August 4, 2002
-Peace Corps Volunteer, Malawi
“Are you married?” It was a question I’ve been asked many times before. “No, I’m not.” I always go for the truthful answer. “Ah, but you are 29 years; why are you not married?” Now here is where I pull out one of my Standard Answers. I have them for each of the Standard Questions one is inevitably asked upon making a new acquaintance in Malawi. “Are you married?” is almost always accompanied by “What is your denomination?” to which I always give the perplexing answer of “I don’t have one,” which is easier to explain than “I was raised a Catholic, but I don’t practice anymore.” Then there is “What are your hobbies?” to which the best answer would be “Watching football,” which is only true insofar as I like watching England’s David Beckman play.
I find it more comfortable to just say that I’m not married, and that unmarried 29-year-olds aren’t uncommon in the States, which is definitely true, than to make up another story about a girlfriend back home. A friend of mine keeps a picture of a friend from home around so that when he’s asked this question, he can just pull it out and pass her off as his fiancée. What I’m really not comfortable doing, however, is telling my friends here that I’m gay, homosexual, a man who for reasons he can’t quite explain loves other men.
I’ve read stories about gay Peace Corps volunteers in West African countries who seem able to live as openly gay men, at least to a small degree, during their service. I don’t know if that has anything to do with a difference in cultures between West and East Africa, or if it’s just chance that a couple of guys there have made that bold choice independently. I’m sure that the laws aren’t too dissimilar. Most African nations have similar laws against homosexuality.
In fact, here in Malawi a teacher at an international school was recently convicted under the sodomy statues. In truth, the man was taking street children, tempting them with nice things like good food, clothes, and money, and then molesting them. It was really a case of a pedophile, but it was portrayed in the media as being mostly about homosexuality. The teacher now spends time in a Malawian prison, which interestingly enough is the only place where the Government AIDS prevention outreach program offers outreach to men who have sex with men.
Recently, at an In-Service Training program attended by volunteers and our local counterparts, we had a presentation by a representative of the National AIDS Control Board, who mentioned during her presentation their outreach to prisons. One of the gay volunteers, who was surely just trying to cause a little rise in the crowd, raised his hand and said, “I don’t understand. Why are prisoners a target community for your prevention strategy?”
The presenter just turned the question around to our local counterparts, wanting one of them to answer the question. To my mild surprise, one raised his hand. “I believe it’s because they are….ah…exercising together.” Well, I thought, that’s an interesting way to say it. But the presenter wouldn’t let it rest. “What do you mean by exercising together?” It took him a few blushing seconds to say it, but he did say something about men having sex together.
I was a little surprised by this exchange. There’s no recognizable gay community among Malawians, only a loose network of volunteers and aid workers. I have never heard homosexuality openly acknowledged among the people I regularly interact with. Yet homosexual activity definitely happens, even if it’s not labeled as “sex” even by those taking part. One of my expatriate friends acquaintances has more than a few stories of dalliances with Malawians from all over the country, and he reports it isn’t just mzungus (foreigners) with local men, but that the local people are enjoying each other, so to speak, as well. There are also instances of “beach boys” offering sex for money at certain beach resorts on Lake Malawi. One also wonders about older students at boarding schools who have close relationships with some of the younger boys.
While heterosexual transmission officially accounts for about 92% of HIV transmissions in Malawi, I have a hard time believing that all homosexual transmission is taking place in prisons. Underreporting is sure to be a problem in a country where male to male sexual activity might not even be considered sex by many. The national AIDS prevention strategy doesn’t yet address this fact. Of course, this is just one of many challenges in stopping the spread of AIDS in a country where officially 10 to 20% of the population is infected, and unofficially up to 30% or more have the HIV virus.
Before coming to Malawi, I have to admit that I generally didn’t find myself attracted to men of color. But after a year here, my tastes have definitely changed. I find myself more and more attracted to the local men. However, considering the many cultural and legal issues to consider here, I’ve decided that there are just too many risks associated with “exercising” locally.
Because of the topic discussed in the article and the social stigmas related to homosexuality in Malawi, the author remains anonymous. If you’d like to contact the writer, email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll forward your email to him in Malawi.