A call to help gays and lesbians in Africa

Opinion: Columns

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Mel Wilson

As some of you know, Nathan Linsk and I have been shuttling back and forth to Africa since 2001 where Nathan has been involved in developing university-level social work education programs for vulnerable children and people with HIV in Tanzania and Ethiopia. Nathan is the professional, and I go along to give what support and company I can. We just returned to Oak Park after seven weeks in South Africa, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

We always travel as a couple (been together for 27 years). Our wedding in Washington D.C. two years ago was posted on Facebook and celebrated by our many African friends. Yet in Tanzania and Ethiopia, gays and lesbians are subject to draconian social stigmatization, and homosexuality is a criminal offense subject to 15-30 years in prison.

We have met and worked with hundreds of Africans on the frontlines of the "helping professions." We have met only one openly gay Ethiopian (who fled to Finland) and, just last year, one openly gay Tanzanian who stayed home to fight. It is about that man, his struggle and his organization that I
am writing.

Last year we met James Wandera in Dar es Salaam when I ran across a local reference to WEZESHA ("empowerment" in Kiswahili), a fledgling organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Immediately intrigued, I called and found James. Last spring, Nathan met with James and a woman colleague at WEZESHA's office (now closed due to lack of funds) to understand the organization's membership (around 200) and programs (LGBT advocacy, support groups, HIV counseling). We learned more when we met James at the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. last July.

Born in Bukova near Lake Victoria, James graduated from seminary in Uganda, but near his ordination he came out and was expelled from his church. He soon found that he was HIV-positive. The rejection from his church had a tremendous impact on his sense of himself and his church. But the experience did not deter him from his will to serve needs he found all around him.

James pursued studies in non-profit management and worked with an international HIV/AIDS organization in Tanzania as a community outreach worker for three years. This work brought awareness of the desperate need to develop support for LGBT Tanzanians excluded from access to care at every turn. James began building the organization that became WEZESHA from personal funds saved from this period.

Last month, James arranged for us to meet with six WEZESHA members — all young, HIV-positive, banished by their families and struggling to keep their lives together. We met in an outdoor café in the poor neighborhood of Tabata. They were eager to ask us questions about our world, one they could hardly imagine: where two old, gay "Babus" ("grand-dads") could live together openly for 27 years. They told us about their lives: how they were rejected by families due to their sexual orientation, were expelled from schools, how even as waiters and cleaners they were fired from jobs, how some had turned to sex work to survive, and they talked about being HIV-positive. They told us how hard it was to find support for health care in a society where they are shunned by providers anxious to avoid the stain of homosexuality. We found no hang-dog, "save the puppies" search for sympathy from these boys. They were bright, funny and happy to be together. And here is where the valuable work of WEZESHA was most strikingly obvious. The organization provides them with hope for their futures.

Nathan and I urge you to lend whatever support you can by visiting Global Giving's website at: www.globalgiving.org/projects/help-lgbt-access-free-quality-health-service.


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