise their sexual identities.

Nkontchou’s experience as a peer educator is not rare.  For example, Achilles K., another peer educator for Cameroon Humanity First, has experienced the same problems in his neighborhood. Like Nkontchou, he too has been forced to relocate.

‘We are standing firm’

ELAAA open house included discussions about the risks of HIV infection. (Photo by Eric Lembembe)
An ELAAA-sponsored discussions about the risks of AIDS. (Photo by Eric O. Lembembe)

Similar problems have confronted the Excellent Life AIDS Awareness Agency, or ELAAA, a location where human rights activists from the group Affirmative Action have been working since July  in the Nkomkana area of Yaounde to inform sexual minorities of their rights.  That work may have to be relocated because of pressure from its neighbors. After a meeting with people who accused ELAAA of “promoting homosexuality,” the landlord told the agency to leave. But Affirmative Action refused.

“So far, we have not faced physical violence,” says Serge Dovony Yota, secretary general of Affirmative Action. “We are standing firm. We will not leave. Our fight to change people’s attitude starts here.”

Intervention needed

Organizations that work with sexual minorities do so without protection either for their premises or for the people who use them, says Eloundou Jules, president of Cameroon Humanity First.

“We are not sheltered from homophobic attacks. In the streets or neighborhoods, we must blend in and use our utmost discretion while doing business. We have no insurance protection and get no help from the Ministry of Public Health. Our work is not recognized as being in the public interest, despite the fact that the 2011-2015 National Strategic Plan for fighting AIDS recognizes that men who have sex with men (MSM) are a group with a high risk of contamination.”

The government must change this dangerous situation, says the president of Cameroon Humanity First.

“Until now, nothing has been said about the security of those who are working to implement the 2011-2015 National Strategic Plan, but security is essential for all organizations working with MSM if we are to have real results in Global Fund Round 10 [in the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria],” Eloundou says.

It is urgent that a security program be put in place, he says. The government should take responsibility for the safety of workers, for associations’ premises and for their clients, Eloundou says, so their work will be more effective.



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