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Mar 4, 2014
Half the men in the room turn to stare as she walks in but she pays them scant attention. Coiffed and curvaceous, she exudes a confidence that seems to stem from somewhere much deeper than her looks – perhaps from the difficult road she has walked since she decided to reveal the truth about herself: 23 years-old Mercy Kumwenda is a lesbian in a country that regards homosexuality as akin to Satanism.
The headline “I am a lesbian” ran across page one of Malawi’s Daily Times on February 7, 2013. Mercy’s admission was front-page news because it was a first for this conservative country, and it changed everything for the 23-year-old health care worker. Since then, she has gone into hiding to escape threats, was forced to endure an exorcism and has been disowned by her father.
“I never expected the story to make front page. I was just telling someone who would listen that I am lesbian and I am for real,” she said.
“However, it came out so loud and the reactions have been equally deafening to the point where I have had to move house. Now, I live a life where I travel from my home to the office and back in the hope that I can make it one more day. I feel proud that I have come out and made peace with the way I am. But I sometimes feel so alone and so hated because no one understands me.”
Jacob Nankhonya, the photojournalist who first wrote the story, probably did not expect it to be front-page news either. But in patriarchal Malawi, with its heavily Christian population, the first public admission of lesbianism had enough shock value to drive sales.
“I had a friend tell me to go to church so I can be exorcised when I came out,” she said. “I went along. They sprayed anointed water on me. I was told to kneel down and a circle was made around me while Holy Ghost fire prayers were spoken over me. I was told to repent, which I tried to do but I came out the same. I cannot change the way I am or the way I feel.”
Mercy grew up believing what her compatriots believed – that alternative sexuality is inherently wrong. That conviction drove her to the brink of suicide before she at last accepted who she was. It was the fear that she would one day be forced to marry a man that drove her to admit that truth to the world.
“I could not sit and explain to people that this is just who I am. No one understood or wanted to understand,” she said. “I too once thought it was wrong and evil and tried to kill myself over it, but the realisation that this was who I am, this is what I liked helped me make peace with myself. And I decided to come out.”
Academic and activist Jessie Kabwila, a prominent figure in the gender and sexual minorities debate, says the quest for understanding may be an impossible one in Malawi.
“Most people here will never understand what it means to be someone who is attracted to someone else of the same sex,” she said. “Most of us think man and woman are entities that are on two polarised positions. But it is a fact that in every man there is a bit of woman, and in every woman, a man. What differs is the degree.”
That Mercy is physically attractive seems to make her preference for women more difficult for the men of Malawi to fathom. She too seems to take a keen interest in her looks.
“When I first saw my reality published, I hated the photograph that was used. Looking at it, I thought – ‘That isn’t me! I look so ugly. I look so old’,” she said of the story, which ran with a photo of her sitting on a garden bench, wearing a long denim skirt and a pink jersey.
Since then, Mercy has received leering text messages suggesting that all she needs to change her mind about her sexual orientation is a good time between the sheets with the right man. She knows from experience this is not true.
“I have had men around me all my life,” she said. “In a culture like ours, you come in close contact with boys and men and I was certain even as a teenager that I did not like them in that way. People think that a man that I am like this is because I have never touched it. But I have tried having a relationship with a man and I felt nothing.”
Mercy grew up in Area 24, a densely populated part of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. She lived there with her mother, father and two brothers before her father kicked her out. She attends a Presbyterian church, achieved qualifications in Hotel and Catering and in Hospitality and learned health care on the job.
“Growing up, we were very protected,” she said. “My father did not like us to be anywhere but home so I was a bit of a loner.”
In her late teens, a friendship with a girl she had known since childhood blossomed into something more intimate and she realised the truth about her sexuality. She keeps her girlfriend’s name under wraps lest the threats overflow to her.
“I have a girlfriend who I toyed with a lot when we were children. We were best friends as kids and our closeness allowed us to be intimate. It was only a few years ago that I let the way I was feeling come out to her and we started kissing. Our physical expressions became more intimate after that. Not because that was all I knew but because I had certain feelings for women which I have never felt for a man and she allowed me to express them,” Mercy said.
“No one knew apart from my mother that I am lesbian. One day she asked me why she has never seen me with a boy and if I had a boyfriend. I told her that I had a boyfriend and disclosed my best friend’s name. She was confused so I explained and she cried.”
From the moment she and her friend became intimate until the day she disclosed her secret, Mercy became increasingly convinced she would never feel as comfortable or safe with a man as she does with a woman. There are others like her, but she says they are unlikely to go public. Still, many other lesbians have been in contact with her since the story came out and Mercy hopes she has at least helped them feel more at ease with who they are.
“Ever since I came out, I have been making an effort to meet more women like me. Through phone calls and Facebook messages I have managed to get to know of 45 lesbians in Lilongwe alone,” she said.
“Living the way I was, I had to come out because it is clear that so many of us will be forced to enter into marriage or never find love because of our inability to accept ourselves. I hope others will be able to do the same. Actually, they don’t have to come out. They just have to know that it is okay to be a lesbian.”
While homosexuality is increasingly seen as mainstream in Europe and North America, lesbians in many countries still face ostracism, societal judgement and sometimes brutality. In neighbouring South Africa, for instance, they can be subjected to ‘correctional rape’, where men take it in turns to rape a lesbian supposedly to make her realise what she is missing.
The actual number of lesbians in Malawi is impossible to pinpoint since the government denies homosexuality. There are no census or health care records that capture sexual orientation. The gay community in Malawi keeps its secret close; fearful of prosecution or the kind of criticism Mercy has endured.
“Most of them can’t handle what I am facing. But that does not mean I have not met many women who will have sex with other women. We are here, we exist and what society says is not going to change that.”
After her story broke, Mercy was asked to attend a gathering for journalists who, along with the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep), a non-governmental organisation at the forefront of seeking a voice for sexual minorities, and the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), are making strides in creating a Malawi more tolerant of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) members of its population.
Mercy’s presence at the meeting was a milestone for organisations often criticised for having insufficient contact with those whose interests they say they are protecting. But the reaction of the 18 men and two women in the room showed that even such groups find it hard to understand lesbianism. Some of the men whispered audibly about her possible attraction to them, as if even they wondered whether she just needed to be satisfied by a real man.
Many Malawians believe that Kumwenda was paid to come out as an elaborate test of the government’s stance on homosexuality. There have been such cases in the past, including the 2010 secretly sponsored public wedding of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, a transgender male and a bisexual man who married and were arrested after they took their vows. Then there was the fracas at the start of the regime of Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first woman president, when two prostitutes were paid to pose as lesbians to try her views. The prostitutes were not arrested but Clement Chinoko of Blantyre Newspapers Limited, the journalist who wrote the story, was. The Blantyre lawyer safeguarded him from government investigators but Chinoko was ultimately fired. He has never revealed his sources and while he did admit to receiving cash for the story, it remains unclear who paid him.
This cynicism is cemented by the fact that Mercy works for Cedep, delivering care to sexual minorities around Malawi whose conditions, including anal sores and HIV, would be frowned upon in hospitals. The country, which does not acknowledge homosexuality or allow the distribution of condoms in prisons, also has no market for the lubricants that can help prevent the kinds of friction sores Cedep workers must treat. Mercy has adamantly denied any payment took place.
“My employers knew nothing about my sexual orientation. They deal with sexual minorities and I have been there as a medical carer helping them with their cases. I see how they are trying to get Malawi to accept us,” she said.
But in Malawi, acceptance still lies a long way off. And as Kumwenda found out painfully in the wake of the story, rejection can start at home.
“My father has come to know about me through the news story in the paper. He has since disowned me and I now live in hiding because of the threats I have been receiving. People are genuinely appalled and refuse to hear me,” she said.
What would she like them to hear about her?
“That I am a girl like any other girl. A woman like any other woman. I have ambitions, hopes and dreams. I eat. I sleep, I wear the latest trends. I fall in love, I get heartbroken. It’s just that all the romance I have ever experienced has been with women.”
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