(888) 277-4253

RGOD2: Why silence is golden for LGBT people in Tanzania and Zanzibar

(Editor's note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, author of the RGOD2 column, is on vacation. Today's column is written by Bryan Weiner, who recently finished his master's degree in International Policy Studies with a focus on Conflict Resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. He spent his final semester at graduate school doing an internship with Search for Common Ground in Zanzibar, Tanzania working with local NGOs and media partners on promoting good governance and conflict sensitive approaches. As a gay man, though, he has a great interest in combining his studies in international policy, development and conflict resolution with the promotion of international LGBT rights and support of the LGBT community. This article is about his experiences and his attempt to connect with the LGBT community and understand the context for LGBT rights in Tanzania.)

It is a sleepy Tuesday evening in Zanzibar. Most people are having an early night after the evening prayers and meals. There are groups of locals mingling with tourists down at Forodhani Gardens, the outdoor nighttime food market. After 10 o’clock, even the vendors here begin to cover up their food and close up shop for the night.

On the north side of Stone Town, though, the big all-night disco, Bwawani Hotel, is getting started with their famous, but completely unofficial, Tuesday gay night. On the other side of town, local women gather at a small barber shop to get their hair and henna done by the gay hair stylists. According to some accounts, same-sex relationships in this predominantly Muslim society are frequent and actually quite common, particularly as the male/female relations are so tightly controlled by culture and religion.

I have been a gay mzungu (white person or foreigner) living in Zanzibar for six months now, and during that time I have attempted to build bridges and make connections with, or at least find, any sort of gay community that exists here. It has been difficult and I haven’t been particularly successful at it.

The gay community here is hidden and secretive, but as anywhere else in the world, it exists and is thriving in its own manner. However, this experience has given me the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be gay in Africa, and how that is also informed by issues such as colonialism, poverty, development, gender, inequality and religion.

The gay community in Tanzania and Zanzibar (a semi-autonomous archipelago in the Indian Ocean that has an often-troubled relationship with the mainland) faces many unique challenges.

Homosexuality is a crime in Tanzania

Tanzania is, of course, one of the 76 countries that have penalized homosexuality. The penal code here gives a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of life in prison for homosexuality, making it one of the countries with the harshest anti-LGBT laws in the world. But Tanzania hasn’t captured the headlines or controversy that other African countries have (such as Uganda or Cameroon). No one has been convicted for homosexuality and the press here only gives offhand mention to the topic of homosexuality; mainly when it is impossible to ignore because the issue has been dominating the world news headlines surrounding neighboring countries. The issue of homosexuality here, however, is much more complex.

I had the opportunity to travel to Dar es Salaam, the principal city in Tanzania (although not the capital, which is Dodoma) and meet with members of LGBT Voice Tanzania, one of the local LGBT organizations taking an activist approach to the issue of homosexuality. In a conversation that I had with the director, he gave me a lot more insight on the specific situation here.

Silence on the issue isn’t a coincidence, but has been very strategically planned. Both the anti-gay voices and the LGBT voices are being silenced as Tanzania simply doesn’t want to address the issue. The government wants to avoid the anti-gay circus and possible threats to foreign aid as has happened in Uganda, but it equally wants to avoid having any sort of LGBT rights movement that may push them to make uncomfortable decisions.

Additionally, while people here aren’t specifically arrested for homosexuality, the LGBT community faces a great deal of violence and discrimination and feels no sense of protection from the police, who will often arrest them on other charges such as drugs, prostitution or disturbing the peace. When I went to visit LGBT Voice, their office was located in a remote part of the city, near the National Stadium, an address that was nowhere close to the one advertised on their website. This was due to the fact they had recently been evicted from their premises by their former landlord when he found out what sort of organization they were.

The myth that homosexuality is a western import

The issue of LGBT rights, particularly in a place such as Tanzania, is tied to many other issues at play in society. Historically, colonialists and missionaries brought the strict anti-homosexuality laws that are currently in place in many African countries, criminalizing many authentic indigenous homosexual practices.

Now, in 2014, these laws are brought up as indigenous and homosexuality is decried as a practice from the West that is “against our culture.” In a way, this is a form of post-colonial oppression that is targeting and scapegoating one specific group of people. While I was less successful at getting in touch with the gay community here, one of the most striking things that I saw was how strong this notion of post-colonialism still exists in Africa, particularly in Zanzibar, a small island that hosts many tourists and is rife with many unresolved historical inequalities.

One of the things that is most striking to me in the time I have spent here in Zanzibar is the divide between the hordes of affluent, white tourists and expats living here and the local population who are struggling greatly (even though they are definitely benefitting from tourism). I have developed a very close friendship with a Tanzanian man, from the mainland, who is working here in Zanzibar, and he has personally described the miserable way in which workers are treated here in the tourism industry.

I have also noticed very distinctly the way that many of the tourists and expats here display a sense of post-colonial superiority, which comes from the often-royal treatment that they get, a treatment that they come to expect. Many times, whether at work or when speaking with other locals, people seem to assume that because I am the mzungu, that I should be the boss or the manager. In all sectors, though, there is great disparity in salaries; local Tanzanians are paid a fraction of what their expat counterparts are paid, even for very similar jobs.

But no concern about western women exploiting local beach boys

This leads to a great deal of inequality, abuse and exploitation. There has been a proliferation of young beach boys in Zanzibar who are serving the sexual fantasies of middle-aged British and Italian women escaping to the sunny beaches and running away from midlife crises and broken marriages. In the meanwhile, local religious leaders are decrying how tourism and Western influence are undermining the traditional values of society. Whether it is Christianity in mainland Tanzania or Islam in Zanzibar, religion is often seen as the only authentic and local safeguard against this many-headed hydra of post-colonial exploitation and poverty that has gripped many countries in Africa

In Zanzibar, homosexuality hasn’t been too often their specific topic of discussion, but it does come up again as yet another form of Western exploitation and one of the evils that comes with the presence of tourists and expats that have had an influence on the culture. There was a huge debate around the issue in 2004 when the Bwawani nightclub hosted a gay marriage as a part of its Tuesday gay night. The topic of homosexuality often comes as a convenient scapegoat to deal with all of the other ills that African societies are facing. It is a topic that doesn’t have much support in the population and can be an easily articulated vehicle for frustration about the unfair situation that African countries have found themselves in after the end of colonialism.

So how do all these elements tie together and how do they reflect faith? This is a question that I have been piecing together throughout my time here, as I have been attempting to draw up my experiences here in the greater framework of my life’s work. I do believe there is a strong connection, though. Exploitation, inequality, discrimination and homophobia all come from the same source, a fear of our innate humanity and the need to control and dominate. Religion is naturally a source of unity and connection with the eternal, a force that should be used to connect us more deeply to each other and bring out our humanity. However, religion is often used to further deepen these divides, whether that is through the abundance of religious conflicts that are tearing apart countries throughout Africa or whether that is using the church as a pulpit to preach hatred and homophobia.

This experience has been a completely unforgettable one for me, not just because it has given me the opportunity to live in a beautiful and fascinating place, but because it has allowed me to gain a better understanding of these various issues and the interplay present. Exploitation exists at many levels and the effect of the colonial project here in Africa has had many long-lasting consequences across the continent, something that is very visible in the beautiful island paradise of Zanzibar. Ultimately, though, by focusing on our common humanity and equality, whether that is through religion, through simply acknowledging the humanity of the young man serving your food at the tourist café or through supporting the effeminate local hair stylist, will we be able to overcome these divides.

* * *

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE. RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.