by Barry Thorsness -
I am back in Malawi, the fourth time since 2010. As I am responsible for the SGN website every week, life in this poorest of countries can actually be quite stressful on the publishing/upload date(s) of Friday (and Saturday).
Where I stay most of the time, in a village with a good friend and head teacher of a 650-student school, we have no power. Since the last time I was here, electricity now has been installed in the school office. So it is a morning and evening ritual to take my phone batteries and often my computer down to the office. For some strange reason, the phone Internet reception is better at the office... but that, at best, is often quite slow or even sometimes not available.
Often I get up and head into town from here, a 45-minute combination walk to the highway and ride in a taxi (a private car, usually barely able to run, crammed with up to seven persons) into a town down on Lake Malawi. I use a computer centre where a friend teaches and it is right next to the cell tower, so the signal can be good and the Internet often functions reasonably well. But it seems the government likes to save money and very often turns off the power on Saturday.
So then it is off to the closest city, if that is what you might call it. Perhaps an overgrown Omak, Washington of 50 years ago is closest to what you might picture it to be. I am often crammed in an old minivan with 17 others hurling along far too fast for these roads. I head off to a small business college that a friend has started (and where I have two students enrolled and pay their fees). There I sit to build the SGN, being careful that I hide the screen from all the students that come to chat with me. Often I go to a coffee shop that is the only place in town that resembles anything close to home and work there. And pray the Internet and the power work until I have the SGN online.
I have traveled extensively in the last eight years and the SGN online has been published from obscure places and beaches all the way down the Mexican coast, all across South America, from 13,000 feet in a small town in the Andes to web cafes in Buenos Aires and Rio. Africa is hard, but Malawi is the hardest... but it has always gone online, and on time.
For those of you who followed the weekly stories of Louis and I in the SGN in 2010, http://www.sgn.org/sgnafrica/index.cfm, we arrived on Likoma Island in the middle of Lake Malawi, and I had what I call my 'Madonna Moment' and we met an orphan boy and put him into school. This was the beginning of Touch And Feel Africa (TAFA) and over the next four years, one student grew to over 50.
I am back in Malawi for another 3 months, checking on our projects (we grow rice and maize), we started a used phone business, thanks to Rplace and it's patrons, and now are partners with one of my recently graduated students in a sausage business and food & drink cart. We are also working on rabbit farming, and getting ready to launch a used clothing business.
Although it was our 'mission' in 2010 to meet the LGBT activists in every major city we traveled to, and write the stories in the SGN, I have been almost totally 'closeted' with my nonprofit in Africa. As you may understand, 'coming out' or being 'Gay-friendly' can be dangerous and certainly makes one's life difficult in many places in Africa.
One thing that I should point out is that Malawi is known as the 'warm heart of Africa.' People here are truly the most friendly, enjoyable people I have ever met anywhere in the world. They are truly hospitable and I get to travel from village to village, town to town and stay with many of the students TAFA has been supporting over the years.
Malawi, like much of Africa is largely a 'Bible believer, fundamentalist' Christian country. The day Louis and I got married in Stanley Park in 2010, before our first trip to Africa, Stephen and Tiwonge were sentenced to 14 years hard labor for announcing their engagement in Malawi. I spoke of it at my wedding with tears streaming down my face. Never did I realize then, how Malawi was going to become such a huge part of my life.
In 2013, I often engaged my students in conversations about the Bible, Christianity and the Church. Most often I would tell them that the largest Protestant Church in Canada, The United Church, has a Gay leader and was married to another man who was a prominent politician on the Vancouver City Council. The comment was almost universal, 'that is impossible Mr. Barry.' So on my return to Seattle and Vancouver that year, I bought a card, addressed it to the 'Impossible Man' and took it to Gary Paterson at his church in the West End of Vancouver. He laughed, and I tried to get him to return with me to Malawi. No such luck.
At that church service I saw a young man, obviously from Africa, and I went over to talk with him. His name was Fred, and he told me he was a recent Gay refugee from Uganda. In the next months, helping him find work and a place to live, I really became aware of what a Gay refugee must give up and what they encounter when they arrive in such a different society. I also deeply pondered how the Christian Church on one continent 'creates' Gay refugees and the Christian Church in Canada sponsors them and helps them integrate into Canadian society.
Two months before I returned to Africa this year, Fred came over to visit me, bringing three recent LGBT refugees from Uganda. As they sat on my couch, I did not know whether to be happy they were safe in Canada or just hold their hands and cry, knowing they had lost their families, friends and everything that had been important to them.
So when President Obama on his visit to Kenya last month, decided to talk about LGBT issues, against much advice from many people, I too thought it was time for me to say something.
In past years, I have had a convention of all my students, with over 35 of them, for two days and one night. It is held at the school where my friend is the headmaster. Many of the students must spend the night, sleeping on mats on the floor; the food is basic but good, and the conversation wonderful. We all tell our stories of how TAFA has changed things and we write out our goals and plans for the next year.
This year was a bit different. Since we are concentrating on becoming self-sustainable through business, I invited eight of my 'graduate students' for a conference. A few of these students are actually in business school.
I opened with a few 'remarks' and then cautiously stated that TAFA was 'LGBT supportive' and would support any student who found themselves in difficulty because of their sexual orientation. I also emphatically suggested that there would be no 'discrimination' of fellow TAFAians. I received somewhat of a blank stare back. So I related the story of the previous year, when a Gay student called me and told me he was unable to go to school for two weeks as he could not sit down. A bit embarrassed and obviously in pain, and somewhat scared, he related to me that he had been to a doctor and the doctor had told him he needed surgery to fix his problem. The problem was serious. And then the student was left to suffer.
Upon hearing this, I made a few phone calls, talked to a friend who is with Human Rights Watch in Nairobi, who put me in touch with the LGBT support people in Malawi, who I had already met on previous travels. The student was picked up on a Friday morning, taken to an LGBT-friendly doctor, given antibiotics and was ready to go to school on Monday morning.
This is being 'Gay supportive.' Like most places in the world, discussing 'Gay' seems to quickly become polarizing with often a 50-50 split on each side. Here it was no different. And the conversation went on for a couple of hours. Students said they refused to have Gay sex. I was so amazed at some of the comments, and kept saying, no one is being asked to be Gay or have sex. Clarification was difficult. When we had lunch, my friend that I stay with was most upset. How could I be bringing up this issue for discussion?
Much of it had to do with the meeting of the Ugandan refugees. The other reason was because I thought it was time these students knew that 'Gay people' in Seattle from Rplace were providing them funding through the donating of used phones and computers.
I even asked for some of the phones back and then asked the students if they still wanted them, if they knew they were from Gay people. In most cases there were no problems. But in some cases, a few of the students that I really love and care for became 'entrenched' in their 'Bible belief' and said they could accept none of this.
The amazing part of 'LGBT support' in Africa, is that much is done by married men or 'totally straight' young men. What they risk is incredible. We had a couple of these young men at the conference. I was truly humbled by their incredible support and how they spoke with the others who were having a hard time to understand.
This all gives me great hope for LGBT people in Africa. Things are changing here, too. And it wasn't that long ago that going to a bar in Vancouver or Seattle meant a place with no name that was only identified with a light bulb over a 'buzzer' door.
I am still sorting out how best to deal with this. Feel free to send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A big 'Thank you!' to the patrons of Rplace, and Steve, for your continued donations of phones and computers. Please keep them coming!! It makes a huge difference to so many wonderful students, so they can succeed in their lives.
Please understand that I have omitted names and places as it truly does make problems for people by association when this is online. I will have more to say about this in future writings about Gay in Africa.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!