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Malawi’s gay community – a tale of fear and stigma

Most Malawians are Christian or Muslim, with religious education that often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.

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Malawi's gay community - a tale of fear and stigma

Fearing persecution after being outed as gay, Adil 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. His full name is withheld for fear of homophobic retribution.

For two years Adil laboured as a male sex worker in the tough streets of downtown Johannesburg, eventually returning home.

His 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 Adil, 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 2014 bid to stay on as president, 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.”

“For the very few people that are open, life is very difficult because people tend to label them.”

‘Just want to be safe’

Twenty-eight-year-old Sarah, 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,” said Sarah. “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.”

Sarah 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.

Adil 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.”

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Fashion News

Breaking barriers in product designing across frontiers

Mariam Braimah hopes to extend these skills beyond international borders while inspiring Africans

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Breaking Barriers in Product Design

Netflix has become a universally known online streaming service with 148 million subscribers all over the world. The company and its shows are usually involved in modern pop and meme culture. Its exceptional growth which can be attributed to its user experience design is not by accident.

In an interview, Netflix product designer, Mariam Braimah narrates her ordeals during her growth journey, she hopes to extend these skills beyond international borders while inspiring Africans in the diaspora. 

Braimah joined the company’s Growth & Acquisition team. She was involved in the sophisticated process of attracting and keeping the attention of non-members immediately they hit the landing page of the company’s website, through to the process of familiarisation. 

She recently switched to the Emerging Experiences Design team, where she deals with the member and content experience of the product. Initially, she used to be money oriented in her approach, now, on the opposite end of the spectrum, she’s more into the abstracts. She concludes that it is indeed a dream job and she was only able to land such opportunity as a result of her experiences with various designs throughout her career which includes interaction design, user research, and UX writing.

In the course of her work with Netflix, she is aware of the opportunities she has been exposed to. Braimah grew interested in the development of user interface in the African diaspora. Being of Nigerian descent, she has been connected to her roots in more ways than one. This led to her interest in the situation of the design sector in Nigeria. 

During one of her frequent trips to Nigeria, she reached out to people on Twitter to start design tailored conversations with teams and tech companies within the country. In this process, she yearned to gain insights on what it is like to design within the Nigerian tech space. She discovered the drive to learn from international industry professionals at Silicon Valley in the Nigerian tech ecosystem.

This has contributed to her idea for the Kimoyo Fellowship founded by her in August 2018. The fellowship is an all-inclusive learning program designed to provide shared learning and experiences across the different borders of America and Nigeria. Her aim is to exchange ideas, develop talent and build experience. With this, knowledge will be gained effectively by both sides. She identifies it as a step towards identifying and sharing knowledge between both sides.

The long term goal behind the creation of Kimoyo is to explore the composition of design thinking through foreign views while keeping in mind the importance of context. Her next aim is to plan the next Kimoyo Summit in Lagos, in 2020, it will connect a  group of UI/UX design and research professionals and thought leaders that will link the creative communities of Silicon Valley and Nigeria.

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Culture & Tourism

‘Year of Return’ attracts African-American tourists to Ghana

A string of prominent African-Americans have headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing

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The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana

US preacher, Roxanne Caleb blinked away the tears as she emerged from a pitch-dark dungeon where African slaves were once held before being shipped across the Atlantic to America. 

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m heartbroken,” she told reporters as she toured the Cape Coast slave fort on Ghana’s ocean shore. 

“My mind still can’t wrap around the fact that a human being can treat another worse than a rat.”

Caleb is among the African-American visitors flocking to Ghana as it marks the “Year of Return” to remember the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing in Virginia.

The country is banking on the commemorations to give a major boost to the number of tourist arrivals as it encourages the descendants of slaves to “come home”.

Cape Coast Castle, 150 kilometres from the capital Accra, is a major magnet for those visiting 

The white-washed fort lined with cannons was one of the dozens of prisons studying the Atlantic coast where slaves were held before their journey to the New World.

A string of prominent African-Americans has headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing in 1619. Among them was a delegation of Congressional Black Caucus led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that toured last month.

The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast.
The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Can’t forget history’ –

For those visiting, it is an emotional rite of passage. 

“This has been understanding my history and my roots where I came from,” Caleb said.  

“I am very thankful I came here as part of the ‘Year of Return’.”

Sampson Nii Addy, a corrections officer with the Montgomery police department in Alabama, said he and his family had found the tour an “education”.

“I think every black person needs to come around to learn history; how people were treated,” the 52-year-old told reporters. 

“We can’t forget history but we can always learn something from it.”

Ghana, one of the continent’s most stable democracies, has long pitched itself as a destination for African-Americans to explore their heritage and even settle permanently.  

In 2009, President Barack Obama visited with his family and paid homage at the Cape Coast Castle. 

The “Year of Return” has added fresh impetus and the country is hoping it will increase visitor numbers from 350,000 in 2018 to 500,000 this year, including 45,000 African-Americans. 

Kojo Keelson has spent nine years guiding tour groups around the Cape Coast Castle and says 2019 has seen a surge in interest as Ghana looks to rake in tourism revenue of $925 million. 

“It’s like a pilgrimage. This year, we have a lot more African-Americans coming through than the previous year,” he told reporters.

“I’m urging all of them to come home and experience and reconnect to the motherland.”

Stairs next to the "Door of Return", the former "Door of no Return" of  the Cape Coast Castle
Stairs next to the “Door of Return”, the former “Door of no Return”. The Cape Coast Castle served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Love to come again’ –

Akwasi Awua Ababio, the official coordinating “Year of Return” events, pointed to high hotel occupancy rates as he said, “enthusiasm is very high and we’ve got huge numbers coming from the US and Caribbean”.

He insisted that beyond the major economic boost, Ghana was also looking to use the new connections it is forging to convince the descendants of slaves to resettle for good and help the country develop.

“Human resource is always an asset and we need to see how we can welcome them home to utilise their expertise and networks,” the director for diaspora affairs at the presidency said.

The African American Association of Ghana brings together those who have moved to West Africa and offers help to integrate them into their new surroundings.

President Gail Nikoi praised the “Year of Return” initiative by Ghanaian leader Nana Akufo-Addo and said the country was “setting the stage for future engagements and involvement of African-Americans and other Africans from the diaspora in the development of this country.”

But she said the authorities could still be doing more to help attract arrivals and convince them to stay.

“Dialogue and engagement is the first step,” she said.

While most of those visiting Cape Coast were not thinking about settling back permanently — they said the trip had opened their eyes to both their own history and what Ghana has to offer.

“It has broadened my horizons about how we came to be here and what our ancestors went through,” said William Shaw, 57, from Montgomery.

“I would love to come again. There is a lot more to see here in Ghana… at least once in a year, I’d advise African-Americans to come back to their native land and learn about their history.”

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Feature News

Celebrating beauty in diversity as captured by Nigerian photographer, Noma Osula

Osula’s artistic works comprise of bright hues, animated gestures and rival textures all derived from the usual daily life in Lagos

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Noma Osula, beauty in Diversity

Nigerian photographer, Noma Osula is a creative, born and raised in Nigeria. Osula, Like many creatives originating from West Africa, attributes much of his artistic inspiration for photography to the ever-bubbly city of Lagos in Nigeria. Walking through the streets of Lagos, his assertion is proven right, as the surroundings are indeed a sight to behold. 

Osula’s artistic works comprise of bright hues, animated gestures and rival textures all derived from the usual daily life in Lagos. Trudging between the line of fashion and enfolding portraits, the artist acknowledges and renews the African Aesthetic. He admits that he draws his inspiration from his immediate surroundings and uses the camera to bring this to reality.

Noma Osula Celebrates Beauty in Diversity
Courtesy: Noma Osula Photography on Tumblr

Osula has always had an in-depth love for art and all things creative, but his concern in the medium developed towards the ends of his schooling in the university when he self-taught himself how to use a camera and to explore the feasibility of photography.

He believes that creativity allows self-expression and that becoming an artist has helped him gain more self-acceptance, cultural understanding, and representation. It is these notions that have challenged him to question societal norms and stereotypes through his art. 

Most often his muse is seen wearing glamorous and exaggerated pieces, embracing their African heritage while exploring the different values of the African Aesthetic – part of his bid to reconstruct the perception of beauty and perfection in African cultures.

Osula’s exploration into the world of photography has taken him to great heights, but what remains the most paramount to him is the notion of pursuing an idea and watching it come to fulfilment.

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