Blantyre — A decision by Malawi authorities to suspend anti-homosexual laws in the predominantly religious southern African nation of 13 million is sparking heated debate. While human rights activists applaud the announcement, some socially conservative Malawians feel their government should not be copycatting everything from Western countries or nodding to whatever donors demand.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 22, and Steven Monjeza, 28, once faced a 14-year prison sentence with hard labour. The alleged crime? Being gay. The couple was arrested after holding a wedding engagement ceremony at a hotel in the commercial hub of Blantyre.
But that was four years ago. And last week, Malawi's Justice Minister who doubles as Attorney General, Ralph Kasambara, ordered police not to arrest any people for same-sex acts until legislators repeal the law on homosexuality. Legislators are expected to meet next month, though it is unclear whether this issue - and its maximum 14-year jail sentence - will be tabled at parliament's December sitting.
Chimbalanga and Monjeza's conviction drew international condemnation, even causing donors to withhold their contributions to Malawi. United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon flew to Lilongwe to warn of the consequences that arresting the couple would have. He also urged Bingu wa Mutharika to pardon the couple, something the erstwhile Malawian president eventually did.
Still, Mutharika and his proponents refused to bow down to demands to decriminalize same-sex marriages. They described such convocations as "un-Malawian". At one point, the president even asked priests to pray for the country to rid it of what he saw as a new phenomenon. Since Mutharika's reign, Malawi has felt intense pressure from donors and development partners to decriminalize same-sex relations.
But in April, following Mutharika's fatal cardiac arrest, Joyce Banda took over. As president, she has assured donors that Malawi would repeal what they have called "bad laws" - including anti-gay laws. This would be one way to normalize strained relations with the West. On top of that, some saw it as a manner of baiting back donor confidence - a significant factor, considering 40 percent of the country's budgetary support is financed by development partners.
Undule Mwakasungura, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), thinks that the decriminalization is long overdue. "People need to understand that homosexuality is not going away. We encourage society in Malawi, especially religious institutions, to reconsider ways to address the presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We mention religious institutions because this is where most homophobia originates," he says.
Mwakasungura calls for more drastic changes to the law, bearing in mind that a large section of society in Malawi displays homophobic tendencies. This was especially obvious following the Chimbalanga-Monjeza case when a majority of Malawians interviewed said they saw nothing wrong with courts condemning the couple to the maximum prison sentence.
Wary of the West
"God did not create man-and-man or woman-and-woman. These cultures we are importing from outside Malawi are dangerous and will only make God angry and punish us. I know that government is under pressure to repeal some laws, but to accept homosexuality in Malawi is going too far," says Austin Chole.
The 23-year-old computer student in the southern city of Zomba believes the effects of neo-colonialism are at work, making Malawi beholden to "countries that help us attach strings to every donation we receive".
According to Billy Mayaya, a member of a Presbyterian church in Lilongwe: "While we recognize that homosexuality is a process of socialization and exists in Malawi, we believe that in a pluralistic society, opponents to it must be allowed to state their opposition without the heavy cloud of Western dogma and imposition obscuring their rights to a culturally driven view."
A traditional Christian leader in central Malawi, who opts for anonymity, echoes the sentiment. He says parliament must not accede to changing the legislation on homosexuality as this would "Westernize" the country.
"They can only start deliberating on gay rights after seeking our views. Otherwise, the way they are handling this issue is unfair and undemocratic," says 21-year-old Selemani Msamala. The student from Zomba says the government should call for a referendum before legislators start deliberating on the contentious issue that threatens to divide the country.
Msamala adds: "I already see our legislators passing the law to accept homosexuality because they are under pressure from donors. This is not how we want to run our country."
But it remains to be seen how Malawi's legislators will handle the bill once it is tabled for parliament deliberations.
Gift Trapence, executive director of the NGO Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), thinks that suspending anti-gay laws is a step in the right direction, although nothing much has so far changed. "We are cautious of the fact that the laws have not been repealed and are still in the penal code," he says.
Meanwhile, although Tiwonge and Monjeza are free, they are no longer together. It is rumoured that Tiwonge is in Canada and Monjeza is still in Malawi.