Same-sex unions in Africa

Last week, I wrote about what appeared to be a substantial policy shift in Malawi, with the new president reported to favor a reversal of anti-gay legislation.  Malawi expert Kim Dionne highlights that this appears not to be the case. This morning, Kim wrote to me to shed more light on what’s going on:

The story is changing daily… just this morning (Malawi time) her Attorney General/Minister of Justice (Ralph Kasambara) has said that two women reported to have had an engagement ceremony will not be prosecuted since the laws pertaining to alleged same-sex acts are “under review.” There’s a big uproar among the public in Malawi, with some going so far to say they’d have demonstrations if the law is repealed. All I can say at this point is this issue is an interesting one to watch in Malawi.

How does the situation look elsewhere? As I’ve written about before, mostly pretty grim. But it is worth reflecting upon some of the different ways in which same sex unions have been addressed in other countries, sometimes even in environments that are generally hostile to homosexuals.

For example, in Kenya, a court case from a few years back shed some light on a Kikuyu practice of women marrying other women — generally in cases in which a married woman in unable to have children. The court case involved a young man trying to evict his stepmother’s wife from a plot of land she inherited from the wife.

And the Nation reports that the Kenya National Human Rights Commission is recommending the decriminalization of homosexuality, prostitution and same sex marriages. The same article goes on to point out that same-sex marriage is common among several ethnic groups including Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, and Nandi communities under common law — while stipulating that such marriages “are not sexual.” Of course, that begs the question of whether we are talking about apples and oranges here… but it does suggest a comfort level with a committed legal relationship between two adults of the same sex.

Here in the U.S., a recent poll shows that more Americans now support gay marriage than oppose it. I’m not exactly expecting a quick sea-change across Africa, but given increasingly high levels of international media penetration, African news outlets and blogs are sparking more discussion and debate on this social issue. Will be interesting to observe the different ways in which this plays out…

New Malawian President wants to overturn anti-gay laws

Acccording to the BBC, Malawi’s new President, Joyce Banda — who took power after her predecessor died of a heart attack — has announced her desire to overturn a ban on homosexual acts. I had been wondering whether Obama’s statement might have an impact on African governments, and obviously it’s hard to infer whether or not there’s a connection (there is no mention in the article). She may also be acting out of concern for aid conditionality.

But the timing does make me wonder.

She will undoubtedly face pushback from conservative members of society, but Malawi stands to be the first African country since the onset of the post-apartheid era in South Africa (1994) to act with greater tolerance and concern for human rights for gays.

Gossiping about AIDS

Like many, I am a sucker for the Chicago Public Radio program, This American Life. So when I loaded up the latest episode for my commute home yesterday, I was prepared to be entertained — especially since the show was billed to be about “Gossip.”

This American Life – Gossip

And I did love the show… But only the first few minutes were what I expected (a story about how a man inadvertently spread news about the sex life of his wife’s hairdresser…) The bulk of the program investigated Susan Watkins’ fantastic project studying how people talk about HIV/AIDS and sex in rural Malawi. It is seriously entertaining and informative, highlights all sorts of mistaken premises of longstanding prevention programs (like the idea that people don’t talk about sex or AIDS because she finds that they do all the time), and some of the popular ideas that fuel attitudes, behavior, and transmission of the epidemic. One particularly amusing anecdote is the discussion among men that it’s a better idea to sleep with a “bargirl” because “everyone” knows she sleeps around and has AIDS, and in such cases, there’s no question that you would wear a condom.

Anyway, Watkins’ work is some of the most important social science research on the social determinants of disease, and her approach — of getting ordinary people to keep journals, rather than conducting more artificial surveys — clearly bears a lot of fruit. Information about this breath-taking project are available here.

A bit of Donald Trump politics in Zambia?

Just a few months ago, my fellow New Yorker, Donald Trump, made a series of public outcries that our President Obama might not be a “real” American, and accused him of foreign origin. It was a few weeks of utter silliness, until the White House finally put the issue to rest by releasing a copy of his birth certificate.

Now the Zambian opposition is doing much the same — accusing Rupiah Banda of “foreign” parentage, and hoping the high court will render him ineligible for the next election. It would be cute to say that the Zambians were taking a play out of the Trump book, but this one has a Zambian precedent that pre-dates the Donald, when much the same was done to President Kaunda, the founding president of that country!

Daily Nation: – Africa |Zambia opposition party moves to court to contest Banda’s parentage.

Zambian President Banda

The current debacle involves accusations that Banda’s father was Malawian. The not-so-amusing part of all this is that 50 years ago, these states did not exist, and Africans decried the arbitrary colonial boundaries that divided ethnic and cultural groups. (My colleague, Dan Posner has a nice article about the implications of this division in Malawi and Zambia, and a larger argument about African boundaries can be found in Jeff Herbst’s book.)

While patriotism can be a positive force for state-building, these types of cheap political maneuvers, which needlessly distract voters from substantive issues, are as big a waste of time for Zambians as they are for Americans.

Malawi protests erupt

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika on Thursday refused to step down as deadly anti-government protests entered a second day, insisting that the country was “properly governed”.

via Malawi’s Mutharika refuses to step down – News – Mail & Guardian Online.


— Yet in one more African country — Malawi — protestors have taken to the streets to demand leadership change in the face of poor conditions. Like in Botswana, which was a very different type of protest (Government employees striking, not mass action, including violent clashes in the streets), Malawi is known more for calm than for calamity. As a relatively small, resource-poor country, this may not make the international news headlines, but early reports indicate several dead and dozens injured by police clamping down on the protests.