Sunday, June 6, 2010

Home. Again.

So today was my first day off work in Val Marie, Saskatchewan. In this bustling town of 110 people, where every business except for my office closes on a Sunday, what is one to do for entertainment to last 24 hours?

Well, you'd be surprised how much is available. I've already found that two of my seven nights of freedom during the week are going to be routinely abducted by a movie being shown at the local community hall (this past Friday it was Clash of the Titans - which almost got me posting about Sam Worthington and how much I wish he would do just one scene without his shirt on), and another night devoted to an ongoing indoor soccer tournament between some of the local researchers (biologists and archaeologists).

Today though, I read. A lot. Finished off Nineteen Eighty-Four and am now moving on to A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. When I wasn't reading, I walked around town and found a church with a piano that is open 24 hours a day. I quickly gathered my music from my home and practiced. For more than an hour and a half - it was so nice to return to an activity I was expecting to abandon for months. I also, almost, went to my first ever cow-branding - only missing my ride because of poor communication. When all that ended, I made myself a salad, packed it into some tupperware, walked to a local radio tower and climbed up to a platform, and watched the sun set. Sounds pretty much idyllic. If I ever figure out how to be gay in this town, I may just fall in love with it out here.

Interestingly enough, I was asked earlier today if I was gay. I think it was a passing question - perhaps even an attempt at a joke. I denied that I was - it wasn't exactly a safe sort of scenario. But this is the second or third time that I have done this since I have been 'out', and each time it makes me more and more retrospective about whether or not I am comfortable with who I am. And each time I ask this question, I get shoved between a rock (the reality that I may not be in a safe place) and a hard place (the principle that I should be proud of myself regardless of who and where I am).

But, once again I am spending too much time talking about myself when the point of this post is to develop the topic of Malawi and Africa and their ideals about homosexuality, because I have found an interesting article on BBC Newsworld that considers how Africans - at least those who have been informed - have perceived Malawi's defence of traditional sexual identities.

What I have found by doing some digging is an interesting story – a debate between the rich and poor, with Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza being used as pawns in the middle of an international storming of the bridgades. And many Africans being none-too-pleased with it.

You see, many people from countries that donate enormous amounts of aid to Malawi and other African countries that have laws against homosexuality have recently been thrown over the edge of tolerance for intolerable legal policy; the recent development of legislative documents in Uganda and the arrests of these two men have tossed them into the deep seas of international scrutiny. As such, many internationals (for lack of a better short-form term) have said that their governments should pull aid from countries that do not fully recognize the individual rights that many states in the West use as the compass for legislation. One person, writing under the name modernJan, wrote:

"Should we leave Africa to handle homosexuality at its own pace and in whichever way it sees fit?" Imagine it's the late 1930's and someone asks the question: "should we leave Nazi Germany to handle Jewry at its own pace and in whichever way it sees fit?" My answer: if Africa starts killing off homosexuals than the West should kill off the flow of aid money. How could anyone condone that gay people in the West pay taxes that are partly used to prop up regimes in Africa that persecute gays?

Her idea was mimicked by WilliamLondon1977:

Honestly, these backward little countries and their "we reject Western moral paradigms but we actually rely on their money and ongoing goodwill" - if they don't care about evolving towards globally accepted standards of human rights or how they are seen by more enlightened, developed countries, fine, we get it -- but they shouldn't expect any aid or anything. Try paying for your anti-retrovirals with a crate of chickens and see how far you get.

This is extremely sad indeed.


The response in Africa has been very different. Many Malawians have used this court ruling and their stand against international powers as a means of asserting their sovereignty as a state to create and impose their own laws. On a website called the BNL Times which acts as an online daily for Malawi, many blogs and features have offered their perspective on the events surrounding Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza’s arrests. What one finds is a high degree of pride.

In the view of Vales Machila, it is the right of the government of Malawi to enforce the laws that they have created within the confines of their constitution, even if they conflict with the ideals of the United Nations. This is the very definition of sovereignty; and, so long as the domestic population is in support of laws, they should not be repealed. It was the wheels of justice that turned and caught Chimbalanga and Monjeza underfoot, not hatred.

In order to defend his perspective, he references the Biblical ordinances against homosexuality – a source that is increasingly recognized as insufficient to defend legislation in the West. In Malawi, it would seem, that many of these laws are still valid. Machila also recognizes the role that power relationships between states has played in the development of international scrutiny:

Why should our laws be unimportant to anyone, just because we are a poor nation? This is abhorrent and grossly unfair. Malawi, by its own laws, committed no wrong in arresting and convicting the duo. It is most unfair for little Malawi to be threatened with aid suffocation for simply standing by its rights. Malawi, though tiny on the map, has rights too and her votes count on world forums. Where is respect for sovereignty of nations the world so much preaches about?

What I have found most interesting is that Africa has not always been a continent caught in homophobia. Like many ancient cultures that had limited communication with the Judeo-Christian world, homosexuality was once revered as a means of understanding the sacred. It was not uncommon for chiefs of African tribes to have, amongst their wives, boys and men with whom they would perform sexual acts. African homophobia is a product of colonialism – the laws upon which the modern African constitutions are based are European in origin. So, in a twisted way, the defense of Malawian laws against homosexuality is really a defense of the European influence in Malawi rather than a push against international pressures. What is being seen here is a complete acceptance of the immense changes that European colonization inflicted on the regions they took over, not a historically accurate reclamation of Africa – just a imagined sense of what Africa represents.

Daniel Nyirenda writes perhaps a more convincing tune, and also recognizes that steps are needed for Malawi to decrease their dependency on foreign aid so that they can stand up for their persecution of homosexuals in the future. He writes the following:

Some of the donors, in their argument, say Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a bride, and Steven Monjeza, groom, had not wronged anyone by holding an open gay wedding. This thinking is purely Western where they value personal freedoms ahead of societal freedoms. However, this argument is not a one-size-fits-all because here in Africa, we greatly respect societal values. It is against this philosophy that Monjeza and Aunt Tiwo, much as they did not hack anyone with a panga, they committed an offence by butchering the norms, cultures, the psyche and way of living of Malawian society. This line of thinking is one which Western people may find it hard to appreciate.

Once again, fascinating. What we see considered here is a conflict of worldview between the donors of the West and the people that are receiving the donations. According the Nyirenda, the open gay engagement that Chimbalanga and Monjeza used to celebrate their love for each other is an open defiance of the society that they live in and is, as a result, harmed the grander society. Interesting, as this same idea has been very strongly combated in the United States, where marriage equality still does not exist; what is argued south of the border is that gay marriage does not actually affect anybody outside of the couple. Nyirenda is attempting to argue otherwise as a cultural feature – though he provides no evidence, it is quite interesting.

I don’t want to paint all Africans, or all Malawians for that matter, with the same brush. There is a growing support, including some Anglican Clergy, that is pushing for greater levels of equality for homosexuals, starting by refusing to berate them as a people group in church.

Now here is the challenge for me as an individual that tries to have a more globalized perspective on the state of affairs, and attempts to imagine how powerlessness and powerfulness affect the ways in which individuals and states relate to each other. Here we’ve a situation in which the threat of removing International Aid has been applied to an issue that I find of great import – the propagation and development of international human rights.

And my response is this: What an easy way out.

In reality, international pressure very rarely alters how people view minorities. And it isn’t wrong for Vales to recognize that international pressures are likely being placed on Malawi because of their relative insignificance as an international power: similar international attacks are very rarely placed on China, Iran, or Saudi Arabia as they attack homosexual communities with equal and even greater vigor. Each of these nations is an economic and resource-rich powerhouse, capable of placing equal pressure on us as we can on them – and, it would seem, the individual human rights of homosexuals in Saudi Arabia are considerably less important than the West’s need to fill their car’s gas tanks.

And, in reality, Malawi does have the right to create its own legislation decreed by the ideals of Democracy and Self-Governance. Though both of these principles are somewhat fractured in modern international politics, it is not particularly naïve of the people of Malawi to want to maintain this ideal when they feel their rights for self-governance are being infringed upon. It is even a classic case.

In considering both of these realities, the only truly effective change can only come from within the state of Malawi – where the people of Malawi no longer feel as though the laws of the government reflect the realities of their life.

As an internationalist, even as a gay internationalist, I would find that the linking of foreign aid to gay rights is absurd, just as linking foreign aid to the refusal to sponsor abortion rights is absurd (thank you, Stephen Harper). In reality, foreign aid is about helping individuals and states create infrastructure and better the living standards of people around the world – providing necessary goods and services to people that otherwise wouldn’t have them. They are the closest thing that exist to international Equalization Payments and essentially a good thing in producing a more economically equal planet. Much as I like to think that my country has the right to impose their ideals (ideals I find generally much more agreeable than those found around the world) on nations when they are giving away my tax money, I would rather they put efforts into educating the population and providing the roots for the grass of change to grow out of. The more homegrown the legislation the more likely it is to last and change the society that it is meant to regulate. This is a good thing.

And, thanks to the efforts of Monjeza and Chimbalanga, some of these changes are starting to take place. A historic debate is starting in Malawi that may change the course of homosexual issues in Malawi and that region of Africa for the better. It seems that Harvey Milk may be living in Africa these days…

Anyways, I have to go out – Grasslands National Park was just designated as a Dark Sky Preserve and so we’ve got some programs coming up where we will be guiding visitors through constellations. Which means I have to know what they are and know how to operate a telescope. Which also means that I have the coolest job in the world – because the program also includes telling stories from many international cultures about the various constellations. This Wednesday I will be learning about some Cree stories from a Cree story-teller as he presents them to a class. I cannot wait.

Val Marie is the coolest place ever.

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