Malawi Dossier: Conversation with Unoma Azuah



I am interested in this project but the frame is still blurry to me. Do you want my/a response to the arrest or would you want a picture that paints Africans as sensitive to human rights?

More clarification would help a great deal.

Thanks in anticipation.


Dear Unoma,

Thanks for your speedy reply and sorry for my tardy one–I have been out all day and just got home.

In truth, I am still kind of blurry about the dossier idea myself.

The original impetus was simply that African intellectuals must be able to say something, mostly to compensate for what seems like a very determined effort on the part of media in Europe and the US not to interview or ask any intellectuals what they think.

That said, I also did not want what we said to be a response to media abroad, because that structure centers that media as what is important, not the case.

I think the case raises complex questions about the ongoing nationalist project (so, when the Malawi president claimed the “boys” offended “our culture, our laws, our tradition,” which is a fascinating statement about how Malawi identity is being constructed. It also raises questions about human rights and sexual rights—in the vein, are sexual rights human rights? Are there any African and Africanist paradigms that can help explain this? I think there are interesting questions about how gender is being constructed. Also, the place of religious discourse in shaping these proceedings. The notions of duress raised in the court case—sorry, I have been compiling a list of stuff for some time.)

What I would be most interested in is any kind of intervention that need not focus on the case necessarily, but can raise both broad and narrow questions.

I hope this is somewhat useful.

If you are interested, I can forward the trial case to you—I have the case and it makes for fascinating reading.

Thank you so much for your interest.




Thanks much! I’d love to have a copy of the trial.

In the meantime, the president’s opinion that the boys offended the Malawian culture rings true to an extent in the sense that sex is almost seem as a public/communal property in most African countries. In other words, sex is not looked upon as a mere private act if you look at it from the sense that reproduction is paramount in the African culture. Hence, the act of sex in the sense that it produces children is more or less why it is looked upon as “affecting the community.” So the issue of individual rights does not come into play.

However, when you think about what adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms, it indeed becomes a human right issue because it does not affect the way the Malawian people conduct their daily businesses neither does it make the lives of the average African gain better quality of life.

I await the case. Thanks again!


Dear Unoma,

That is such a great insight, and one that, I think, needs to be aired in some fuller way. Some of my work thinks about how this idea of a collective sexuality comes about, so how it moves from being an ethnic preoccupation, among the Gikuyu, for instance, to becoming ethno-national. And also how it helps to bind the nation in particular ways.

I am attaching the file to this email as a pdf. Let me know if you have problems opening it.



Dear Keguro,

My understanding is that Africa is matrifocal and therefore emphasizes the need for children, motherhood, fatherhood and of course family including extended family system. In that light homosexuality, male or female goes against this core family centeredness. Some have speculated that because Africans depend a lot on land for farming, there is/was always the focus on producing and rearing children not just as farm hands but also for the sustenance of the family system. This is a way to ensure the longevity of community/communities. So anything that mitigates/runs against that strategy is usually seen as an offense to the culture.

On the other hand, African society has also always carved out a space for the so called “abnormal,” be it in attributing certain traits to supernatural forces, or even in going further to see some spiritual powers attributed to some of the people classified as abnormal, these group of people though in the margins were/are not invisible.

Things are changing in the sense that it is even becoming more difficult for some families to bear the burden of maintaining the extended family way of life, especially as more and more Africans continue to adapt the western life style be it in the mass movement of the rural peoples to the urban areas, be it in the massive migration of Africans to the west or even in the effect of globalization (media).

My point is that as they say, culture is dynamic and Africa can not help but be part of the great shift in culture which will include a better and more objective assessment of sexuality/homosexuality issues. I believe that homosexuality has always existed in Africa; it is after all not a cultural phenomenon, neither is it a disease, but whatever threatens the status quo is definitely always given the hammer blow.

The Malawi case—a case in point.



Dear Unoma,

I have been trying to think about two different angles on African intimacies more generally, not simply about Malawi. The first has been to think about practices of intimate diversity, to insist on the range of desires and acts across the continent, and to refuse a certain story that claims African practices can be termed one thing or another.

For instance, in recently discovered stuff—recent because I am not trained in anthropology—I found a claim that one group of the Kipsigis in Kenya described another group as practicing homosexuality. Granted the source is colonial-era, and that is always a problem, but it suggested to me that intimate diversity exists within ethnic groups as well as between them and that, in fact, it is one of the elements used to distinguish within and between these groups.

I have been interested in seeing whether a concept of intimate diversity is more useful than the binary between homosexual and heterosexual which, I tend to think, can often obscure more than it helps, because of the many histories attached to it (Stonewall and so on).

A related portion of my work is very much aligned with what you have suggested: Africa is a dynamic, ever evolving space. I think there’s an idea that it is evolving or has evolved into a western imitation, an assessment with which I disagree. Looking at African hip-hop, for instance, the array of languages and influences are massive and it is such a hybrid genre.

I was always very amused when Kenyans learned how to dance from the Congolese!

There are all kinds of borrowings and sharings from all over the world, from other parts of Africa, from Asia, from the Caribbean, and so on. And in my academic and personal writing, I have tried to think about these borrowings as being productive practices in which we are always engaged with the world and with each other. So, part of what disturbs me about this Malawi case is the closing of ranks, the idea that there is a singular Malawi culture or religion—last I checked, Malawi was not a theocracy nor was it monocultural.

Now, I understand the nationalist claims for one culture, but I am also deeply critical of them.

And there is also the class structure aspect of the case that is so terrifying: for the most part, these young men are not highly educated, do not have high-power jobs, are actually pretty low on the economic scale. And so this case, like so many across the world, is about how we think about subaltern populations: I want to resist the sense that in writing about this case we are performing a kind of missionary labor.

I am not yet sure I have the right language with which to think about class, not yet. But I think it is so crucial, even as we think broadly about Africa’s pasts and presents, that we acknowledge the fundamental class injustice at the root of the case. This case could not have been made against well-connected middle, upper-middle class, and elite Malawi citizens. Which is not to say they don’t suffer their own forms of oppression—if Kenya and Uganda are any example, then there is probably some blackmail going on.

I think this is why the dossier idea is so important, because there are so many issues to write about, so many angles and perspectives.

Thanks for continuing to engage with me in this dialogue. It is helping me to think.



I see your point, and I share some of your concerns even though I see it differently in some aspects of African music today. In Nigeria for example, musicians that use Nigerian language, etc do well. But there is a crop of Nigerian musicians who try so much to be like American gangsta rappers or RB singers and it makes my heart bleed when I see them.

I always wonder why some of them would not use some of the rich strands of our folkloric music for instance or at least merge what we have with what they borrow, instead of merely being poor copycats. We are indeed losing some of ours while trying to swallow whole what we can never be the best at.

Don’t get me wrong: appropriation is not entirely a negative development, but when we imbibe/copy without holding on to at least some of ours, it becomes disconcerting. The same things are reflected in the Nigerian movies called Nollywood. In some of these movies, you see actors trying to speak like Americans, and they do such a shoddy job of mimicking American accents.

In the area of African culture being liberal/diversified in sexual spaces, I do agree. Sexual may not be the exact word in this context but there are cultures in Nigeria for example where women marry women. The interesting thing here though becomes the fact that these practices are done to re-enforce the patriarchy. The woman marries a woman to maintain her father’s lineage.

In Northern Nigeria, there are cases of the so-called “Dan Daudi” a practice that affirms the existence of drag queens. These men are patronized by older and mostly rich Hausa men. Their communities accepted it until the fire of sharia was ignited in Nigeria. So, yes. I agree entirely on Africa’s room for sexual diversity that can not just be boxed into the binaries of heterosexuality or homosexuality.

The class issue is a very familiar one as well, because as they say in Nigeria, “When money/affluence speaks, bullsh*t works.”

Class is a universal subject that may not necessarily be restricted to culture or nation.

It’s unfortunate that the two Malawian young men became victims.

I do believe as you said that if they were upper class people, none of this would have happened. The case would have been squashed as there was the case in Cameroon years ago when some politicians were listed as indulging in homosexual practices. The publication of their names may have been out of malice, it may have been out of true life recounts, but such cases were squashed.

I will go further to applaud Stephen and Tiwonge’s courage; they would have been mobbed by “jungle” justice. Did they have the opportunity to deny that they are homosexuals? I wonder—that would have been the most convenient thing to do. I guess I will find out when I read the trial. I may have to try a cyber cafe for opening attachments. I am still struggling with that technical problem.



Dear Unoma,

So, now Stephen is [engaged to be] married and Tiwonge seems to have disappeared from view—is safe, but they are no longer together. And we have the World Cup!

I was thinking today of how certain cases and ideas slide away from view, as though they are “disappeared,” to use that too-familiar term.

For the western media, the spectacle is done. Western influence won—a few Africans were “saved” and we can go back to looking for the next crisis. For Africans, or so it seems, the case was always irrelevant, not worth thinking about, or, conversely, was shameful, so we’re glad to sweep it out of our collective hut and return to the familiar things we need to tackle: poverty, hunger, corruption, gender inequality, and so on.

I think this characterization is unfair, but not entirely wrong. And it reminds me a lot of what happens, in general, to questions around women and gender in Africa. Solutions proposed. Discussed loudly. Rarely implemented.

And we are back to the familiar—this is the case with Kenya’s recent Sexual Offenses Bill which, to my knowledge, has had no real palpable effect, despite the loud volume of noise that went into it.

And the reason I bring the Kenyan case up is that I think a lot of sexual minority activism gets it wrong by failing to link specific cases with broader national and pan-African initiatives for liberation.

Sorry, a little polemical there.



Dear Keguro,

The speculation that Stephen is now married or engaged is distressing to say the least. What a way to compensate for the “shame” inflicted on his country.

Yes, that spectacle is over, and on to other things. Africa has indeed been forced to save some of its own. As sad as it may sound, the West has a strong hold on Africa, be it in sanctions, be it in threatening to stop all economic ties/aid, etc. It does as well seem that we need the West sometimes to call us to order.

I remember when Nigeria was trying to pass a new bill that would not only further criminalize homosexuality but went as far as threatening the lives of gay activists and gay associates. The then Minister for foreign affairs practically denied the existence of homosexuals in Nigeria. He claimed that the only person that contacted him/his department on behalf of homosexuals was a lady who was pregnant. Perhaps, he was insinuating that since the lady was pregnant she couldn’t possibly be a lesbian.

My point really, is that often “we” put ourselves in very embarrassing situations, Kenya and Uganda included, and then wait for the West to let us know that some of our views are questionable. Homosexuality is a human thing, it is neither a disease nor a cultural phenomenon. And the sooner Africans understand this sensitive issue the better for all of us, among the many other political “blunders” we put ourselves in thereby giving the West extra tools to beat us on the head.

On failing to link specific cases with broader national and pan-African initiatives for liberation, I entirely agree with you. And it becomes laughable when certain things are tagged African and others not. For example, a top government official in Nigeria has 6 wives and when he was asked about that, his response is that he is an African man. That is, polygamy in its most appalling sense is “African” but homosexuality is “unAfrican.” Please! Give me a freaking break, as some Americans would say. One aspect of our ill is indeed a reflection of the general conditions we grapple with, and as you rightly said, it may not be fair but it is what it is.



Dear Unoma,

Kenyan writers have been thinking about this forgetting that we are so often called to do.

After the 2008 post-election violence, many politicians urged us to forget and move on. So, there’s a broader issue about how the politics of forgetting seems so central to African politics, as though remembering is something unbearable.

I don’t want to make this forgetting of Steven and Tiwonge exceptional. Instead, it should be thought alongside other kinds of forgetting that let injustice continue.

Billy Kahora, a friend and the managing editor of Kwani?, has a great book out on a guy called David Munyakei, who helped to expose one of the biggest economic scandals in Kenya’s history. Munyakei does not exist within the popular Kenyan mind. It is as though we need to forget not only the embarrassing incidents, but also the people who revealed them, even when we might be indebted to those people. And I am not sure what to blame: is it something about tradition and shame? Or is it something about how politics is played?

Maybe that’s what we should title this whole conversation: Forgetting Steven and Tiwonge.




Even Nigeria so badly wants to forget the Biafran war, Ibrahim B. Babangida the former military leader of Nigeria desperately wants us to forget that he misruled Nigeria and cancelled one of the most credible elections Nigerians held to have Abiola as the next president. We should forget history and give him a second chance. Further Steven and Tiwonge need to be urgently forgotten because they have shamed us and actually deserved to die. If their pardon was necessitated by the need for justice or by the pressure from the West, we may never know.

But forgetting does not mean that the wound is healed, it does not mean that the problem has gone away, it does say of us that we’d rather sweep things under the carpet rather than confront them. Hence we fuel the fire of the stereotypical images the western media is so eager to paint of us.

My heart reaches out to Steven and Tiwonge and hopes that they survive the attempt to get their names erased from the annals of history. That they remain loyal to the fight for sexual rights pertaining to two consenting unrelated adults, and that they live their lives as they desire to and have a right to, and not be forced into a correctional partnership where heterosexual marriage becomes the ultimate form of appeasing their communities for putting them through “shame.”


3 thoughts on “Malawi Dossier: Conversation with Unoma Azuah

  1. Keguro – thanks for posting this thought provoking discussion providing so much insight. I cant think of anything I have read in a long time that has dealt with sexualities, homophobia and gender as they pertain to cultures across the continent. Possibly a book on the horizon?

  2. Sokari, I was so excited to chat with Unoma and to publish it. At every conference and workshop I have attended, presenters and audiences consistently say that they value the conversations above all else, even more than the presentations. And I think it’s really important for us to highlight conversations in political and activist circles. I would distinguish them from interviews, which retain the idea of a kind of expert. And, heaven knows, Africa does not need any more “experts.”

    Not a book. But a series. I would love to see a full-length journal of some kind based on conversations across different activist ranges–feminists talking to labor activists, labor activists to health advocates, health advocates to housing and sanitation folk, and so on. That would be so robust and, I think, not easy, but do-able.

    1. Brilliant idea Keguro – GLR and I recently started a conversation [audio] which we hope to broadcast one day when we feel it has run out of steam. The Koeoga series you have with Wambui is also a conversation – a photographic one or visual one. There are many kinds of conversations.

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