Homophobic liberals

In Malawi, artists, especially poets—usually associated with progressivism and intellectualism—are the vanguard of a new homophobia.

Students studying in Balaka. Image credit Book Aid International via Flickr.

Homophobia in Africa is conventionally explained with reference to two issues or to some combination of both. On one hand is the insistence that homosexuality is alien to African culture, a position that often comes with a patriarchal view on what proper gender relations should look like. On the other is the influence of Pentecostal and Evangelical pastors, some of whom have made it their business to condemn homosexuality as unChristian.

What if some recent expressions of homophobia arise from neither of these positions, but resemble, in their liberalism, the ideas and values advocated by progressive activists and intellectuals? What if, moreover, it is artists, especially poets, who are the vanguard of this new homophobia? Will their arguments be as easily dismissed by progressives as those based on cultural or religious bigotry?

Take Malawi’s new movement for vernacular spoken-word poetry, for example. For ten years now, youthful poets, writing mostly in Chichewa, have taken their verse to popular venues where musicians used to be the main attractions. Instead of publishing their work in print, they have also distributed poems through websites, social media, radio and CDs.

Fame has visited some of them who address issues of everyday concern, including the campaign for gay rights following Malawi’s well-publicized “first gay wedding” in 2009. Robert Chiwamba and Evelyn Pangani, two of the trailblazers in the vernacular poetry movement, wrote independently of each other poems sharply critical of the campaign.

At first sight, these poems carry unmistakeably homophobic messages, some of which the poets have lifted from the malice available on the internet. Dirt and filth are central themes, as in these lines in my literal rather than literary translation from Chichewa: “Men involved in homosexuality have to wear diapers / Some of the diapers they put into a suitcase when traveling, for feces will flow like a fountain.” The lines belong to Pangani’s poem entitled Ndalama za nyansi sitikuzifuna, (We don’t want dirty money). Chiwamba’s Takana mathanyula (We refuse homosexuality) also affirms that “everyone is saying that homosexuality disgusts them like the pig’s phlegm.”

As spoken-word verse goes, both poems are long, more than 70 lines each. The bulk of the language addresses issues of free speech, human rights and democracy and not specifically homosexuality, so their nature as hate speech looks less obvious when other than these shockingly offensive lines are considered.

The pressing question for both poets is freedom. Far from being critical of Malawi’s new-found freedoms as such, they want to question the prerogative of foreign donors and Malawian activists to define what those freedoms are. Referring to Malawi’s constitutional changes in the early 1990s, both poets assert their right to voice what they claim to hear among the ordinary people.

Pangani writes that “in today’s Malawi the poor have something to say / As you said, democracy is government where the people do what they want.” Chiwamba elaborates:

Was is not you who came the other day to tell us

We should follow democracy

The rule of the majority?

Today the majority is speaking

It is saying that we refuse homosexuality.

Just as in classical liberal thinking free speech is valued because of the competing ideas and information it makes available, so too do these poets recognize the importance of public argument and deliberation. Debate is written into Chiwamba’s poem, such as when he counters the claim that heterosexual Malawians are by no means purified of unsavory transgressions:

When did you hear that we want our witchcraft to be regarded as freedom?

I am saying when was it you heard of us wanting our robberies and prostitution to be accepted as freedom?

When was it that you heard us wanting the freedom of speaking in swear words?

The legacies of being “unfree” are evoked in both poems to drive home their unflinching commitment to the idea of liberty. For Pangani, the current campaign for gay rights brings to mind European colonialism:

Time to refuse being forced to do things

Has now come

Despite difficulties we shall be able

To remove the handcuffs of being ruled by white people.

Particularly striking is the image of slavery as a preferred option in Chiwamba’s poem: “I swear, if homosexuality is freedom / All of us Malawians choose to return to slavery in Egypt.”

Both Pangani and Chiwamba are public figures in Malawi and they have written and performed verse to support campaigns against gender-based violence and the discrimination of albinos. Their love poems, moreover, have challenged misogyny in Malawi’s public culture. Both are known also for their sensual and egalitarian love poems. When contrasted with their obvious homophobia, these love poems reveal Pangani and Chiwamba as capable of imagining new possibilities in intimate relationships.

The paradox presented by homophobic liberals is a paradox common to all liberal polities. Various exclusionary ideas and practices have always accompanied the expansion of liberties. Chiwamba and Pangani are in no need of re-education on liberal values. Patronizing gestures must give way to a dialogue across the divides of contemporary liberalism.

Surely it would be convenient to continue explaining homophobia in Africa as cultural or religious bigotry. What these poets demand, in contrast, is to be taken seriously as liberals who are as committed to the idea of liberty as are those who have made its advancement their mission.

Further Reading