“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” - Home, Warsan Shire
For three days, the soldiers would come into the cell of Heritier Nzau, the young man they had arrested on suspicion of being a pede (homosexual), and take turns raping him.
“They took me … one by one. Roughly. Repeatedly. Three soldiers. For three days. They would point a gun at my head and tell me that, if I screamed, they will shoot me. They tell you it’s either that or death. You have to choose,” he says.
Nzau was not the only suspected pede subjected to this, he says.
“It was their way of punishing you. They tell you that what you are doing, being gay, is inflicting pain on the world. So, because of that, you must feel pain, too.”
He was finally released and remembers he had “pains all over my body. I needed medical attention, but where would I go?”
Nzau was 20 at the time. That was eight years ago but it is only recently that he has started talking about the real reason he left his country of birth, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), making his way to South Africa, where he now lives.
“All I wanted was to run away to this nation where I could feel safe and not be threatened by anybody.”
Recalling the “very long journey” from Mbuji-Mayi, in the DRC, Nzau says: “I did it, because this was the only place … I thought that if I can make it to South Africa, I was going to be safer.
“It took many, many days. I bribed truck drivers and bakkie drivers to take me from city to city, with the goods [they were transporting] on top of me and in miserable conditions. I’m telling you, miserable conditions. You have nothing to eat. No water to drink. Somewhere along the way, I had to beg for water. At least water because, you know, food is something big.”
Having finally reached the South African border, Nzau sought asylum, but not on the grounds of being gay.
“I said I came here because I was fleeing war. I always had the fear of being threatened by Congolese people if I told them I am gay. When I went to home affairs, the interpreter was Congolese. And I just said to myself, ‘no, I can’t …’ There was always that fear.
“The South African government is okay with us, yes, but people on the streets … you never know what is in their minds. When they meet us on the street, you don’t know what we face.”
Victor Chikalogwe is the gender rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugee project co-ordinator of People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), a nonprofit human rights organisation. He says African queer asylum seekers often get to South Africa “deeply traumatised and not okay psychologically”.
In addition to there being little support for queer asylum seekers in their countries of birth, once they arrive in South Africa, they face the “double discrimination” of being queer and a foreigner.
Because they have been persecuted by their fellow countrymen and women, “they can often feel as though they have nobody to talk to” once in South Africa.
“Many find it difficult to open up about things, because there have been so many attacks, not only from South Africans but also their countrymen. So they still carry that fear,” Chikalogwe says.
Passop assists asylum seekers with legal issues, access to health services and accommodation. But its pool of resources is limited and it cannot assist everyone, so “some people are still living on the streets”.
“She might be without country, without nation, but inside her there was still a being that could exist and be free, that could simply say I am without adding a this, or a that, without saying I am Indian, Guyanese, English, or anything else in the world.” — Sharon Maas, Of Marriageable Age
Shamsa Hajihaji walks me through the commune she is living in, to the room she shares with three other women. “This is how we have to live,” she says, shrugging in resignation as she sits on the lower bed of the double bunk she has shared for the past few months.
Born and raised in Somalia, Hajihaji moved to the Eastern Cape town of Uitenhage after the death of her parents. The family her mother had worked for as a housemaid offered her the chance to get an education in South Africa.
But the education she was promised did not materialise and Hajihaji had to do house duties, “like my mother did for them for all those years”.
Seeing that she was a wilo (tomboy) and suspecting her of being a lesbian, the head of the family (“the man I called ‘father’”), forced her to marry a man she did not know.
“One Friday, after mosque … he called a guy who is working in his son’s shop — a Somali Bantu like me — and called me, saying: ‘Remember I told you today is your wedding? Cover yourself nicely and come and sit here.’ I was surrounded by all these men, waiting for the sheikh to make us nikah [married].
“But I said, ‘No, I don’t want to get married to a man; I love women.’ It just came out. It was a shock to them but I was just telling the truth, mos.”
Lifting her sleeve, pointing to the 13-stitch scar on her forearm, she recounts how the man she called father stabbed her, screaming: “I rather kill her; I rather kill her.”
Neighbours helped her buy a bus ticket to Cape Town. “Just go, there are people like you there,” they said. Hajihaji arrived at Bellville station but “I didn’t know where to go. I don’t know nobody. I don’t know where to start.
“At the taxi rank, in front of me, there were Somalis selling cigarettes. My heart was telling me, ‘Go tell them you are one of them and that you don’t know where to go; they can help you’.
“But my mind was telling me, ‘Are they not the same people? How can you go and tell them that you are a lesbian?’ So, for a long time, I just stood there, speaking to myself and answering myself,” she says.
Eventually one of the taxi rank traders offered to put a roof over her head and after some months she was introduced to a fellow Somali who had contacts at Passop.
“But, when I met him, that man expected me to be covered and dressed like a traditional Muslim woman, but I was wearing jeans and a cap. He asked me: ‘Why are you dressed like this? Don’t you know it’s haram?’ He wrote a number down on a piece of paper and, instead of giving it to me in my hand, threw it down on the ground and I had to pick it up,” she says.
Passop arranged for her to stay at Cape Town’s Pride Shelter. “The first night there, people were talking and I was just looking at their mouths. That’s how happy I was. Because I have never seen gay people, mos. I have never been around them,” she says.
After the online newspaper GroundUp wrote a story about her journey, Hajihaji says she feared for her safety. “I was scared. For you to come out and put your story in the news — to say, ‘I am Muslim, Somali and gay’ — that means you have put yourself in shit.”
The 27-year-old is now in hiding.
“Even if I want to buy something, I don’t buy from Somali people. I buy it somewhere else. I hide myself. When you have run away from your country because your people hate you because of who you are, you know that in South Africa there are LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual] people there. That life is free. So you come here hoping people will take you with open arms.
“But there are no open arms. You are still struggling. You become traumatised. Like me, now hiding myself. It is a year now that I haven’t spoken my home language,” she says.
“I had money to get to South Africa, yes, but once I am there, where will I go? What would happen? I felt lost.” - Hillary Mugari
Hillary Mugari’s passport has expired but he is unable to claim asylum “because Zimbabwe is alright now”, according to department of home affairs officials. He lives in fear of being deported.
“I am not feeling safe,” says the 32-year-old. “My passport has expired and, if I am to be arrested, I will be deported. If I were to get arrested, I know I will be handed over to the Zimbabwean regime.”
Mugari, a former member of Zimbabwe’s police force, was caught kissing another man in 2013.
Hoping to keep the story out of the media, his superiors agreed to handle the matter internally. Following the advice of a supportive colleague — “to resign and, if they accept it, run” — Mugari fled to Zambia.
But two years later, he slipped back into the country “thinking that, by then, they would have forgotten about my case”.
About two months ago, however, he was forced to flee again after being sought by the police.
“Two police came to where I was staying. I told them I needed to grab my jacket and ID. But I went back inside and jumped through a window and escaped. I jumped over walls of neighbours. While jumping, I sprained my leg. I went to hospital. The doctor told me that there were men looking for me, so I left that hospital and removed the plaster myself,” he says.
Eventually referred to Lawyers for Human Rights, he was told that he would be sent to a police detention barracks if he was found guilty.
“But I know what it means to be detained in those barracks. I have seen the torture. Nobody knows where you are detained and [you are allowed no visitors]. I said, ‘No, let me leave the country.’ ”
He now lives at a shelter in Gugulethu, Cape Town.
“At one point, I felt like I could commit suicide, because my life was destroyed. A country I had worked for nine years as a policeman ... But now I was running away from the same people I had worked for. It makes me feel bad. I had suicidal thoughts.”
“I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep.” — Conversations About Home (At The Deportation Centre), Warsan Shire
A little more than a month after fleeing Ghana, Kumi Hammond says he, too, has suicidal thoughts.
“I can’t go back,” says the 32-year-old. “I think of home [and] I feel like committing suicide because everything is against me.”
Hammond nervously doodles random shapes on his dark-blue pants as he explains why he cannot return to his country of birth.
Two years after coming out to his family, he says: “I curse the day I did that. After telling them, I was given an option to either go with them to a spiritualist, who would exorcise this thing from me, or not be part of the family any more.
“I went to see this so-called spiritualist or man of God or whatever, but he wanted to have sex with me to get that thing out of me. I told him, no, I am not naive. I am not a child. I will not do that. So he felt that, well, if I don’t do that, he will tell my family that I am refusing to be helped and that I am rebellious.”
Informed of his alleged rebelliousness, Hammond was forced out of the family home.
“The following year, on my birthday, I wanted to speak to them. I told them where I was living and they asked to visit me. I was really happy. They came to my place and wanted to know whether I had stopped this demonic act and, when I tried telling them why I was rebellious against that spiritualist, I realised they had not forgiven me at all,” he says, adding that his family then outed him to his employer and landlord.
A group of men one day accosted him, threatening to “‘destroy my ass’ if I don’t stop being gay or move out”.
“They never robbed me or took anything from me [but said] they know I am gay and that they are going to pour acid on my face. It was a horrific moment for me. I was traumatised. Really traumatised.”
“We leave to live” - We Leave to Return, Anne Namatsi Lutomia
Saadi Ali Tokiti was from conflict-torn Uvira in the DRC’s South Kivu province. Despite this, “life was generally good”, he says.
When a militia group was forced into negotiating a peace deal after losing a battle with government forces, things changed.
“There is a traditional medicine that they would mix with water and pour all over themselves. They believed this medicine would stop bullets from penetrating their bodies. The traditional doctor who does this for them looked for an excuse for the medicine not having worked.
“Previously, he had blamed people with albinism [but that time] he claimed the medicine did not work because the community had allowed men who sleep with other men to live in the community. So God and the ancestors are angry and have cursed the community by not allowing the medicine to work. So the fighters need to get the cursed people out of the community,” he says.
Tokiti started keeping records of the crackdown, “because nobody had any information on them targeting queer people”.
“We thought that maybe this information would be helpful when [the militia group is] finally brought to justice. Also, it could be used as evidence by queer asylum seekers from our area to prove that they have been targeted as well as put pressure on international bodies to help protect LGBTI people.”
Once the group caught wind of his collecting evidence, he became a target. Forced to flee, he has been living in South Africa for the past two months and says: “It’s a challenge for us. We still feel afraid.”
“Tomorrow is another page” - Prelude to our Age, Langston Hughes
Eight years after his ordeal at the hands of soldiers, Nzau says: “Many years prior to [that] homophobic attack, I experienced war. I fled from war. In the process, I lost two of my sisters. While fleeing, they were shot behind us. Both of them were killed.
“Sometimes I feel like running away. Somewhere far. Out of Africa. Africa has hurt me so much … and hates me so much.”