When two Malawian men were sentenced to 14 years in prison earlier this year for the “crime” of homosexuality, several newspapers in that country reported that their behaviour was truly bizarre because there were “no gays in Malawi”.
Around the same time, President Bingu wa Mutharika announced that homosexuality must be a foreign import to the country because there was no “indigenous tradition” of such behaviour.
Queer Malawi, a small book launched last month in Johannesburg, aims to correct these misconceptions.
The work of South African researchers and Malawian activists, it is the first book about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in an African state where discriminatory laws keep them in the shadows.
Even speaking out for greater equality for these people can land Malawians in prison.
The book contains the stories of 14 people whose biographies prove sexual minorities do indeed exist in Malawi, even though they are mostly invisible.
The two South Africans who compiled the book had to creep around Malawi like spies, constantly wary that someone might find out what they were doing and report them to the authorities.
Dr Patricia Watson, an expert on oral history, held a workshop at Lake Malawi for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Malawians during which each of them was given an opportunity to tell their story.
Well-known South African photographer Zanele Muholi took pictures of the group (all of them with their faces hidden so as not to endanger anyone).
The stories are a fascinating account of a secret subculture.
Monnahrisa tells how, as a young girl, she would comment when she saw a beautiful girl, until friends and family warned her she was endangering herself.
Another, Mayombo, recounts how he married a woman and fathered two children in order to avoid prison.
Zakawi describes being assaulted with sticks and reeds.
The book will be distributed in Malawi to promote understanding.
Gift Trapence of the Malawian civil rights group Centre for the Development of People initiated the project together with South Africa’s Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.
He says they realise that the book could have dangerous consequences if anyone discovered the identity of its subjects.
And yet all of these people insisted that they want their stories to be told.
“When Tiwonga Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were in prison earlier this year, the government said they were the only two gays in Malawi,” he says.
“Now we can prove it wasn’t the case. Not one Westerner was featured in this book.”