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Popular television show divides Senegalese over sexual taboo-breaking claims

The show has also already been cautioned by the state’s media watchdog for being too racy.

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Popular television show divides Senegalese over sexual taboo-breaking claims
A child watches an episode of the TV serie "Maitresse d'un homme marie" (Mistress of a Married Man) in Dakar. (Photo by Seyllou / AFP)

Cheikh hoists his second wife Mareme onto his shoulder and carries her to their rose petal-covered bed, where he lays her down. 

The frolicking couple embrace and….what happens next is left to the viewer’s imagination as the camera suddenly switches to a pair of white slippers, the bedroom door closes and the scene ends.

In soap operas in other parts of the world, such coy depictions of sex would be considered unremarkable, even dreary.

But in conservative Senegal, where even an on-screen kiss is rare, the self-described monitors of public morality are in uproar.

The show — “Maitresse d’un homme marie” (“Mistress of a married man”) — has also already been cautioned by the state’s media watchdog for being too racy.

But defenders say the soap takes a desperately-needed look at relationship issues such as male abuse, the pain experienced by abandoned spouses and a woman’s right to sexual pleasure.

Popular television show divides Senegalese over sexual taboo-breaking claims
The “Maitresse d’un homme marie” (Mistress of a Married Man) serie’s director, Baye Moussa Seck, looks on during the recording of an episode in Dakar on May 25, 2019. -(Photo by Seyllou / AFP)

“Maitresse d’un homme marie” follows five young women characters, all strong-minded, freewheeling city dwellers.

Some start affairs with married men and — as in the case of Mareme — end up marrying them.

‘Cast judgement’  –

In Dakar’s Sicap Liberte 3 district, the Sene family is glued to its TV for the twice-a-week show.

In between adverts blaring out the virtues of a brand of local rice, bubbly single mother Rose condemns the threat of censorship hanging over her favourite programme.

“Maitresse”, she says, holds up a mirror to hypocrisy and inequality in Senegal.

“Men who criticise the series are the same ones who have mistresses and what they do to them is far worse than what you see on the screen,” she said.

“They cast judgement on the women (in the show) because they are single, because they are in charge of their lives,” said Rose.

“In Senegal, if you are not married by the time you are 30, you are not a good woman. In this country, it doesn’t matter even if you’re a huge success, if you’re not a man, you’re nothing.”

Slapped –

Launched in January, the show goes out at prime time on the commercial channel 2STV and is also avidly followed on YouTube, where each episode is watched between one and two million times.

Devotion to the series is such that one actor was slapped by an elderly woman while exercising.

“She told him, ‘Stop drinking and look after your family’,” the show’s executive producer, Kalista Sy, recounted, with a giggle.

Senegal is predominantly Muslim — mostly following the Sufi strain — where public displays of affection or sex outside marriage are frowned upon.

Within weeks of the series’ launch, a powerful Muslim NGO, Jamra, asked the country’s audiovisual watchdog, the CNRA, to crack down.

After deliberation, the CNRA on March 29 allowed the series to continue provided there were “corrective measures” to the script. Without these changes, the show would have to be screened late at night, or face being banned altogether.

Everything seemed to be going fine until the 34th episode — the scene of Cheikh and Mareme canoodling on the marital bed.

“They crossed the red line. They offended a large proportion of Senegalese by broadcasting virtually pornographic content during the blessed month of Ramadan,” Jamra’s Mactar Gueye told reporters.

“It is unthinkable that this apology for fornication and adultery continues in this form,” he said, in an interview at his home where a giant TV screen was turned on to a telenovela channel showing soap operas.

Sexual emancipation –

The female characters on “Maitresse” often bear the brunt of the moral messages — on-screen marriage-breakers, for instance, are verbally lashed by friends and family for their behaviour.

Popular television show divides Senegalese over sexual taboo-breaking claims
Halimatou Gadji (C), who plays Marieme in the Senegalese television serie “Maitresse d’un homme marie” (Mistress of a Married Man), speaks with Ndiaye Cire Ba (L), who plays Djalika and the script-girl, Adama Diallo (R) during the recording of an episode in Dakar on May 25, 2019. -Mareme. (Photo by Seyllou / AFP)

But for Senegalese feminist activist Fatou Kine Diouf, this finger wagging has had less impact on viewers than the theme of sexual emancipation.

“The series shows women who are in charge of their sexuality. It will never get directly shown on screen but everyone is talking about it. In that respect, the series is really powerful.”

The soap opera’s set is a joyful buzz of actors, technicians and makeup artists, working up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

In a tired voice, Sy, the executive producer, says that male hostility, religious objections and technical hitches are her daily challenges.

“But when young women watch the show and identify with characters that are like them, they are deeply touched,” she said.

“And nobody can take that away from us.”

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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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Late Kenyan writer and human rights activist, Margaret Ogola gets Google doodle

After a protracted battle with cancer, the legendary humanitarian, writer, medic and nationalist succumbed to the illness in 2011.

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Late Kenyan writer and human rights activist, Margaret Ogola gets Google doodle

For many Kenyans, reading would not have been as engaging had they not bore witness to the sheer brilliance of Margaret Ogola.

“The River and the Source,” a required reading for the high school leaving national examinations (KCSE) from 1999 to 2004 offered a generation of young Kenyans nostalgia and immersion.

The main protagonist’s father, Chief Odero’s words sums the narrative of the lives of three generations of women in these words: “A home without daughters is like a spring without a source”

Departing from the mainstream narrative of servility, this book projects the spirit of strong African women, while focusing on Luo values and celebrating its cultural mores, from pre to postcolonial times. It won the 1995 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book, Africa region.

Even before authoring her first book, Dr. Ogola was an accomplished woman. She juggled between her job as a pediatrician and the medical field serving in directorial positions at various NGOs focusing on HIV & AIDS at the peak of the scourge in the country.

This was in addition to writing three more books.

Her pertinent words at the Beijing conference in 1995 continue to ring true today as they did when she first spoke them.

In a conversation on the dignity of the African woman, she posits: “Unless we recognize that each individual is irreplaceable (sic) and valuable by virtue of simply being conceived human, we cannot begin to talk about human rights.

The accidental attributes that we acquire such as colour, sex, intelligence, economic circumstances, physical or mental disability should not be used as an excuse to deprive a person of life.”

After a protracted battle with cancer, the legendary humanitarian, writer, medic and nationalist succumbed to the illness in 2011.

On Sunday, 9th June, Google honoured her in what would have been her 60th birthday.

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Kenyans protest bid to build East Africa’s first coal plant

Campaigners argue the project is a costly and damaging venture that defeats the purpose of moving away from coal energy.

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Kenyans protest bid to build East Africa's first coal plant
Greenpeace and environmental activists hold a coffin reading "coal kills" and signs as they demonstrate in Nairobi against the construction of a coal power plant in Lamu on Kenya's coast, on June 12, 2019. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Scores of Kenyans on Wednesday protested against a project to build a coal power station near the Lamu archipelago, a popular tourist spot that includes a UNESCO World Heritage site and boasts vibrant marine life.

The power station, which has been in the planning stages for about six years, has faced fierce resistance from activists, local communities, and the National Environmental Tribunal is to rule on June 24 on the fate of the project.

A group of about 200 protesters carrying black coffins emblazoned with white skulls, as well as a miniature chimney spewing smoke, marched through downtown Nairobi on Wednesday chanting “coal is poisonous!”

“There is no need to build centralised dirty sources of energy such as coal to answer Kenya’s energy demands, especially when the country is taking the lead in Africa with an 85-per cent renewable energy base,” said deCOALonize Campaign Coordinator, Omar Elmawi.

“With access to wind, solar, geo-thermal and tidal energy sources, Kenya’s renewable energy potential is cost-efficient and causes no harm to the people and environment.”

Campaigners argue the project is a costly and damaging venture that makes little sense at a time when most of the world is turning away from coal plants and investing in increasingly cheaper renewable energies.

“Countries are divesting away from coal and even China is moving away from coal investment towards renewable energy,” Greenpeace representative Fredrick Njehu commented.

However the government sees it as a way to spur economic growth, create jobs, and ensure Kenya’s energy supply in the future.

The bulk of the $2 billion project is being financed by China and it will be built by Amu Power, a joint venture between a Kenyan firm and Gulf Energy. Construction will be carried out by China Power Global.

Campaigners are also alarmed over Kenya’s rising debt, which currently stands at around $50 billion of which over $6 billion is owed to China.

Activists march in Nairobi, carrying placards bearing messages to denounce plans by the Kenyan government to mine coal close to the pristine coastal archipelago of Lamu. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

Experts have raised serious concerns about the project.

The US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) this week released a report warning that due to a series of miscalculations, electricity from the plant will cost consumers 10 times more than estimated.

Related: Electricity supply from Lamu Power Plant could cost more than originally estimated

The report entitled “The Wrong Choice For Kenya” said the 981-megawatt facility would be a “costly error” for the country, with the 25-year contract requiring payment of $360 million annually even if no power is generated at the plant.

It says that Kenya’s energy demand growth has been much lower than estimated, due to lower than expected economic growth, and that if built the plant would be “grossly underutilised”.

“The government’s own analysis demonstrates that… Kenya’s abundant renewable resources render no new coal generation necessary in the country until 2029, at the earliest”.

Amu Power in a statement Wednesday described the report’s conclusions as “inaccurate” and said the plant would have a utilisation rate of 85 per cent.

It will be the first coal-fired power station in East Africa and will import coal from South Africa until Kenya begins its own mining operations.

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