Zambia’s growing intolerance towards LGBTI persons

From Zambian human rights activist Juliet Mphande:

Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata (Photo courtesy of WHO)
Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, Zambia’s First Lady, whose comments about homosexuality had seemed encouraging in November. They now seem to have been a public relations stunt, with no effect on Zambia’s continuing repression of LGBT people. (Photo courtesy of WHO)

During recent weeks, we have received numerous reports of increased violations against sexually diverse and gender-variant persons, particularly gay men, in Zambia.

Beating by anti-gay mob, including police

On January 3, 2014, a self-identifying gay man was beaten up by a mob of people in Lusaka’s Garden compound. The mob, according to his testimony, also included three police officers that threatened to ‘ungay’ him. The identified young man alleges that this is the fourth time he was attacked by members of his own community since 2012.

Exposure in the media, detentions by police

Against this wave of growing homophobia, two alleged gay couples of Lusaka were recently outed on a popular news blog called the Zambian Watchdog for allegedly practicing homosexuality. Preliminary reports indicate that one of the couples detained by police are out on bail. The same week, police in Isoka District, detained a 17-year-old grade 12 pupil on charges of ‘practicing sodomy’. Media reports indicate that the seventeen-year-old has admitted to the charges.

Earlier in the month, a named Catholic priest of Lusaka was outed on the same media blog for allegedly practicing sodomy. This blog went as far as disclosing the residential address of the named person without any regard his safety.

Trial could lead to life sentence for homosexuality

Jailed in Zambia for eight months on homosexuality charges, defendants James Mwape and Philip Mubiana await the end of their ongoing trial.
Jailed in Zambia since May 2013 on homosexuality charges, defendants James Mwape and Philip Mubiana await the end of their ongoing trial.

Meanwhile in Kapiri Mposhi District of Central Zambia, two young men have been held for over nine months on charges of practicing sodomy and detained without bail.  If convicted on two counts on February 25, 2014, they may face up to 30 years imprisonment to life. Under Zambian law, the act of sodomy carries with it a minimum of 15 years to life.

First Lady’s PR stunt as LGBT Zambians’ lives remain unbearable

On November 5th, 2013 Zambia’s First Lady, Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata said:

‘Personally I am concerned about the vulnerability of our women married to or in intimate relations with men who also have sex with men. We have anecdotal evidence especially in colleges where young men are enticed into having sex with men but at the same time also have young girlfriends on the side. If not checked this will derail the positive strides that this country is making.’

The Zambian First Lady’s statement was instantly lauded as ‘heroic’ and ‘game changing’ since she alluded to some far-fetched notion that there was need to discuss issues around men who have sex with men (MSM).

Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, physician and wife of Zambian President Michael Sata. (Photo courtesy of Lusaka Times)
Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, physician and wife of Zambian President Michael Sata. (Photo courtesy of Lusaka Times)

Fast-forward to 2014: The situation for sexual diverse and gender variant Zambians continues to deteriorate. Those accused of ‘practicing’ sodomy are arrested and outed on online media blogs with wanton carelessness, beaten and or kicked out of their homes and schools without much of a stir from the international community. After all, ‘the Zambian LGBTI community was blessed’ with a miracle in the form of Dr. Christine Kaseba–Sata’s statement in the month of November, 2013. How ironic!

I was one of those unfortunate pundits who initially lauded Dr. Kaseba Sata’s speech. At the time, despite my instincts, I could not help but be hopeful that her ‘game changing’ speech — albeit laced with homophobic sentiment, ignorance and negative stereotypes — would be a starting point for meaningful dialogue around a seemingly ‘contentious issue’ in my beloved country ,but alas!

As a human rights defender, operating on the ground in Zambia these days and oftentimes a victim of many a government and community-sanctioned harassment owing to the work that I do — also taking into cognisance my external environment characterised by increased media outings and police arrests in recent months — I refuse to sit by and allow a heavily funded and well executed public relations campaign targeted at donors and cooperating partners to overshadow the lived realities of LGBTI persons in Zambia.

The First Lady’s campaign in my opinion, is a mere ruse to solicit for donor funding by the state without the accompanying responsibility of protecting the rights of the individual nor ensuring access to essential HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care services to the LGBTI community. Yet again, Zambia is perceived in the eyes of the international community as a ‘queer paradise.’

The reality, however, is that life for sexually diverse and gender-variant Zambians and their defenders has become unbearable. It’s hard to walk on the streets or sleep in your own bed for fear that your own family, friends, neighbours, co-workers may beat you up, kick you out or, worse, turn you over to the police, as has often been the case. Law enforcement officers vying for limited promotions only have to announce the arrest of a LGBTI person to get the media attention that will catapult them into stardom and gain them the favour of the appointing authority, who in this case happens to be Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata’s husband and the current President.

I applaud Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, not for her obvious homophobic sentiments or her inability to act and follow up on her words, but more so, for her impeccable public relations skills that managed in one statement to pull wool over the rest of the world without much consideration for the silenced and embattled LGBTI community. Bravo!

Constant danger, fear of arrest

Paul Kasonkomona (Photo courtesy of Muvi TV)
AIDS activist Paul Kasonkomona is on trial in Zambia for suggesting the repeat of the country’s anti-gay law. (Photo courtesy of Muvi TV)

LGBTI Zambians, their defenders and allies continue to live in constant danger and fear of arrests owing to their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identities and the work they are involved in – allies of this community are not spar
ed but also continue to face intimidation, arrests and harassment at the hands of the state.

In the meantime, the world continues to celebrate Zambia’s miracle – the miracle of growing intolerance, bigotry and oppression targeted at a community that is downtrodden owing to the myriad persecutions that it faces, endorsed by the world’s silence. What a travesty!

Still secret: Zambia’s new Constitution

Overshadowing this worrying trend is the issue of Zambia’s final draft Constitution that the State has refused to release to the people contrary to their pre- and post-election promises. High-profile opposition politicians, civil society leaders and journalists are often arrested and detained and the persecution of LGBTI persons — one of the most unifying issues in the country — heightens without much sympathy or redress.

What has gone wrong? Does anyone care?

What has gone wrong in our once inclusive and tranquil nation? And pray, who will speak out for Zambia’s oppressed, silenced and marginalised LGBTI community? Dr. Kaseba Sata’s homophobic statement is still lauded as a miracle despite this period having been the toughest time to be LGBTI or a human rights defender in Zambia. Is the world so desperate for a miracle that they will believe anything they read without doing their own research?

Zambian 1-kwacha note from the 1980s.
Zambian kwacha note from the 1980s.

On the other hand, could the chilling realisation that keeps me awake at night be on point – does nobody give a damn about the Zambian LGBTI community? I know for a fact that it is not the Zambian citizenry, who will stop at nothing to sacrifice their fellow brother or sister for a kwacha [1 kwacha = about US$0.0002] or personal appeasement, it is not even the Global South or the enabling North.

It’s time for Zambian LGBTI persons who live the realities to take up their own struggle and in so doing become their own heroes – because there are none left. When they come for you, no one will come to your rescue, petitions will be written in your name without success, people will continue to live their lives and move on.

The world will not stop turning for you. It did not stop for James and Philip, it has not stopped for you and I. It is only when our voice reaches critical mass that we will be heard — as a collective.

I pray I am wrong. In the name of whatever deity humanity believes in, I hope am wrong.

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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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  1. I have personally experienced the “sell out for a dollar” that the contributor points to, I know all too well the pedagogy of the oppressed and I see it here. Though the First Lady may not have ‘well-word’ her statements her singular action has set into motion game changing events that if the sontributor were not so engrossed in spinning her own self serving interest ‘being the heroine’. The winds of Change are blowing I wish Zambia’s so called gay leaders or Human Rights defenders really knew what time it is. We have had enough of the likes of you lying to the world and fueling trouble at home hoping to seek asylum.

    • I am a little lost here, what game changing events have been set into motion? As far as I know and I live in Zambia too, there is nothing positive which came out of that statement. I totally agree with the article, she did put a blanket over the gay issue and clearly, it has worked. Please educate me, what has changed? From the information I have, MSM is no longer on the list of key populations. Is that the change you are talking about? Let us not attack each other without knowing what is happening on the ground because we will be the ones to lose.

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