While certain nation states may be open and welcome to the acceptance of LGBTQI+, there are other nations where even in 2021 there is still a long journey of progression yet to take place. Stereotyped as a ‘foreign’ concept, by many in Malawi, this year marked an important milestone for LGBTQI+ communities as the country hosted it’s very first Pride Parade on the streets of the country’s capital city, Lilongwe. While the country still has a long way to go, not helped by the contrasting approaches from government to government, 26th June 2021 acts as a symbol of LGBTQI+ communities rewriting the narrative for future generations to come.
With this being such an important moment, ReportOUT were able to get an exclusive first hand account from Eric Sambisa, a human rights defender from Malawi who is also a co-founder and currently the director of NYASA Rainbow Alliance (NRA), one of the organisations who made this year’s Parade possible.
Eric, greetings from the UK. How is life feeling, especially since the moment that Malawi historically had its first Pride Parade this June?
I am afraid we have been having threats afterwards, especially on social media. We have registered few attacks and NRA is following these for legal redress. Other than that though, everything has been wonderful. We are still waiting to hear feedback from the government since we petitioned them to respond, so we are just hoping for the best.
I can imagine it was quite an empowering moment to be a pioneer and taking the steps to finally make the parade possible?
Yes, I must say it happened because of the consortium of other NGOs that we are involved with in the planning. We were also able to join with other LGBTQI+ organisations in Malawi as well as other allies which made it possible.
We made sure we followed all the rules before they gave us access, because there are some provisions that are prohibited if you want to go on parade. For example you are not allowed to carry placards that are offensive, so we made sure we respected that. We also made sure we got the police on our side. There were about 20 police officers that marched together with us for security purposes, and not only that but we also had private security as well in case anyone was looking to interrupt us and cause trouble, that wouldn’t happen. There was a lot of preparation that took place before we were even able to take it to the street.
What was it like growing up as a LGBTQI+ person in Malawi?
Oh it is difficult, but we are surviving. I think that we are living to survive because the system does not really accept LGBTQI+. In the beginning before we started NYASA Rainbow Alliance, there were other organisations that were fighting on our behalf. Those organisations would be told being gay was a foreign concept, because we don’t have people like this in Malawi, so it needed someone brave to challenge this type of thinking. I should also say I am the first person to come out in public through the media, so yea I think it was time for someone to step out and say ‘we are here, we belong to Malawi, this is not a foreign concept, and we are part of the Malawian community!’.
What we find is that it is only when it comes to topics like HIV that the government talk about LGBTQI+ specifically. They only speak about transgender and MSM communities in those situations as well, which is sad because as a community we have so many needs, not just HIV.
Tell us then what that moment was like when you embraced your own identity as a proud LGBTQI+ person and you journey of no longer being afraid to come out?
At the time there was this debate that LGBTQI+ is a foreign concept and that there were no people in Malawi, there were also a lot of comments from high profile people, especially ministers who said that “if you see gays, let's kill them’. So it was a very hard time but since they were claiming this was a foreign concept, I think I had to unveil myself so I could send a message to say that we are here and we are a community. Killing us will not solve the problem, especially as we are not the first nor the last generation of people. People will be coming even after us because it is just human nature that people are born different. I remember after I did that though I was hunted by authorities, my home was vandalized. I had to escape and go to another city because where I was staying was no longer a safe place anymore.
Even though it was a hard time, it eventually passed. I was glad that other authorities intervened to ensure I would not put at harm.
When you see the colours of the Pride Flag, what does it mean to you?
It means unity, acceptance and visibility!
How did your family respond when you told them that this is who you are?
It took a while for them to actually accept me, but I think growing up they knew all along because I wasn't like any other boy, I was very different. I was born feminine so they were not shocked to hear that, but I think it was the fact that I had come out through the media which they felt embarrassing, which I kind of understand especially as it was a sudden move. There was a period of very little communication between me and my family for a while, but I am happy that now we are back again. It was actually my brother who was the first person to show me encouragement and it wasn’t long until the rest of my family also did the same. Now they are so supportive of my activism work, so yea that is how my life story has been.
Just going back slightly where you mentioned that you had to go from one city to another, due to concerns over your safety. When you were in that situation, what was rushing through your head?
To be honest, I did want to leave Malawi but I didn’t have the capacity to, so I was just living in hiding until other authorities like United Nations Malawi intervened in my situation because they actually offered help and even created a dialogue with the authorities that had been hunting me. It was within their mandate to protect people like us. On the other hand though, there were still projects being run in the country, under the banner of HIV which were designed to help LGBTQI+ communities, so it is something that the government has always been aware of. It is always difficult for the government to speak out to the public about these things, but I am just happy that I passed those moments.
So why do you think the government are so hesitant?
I think it is just a case of the government being afraid to lose votes. Previous governments were really progressive unlike this one, which I can understand a little bit due to our current President previous career as a pastor. While the previous government may have been hesitant I still remember there were some provisions that were introduced that were so progressive. For example the introduction of the Moratorium, a policy introduced to stop arresting homosexual people, which sadly we do not have now. Also the previous government accepted some of the UN recommendations for protecting LGBTQI+ people against violence, so they actually know, but it is so hard to talk about these issues publicly because they are also afraid they are going to lose votes. The majority of Malawians do not have awareness about LGBTQI+, because the narratives of LGBTQI+ have been weaponized for a long time. The only narratives that are there, are just negative. People’s conception is that it is demonic and that it is a western culture, so I think we really need a platform of communication to the general public about LGBTQI+ people.
As part of the NYASA Rainbow Alliance, what is your vision?
Our main vision is to create a Malawian nation where LGBTQI+ people are respected and protected.
What can the international community do to help and support your organisation moving forward?
The international community has a very vital role to play. Most of the time, I feel, they shun away because they are afraid to be seen as an advocate of a ‘foreign’ concept. When we had the parade, we invited all of the embassies in Malawi but sadly we did not have any showing up to the parade. We need their support because they have a platform to create a dialogue with the government over these issues. Most of the time when we try to reach out to the government to lobby they do not respond, and it is unlikely even with our most recent petition they will even respond to that. They will just go silent and not say anything.
We even have cases that are before court, and have been given a very long time without any attention because even the judicial system is politically motivated where they select which cases should be heard or not. Therefore we really need the international community to come out and support us with this cause, because as hard as we try on our own, it is just so difficult to get that attention from the government and that attention has not been there for a very long time. Their vision and their mandate is to cater for the majority and not the minority, so by coming out into the open the international community can help us to foster some of these advocacies.
For any young LGBTQI+ person living in Malawi, what advice would you give to them to accept who they are?
It is difficult when you look at the inconsistencies between the constitution and the penal code. That is why we really want the government to address these inconsistencies which are there. The constitution itself in Malawi does not discriminate, it is the penal code that does. With the constitution being the supreme law of the land, it has to be respected, but since this is not happening it makes it hard for us to work with underage populations, as we are seen as recruiters of homosexuality in this country. It is a very difficult and crucial scenario to deal with. You even have situations of children being abandoned by their parents or being disowned just because of the speculation that they may have been classed as being LGBTQI+. So when we are trying to tackle such issues we are portrayed as recruiting young ones to homosexuality which is not true. I think it is about high time that the government should take that role of correctly educating people and embracing the LGBTQI+ community as part of the population in Malawi.
If you think about the Pride Parade that took place, what makes you the most happiest when you think about the special moment?
Although we have registered some security incidences of people being attacked as a result of them participating in the parade, we shall no longer be silenced. This parade marks the first time that as the LGBTQI+ people of this country, we are writing our own narratives and writing our own history with our own ink. Most of the time it is other people who speak on our behalf, so this is something that is going to be remembered in history especially as up until this year, it never happened. We are just so happy we were able to make it possible and are so thankful we did not have any serious backlash. Of course there were people pointing at us from a distance but because the security was enough, we had support from the police to help keep us protected. Also the route that we took was also one which was not too congested. We are so proud of having been brave enough to make the first move, and hope this is something we can continue to celebrate each and every year.
Eric thank you for taking the time to speak to us. I just want to end by saying what an incredible person you are. Keep up the brilliant work, and on behalf of everyone at ReportOUT we are sending our solidarity and love.
To find out more information about the important work of NYASA Rainbow Alliance please click here.
Article By Thushara S. Chandrasiri