Thursday, December 31, 2009

East, West, North or South, Home is Best: The danger of Malawi’s gay and lesbian discourse spinning on the human rights axis

The discourse on homosexuality in Malawi is polarized between two arguments. On one hand, there is the side that essentializes the Malawian identity, dwelling almost exclusively on the sexual part of homosexuality, flashing the moral sanitization card, often waving the Christian and Islam card that decries homosexuality on grounds of it being a ‘SIN’. On the other, there is the human rights camp that portrays Malawi as a regressive nation, one that by illegalizing homosexuality, is refusing to march with modern, ‘developed’ and global times. The arguments of this side are often steeped in the human rights discourse. I have problems with stands both camps. In this excerpt of the paper I presented at ACLA (2008), I construct a literary argument for legalizing homosexuality in Malawi. Given the historiography of organized religion especially Christianity and/or Islam to Africa and Africans; Malawi and Malawians, I am very skeptical of arguments that are located in those discourses. I also am very weary of stands located in the human rights discourse because of the same postcolonial memory. I believe neither should propel and shape the Malawi’s stand on this issue.
Malawi needs to search within itself, listen to Malawians speak in our various spaces of sex, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and language - in order to construct authentic, transparent and durable views that will help make the decision whether to legalize or keep homosexuality illegal. Homegrown arguments should take precedents over external, cut and paste arguments. In Gifts (1990), Farah unravels the dangers of discourses that are portrayed as a gift, a coming of age of Africa, those that homogenize the definition of human, without unearthing the inequalities. Many a time, Malawi has been lured to follow developed nations only to find the language and pace of development spoken in a language alien and objectifying to Malawi.
Against such a background, I think we need to engage our herstory and history, read what is in between the two using testimonies of those who are Malawian and say and want to be homosexual- lesbian and/or gay. What should dictate this discussion in Malawi is various forms of research, a listening approach to research what sex is for Malawi, how this is linked to marriage, how much of that do we want to prescribe, how mush should one’s preference of sex decide who is citizen or not? We need to search within ourselves, how much one’s way of having sex decides who draws water from a well, who gets buried and buries, who is a person from what ever it is we define as being a Malawian. I would like to believe I am a Malawian not because I am heterosexual. We need to remember that the identity Malawi is a colonial construction, one that we are participating in constructing and reconstructing, one that we seem bent on making a policed performance, one that we are frequently withdrawing from and rewarding others with. Such acts have class, gender and ethnic implications. Is that the path we want to go?
My question is how foreign is same sex to Africa and Malawi really? There is research that historicises same sex in Africa and Malawi (see my publication in Feminist Africa Issue 6, 2006) I am a literary person and I am sure many of you know that literature mirrors a lot of what is going on in our societies. As Commonwealth Prize Judge for 2006, I had the privilege to read novels from all over the continent. I argue that the plot and characterization of Kwakye’s 2006 The Sun By Night (Ghana) complicates the usual ‘subversive- sex-is-alien’ trope by squarely locating the narrative of cross-dressing and prostitution on African soil. Kwakye’s narrative exposes that sometimes women become prostitutes just for the sex, not the money. Kwakye centers his story on educated, urban woman who becomes a prostitute because of her love for sex. In other words, she was not getting enough at home and she decided to get into an industry where she would get it in abundance. This discouse of women craving sex in abundance is a discourse often linked with men. Some of you might argue, that cannot be woman and an African one at that. In this narrative, there is a African, Ghanain man who has never been abroad but loves wearing dresses and looking like a woman. One could argue, he cannot Africa and/or Ghanain but he is: born and bread My question is are we saying being Malawian is doing what the majority does? Doing what is deemed normal? I am sure many of us have sometimes done what is abnormal, out of the ordinary, did that warrant us being disqualified from our nation? I am sensitive to this issue because as a feminist, I have been told I am foreign, I have often been disqualified from my nation too. During the Moto saga, my nationality was question publicly and I was investigated to see if I am really a Malawian. It so happens that I am Malawian, both parents and born there too.
My problem with arguments that illegalize homosexuality is that they do not convince me on what we lose as Malawians if we officially recognize that people have sex in a different ways. In fact, I think we stand to gain given the hiv and aids scourge we are facing. I will hasten to add that the main argument for legalizing homosexuality is not the medical one, even though I have cited hiv and aids, it is because I think no one has to right to tell another how to have sex. How I enjoy sex, should not be determined by government and the majority of citizens. Sex is a human need and as a heterosexual, I would hate it if someone outlawed they way I enjoy sex and said I should do it like they do. No one teaches you how to have an orgasm, why do we think we can teach others how to do something that is as a basic human need and practice as walking, eating etc, because we the majority do it in a certain way? I think it is wrong to do so. If the difference had more negative effects than gains, I am willing to discuss this issue but as it is, I think we are losing more. So yes, I end up on rights argument but I am hoping I have defined and located my right argument in and around ‘Malawi’, not the west or European constructs. If someone is a Malawian and they have never been attracted to a man and they are a woman, why should I tell them to be attracted to a man? I believe such binarized ways of thinking or Euro-colonial binaries that were used to police us as colonial subjects. Unless someone can convince me that sex and sexuality have always been crucial organizing principles in our Malawian communities, I believe we are just cutting and pasting Eastern (Islam), Euro-Western ideals (Christianity) ideals and calling them Malawian. What is the use of saying the government and majority will define how sex is had in Malawi? It is a very colonial, pedagogical mentality that says ‘I know what is best for you. I will teach you English so that you can be developed, learn to read and write’ yet all of that is in order for you to buy western commodities and be a subject of the Euro-west.
In the discourse on homosexuality, I think we need to take a subject centered approach, let those who are saying they are homosexuals and are Malawians explain their condition and we investigate what we are dealing with, interrogate what they are asking for instead of calling them names, most importantly, see what Malawi loses and gains by legalizing or keeping it illegal. Those calling for legalizing homosexuality should also not come to me waving the you are not developing flag, you should be like the west flag as that gets my postcolonial guard up and I reject to keep the Euro-west out because it has never meant well for me and my country and my continent. We should not be dictated by the west or Europe because they have gotten it wrong and are still fighting about this issue till now. Let us define our own parameters and make Malawi a home for Malawians. I am sure we are able to work out a system of logic and reason on our terms outside those of Christianity, Islam and development of globalization. The question is what is Malawi and how does that intersect with what sex means? How much should one’s sexual acts, preference, decide your citizenship?

Dr Jessie Kabwila Kapasula
Department of Comparative Literature.
Binghamton State University of New York