Namibia Chips Away at African Taboos on Homosexuality

From left, Harold Uchman, 30, and his partner, Helmuth Oxurub, 35, at a cafe in the city of Swakopmund with their friend Victor Honeb, 34. They said being gay in some Namibian cities has begun to acquire an image of urban hipness.
From left, Harold Uchman, 30, and his partner, Helmuth Oxurub, 35, at a cafe in the city of Swakopmund with their friend Victor Honeb, 34. They said being gay in some Namibian cities has begun to acquire an image of urban hipness. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 24, 2005

WINDHOEK, Namibia -- As a boy of 14, Petrus Gurirab worried that he was gay. Seeking advice from a trustworthy adult, he went to see a teacher who had treated him kindly.

"I have feelings for other boys," Gurirab recalled telling her. "Like love feelings."

There was a long silence.

"My advice is that it's not African" to be gay, the teacher replied, using a slur for the term. "Ignore those feelings and try girls."

She also apparently gossiped with colleagues. Other teachers started teasing Gurirab, asking him why he didn't play soccer and why he spent so much time around his mother. Then one morning, he said, the gym teacher invited him into his office, locked the door and forced him onto the desk for sex.

"Let's see how good you are at it," the teacher said, according to Gurirab, now 25, who recounted the story through tears. The ordeal left his legs and arms with red bruises. The next day, distraught and confused, he had sex with a female classmate.

"I wanted to change so badly and not be gay . . . but I couldn't," he said. "I knew I liked men. I decided I would kill myself. . . . I was so desperate I called a lifeline in London. They saved my life."

Un-African. Un-Christian. Anti-family. Witchcraft.

In many African countries, being gay is considered all of those things. It is also illegal in most of them, so taboo that a conviction for homosexual acts may bring more jail time than rape or murder. Only in South Africa is being gay widely accepted and protected by law.

From Uganda, where homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment, to Sierra Leone, where a lesbian activist was raped and stabbed to death at her desk last year, homophobia has long trapped gays in a dangerous, closeted life. With no places to meet openly, no groups to join, it seems sometimes that gay men and lesbians in Africa don't exist at all.

But in Namibia, a growing national debate about homosexuality has followed a period of harsh condemnation, and gay rights groups now operate openly in the capital, Windhoek.

One of them is the Rainbow Project, where Gurirab works as a suicide prevention counselor. The organization has interviewed gay Africans from across the continent, and its leaders say they believe the time is right to challenge prejudices and start a wider discussion on what being gay really means.


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