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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)

Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 24 years, once declared: "Kenya has no room or time for homosexuals and lesbians. It is against African norms and traditions and is a great sin." Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe recently dismissed gays as "lower than pigs and dogs."

In Namibia, gays said there was a relatively relaxed climate in large cities in the years before and after independence from South Africa in 1990, and gay couples in Windhoek could hold hands in the street. But in the mid-'90s, they said, a chilling change occurred.

"The first five years after independence it was like a utopia," Swartz said. "People were proud to be gay. But when Namibian leaders' promises fell through and poverty did not improve, the government became increasingly unpopular. . . . The leaders were looking for a smokescreen and someone to blame."

In 1996, the public campaign against homosexuals began, after a group of cross-dressing men used a women's restroom during a rally of the ruling party. At the time, unemployment was at 60 percent and opposition parties were on the attack.

Days later, then-President Sam Nujoma gave his first anti-gay speech, saying that "homosexuals must be condemned and rejected." Suddenly, many officials were bashing gays. One minister called homosexuality a "behavioral disorder which is alien to African culture."

In response, the Rainbow Project was formed. Members went to churches and schools, and showed up on TV talk shows. They held workshops with Namibia's Human Rights Organization, which was respected for protesting corruption, police brutality and domestic violence.

There were heated debates, with some people saying that homosexuality was a threat to tradition and that men needed sons to inherit their land. That raised the issue of women's rights in the country's largest ethnic group, the Ovambo, which is deeply patriarchal and does not allow women to own land.

As the climate has improved in Namibia, Rainbow Project members now say they hope to replicate their success in other countries.

"What is hopeful is that we are having a national conversation. When I saw people from the Rainbow Project on TV, I knew they were helping young gay people out there who were really suffering," said Helmuth Oxurub, 35, who works in a furniture store in the coastal town of Swakopmund. "We want to say to people, 'You know us in everyday life, we are here and we aren't so bad.' People really seem to accept that message."

One recent evening, Oxurub arrived at a cafe in Swakopmund with his partner of seven years, Harold Uchman, 30, who works in the uranium mining industry. They were joined by another openly gay friend, Victor Honeb, 34, who works for the government.

They spoke about how they had revealed their sexual orientation to their parents and how stressful and confusing their childhoods had been. Oxurub said his mother had ordered him out of the house after neighbors started telling her he was gay.

"I said, 'Mom, accept me or not . . . I am your son and I am still the same person,' " Oxurub recalled. "She just started crying and hugged me. Then no one bothered us."

Lately, the three friends agreed, being gay in cities such as Windhoek and Swakopmund has even begun to acquire a certain image of urban hipness and going against the grain. So should there be a "Queer Eye for the Namibian Guy"?

"Maybe," Honeb said with a smile, adjusting his fashionable black-rimmed glasses. "A neighbor came over to me recently and said, 'Gay people are really cosmopolitan. . . . Being gay is so in right now.' I was really surprised and so happy. I hope that spreads to all of Africa -- one day."


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