Transformation, logic, and invasion of neo-liberalism in advocacy spaces: Interview with MP Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, Fearless Feminist and Women Human Rights Defender

Interview with Malawi MP Jessie Kabwila at the 59th CSW meeting.

Interview with Malawi MP Jessie Kabwila at the 59th CSW meeting.

CAL: Are you a feminist?

JKK: Oh yes I am.  My name is Jessie Kabwila. I am the Publicity Secretary for the Malawi Congress Party, the main opposition in Malawi, I am also chair for the women’s caucus, I am a Member of Parliament for Salima North West, I’m a feminist, proudly feminist and I have been one since I knew who I was.

CAL: What influences your radical position on sexual reproductive health and rights in Malawi?

JKK: I would say it’s lived experience, what I have been through in my life and more importantly what research has shown. As an academic I usually take a position based on what research is saying. I have never understood why anybody would want to lie that being gay, transgendered or intersex is something that is not African, it’s just not true. I’ve done that kind of research myself, where I went into Malawi, to remote areas, places where people haven’t travelled. People there have never been to the US, never been to the UK, they’re just being Malawian, and I have met people who have been living; a-man and a man, sixty-four years old, and they have never been out of the country. And what struck me is they love each other. The main problem with the LGBTI discourse is that it is being discussed predominantly as a sex thing. It should rather be about people and how they love each other. It’s not as if it’s just a bunch of people who sleep with each other every day, no. So maybe the question should be, do people love differently in Africa? And I think love has no passport. Love is love. Some people love other people. Other people don’t love someone else. Just like sex, there are people who don’t have sex, are we going to arrest everybody, to say, look, you have private parts, what are you doing with them? No. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s much ado about nothing. I think there’s this obsession to control people and what they are doing. Foucault talked about it very well in The History of Sexuality. To me Malawi is the same as someone being in chains and we lock the door and we say ‘why are you not coming out?’. Maybe it’s because you locked the door? I feel so passionate about this because I see how it is linked to HIV prevention. I think if people are hiding who cannot say that they are going to get condoms and they are going to get medication, we should understand how stigma is more of a killer than taking a knife and killing someone, because we are stopping them from being who they are. And that is impacting access to service delivery.

CAL: Why is the CSW not a transformative space for sexual reproductive health and rights 20 years after the Beijing Platform?

JKK: Because, like many institutions it has been invaded by neo-liberalism. This thing of wanting to make everybody happy. How was a statement that was not debated or consulted passed? It doesn’t make any sense and to tell the truth it’s making all this a farce. We can’t talk about transformation when there is so much silence of logic. Until and when the CSW embraces difference and we are not  afraid to differ, we will not realise that it is in-between difference that actually the truth lies. We have black, white, blue and whatever colour, it is therein that we find out that we have diversity. I have never seen so many countries in the world agree in minutes. We spent much more time watching a game of football than we do ratifying a political statement-it doesn’t make any sense.

CAL: How can we push for change in language at the CSW spaces?

JKK: To be honest with you, I don’t think the issue of language is going to be won in such spaces. I believe progressive, radical people, these are not spaces for us. Those who want to ‘kick some ass’, the place is not here.

Sometimes the neo-liberal framework of discussion, leaves someone with no choice but to be very radical, in order to be heard. The real question is, can we do business-unusual, when we are behaving business-as-usual?

I don’t think this is going to bring back our girls in Nigeria, I don’t think that Boko Haram is going to be a friend of women because of this [CSW process]. If say for example, we all descended on Nigeria and demanded actions to bring the girls back, they would know that something has gone seriously wrong. I think these meetings confirm the way institutions have been invaded by capitalism and neo-liberalism, all these ‘isms’ that make us say we are fine in the morning when we are not.

*Edited for tense and shortened. E&OE.


Zambia’s Growing Intolerance towards LGBTI persons


Photo courtesy

During recent weeks, we have received numerous reports of increased violations against sexual diverse and gender variant persons particularly gay men in Zambia. On January 3, 2014, a self-identifying gay man was beaten up by a mob of people in Lusaka’s Garden compound, the mob according to his testimony also included three (3) police officers that threatened to ‘ungay’ him. The identified young man alleges that this is the fourth time experienced an attack by members of his own community since 2012.

Against this wave of growing homophobia, two alleged gay couples of Lusaka were recently outed on a popular news blog called the Zambian Watchdog for allegedly practicing homosexuality. Preliminary reports indicate that one of the couples detained by police are out on bail. The same week, Police in Isoka District, detained a 17-year-old grade 12 pupil on charges of ‘practicing sodomy’. Media reports indicate that the seventeen year old has admitted to the charges.

Earlier in the month, a named Catholic Priest of Lusaka was outed on the same media blog for allegedly practicing sodomy. This blog went as far as disclosing the residential address of the named person without any regard for the person’s safety. Meanwhile in Kapiri Mposhi District of Central Zambia, two young men have been held for over nine months on charges of practicing sodomy and detained without bail, if convicted on both counts on February 27th, 2014 they may face up to thirty years imprisonment to life. Under Zambian law, the act of sodomy carries with it a minimum fifteen years to life.

On November 5th, 2013 Zambia’s First Lady Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata said, ‘Personally I am concerned about the vulnerability of our women married to or in intimate relations with men who also have sex with men. We have anecdotal evidence especially in colleges where young men are enticed into having sex with men but at the same time also have young girlfriends on the side. If not checked this will derail the positive strides that this country is making.’

The Zambian First Lady statement was instantly lauded as ‘heroic’ and ‘game changing’ since she further alluded to some far-fetched notion that there was need to discuss issues around men who have sex with men. Fast-forward to 2014, the situation for sexual diverse and gender variant Zambians continues to deteriorate. Those accused of ‘practicing’ sodomy are arrested and outed on online media blogs with wanton carelessness – beaten and or kicked out of their homes and schools without much of a stir from the international community, after all ‘the LGBTI community was blessed’ with a miracle in the form of Dr. Christine Kaseba–Sata’s statement in the month of November, 2013. How ironic!

I was one of those unfortunate pundits who initially lauded Dr. Kaseba Sata’s speech at the time because despite my instincts, I could not help but be hopeful that her ‘game changing’ speech albeit laced with homophobic sentiment, ignorance and negative stereotypes – would be a starting point for meaningful dialogue around a seemingly ‘contentious issue’ in my beloved country but alas!

As a human rights defender, operating on the ground in Zambia these days and often times, a victim of many a government and community sanctioned harassment owing to the work that I do and taking into cognisance my external environment characterised by increased media outings and police arrests in recent months, I refuse to sit by and allow a well-funded and well executed public relations campaign targeted at donors and cooperating partners to overshadow the lived realities of LGBTI persons in Zambia. This campaign in my opinion, was created as a mere ruse to solicit for donor funding without the accompanying accountability for the lives that are being lost as a result of failure to access essential services by the LGBTI community. Yet again, Zambia is still perceived in the eyes of the international community as a ‘queer paradise.’

The reality however is, life for sexual diverse and gender variant Zambians and their defenders has become unbearable – it’s hard to walk on the streets or sleep in your own bed for fear that your own family, friends, neighbours, co-workers may beat you, kick you out or worse, turn you over to the police as has often been the case. Law enforcement officers vying for many a promotion only have to announce the arrest of a LGBTI person to get the media attention that will catapult them into stardom and gain them the favour of the appointing authority who in this case happens to be Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata’s husband and the current Republican President.

I applaud Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, not for her obvious homophobic sentiments or her inability to act and follow up on her words, but more so, for her impeccable public relations skills that in one statement succeeded in pulling wool over the rest of the world without much consideration for the silenced and embattled LGBTI community. Bravo!

LGBTI Zambians, their defenders and allies continue to live in constant danger and fear of arrests owing to their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identities and the work they are involved in – allies of this community are not spared but also continue to face intimidation, arrests and harassment at the hands of the state.

Meanwhile, the world continues to celebrate Zambia’s miracle – the miracle of growing intolerance, bigotry and oppression targeted against a community that is downtrodden owing to the myriad persecutions that it faces endorsed by the world’s silence – what a travesty!

Overshadowing this worrying trend is the issue of Zambia’s final draft Constitution that the State has refused to release to the people contrary to their pre and post elections promises. High profile opposition politicians, civil society leaders, journalists are often arrested and detained while the persecution of LGBTI persons, considerably one of the most unifying issues in the country heightens without much sympathy or redress.

What has gone wrong in our once inclusive and tranquil nation? And pray, who will speak out for Zambia’s oppressed, silenced and marginalised LGBTI community if Dr. Kaseba Sata’s homophobic statement is still lauded as a miracle despite this period having been the toughest time to be LGBTI or a human rights defender in Zambia. Is the world so desperate for a miracle that they will believe anything they read without doing their own research? On the other hand, could the chilling realisation that keeps me awake at night be on point – does nobody give a damn about the Zambian LGBTI community. I know it is not the citizenry that will not stop to sacrifice their fellow brother or sister for a kwacha or personal appeasement, it is not even the global south or the enabling north.

It’s time for Zambian LGBTI persons who live the realities to take up their own struggle and in so doing become their own heroes – because they are none left. When they come for you, no one will come to your rescue, petitions will be written in your name without success, people will live their lives and move on. The world will not stop turning for you. It did not stop for James and Philip, it has not stopped for you and I, it’s only when our voice reaches critical mass that we will be heard – as a collective. I pray I am wrong, in the name of whatever deity humanity believes in, I hope am wrong.

By Juliet Mphande.



Binyavanga Wainaina est brave homme pour sortir à un moment où il est en hausse homophobie et l’introduction de lois homophobes sur le continent . Et il a choisi de sortir du mieux qu’il sait – par son écrit, dans une lettre à sa mère . Certes, Binyavanga n’est pas une personne au Kenya ou en Afrique , et son coming out attention attiré en raison de son statut littéraire de renom. On se demande si son coming-out a donné un autre genre et la sexualité diversifiée courage des gens de revendiquer leur sexualité, publiquement ou en privé , mais c’est encore à voir , ou déclaré . Il est , cependant, un pas dans la bonne direction pour le mouvement des droits sexuels et de genre en Afrique , parce que le plus de nous, ils voient , plus ils se rendent compte que nous ne sommes pas une minorité sexuelle aussi souvent censé être . Mais est Binyavanga coming out représentant de toutes les minorités dites sexuelles en Afrique ?

Binyavanga coming out peut se poser la question , où sont les voix de lesbiennes en Afrique ? Peut Lesbiennes publiquement et arborent fièrement leurs voix sans crainte de représailles de conservateurs , les systèmes patriarcaux de silence et d’oppression ? Et si nous pouvons – nous alors pourquoi pas ? Quels sont les systèmes d’oppression nous gardons toujours sourd et calme ? Lorsque l’homosexualité est parlé dans l’Afrique , la voix , la rhétorique et l’accent sur ​​l’ensemble soit affirmer ou de contester les droits des personnes non – hétéro est le plus souvent la voix des hommes gais . Binyavanga est un homme gai et il a «sortir » et dit publiquement si . Mais qu’est-ce que cela signifie pour les femmes bisexuelles , trans et lesbiennes ? Est-ce Binyavanga coming out nous donnent aussi une voix et un espace pour revendiquer nos droits à exister dans des espaces qui sont hostiles à notre altérité ? Une femme lesbienne en Afrique peut copier -coller et modifier sa lettre comme un récit de sa propre histoire ? At-il , en substance , parlé pour nous tous ? La sexualité des femmes dans son ensemble est une partie complètement côté bordée et non reconnue de la féminité , où les sociétés, les cultures , traditions et religions refusent de reconnaître les droits sexuels des femmes et de l’autonomie corporelle . Dans cette optique , les femmes lesbiennes luttent pour la légitimité dans un monde phallocrate , où l’absence de pénis signifie l’absence de sexe et de sexualité . Il peut même faire valoir que les lois coloniales n’ont jamais eu des relations lesbiennes pour tenir compte parce que la pensée même que deux femmes , ou des femmes seules , pourraient avoir des relations sexuelles gratifiantes a été considérée comme ridicule , et donc pas affecté par tout type de lois . Sexualité , malheureusement , est toujours considéré comme la domination des hommes , à la fois hétérosexuels et homosexuels .

Il ya une hypothèse que la voix du mouvement gay et lesbien est un et que ce n’est pas grave si c’est un homme gay ou une lesbienne qui « sort » et affirme leur sexualité et de la préférence de genre publiquement . Mais ce qui importe . Nous pouvons affirmer que l’auto- sortie de Binyavanga a été facilitée parce qu’il est un homme , et un homme non – efféminé à cela. Masculinité , dans ses diverses manifestations dans les deux contextes hétérosexuels et homosexuels , continue de dominer les espaces et les voix , et la masculinité de Binyavanga , dans un monde patriarcal , en quelque sorte, le protège. Serait écrit sincère de Binyavanga être reçu le même s’il était un trans – femme ? Ou si Binyavanga était une femme – quel soutien serait lesbienne (s ) il a attiré ?

Une recherche rapide sur Google pour éminents lesbiennes noires africaines a donné une foule d’ étrange afro-américain et des icônes lesbiennes et bien sûr , Brenda Fassie . Un autre blog avait une liste d’éminents lesbiennes en Afrique du Sud musiciens – qui tous sauf un sont blancs , et dont certains vivent en dehors de l’Afrique . Brenda Fassie a fait cette liste , bien sûr , dont on ne peut s’empêcher de penser , est Brenda Fassie le seul premier plan , femme lesbienne noire africaine connue ? Certes, le contenu de l’Internet ne peuvent pas être prises pour être exhaustive, mais l’absence même de femmes lesbiennes d’Afrique noire parle en ligne volumes . Des recherches Google pour les femmes lesbiennes noires africaines se tournent souvent vers le haut non résolus histoires de meurtres de personnes lesbiennes , bisexuels et transgenres . L’histoire n’est pas différent pour les recherches Goole des hommes – africains , mais gai grâce à Binyavanga , la voix d’un homme gay africain se fait entendre , et il réclame sa place sur le continent et dans son pays . Mais les femmes lesbiennes ont besoin pour élever leurs propres voix et faire valoir leurs propres espaces .

Binyavanga a contribué à pousser une conversation déjà le cas dans un espace hétérosexuelle public. Le autour de l’énergie sans vergogne et honnêtement indiquant notre sexualité ne devrait pas s’essouffler . Et la voix qu’il utilise dans la plantation, fermement , son identité homosexuelle , est admirable . Il ne fait aucune excuse , et propose pas d’explications . Et nous ne devrions . Nous avons besoin de voix lesbiennes plus , et les voix des femmes de genre non conforme , nous affirmer et de posséder notre place sur le continent . Il n’a pas à être une histoire qui sort , et vous n’avez pas besoin d’être un géant de la littérature . Il doit juste être votre vérité en tant que lesbienne , bisexuelle ou transsexuelle , mais il doit être parlé à haute voix , parce que, comme Audre Lorde dit – votre silence ne vous sauvera pas .



Binyavanga Wainaina is brave man for coming out at a time where there is rising homophobia and the introduction of homophobic laws on the continent. And he chose to come out the best way he knows how-through his writing, in a letter to his mother. Granted, Binyavanga is not a nobody in Kenya or in Africa, and his coming out garnered attention because of his renowned literary status. One wonders whether his coming out has given other gender and sexuality diverse people courage to claim their sexuality, publicly or privately-but that’s yet to be seen, or declared. It is, however, a step in the right direction for the sexual and gender rights movement in Africa, because the more of us they see, the more they realize that we are not a sexual minority as often purported to be. But is Binyavanga’s coming out representative of all so called sexual minorities in Africa?

Binyavanga’s coming out begs the question-where are the lesbian voices in Africa? Can lesbian women publicly and proudly raise their voices without fear of reprisals from conservative, patriarchal systems of silencing and oppression? And if we can- then why aren’t we? What systems of oppression still keep us muffled and quiet?  When homosexuality is spoken about in Africa, the voice, rhetoric and overall emphasis on either affirming or disputing the rights of non-heteronormative people is more often than not the voice of gay men. Binyavanga is a gay man and he has ‘come out’ and publicly said so. But what does this mean for bisexual, trans and lesbian women? Does Binyavanga’s coming out also give us a voice and a space to claim our rights to exist in spaces that are hostile to our otherness? Can a lesbian woman in Africa copy-paste and edit his letter as a telling of her own story? Has he, in essence, spoken for us all? Women’s sexuality as a whole is a completely side-lined and unacknowledged part of womanhood, where societies, cultures, traditions and religions refuse to recognize women’s sexual rights and bodily autonomy. In this light, lesbian women struggle for legitimacy in a phallocentric world, where the absence of the penis means the absence of sex and sexuality. It can even be argued that colonial laws never took lesbian relationships to account because the very thought that two women, or women alone, could have sexually gratifying relationships was seen as ludicrous, and therefore unaffected by any kind of laws. Sexuality, sadly, is still seen as the dominion of men, both heterosexual and homosexual.

 There is an assumption that the voice of the gay and lesbian movement is one-and that it does not matter whether it’s a gay man or a lesbian woman that ‘comes out’ and asserts their sexuality and gender preference publicly. But it does matter. We can argue that Binyavanga’s self-outing was made easier because he is a man, and a non-effeminate man at that. Masculinity, in its various manifestations in both heterosexual and homosexual contexts, continues to dominate spaces and voices, and Binyavanga’s masculinity, in a patriarchal world, in a way, protects him. Would Binyavanga’s heartfelt writing be received the same if he were a trans-woman? Or what if Binyavanga was a lesbian woman-how much support would (s)he have attracted?

A quick Google search for prominent black African lesbians yielded a host of African American queer and lesbian icons and of course, Brenda Fassie. Another blog had a list of prominent South African lesbian musicians-all of which but one are white, and some of which live outside Africa. Brenda Fassie made this list of course, which one cannot help but think, is Brenda Fassie the only prominent, black African lesbian woman known? Granted, the internet’s contents cannot be taken to be exhaustive, but the very absence of black African lesbian women online speaks volumes. Google searches for black African lesbian women often turn up unsolved murder stories of lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. The story isn’t any different for Google searches of gay African men-but thanks to Binyavanga, an African gay man’s voice is being heard, and he is claiming his space on the continent and in his country. But lesbian women need to raise their own voices-and claim their own spaces.

Binyavanga has helped push an already happening conversation into a public, heterosexual space. The energy around unapologetically and honestly stating our sexuality should not lose momentum. And the voice he uses in planting, firmly, his homosexual identity, is admirable. He makes no apologies, and offers no explanations. And neither should we. We need more lesbian voices, and the voices of gender non-conforming women, asserting ourselves and owning our place on the continent. It doesn’t have to be a coming out story, and you don’t have to be a literary giant. It just has to be your truth as a lesbian, bisexual or transgendered woman, but it has to be spoken out loud, because like Audre Lorde said-your silence will not save you.