The trial of a young male couple charged with unnatural practices and gross indecency after announcing their engagement in Malawi was adjourned last week when one of the accused collapsed in court while enduring jeers from the public gallery.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, was made to return with a mop to clean up his own vomit, even though he has malaria.
He and his boyfriend, Steven Monjeza, 26, have been held in Chichiri prison, Blantyre, for more than a week — in order, the judge says, to protect them from mob violence.
Chichiri has a reputation for overcrowding, disease and homosexual rape. The couple say they have been badly beaten and Peter Tatchell, the British gay activist, describes their conditions as appalling.
Such scenes will only increase the pressure from western human rights activists and donor countries on Malawi’s government to moderate its draconian anti-gay laws, for which the couple have provided a test case. They face up to 14 years in jail.
Following similar donor pressure, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda distanced himself from an anti-homosexuality bill before parliament in Kampala last week. Museveni appealed to MPs to “go slow” on the private member’s bill, which stipulates the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, including homosexual acts by HIV-positive men.
Museveni said he had come under pressure from Gordon Brown, Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in a 45-minute phone call. He was also struck by the fact that a US protest rally had drawn 300,000 people, saying he would have great difficulty attracting such a crowd.
The two cases illustrate the way Africa is becoming a battleground over differing attitudes to homosexuality in the West.
Both sides accuse the other of being driven by external influences: gay rights campaigners say conservative American evangelists are encouraging homophobia, while the anti-gay side insists that homosexuality is only surfacing openly in Africa because of western encouragement.
Some argue that the African rows over homosexuality are really a proxy skirmish in an American cultural dispute, with both evangelicals and gay rights groups in the US pouring in money and support.
In Uganda, attention has focused on a visit by three US evangelicals, Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer, just before the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced. They held seminars for MPs and officials where homosexuality was described as a disease that could be healed, although they have subsequently disclaimed any responsibility for the bill.
Lively, the president of Defend the Family International, told Ugandans that legalising homosexuality would mean legalising “the molestation of children and having sex with animals”.
Schmierer works with “homosexual recovery groups”, while Brundidge, who claims once to have been gay himself, works with the International Healing Foundation as a “sexual reorientation coach”. He also leads Christian groups to mortuaries where they attempt to raise the dead.
Gay activists have placed on the web a video of Lively telling a Ugandan audience that he “knows more than almost anyone else in the world” about homosexuality. He says that the genocide in Rwanda was carried out by gays, that Aids is a just punishment for homosexuality and that foreigners are trying to promote homosexuality in Uganda.
Museveni has warned Ugandan youth that homosexuality is against God’s will and that “European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa”.
His minister for ethics, Nsaba Buturo, says homosexuality is a “moral perversion that must not be allowed to spread”.
Ugandas churches are themselves strongly homophobic — Archbishop Henry Orombi and Pastor Martin Sempe have been leading a campaign in support of the bill.
The Church of Uganda is vehemently against gay clergymen and when retired bishop Christopher Senyonjo preached tolerance towards homosexuals in 2005, Orombi stripped him of his pension.
A similar pattern is found in Malawi. George Thindwa, director of the Association of Secular Humanism, who is attempting to help the arrested gay couple, said “the churches are definitely spearheading the anti-gay campaign here”. He said Malawi was often visited by foreign evangelists, though he thought the local clergy needed little encouragement in their homophobia.
Pastor Mario Manyozo, of Malawi’s Word of Life Tabernacle Church, says “homosexuality is against God’s creation and is an evil act since gays are possessed with demons”. Similar sentiments are echoed by many churchmen, based on the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Pastor Joseph Mbeme, of Malawi’s Ambassadors for Christ Church, says the church must pray for homosexuality to be stamped out.
Thindwa points out that 83% of Malawians are Christians and another 13% are Muslims — and that Islamic law is even more hostile to gays. In Muslim northern Nigeria the penalty for homosexuality is stoning to death.
The claim that western influence is encouraging homosexuality is common. Some wealthy westerners are accused of sex tourism and paedophilia.
Peter Atekyereza, a sociology professor at Makerere University in Uganda, said “external influence is definitely behind the spread of homosexuality”. He said international organisations had been giving “scholarships and hand-outs in an attempt to recruit young people to homosexuality”.
Many Africans echo President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who calls gays “sexual perverts — lower than dogs or pigs”, and who claims that homosexuality is “unAfrican” — “leave whites to do that,” he has said. There have even been assertions that homosexuality did not exist in Africa until the white man imported it.
Last year nine Senegalese gay activists were jailed for eight years after coming out. This followed an international Aids conference attended by 50 foreign activists who stressed the need for gays to be dealt with openly.
Uganda expelled the local director of UNAIDS, the United Nations programme on HIV and Aids, for organising a meeting with Ugandan gay activists. The US and Sweden, both big donors, have threatened to cut off aid if the anti-homosexuality bill is not moderated.
An anguished editorial in The Uganda Record accused the West of trying to bully Africans into homosexuality. “To Africans this is an almost existential matter. Their very future as societies is at stake.”
Additional reporting: Rosie Kinchen