Lilongwe, Malawi | AFP | Fearing persecution after being outed as gay, Aniz Mitha fled Malawi.
Leaving behind his well-off Muslim family and four-year-old son, he headed for South Africa, where he became a sex worker to survive.
“The laws that we have in Malawi are incriminating. I wanted to get away from here. I had to take my chances,” the 29-year-old told AFP.
For two years Mitha laboured as a male sex worker in the tough streets of downtown Johannesburg, eventually returning home.
Mitha’s case highlights the problems in Malawi, a holdout in southern Africa, where legal liberalisation for gays is otherwise gaining speed.
Botswana this week joined Angola, Mozambique, Seychelles and South Africa on the path towards decriminalising homosexuality, with a verdict by its High Court to scrap decades-old anti-gay laws.
These landmark cases “set an important framework… which will hopefully be emulated elsewhere in Africa,” Anneke Meerkotter of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) told AFP.
But “hopefully” is the key word. Elsewhere on the continent, the picture is quite different.
Last month, Kenya’s High Court upheld laws punishing “carnal knowledge… against the order of nature” by up to 14 years in jail. Chad and Uganda have also introduced or toughened legislation.
– ‘Unnatural offence’ –
In Malawi, a conservative religious country, the situation seems particularly entrenched, say campaigners.
Its penal code expressly criminalises same-sex relations as an “unnatural offence”, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) last October said Malawi’s laws fuelled a climate of fear, arbitrary arrest, violence and discrimination against gays. Many young people, like Mitha, are cast out of their families because of their sexual orientation.
Gay rights burst into the news in 2010 when a couple was jailed for gross indecency after holding the country’s first same-sex public “wedding”.
Then president Bingu wa Mutharika said the pair had committed a crime against Malawi’s culture, religion and laws.
He later pardoned them on “humanitarian grounds” after a meeting with the UN secretary general.
When Joyce Banda succeeded him as president in 2012, she promised widespread reforms to the colonial-era legislation and even announced a moratorium on arrests for those breaking laws that criminalise consensual same-sex conduct.
– ‘Ignored’ –
But after Banda lost a bid for the presidency, these gains were reversed, say campaigners.
Under Bingu wa’s brother Peter Mutharika, who recently won his second presidential term in office, “this group of people have just tended to be ignored,” gender activist Beatrice Mateyo said.
Activists have been waiting since 2013 for the courts to set a date for a hearing to repeal the anti-gay laws.
“Malawi has several court cases that are lying in the courts and we hope the case scenario of Botswana is also going to inform the legal processes here in Malawi,” Gift Trapence, head of Malawian rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) told AFP.
Mateyo believes religious conservatism has played a core part in perpetuating stereotypes and anti-gay hostility.
Most of the 18 million people in Malawi are Christian or Muslim, whose religious education often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.
In 2016, about 3,000 Christians marched through Blantyre and Lilongwe, carrying signs saying “Homosexuality is abomination”.
“We are seen as a God-fearing nation, so society tends to skew towards religion where you are seen as a sinner… And if you are of a different sexuality then you are perceived as a sinner,” Mateyo said.
People who are not heterosexual, “will rather remain in the closet — hidden,” Mateyo said.
“For the very few people that are open, life is very difficult because people tend to label them.”
– ‘Just want to be safe’ –
Sammy McJessie, 28, a lesbian who is also intersex, meaning there is no self-assignment to gender, said everyday tasks in Malawi were like walking on eggshells.
“I’m scared of being attacked, even in public spaces,” McJessie said. “You go to the bank, they look at your ID… you have to prove that you’re this particular sex that was assigned to you at birth.”
McJessie has a three-month-old relationship with a local woman but said, “I cannot take her to the local market to buy vegetables because that’s going to start another issue.”
CEDP, working with activists, set up four drop-in centres in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Mangochi in 2016.
Equipped with a recreation room, gym, large kitchen, medical centre and 24-hour security, the centres support around 2,000 people.
“When we are here, we know each other,” a 27 year-old carpenter who declined to be named told AFP at the centre, his partner seated next to him.
Once a week, he walks 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the Lilongwe drop-in house to collect condoms, thus escaping condemnation by people in his neighbourhood.
Mitha returned to Malawi after contracting HIV in South Africa. He was unable to stay there because as an illegal, he had no access to treatment.
The centre has been a haven of hope in Malawi, he said.
“In this space you can wear whatever you want, you can feel any way you want because this is the only safe space that you have.”
“But out there it is hard.”