“You have to see it to believe it.” This expression came to mind as I reflected on the charm of Cape Town. I had travelled and arrived the South African city on November 6 from Lagos to attend a workshop on Religion & Sexual and Gender Minorities, and right from the airport, I was eager to know what this city has to offer. My interest had to do with an article I once read rating the town as one of the best 10 cities in the world. I had previously been to Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth and while I found those places enchanting, I wanted to know how much different Cape Town is to warrant such rating. As I was being driven, along with Wana Udobang, fellow Nigerian participant, to the city centre from the airport by the driver detailed to pick us, I, in between our conversation, kept glancing sideways. But that wouldn’t be enough to form an opinion yet, I said. And so, the five days I spent there, aside from the intensive training workshop, was also spent scrutinising the city. But long before leaving Cape Town, I already had an impression.
A delightful city, Cape Town is as clean, modern and natural as they come, with its famed Table Mountain, pristine beach and elegant buildings as standout features. But it is also, in the view of one resident whom I met at an event organised by the Religion News Foundation and Heinrich Boll Stiftung, organisers of the workshop, “the gay city of Africa.” Though this view of Africa’s gay city would later be challenged by Zethu Matebeni of the University of Cape Town, one of the guest speakers at the workshop who, without categorically denying the charge, views the assertion more as ethnocentric, one that does not reflect the fact that the town’s local population also constitute the LGBTI community, the non-discriminatory laws of South Africa might be part of the reason for such categorization.
LGBTI is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex and they were the focal point, aside religion, of our interaction in Cape Town. Apart from the training on the subject matter, I and my other colleagues – there were 24 of us from 15 sub-Saharan African countries – including Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia – met and interacted with a number of gay activists, such as Muhsin Hendricks, the founder of The Inner Circle, an organisation that supports Muslims facing discrimination for their sexual orientation or belief, Pharie Sefali, a freelance journalist and traditional healer, Zachary Akani Shimanga and Liberty from Gender Dynamix and Ecclesia de Lange from Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, all of who, with some others I met and interviewed, shared their experiences and perspectives of what it means to live as an LGBTI person in Africa.
For some LGBTIs, it requires nothing but conviction or courage to face the odds even in a country like South Africa. Despite its non-discriminatory laws and the relative freedom the LGBTI community enjoy, you get the feeling, from varied accounts of the LGBTIs, that South Africa, particularly its local population, is not majorly different from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda or Kenya, as public opinion doesn’t appear to approve of LGBTI idiosyncrasies. Hendricks was once married with two kids until, according to him, unable to live the lie any further, he cut ties with his wife and openly confessed his orientation. These days, he travels overseas to deliver lectures on sexual diversity and Islam. But his itinerary doesn’t include Nigeria or any of the countries considered largely intolerant of the LGBTIs. Coming from a conservative society like many other participants, listening to some of the LGBTI members, learning and taking notes at the workshop provided fresh perspectives. How would you feel, for instance, if someone told you that his or her decision to marry someone of the same sex wasn’t all made up but a natural craving? Perhaps, you only need to experience it to believe it. It was, in all, an enlightening session provided by Brian Pellot, director of Global strategy at Religion News Foundation, Debra Mason, a Professor and director of the Centre on Religion and the Professions at Missouri School of Journalism, Tidiane Kasse, a Senegalese journalist and trainer and Selly Thiam, journalist and oral historian.
Before leaving Lagos, I imagined myself on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero, spent most of his 27 years in Prison. But there wasn’t enough time to visit the place. I learnt that it takes about 30 minutes to get there by ferry, as it is an island nestled away from the city centre, but the schedule, at the time I got to know of this, would not allow me to tour the famed holding centre like I did two years ago when I visited Mandela’s home in Soweto. But I and my colleagues, as part of our itinerary, visited St George’s Cathedral, the church where Desmond Tutu, one of the heroes of the Apartheid struggle in South Africa held court as Arch Bishop for ten years, the Synagogue Church and Auwal Masjid, the oldest Mosque not only in Cape Town but South Africa. It was the first time in my life I would enter a mosque, sit and listen to two Moslems talk about the mosque’s rich history and enduring legacy, which includes the original Quran, on display at the mosque. A recording inside the mosque states: “One of the greatest legacies achieved by Muslims living in South Africa is the hand-written Quran, which dates back to the 17th century. Imam Abdullah Qadi abducts Salaam, who was also known as Tuang Guru, wrote the entire Quran from memory and he was the first Imam of the Auwal Mosque. The Auwal Mosque was established in 1794.”