The anthropologist Harri Englund writes of “homophobic liberals” in Malawi. Who are they?
Poets in Malawi.
Indigenous poets in Malawi, writing and performing in Chichewa, the most widely spoken indigenous language. Pangani and Chiwamba are two of the poets.
They write in Chichewa, for Chichewa audiences, bringing dialogue and debate in our fluid, alliterative, mother tongues. With great actors, such performances are in turn educative, challenging, innovative, and great fun. They challenge minds in the name of entertainment, use scorn and ridicule, words to taunt, question norms and values.
Historically, artists have used such gifts to challenge and debate ideas and thought in society. As vehicles of “change,” we tend to think of artists as “liberals.” And that’s the challenge. How can Pangani and Chiwamba use their art to challenge misogyny, gendered violence and ritual killing of Malawi’s albino people, and yet be blind to demonization of Malawi’s queer minorities? How can they actually use their verse to demonize queer Africans?
Our challenge may be in the language we are using. Liberal, for example, is a loaded term. From the western perspective it’s highly partisan, a term of contempt, or pride, depending on one’s political persuasion. The polar opposite, conservative, has similar emotional undertones.
Yet, do those terms translate, trans-literate in our circumstances?
They are English language words, but current usage is very different in Trump’s America compared to Malawi today. The same applies to most women’s and gay liberation terms.
Females are a numerical majority in Africa. The power imbalances, gender inequities, misogyny are a very visible day to day reality in our communities. Starting discussion around them is a step that has to be taken, a thing that has to be done. When that ball starts rolling, it is hard to stop. And, in much of Africa, it is rolling. Malawi has had a female head of state, Joyce Banda.
Our albino siblings are another very visible cause.
Homosexuality is a different challenge. We are as yet an invisible, abstract concept in the minds of most of our country mates, with scarcely the same appeal as other liberal causes.
Englund mentions the flood of Christian missionaries to Sub-Saharan Africa over the last 40 years or so. Almost without exception, they are Christian conservatives from the South and middle US states, interested in African souls. They have been well received, preaching gospels of Christ saving souls, redemption and prosperity in conditions of the deepest poverty. US conservative values leaked into that narrative.
So, Zambia, neighboring nation to Malawi, proudly proclaims itself a “Christian Nation.” This is not seen as a foreign identity. President Chiluba who made the proclamation was a fervent (US) Pentecostal. Just like in US conservative circles, “prostitutes,” “drug addicts” and homosexuals are vilified identities.
The vitriol of homophobia has been imported from the American Right, out of context, and made, by way of religion, african. The official interest by western countries in promoting human rights has fallen foul of decades old religious right indoctrination. This has translated into a fight of “africanness” against the “foreign culture” of “homosexuality.”
And, worst of all, we queer Africans are invisible and remain so in very significant ways.
At the “barazas” where the poets’ sing, the homophobic recitals will resonate with the masses. The poets equate homosexuality with cultural imperialism as they emphasize indigenousness in Chichewa. Missing will be the counter narrative that fellow Africans, Malawians who are queer, are present but invisible.
Years of demonization have set attitudes, hearts and minds.
Indeed the narrative of foreignness of homosexuality resonates with masses in Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and most other African countries. The poets, leaders of change and thought as they might be, have to surmount this cultural mountain in their own thought before they can introduce it to their audiences.
It will happen. Our world view bubbles are shrinking. The hyper connectedness of social media we live in makes it inevitable. Queer Africans are coming out of their closets, becoming more visible. The discourse of our foreignness dissolves in face of our visible presence. The persecution of invisible, demonized, queer African minorities, with roots in our recent pasts, cannot survive in a world where queer Africans are visible, holding parades and prides challenging homophobia. The demonization only holds in the vacuum.
The identities, liberal, or homophobe, are cultural, political. They don’t necessarily fit what might be happening on the ground, nor are they a perfect mirror of the narrative of homophobia in Africa.
It hurts that at the moment, in our public spaces, we continue to be vilified and held in contempt. We are as yet unable to provide a counter narrative understandable by our people. We will continue to fall foul of it, but the tide’s turning, in our favor.