‘The journey to the recognition of LGBTQ rights in Africa is an uphill climb’

Activists from the Climate Reparations Bloc and Defund Climate Chaos prepare for a march. Image from Flickr (PDM 1.0 DEED).

This article written by Clarisse Sih and Bibbi Abruzzini is part of the #MarchWithUs campaign – one full month of stories from gender justice activists from across the globe. Listen to the podcast episode featuring Kiki here.

Who would have thought that just existing and living your truth could lead one into so much trouble? At least Kiki never knew she would be the centre of attraction for several years for doing absolutely nothing to disturb others life, yet having so many people bothered about her choices.  

Bandy Kiki was born Emily Kinaka Banadzem on February 20, 1991 in Jakiri, a remote village in Cameroon. According to Kiki, she grew up with a life free of drama:  

“I grew up in a conservative Catholic home and got quite a lot of sermons, ”says Kiki in an interview with Clarisse Sih of the global civil society network Forus. Although her family ensured that she grew up following the rules of their religion, these sermons were far from enough to make Kiki remain within the “acceptable” group of persons in her country.  

Bandy Kiki. Photo by the global civil society network, Forus, used with permission.

In her teens, Kiki realized she was not interested in boys. She told Forus: “I didn’t start with being sure [of being queer]. It started with questioning. I was attracted to girls whereas my friends were always talking about boys. I wondered what was wrong with me.”   

Although Kiki was unable to understand or control what was happening within, she was certain of one thing: her feelings had to remain a secret, for fear of being rejected by society or worse—being sent to prison.  

“My mind went into a stage where I wondered if I was going to hell,” she said.

Kiki forced herself to be interested in men but it never worked out. She had her first romantic relationship with a woman, but spent several months pleading to keep it a secret. Eventually, the fear of being unmasked overpowered her desire to live her truth, and Kiki put an end to the relationship.  

The passage through fire

Years later, Kiki moved to the United Kingdom for her studies and there, she was finally able to embrace her truth—somehow. Online bullies forced her out of the closet and Kiki knew it was finally time for her to tell her family the “much feared truth”.

“My family wasn’t very supportive but they also weren’t as homophobic as I had expected,” she noted.

When she came out to the public in 2017, she was labelled “the Most Hated Anglophone On Social Media in Cameroon”.  

“At the time, I ran one of the biggest and most followed blogs in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon and I lost several advertisers on my blog. It really impacted my source of income. I had a lot of death and gang rape threats,” she recounts.  

Seeking support within LGBTQ communities was one of the methods she turned to in order to survive the online bullying she was facing, and as LGBTQ people suffer a fresh wave of persecution in Cameroon, where same-sex relations are illegal. 

‘If we believe in human rights, we cannot pick what human rights to advocate for’ 

Fahe Kerubo. Photo by the global civil society network, Forus, used with permission.

In Kenya, Fahe Kerubo, like Kiki, was finding their way through the first year in secondary school in Nairobi, when they realized they were different. They did not quite fall within the two lines drawn for them by society and where they were expected to stand. They were neither a man nor a woman, and the first thing that came to Fahe’s mind was getting guidance from the school counsellor.

In an interview with Forus’ Clarisse Sih, they said: “Growing up, it was ideally unacceptable to identify as a queer person. I was just growing into puberty and having all these emotions I needed someone to guide me through. I made the major mistake of going to our school counsellor and expressing my feelings. She paraded me during our school assembly. It was announced to the whole school that I was a lesbian and that any student who associated with me would either be expelled or punished.” 

This trauma forced Fahe to live in solitude, and would later on push her out of university. 

“The system was discriminatory, really oppressive. I had to drop out of university because the pressure was too much. I took three years of pause to figure out what I could do and then went back to campus to do a totally different course,” they said.

Being trolled for being gay and later on the loss of a dear friend to AIDS/HIV motivated Fahe to become an activist.

They emphasized, “Like many other queer people across the globe, I had to learn from a young age how to defend myself. I had a very close friend who died because of AIDS but especially because of the stigma and discrimination they faced. They were not able to access antiretrovirals and because of that HIV went all the way into full load and I lost my friend.” 

Fahe joined the fight for reproductive and sexual rights and today, like Kiki, they work as an activist and youth advisor. Gender rights and reproductive rights go hand in hand, Fahe believes. 

They explained, “The intersection lies in recognizing and respecting the diverse reproductive experiences of individuals within the LGBTQ community. . . here we are talking about comprehensive healthcare. We are talking about the unique needs of trans people and non-binary individuals. So we cannot talk about the LGBTQ rights without talking about their reproductive rights.”    

In numerous countries, LGBTQ individuals continue to face laws that threaten their freedom and face various risks such as arrest, blackmail, stigma, violence, and even the death penalty. 

“If we believe in human rights, we cannot pick which human rights to advocate for. I have seen a lot of activists advocating for progressive laws and policies and today I am proud that the constitution gives room for safe abortion to be accessed and for LGBTQ people to exist the way they are,” Fahe added.  

“We should adopt a collective responsibility and refrain from working in silence. These issues are interconnected and if we choose to pick which things to advocate for based on our bias or rather our attitude or our beliefs then I think we are losing it,” they concluded.

Unity is the first step but the lack of resources is a reality many civil society organisations have to deal with. 

Just like Fahe, beyond protecting herself, Bandy Kiki also chose to advocate for the rights of other LGBTQ people.  

She noted, “I took on activism because I felt that it was something that was needed within the community. Reflecting on myself, I knew no LGBTQ person in Nso [a village in Cameroon] and so had nobody whose life could affirm mine. So I told myself I could be that person I needed so much to see when I was much younger on my journey to self-acceptance.” 

The journey to the recognition of LGBTQ rights in Africa is an uphill climb.   

“Traditionalists and religious bigots are in our business and are concerned about who I sleep with at the end of the day. Why? LGBTQ rights across Africa need to be acknowledged and reformed,” Kiki opined.

There are 64 countries in the world whose laws criminalise homosexuality, and nearly half of these are in Africa. Many of the laws criminalising homosexual relations date from colonial times. This reality is pushing many queer people to choose the relative comfort of the closet while dreaming of a day when they will be free at last.

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