17 March 2014

Burundi: Gabriel, Gay and Proud in Burundi

Bujumbura — Gabriel Mujimbere fully embraces his homosexuality. Yet under Burundian Penal Code, he could face up to two years in prison and/or fines of up to 100,000 francs.

Although he is not yet a superstar, Mujimbere makes heads turn when he passes by. The 25-year-old man fully embraces his feminine look and this does not go unnoticed. Imagine R. Kelly with Tracy Chapman's dreadlocks, a three-day-old beard and the walk of a model.

"Yes, I know that I'm a little different. I don't care about the looks and comments on my appearance," says Gaby, as he is affectionately known.

“I was fortunate to be accepted early”

Outspoken with a sharp but calm voice, Mujimbere has always been thick-skinned when it comes to the criticism, no matter how harsh, to which gays are subjected in his country. When asked "But how do you cope with all that?" he replies with a smile.

"I am happy. I was fortunate to be accepted and supported early by my family: my mother, my brothers and sisters," he says.

It's been seven years since this up-and-coming musician openly declared his sexual orientation.

"I think my family and friends already knew or, at least, suspected something. It didn't come as a shock to them. They were waiting for me to find myself and that's exactly what happened with time," he recalls.

Mujimbere began embracing his homosexuality in 2006 after he first joined Top Shaka, a neighbourhood dance group that was enjoying increasing success. Beyond all the musical glories, he met others like-minded people.

"Everyone knew they were gay. At the beginning, I didn't want be around them for fear of being assimilated. Yet, deep inside, I saw myself in them," Mujimbere confides.

Unlawful arrest

Between the Penal Code revision in 2009 that criminalized homosexuality and the rise of homophobic violence supported by religious hostility, life as a Burundian homosexual is arduous and painful.

"I remember the day of my first date. My boyfriend invited me to his neighbourhood. A group of young people found us kissing and we were assaulted and taken to the police station," Mujimbere recalls.

Nor will he ever forget when one of his gay friends who had been a victim of pickpockets had to spend the night in jail instead of the thieves who stole from him.

"It was as if homosexuals in Burundi did not have the same rights as the rest of their compatriots," he says.

Such discrimination was just one thing that sparked the musician's current activism.

Activism through art

Gaby spends his spare hours working for ANSS, a national association to support those with HIV/AIDS, where he contributes to prevention and sensitization efforts among men sleeping with men (MSM).

But Mujimbere's real fight, he suggests, is not through an NGO or a syndicate. His weapons are his talent and skills as an artist. He's battle for gay rights is through his burgeoning musical career. And his secret weapon: emulation of his idol, American pop singer Beyoncé.

"I am a huge fan of that woman. Her performance on stage is incredible. I wish my career could be like hers," he says.

To that end, Mujimbere attends auditions and enters various musical competitions in Burundi and the region. The last competition he entered was Primusic, where he finished sixth.

"It was wonderful to see the public vote for me and applaud me - the same people who are hostile to homosexuality. This is how I fight the discrimination and bias," he says. "My sexual orientation should not be a hindrance in my life. After all, I'm an artist, and a human being like everyone else."

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