Tag Archives: homosexual rights

Homosexual rights in Ghana a work in regress?

I’ve been doing this thing on Twitter called the Ghana Heat Check, where I attempt to come up with clever ways of letting my followers know how warm I am finding the Ghanaian weather.  It started out that way, at least.  Nowadays, I’m pretty much acclimatized and actually find the temperatures quite pleasant.  Perhaps the one area where the heat has not died down, however, is the topic of homosexuality.

Much of the Ghanaian mindset regarding homosexuality comes from the country’s deeply religious roots; roughly 95 per cent of Ghanaians identify as Christian or Muslim, two religions that have historically opposed homosexuality.

“It’s not natural,” says Reverend Dr. Steve Asante, vice-chairman of the Ghana Christian Council.  “God created a man to be with a woman, but homosexuality goes against this holy design.”

Alhaji Mohammed Abdul Wahab, Deputy Imam of Kotokoli in the Ashanti Region, echoes his religious counterpart, calling the act of homosexuality “totally haram.”

“These people have lost their humanity,” says Abdul Wahab.  “If they change, God can forgive them.  It they do not, they will go to the fire.”

Daniel Asare Korang, programs manager at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC), says his centre recognizes that Ghana is a religious country, but maintains that doesn’t change anything in respect to rights for homosexuals.  The HRAC is one of Ghana’s only organizations that has taken a strong stance for homosexual rights.

“How about those who don’t believe in any religion,” says Korang.  “Are they also not Ghanaians?  People have rights to believe what they believe… we don’t expect everybody to agree with our opinion, but if you express yours, I can also express mine.”

Hillary Afful is a gay Ghanaian. The 26-year-old Accra native says he knew early on that he was gay, and that he accepted the fact because it was how he was created.

“We’ve tried, we’ve done everything we could, but I can’t change,” says Afful, an HIV counselor with the West African AIDS Foundation.  “This is who I am.”

Rev. Asante, however, isn’t so sure.

“Nobody is created a homosexual, it is a choice,” he says.  “You aren’t born a thief or a murderer.  You choose to do those things, and homosexuals choose to engage in homosexuality.”

This, Afful says, is the same mentality that led his family to cast him from the house over a decade ago.

“Only my younger sister partially understands,” says Afful, who now lives with his friend in Jamestown, Accra.  “Sometimes she visits and she talks to me.  For my mother, I spoke with her the last two months.  But my daddy doesn’t even know how I look like.  We’ve not met since seventeen years now.”

“I tried to make contact but he said to be a homosexual, it’s evil and it damages the image of the family so he wants nothing to do with me.”

Fear of similar rejection is what has kept Jessica Acheampong, a self-described “reformed homosexual,” from telling her family about her past homosexual activity.

“Thank God my family never found out,” says Acheampong, a coordinator affiliated with the African Businesswomen Network.  “I would never tell them.  The way my parents are, and how Christian my mother is – I can’t imagine what they would say.”

Acheampong says the level of condemnation towards homosexuality in Ghana is misplaced.

“Those condemning it have no experience with it,” says Acheampong.  “Are they also without sin?  It’s not worse than any other sin, so why are people saying that gays and lesbians are Satanic?  I don’t get why people consider homosexuality to be so much more evil.”

It’s this heavy condemnation that is starting to take its toll on Afful, who says he finds comfort in going to church but is getting tired of the judgment from people he says are supposed to be his brothers and sisters.

“The pastor was preaching against it and people were laughing and saying all kinds of bullshit and I got quite furious,” says the self-professed Anglican.  “Even if you say it’s evil, you don’t need to condemn it.  Sometimes I ask myself, what are they trying to tell God?  Are they trying to challenge God?  God created every human being in His own image.”

In this vein, Afful says that despite the discrimination he faces every week, he will continue to attend church.

“I’m there to worship my God, so I don’t look at them, I don’t care about what they do, what they say, and all that.  I am just there to worship my God.”

Outside of church, however, Afful says he generally goes to work and then straight home out of concern for his personal safety.

“Even in my community, I can’t walk freely without people insulting me and throwing stones at me,” he says.  “Sometimes people even connive with the police and blackmail us… it’s really difficult here.  It’s like we are in hell.”

Afful said things got so bad a while ago he even tried to leave Ghana, but was denied a visa at immigration.  Applications for asylum also went unheard.   Despite this, he said he would not stop fighting.

“I want to see a time when you can be yourself,” said Afful.  “Even if I don’t get out of Ghana, I just want to be free.”

A typical headline in any of Ghana’s dailies.

Coming from Canada, where homosexuality has currently never enjoyed more acceptance and I have numerous friends who identify as LGBTQ, I was shocked to see how much of an issue it still is in Ghanaian society.  The topic dominates headlines and radio programs, with politicians and religious leaders going head to head against human rights advocates in the debate over whether homosexual Ghanaians should have the same rights as their heterosexual peers.  Consider that it’s a virtual non-issue in Canada, where gay marriage has been legalized and homosexuality is openly celebrated, and you can see how I’ve experienced culture shock.

Debating Silence

The posters created by local Malawians in a clandestine campaign for gay rights.

The caller on the other end of the line would only dance around the issue, never daring to explicitly state his purpose:

“Are you the Canadian reporter?”
“Um, possibly. Who are you?”
“You want to know something?”
“That depends. Are you Mwanajuma’s* friend?”
“Maybe. What is it you want to know?”

It felt like I was arranging a drug deal. Actually, I was trying to find a gay Malawian who could speak, even anonymously, about his or her experiences in a country in which two gay men were recently sentenced – and subsequently released following international outcry – to 14 years of hard labour for their relationship. This cryptic phone call was about as far as I got.

Homosexuality, treated in Malawi as a criminal matter, has been pushed into dark corners where people hardly dare to utter the word gay. There is no debate, as such, on gay rights. Simply the unrelenting silence of the majority.

Mwanajuma, my link to Malawi’s underground gay community, has been trying to raise awareness about the rights of gay people since the media explosion  surrounding the engagement of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga. With four of his friends, Mwanajuma blanketed Blantyre in posters boasting the slogan Gay Rights are Human Rights (see right).

Speaking in the back office of his local business, Mwanajuma describes why he felt the need to get involved. “We began a small campaign to be a voice of opposition to what, at the time, was just an overwhelming negative attitude: kill them, throw them in jail, that kind of thing. It was horrible,” he says. “We started raising awareness, trying to muster up the courage of human rights organizations locally who really weren’t doing anything.”

Anything that is seen to “encourage” homosexuality is a criminal offense in Malawi, under an interpretation of the penal code by which “any male person who…attempts to procure the commission of any [indecent] act by any male person with himself or another male person…shall be guilty of a felony.” One of the participants in Mwanajuma’s campaign was caught and arrested under this section, though he was later released. It’s not just gay relationships that are illegal. Even promoting gay rights can land you in jail.

But the penal code is not the main instrument in restricting free debate on gay rights. Social taboo has far more weight. Take, for example, the fact that one of the gay men involved in the international imbroglio eventually bowed to social pressure and recanted his relationship, despite winning his legal battle.

In Malawi, such social pressure is often cloaked in religious rhetoric, according to Mwanajuma. “The lens through which people saw the issue was very religious,” he says. “Ultimately, the Bible is used as a cover for a deeper prejudice. No one ever wants to say that they are bigots. The Bible is used as a buffer.”

But adhering to religious principles, he says, is not solely about faith. It’s also about social standing. “You can discuss [homosexuality] with people but you have to understand that religiosity is not just a social and cultural thing, it’s also very political,” Mwanajuma notes. “Having close ties to a church or deep knowledge of the Bible earns you status points within the community. Any veering from that loses status points. When having a discussion with someone, you always have to be mindful of that.”

The situation has thus become that few people are willing to discuss a matter which is weighted – both legally and socially – with so much personal cost.

*a false name was used to protect the identity of my source.

Highs and Lows

Muftaw Mohammad

Another eventful week in Ghana has flown by. There never seems to be enough time to get everything done, but that is to be expected with all we hope to accomplish in Ghana. Our to-do lists are overflowing and forever growing. Nevertheless, we are managing to juggle our responsibilities interning at Kapital Radio, designing workshops, arranging a plethora of interviews for our CIDA projects (while attempting to successfully navigate around the city- I get lost often), and researching for and producing two radio shows every Saturday evening. A 6-day work week is typical for me, however, I find myself exhausted at the end of the day and going to bed no later than 10pm every night, a highly unusual personal practice. I’ll blame it on the heat. As usual, my week included a mixture of highs and lows. Ghanaian food and water forced my stomach through some very rigorous and aggressive initiation rights that had me rather debilitated and laid out for a few days. Luckily, the highs of the week eclipsed my unfortunate low. On Saturday, we assisted our colleague, manager, and comrade at Kapital Radio Muftaw Mohammad (or “Mufty” for short) on a very exciting segment of his weekly 2-hour show “Know Your Rights.” The topic for discussion was homosexuality and theocracy from a Ghanaian perspective- a very controversial topic in most African countries. Each of the three panel guests offered a professional, important and contrasting opinion. Dr. Charlotte Abeka, chairperson on the UN Committee for Human Rights, evidently provided the human rights perspective regarding homosexuality; Sheikh Issah Ahmed, a respected local Muslim scholar, provided his view of Islam and how it views homosexuality; and Methodist Reverend/Professor Osei Sarfo Kantanka provided both his Christian and scientific opinion concerning homosexuality. The discourse was well-rounded, lively, balanced, and thought-provoking, while Muftaw guided the debate with interesting and challenging questions, drawing from the research we did. He had so many listeners calling and texting in to share their thoughts, that he had to close the phone lines down. Although the general public’s acceptance of homosexual rights in Ghana (as well as in many other countries) will be a gradual process, the need to generate discussion about the topic is vital. As Dr. Abeka contends, “Homosexuality must be talked about openly as a public issue [in order to] find ways to deal with the issue.”

Mufty and his sister

On more of a personal note, we spent Sunday with Muftaw and his extended family at their compound, where his sister taught us to prepare a traditional Ghanaian dish: banku (balls of dough made from maize flour), okra stew and fish. We ate as a group, each dipping small pieces of banku into the communal bowl of stew, using our right hands as the only utensil. Muftaw’s wofa (uncle) showed us how to break off pieces of banku properly, which involves cutting it between your fore and middle finger in a scissor-like motion so the dough appears smooth and presentable for sharing purposes. The whole experience was very enjoyable and Muftaw’s family was friendly and welcoming which helped compensate my homesick feelings and knowing I was missing my own family’s traditional Sunday dinner.

This week includes booking many more interviews, planning a brief trip to northern Ghana, a lot of research, figuring out how to use a video camera (I’m technologically inept), Canada Day/ Ghana’s Republic Day celebrations on Thursday, and a Black Stars match on Friday. Until next time.