Efi compares his move to Nairobi to Lady Gaga’s song “Mary Jane Holland”, although his life is drug-free and he is certainly not as “rich as piss”. The resonance is more about the song’s first verse: not being a “slave . . . the culture of the popular”, and being able to “fly under radar tonight/make deals with every devil in sight”. For this Ethiopian public health worker, in embracing his gay identity, made a deal with one of his country’s most abhorred cultural “devils”.
“When I was in Addis Ababa the Orthodox Church published this VCD
about homosexuality in Ethiopia,” the 25-year-old explains in the one-bedroom flat he shares with two friends in east Nairobi. “We were having coffee and a lot of relatives were in the house. When they saw it my aunt made a comment like, ‘If I find one of them, I will kill them’. I shrugged. Everyone said these are like western imported devils. If they know who I am, they will not accept me.”
Yet it was more than just family and cultural pressures that prompted Efi (not his real name) to flee Ethiopia for the Kenyan capital together with three gay friends in April last year.
As in many African countries, homosexuality is a criminal offence in Ethiopia. However, in contrast to places such as Kenya, where gay sex is yet to be decriminalised but the law is very rarely enforced, the Ethiopian government – one of the continent’s most authoritarian – uses antiterrorism legislation to imprison homosexuals for up to 20 years. In early 2015, in the run-up to Ethiopia’s general election in May, the government was cracking down on potential subversives.
Efi’s underground group of gay friends, who called themselves the House of LaFab, had just learnt that the authorities had been monitoring them for some time – including covert meetings they had had at the US, UK and Dutch embassies to garner support for gay rights. Efi feared that in the run-up to the election, in which the ruling coalition won 100 per cent of the seats, he might not be safe. “I was not ready to be outed at my age,” he says. “First of all, I’m not financially stable – I still live with my parents. If the government outs me, where will I go, where will I work? So we thought let’s go to Nairobi, take shelter and if things get better we can go back to our country.”
His family knows he went to Nairobi though not why – hence his refusal to be identified – or where he is now and why he has not returned.
Efi and his friends, who arrived with one small suitcase each, first stayed with a friend but quickly claimed asylum at the department of refugee affairs and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. They expected to be processed within a few months but the UN, citing inadequate resources, did not interview Efi until last month. He is due to learn in January whether he will be given formal refugee status or possibly sent back to Ethiopia. The young men therefore realised they had no choice but to make a life for themselves in Nairobi.
Friends pointed them to Hias, a US-based refugee protection organisation, which gave them each Ks6,000 ($59) a month, although that allowance has recently been cut to Ks4,500. While many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender refugees end up in one of Nairobi’s many sprawling slums, Efi and his friends decided to spend more of their allowance on accommodation, “even if it meant eating only once a day”, he says, although quickly stressing they do eat more often than that but do not really go out much.
Their flat is just a few miles from where most expats live in Nairobi but is in a different world. The 40 sq metre home is in an anonymous dirty white block on a potholed street in a featureless neighbourhood near the city’s Eastleigh district, which is known for its Somali traders.
The entrance hall doubles as the bedroom, with mattresses but no beds; the only other rooms are a small kitchen, a smaller bathroom and a sitting room, again with mattresses rather than more formal furniture. There are no wall decorations apart from a mirror and a tiny Ethiopian Orthodox picture of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.
By way of entertainment during our interview, Efi plays Ethiopian music on his laptop via YouTube and makes coffee. This is not a two-minute process but an hour-long traditional ceremony complete with two stoves, two types of incense and popcorn. The eventual result is a sensationally smooth drink – totally at odds with the surroundings.
“I’m a traditionalist,” Efi says by way of explanation for the drink and the music. “I value my culture and my roots and I think Ethiopia has much more to offer the world than many people realise.” While he has cut himself off from his family, he says he “cannot blame them for having that homophobic attitude”. “It’s their culture, their religion.”
Making coffee – Efi and his housemates usually do it on Sundays – is one of his favourite ways to relax. Occupational therapy has otherwise proved quite challenging. One problem, Efi says, has been his skin colour. He is lighter than most Kenyans and looks Somali, which to many Kenyans, particularly the police, means he must be a member of al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamist terror group linked to al-Qaeda.
“When they see a Somali they see a terrorist and cannot differentiate between a Somali and an Ethiopian. I’ve been arrested so many times.” At first Efi bribed his way out of trouble but then, once he’d received papers from UNHCR, he adopted a more confrontational attitude. “I said to them, ‘I will not give you money, I will not bribe you. I will call someone from UNHCR and you can deal with them.’ When you say that they just cave in. They know they don’t have legal grounds to detain us. We’re still being harassed but we’re being firm.”
The UN has a policy that refugees have to engage in livelihood programmes, so Efi and his friends opened a street kiosk selling snacks and drinks. Yet because of their appearance and lack of documentation – despite UN promises to provide them with papers – they have had to employ a Kenyan to run it and usually have to shut a couple of times a week when they spot city council inspectors on the prowl.
Efi says his most satisfying work is volunteering for two organisations. Cessi (the Community Empowerment and Self-Support Initiative) helps LGBT refugees in Nairobi and is a registered non-governmental organisation. It has 171 members and provides people with jobs, grants and advice. Efi excitedly describes how it has just secured its first major donation – $20,000 from a European foundation.
The other is a more casual set-up he runs with friends to counsel LGBT people in Ethiopia, mostly via Facebook, who do not have access to sexual and reproductive health advice. “We’re taking this opportunity to learn from the Kenyan activists on how we can do our job better for our community back in Ethiopia,” he says, adding that the current anti-government protest movement sweeping the country has given him a feeling that “it’s the beginning of the end for the government”.
Until the situation does change Efi has no idea what his future holds. Even if his application for refugee status is successful, life will still be uncertain. “I really want to continue my education but don’t have the luxury of choosing a country.”
Still a home to homophobia
Gay rights in Africa are among the most restricted in the world. In 34 of the 54 African nations, people committing homosexual acts risk imprisonment or worse, according to data from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. In Sudan, Mauritania and some northern Nigerian states, it can carry the death penalty.
Morality laws that limit freedom of association and expression for gays, lesbians and bisexuals also exist in some countries, particularly in north Africa. US-based Human Rights Watch reported this year it had evidence of the authorities in Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia using forced anal examinations to “prove” homosexual activity.
South Africa, whose constitution was the first in the world to ban discrimination based on sexuality, is the only African country to recognise same-sex marriage. Gays are also allowed to serve openly in the military and have equal access to in-vitro fertilisation and surrogacy services. However, even in countries like South Africa, homophobia remains strong in traditional, religious rural communities.
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