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

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Carl Col­li­son

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.

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