Hated at home, queer exiles find
These asylum seekers from other parts of Africa hope to find refuge in a country whose Constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But they don’t always get the welcome they expect
For three days, the soldiers would come into the cell of Heritier Nzau, the young man they had arrested on suspicion of being a pede (homosexual), and take turns raping him.
“They took me … one by one. Roughly. Repeatedly. Three soldiers. For three days. They would point a gun at my head and tell me that, if I screamed, they will shoot me. They tell you it’s either that or death. You have to choose,” he says.
Nzau was not the only suspected pede subjected to this, he says.
“It was their way of punishing you. They tell you that what you are doing, being gay, is inflicting pain on the world. So, because of that, you must feel pain, too.”
He was finally released and remembers he had “pains all over my body. I needed medical attention, but where would I go?”
Nzau was 20 at the time. That was eight years ago but it is only recently that he has started talking about the real reason he left his country of birth, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), making his way to South Africa, where he now lives.
“All I wanted was to run away to this nation where I could feel safe and not be threatened by anybody.”
Recalling the “very long journey” from Mbuji-Mayi, in the DRC, Nzau says: “I did it, because this was the only place … I thought that if I can make it to South Africa, I was going to be safer.
“It took many, many days. I bribed truck drivers and bakkie drivers to take me from city to city, with the goods [they were transporting] on top of me and in miserable conditions. I’m telling you, miserable conditions. You have nothing to eat. No water to drink. Somewhere along the way, I had to beg for water. At least water because, you know, food is something big.”
Having finally reached the South African border, Nzau sought asylum, but not on the grounds of being gay.
“I said I came here because I was fleeing war. I always had the fear of being threatened by Congolese people if I told them I am gay. When I went to home affairs, the interpreter was Congolese. And I just said to myself, ‘no, I can’t …’ There was always that fear.
“The South African government is okay with us, yes, but people on the streets … you never know what is in their minds. When they meet us on the street, you don’t know what we face.”
Victor Chikalogwe is the gender rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugee project co-ordinator of People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), a nonprofit human rights organisation. He says African queer asylum seekers often get to South Africa “deeply traumatised and not okay psychologically”.
In addition to there being little support for queer asylum seekers in their countries of birth, once they arrive in South Africa, they face the “double discrimination” of being queer and a foreigner.
Because they have been persecuted by their fellow countrymen and women, “they can often feel as though they have nobody to talk to” once in South Africa.
“Many find it difficult to open up about things, because there have been so many attacks, not only from South Africans but also their countrymen. So they still carry that fear,” Chikalogwe says.
Passop assists asylum seekers with legal issues, access to health services and accommodation. But its pool of resources is limited and it cannot assist everyone, so “some people are still living on the streets”.
Shamsa Hajihaji walks me through the commune she is living in, to the room she shares with three other women. “This is how we have to live,” she says shrugging in resignation as she sits on the lower bed of the double bunk she has shared for the past few months.
Born and raised in Somalia, Hajihaji moved to the Eastern Cape town of Uitenhage after the death of her parents. The family her mother had worked for as a housemaid offered her the chance to get an education in South Africa.
But the education she was promised did not materialise and Hajihaji had to do house duties, “like my mother did for them for all those years”.
Seeing that she was a wilo (tomboy) and suspecting her of being a lesbian, the head of the family (“the man I called ‘father’”), forced her to marry a man she did not know.
“One Friday, after mosque … he called a guy who is working in his son’s shop — a Somali Bantu like me — and called me, saying: ‘Remember I told you today is your wedding? Cover yourself nicely and come and sit here.’ I was surrounded by all these men, waiting for the sheikh to make us nikah [married].
“But I said, ‘No, I don’t want to get married to a man; I love women.’ It just came out. It was a shock to them but I was just telling the truth, mos.”
Lifting her sleeve, pointing to the 13-stitch scar on her forearm, she recounts how the man she called father stabbed her, screaming: “I rather kill her; I rather kill her.”
Neighbours helped her buy a bus ticket to Cape Town. “Just go, there are people like you there,” they said. Hajihaji arrived at Bellville station but “I didn’t know where to go. I don’t know nobody. I don’t know where to start.
“At the taxi rank, in front of me, there were Somalis selling cigarettes. My heart was telling me, ‘Go tell them you are one of them and that you don’t know where to go; they can help you’.
“But my mind was telling me, ‘Are they not the same people? How can you go and tell them that you are a lesbian?’ So, for a long time, I just stood there, speaking to myself and answering myself,” she says.
Eventually one of the taxi rank traders offered to put a roof over her head and after some months she was introduced to a fellow Somali who had contacts at Passop.
“But, when I met him, that man expected me to be covered and
Adrift: Kumi Hammond (above) left Ghana after his family rejected him when he came out. Shamsa Hajihaji (below) from Somalia escaped a forced marriage to a man when neighbours helped her get to Cape Town.