Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Stigma and Discrimination Forcing Us to Abandon Our Kith and Kin

An aerial view of a rural growth centre in Mangochi district 
It is so sad that there is still stigma and discrimination in this contemporary world where people are more cultured unlike in the past. People discriminate fellow human beings because of all sorts of reasons like health status, gender, age, tribe, race and what have you. Discrimination and stigma are like cactus - they grow and flourish without any known source of nourishment. Every person is a human being before they are LGBTI, male or female, young or old, living with or without HIV and I firmly believe that this is an irrefutable fact.

Stigma and discrimination still exists in this period whereby the human race is more cultured than before. This one of the most common topics which I and my uncle who lives in Mangochi usually discuss whenever we meet. This uncle of mine is a respected deacon in one most famous protestant churches in Malawi. His values have always compelled me to admire him and I sometimes ask myself if this praise of his character does not fit into the condemned category of idol worship. All in all, just know that he is a man of good character who once angrily told people to let go someone who was caught stealing from his shop. To the amazement of those who were planning to try out new tricks in the field of mob justice, my uncle said; ‘Who are we to judge and punish? Let this man loose and may he go in peace and not in peaces’.

However, there is one side of my uncle’s character that was hidden to me until last Saturday when I went to visit him. Ever since he moved to Mangochi district, I visit him on Sundays once in every five or six months. I prefer to visit him on Sundays due to several reasons and among them is the fact that Sundays are easy days of the week whereby I do not go to work and he also closes his shop. …yes, another reason is the fact that there is usually no traffic. Conversely, I visited this young brother of my father on Saturday due to what I will loosely call ‘circumstances beyond my control’ for fear of airing my dirty lined in public. As a consequence, visiting my uncle on such a day meant spending my time in his shop. My uncle’s wife led me to a small trading centre that is situated within the vicinity of a very busy public health facility.
My uncle’s tailoring shop that also doubles as a grocery store directly faces the entrance of the Health Centre just across a small dusty road. I had to endure a lot of hardship with this arrangement. To begin with, the shop was not well ventilated and with the semiarid October heat, my skin looked just like a melting chocolate on a stick. Further to this, he was so busy and engaged with his customers or at times he was busy counting his money and eventually forgot about me. Later I realized that enduring all these mishaps, the situation I was in was some kind of a blessing in disguise as it gave me an opportunity to know who my uncle really is.

All that was just the bone and here is the meat… There came about four customers on the shop and a young man joined the queue. To my surprise, my uncle harshly asked the boy what he wanted to buy. I asked myself “what has happened to this man’s inherent hospitable nature?”
After a short silence, the boy said he wanted any paracetamol to which my uncle responded some milliseconds before the boy finished pronouncing the last syllable of his sentence. His response was simply “I don’t have.” The look on my uncle’s face read; “say one more word and I will punch your face.” To my dismay, I quickly searched the shelves with my eyes and saw two boxes of paracetamol. 

There were some murmurs among the men and women who were on the queue and my thinking was that the noise came about in protest to the treatment the fella got. I was wrong, the people were in support of what my uncle did and I instantly realized that the boy is an outcast in the village.  The comments which people made were like “if you had served him, we could have all one back without buying anything”. Another woman said, “at least he is not my relative”.  I saw anger in the eyes of everyone and I hope you know how it feels to be the only amiable person among many who are angry.  I was curious to know why the boy seemed so condemned by the community members. The boy must be something else. He was also being despised by a man who forgave someone who stole his hard earned money!  
When all the buyers had gone, my uncle said, ‘my late brother raised you well son. You are not like that little brat who came to buy soap a few minutes ago’.

“I don’t claim to be better than the next man uncle and I demand to know why you treated that boy like that?” It was my turn to be angry I guess. My uncle thought I will forgive and join his side by telling me that he dislikes the boy because he is gay. He accentuated the word ‘gay’ and pronounced it as if it has more vowels and consonants than it has. I didn’t know whether to laugh or stay quiet. I was unable to comprehend this whole scenario and heartrendingly, my uncle was also doing this.  

I reminded him that he once made headlines in village talks and gossip for letting a thief who was caught stealing from him go scot free for fear of judging someone a responsibility which said is solely left in the hands of the Creator. I asked if the boy’s sexual orientation has ever affected him personally. Your guess is as good as mine, he did not respond. Of course, he later said people cannot buy anything from his shop when they realize that he treats the boy fairly. This brought me to question about why the uncle hates the boy. “Is it the influence of society or it’s your personal disposition to hate gays?” I quizzed.

For the first time I saw the wisest man I have ever known stammering and lastly, he said it is a sin. I am not a theologian nor do I like grounding my arguments on religious doctrines but I know that there is no greater commandment than the ‘Golden Rule.” I told this uncle of mine who has succeeded to hide his hypocrisy for so long. I gave him the tool he reads every day and asked him to read Mathew 7:12, Luke 6:31 and Leviticus 19:18. I knew he has read all these verses but he just read them as mere piece of literature and had no impact on him. After reading almost at gun point, my uncle said I am just human, son.

Now, being human should not be an excuse to inflict pain we inflict on our fellow human beings no matter what. I asked my uncle if he noticed that the boy seemed to be in pain to which he afformed by nodding. I added that according to the direction which the boy came from, he might have been at the hospital but a certain self-proclaimed righteous health worker also refused to treat the innocent boy hence he thought of buying the pain killer from the shop. Should the boy live in the pain he is in because he is gay? The boy was not trying to force you to be like him why are you trying to force him to be like you?” These were more rhetoric devises than questions and did not expect answers from the cornered lion whose appearance suddenly started to resemble a mere cat.

Meanwhile, my uncle’s wife was just waiting for us to finish our discussion to remind us that she has brought some food. As my uncle was reflecting or pretended to be, silence ensued and the aunt notified us about the food and she complained how she spent all her energy and creativity to create something so short lived. This was in reference to the fact that I and my uncle eat like locusts in a corn field.

“I was listening to all what you were discussing” My uncle’s wife said. Neither I nor my uncle responded and our silence gave her courage to continue. In her narrative, she unearthed my uncle. I could sense that the issues she brought up were bottled up somewhere in her in her mind and were just waiting for the right time to erupt like a volcano.

One of the heartrending things she said was on how my uncle treats people he feels are HIV positive. She said that when such a person approaches his shop, he quickly slips his hand into a plastic paper and receives the money from them (those he says are HIV positive). The quotable quote came from my ‘auntie. She said that “the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and AIDS that was in the 1980s was propelled by the fact that very little was known about how HIV is transmitted hence it is strange that in this era there are still exists others who are stuck in old-fashioned way of thinking”. I added to say that worse still among those who have this mentality is your husband and my uncle.  

We have young people who are losing their lives simply because they were unable to access health care services because of the same stigma and discrimination. These vices; stigma and Discrimination have forced us to abandon our kith and kin and more often than not, when they need our support most.

We lose a lot and benefit nothing with our stigma and discrimination. People have been cured from fatal ailments with prescriptions or surgery made by a gay or lesbian physician. I have seen the elderly offering wise counsel and women saving lives. The problems we face as people are far much greater than the issues that divide us. We are all challenged by climate change, hunger, floods and what have you. Now, instead of joining hands to fight our common enemies we are busy finding grounds for hate and animosity.  Try to force yourself not to discriminate anyone on any ground and see if you will lose anything.

One thing I would like to emphasize in this entry is that young people who are living with HIV are being persecuted in our midst. Young people who are LGBTI do not have peace either. These groups of people cannot easily access health care services and this results into what most people do not want to accept - increased cases of STIs including HIV which are not fatal but lead to death and other incapacitation due to failure to access medical care in good time. 

With support from the through Simavi, YONECO and its partners in Malawi SRHR Alliance is implementing a project called Get up Speak (GUSO) in Chikwawa and Mangochi districts. Among other activities in this programme, YONECO has strengthened youth clubs, facilitated the establishment of Youth Radio Listening Clubs, training health care workers in the provision of Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS)  trained adults in Meaningful Youth Participation and other areas. The aim is to ensure that all young people, especially girls and young women, are empowered to realise their SRHR in societies that are positive towards young people’s sexuality. No young person should be left behind because of age, sexual orientation, gender …

Do not just watch innocent young lives being ill-treated. Together, let us Get Up and Speak Out for youth rights!

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