By Jean Marc Yao
Bibe Kalalu is a former chief of the Barega tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is now a refugee in Uganda. What sent Bibe into exile was not war, as is often the case. The reason for his exile was his sexual orientation.
In most African countries, it is difficult to be openly gay, so one can imagine how painful it can be for homosexuals who flee from their native country’s homophobia only to end up in an equally homophobic new country. This was the experience that led Bibe Kalalu to create an organization working on behalf of LGBTI refugees in Uganda.
Here is the poignant story of Bibe and the Angels Refugee Support Group, which he founded in 2009..
The flight of the tribal leader
Bibe Kalalu from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was only eight years old when he was crowned tribal leader of the Barega tribe, one million strong, taking over the role from his late father. At the age of 18, he assumed the full-time responsibilities of a chief. He recalls being attracted to boys from a very young age.
“My first love was at school, which sadly turned out to be a traumatic experience,” he recalls. It was during his nine-year relationship with a Burundian man that eyebrows were really raised and the pressure on him to marry became serious.
“We met on holiday; we would visit each other every few months. Each time he came to stay, people would talk. The stress was too much, and I finally agreed to marry a woman.”
Fast forward to 2007. In his village of Bukavu, people are chanting “Kill him, torture him.”
Bibe, now age 37, has been hauled in front of his family, the community and media. His wife openly accuses him of being gay.
Fearing for his life and uncertain of his future in the DRC, Bibe flees and enters neighbouring Uganda as a refugee. Little did he realise he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
“I was desperate and afraid for my life. I didn’t know Uganda was also a very homophobic country.”
Choosing to settle in Kampala, the capital, he meets other gay men in local bars, many of whom also sought solace in Uganda.
The birth of Angels Refugee Support Group
Listening to their stories gave him the motivation to set up the Angels Refugee Support Group in 2009, a safe space for gay refugees, people like Bibe who had fled their own countries because of their sexuality. Bibe recalls:
“I wanted to start a group, and so one day I had a big party in Kampala where I announced the idea of an association. We began with a six-member executive committee.”
Angel members originate from many different places — the Great Lakes, Somalia and even as far north as Eritrea. Bibe explains:
“There was a need to bring people together so that we could share our lives as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI), be safe and learn how to protect ourselves,” Bibe explains.
From legal impediments to the emergence of the organization
Registering Angels as an official association was not an easy process. Homosexual activity in Uganda is a criminal offence and, since 2009, the Ugandan government has been often clamped down on LGBTI persons and organisations. Bibe explains:
“Because of the illegality, we decided to register Angels as an AIDS organisation.”
Through his links with the NGO Refugee Law Project, Bibe first came into contact with UHAI, the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative. Hivos, together with UHAI, since 2012 has been implementing the Ji-Sort! project in East Africa, which focuses on capacity development for organisations that are working on the advancement of LGBTI and sex workers’ rights.
Invaluable support from Ji-Sort !
Through Ji-Sort!, Bibe and his colleagues participated in various capacity-building initiatives and trainings on security, which are vital in the current homophobic climate. LGBTI people are often at risk of arrest as a result of their sexual orientation. Bibe himself has been locked up on three occasions.
“The government is aware of our activities. Police regularly raid our premises and harass our members.”
Bibe believes the situation has gotten worse over the past few years. It is difficult to be open about your life, and more and more people are fearful, hiding and living in secrecy. Bibe says that security training should be ongoing and intensified in order to ensure that LGBTI people in Uganda can be safe and secure.
Through Ji-Sort!, the Angels have also received tailor-made organisational development support. A dedicated consultant has worked with Bibe and his staff on issues of financial management and team development. He says:
“Through these trainings, we have learned how to set up systems to improve the management and control of our resources. We have become more professional.”
Attending regional events of the Ji-Sort! network has allowed Bibe to share the experiences of his own organisation and expand its linkages with others, in eastern and southern African regions. Bibe adds:
“Our organisation is unique in that we work with a very marginalised group that suffers from double discrimination.”
’Refugees in most countries have a tough time getting recognised as legitimate citizens and often don’t receive any help from the host community. In a homophobic country like Uganda, refugees who identify themselves as LGBTI receive little sympathy.
“Through the Ji-Sort! programme, we are getting more known and we are increasingly asked to advise LGBTI organisations in other neighbouring countries,” Bibe says.
While this is positive, Bibe feels the links with other mainstream refugee organisations in Uganda are weak and the support they receive from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the lead UN organisation working with this target group, has been very limited. He says:
“We believe the government has instructed the U.N. not to support us.”
As members of Angels, every person is required to pay a small subscription fee towards costs. The Angels have also set up successful income-generating initiatives. For example, the computer lab where association members receive training in the mornings is converted into a cyber café in the afternoons, which generates funds.
They also have a hair and beauty salon, which trains members and operates as a commercial venture. Bibe says with pride:
“These activities not only help by increasing the skills of our members, but also prevent them from becoming vagrants and getting into trouble.”
In the future, the organisation plans to open a design studio and a chicken farm. Economic empowerment is critical for survival, especially because LGBTI refugees experience many levels of stigma and discrimination in employment.
Today the Angels boast over 100 formal members, many of whom at three refugee camps in Uganda. Of the current total of 109 members in the country, 45 are in Kampala, 33 are at the Nakiwale refugee camp, 20 are at the Kyangwali camp, 21 are at Kyaka camp. Another 50 members are sex workers.
Chris Dolan, director of the Refugee Law Project, who works with the Angels, calls the group an “important advocacy and grass-roots protection organization.”
Bibe has clearly demonstrated his leadership. In reflecting on his own journey, he says that he has gone from being closed to more open about his sexuality. His interaction with Ji-Sort! has exposed him to different cultures and experiences.
As a natural leader, he has guided the association from its humble beginnings:
“I have learned to unite everyone in the organisation. All participants have equal airtime.”
Mobilisation on the ground remains key, he says, adding that he is excited about taking the association to the next level, because he wants LGBTI refugees to be able to fly and be free like angels.
Jean Marc Yao, Ph.D., is a human rights activist in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, with a strong interest in LGBTI rights issues. He works with the Ivorian League for Human Rights (LIDHO), Alternative Côte d’Ivoire and the Lesbian Life Association Ivory Coast. Contact him by e-mail via 76crimes (at) gmail.com.
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