OUT IN AFRICA (PART THREE)
Queer representation in Malawi’s media: From ‘horrendous’ to a possible example for others to follow
A series of four articles examines issues of policy, laws, rights, culture, popular culture, language, stigma, crimes, discrimination and individual experiences of the queer community in four African countries.
In the one-bedroom shack she lives in, in the Cape Flats township of Tambo Village, Tiwonge Chimbalanga keeps a file containing press clippings.
It is close on 12 years since Chimbalanga, a transgender woman, made world headlines after being arrested in Malawi for marrying her then-partner, Steven Monjeza, in what was the country’s first same-sex marriage. Among the press clippings in her file, however, there is only one report from a Malawian newspaper.
On a torn black-and-white page (making it difficult to tell which publication it was printed in), the report speaks of how “the issue of gays has caused a lot of stress to the nation”.
Chimbalanga (or “Aunty Titi”, as she is affectionately known) is not quoted in the story.
“Me, I did not talk to any journalists from Malawi,” she says, firmly. “Only my lawyers talked to those journalists. Me, Aunty Titi, I did not speak to anyone. No.”
As to why she refused to speak to her fellow countrymen, she simply says: “Because you know mos, journalists from my country, they talk shit. Even the NGOs [that were assisting me during the trial] told me, ‘Aunty, don’t talk to any journalists from Malawi’.”
Victor Chikalogwe was a founding member of the Centre for the Development of People, (CEDEP), one of the human rights organisations that assisted Chimbalanga during her trial. Chikalogwe remembers vividly the “chaos” outside the Blantyre Magistrate’s Court as journalists scrambled to get a quote.
“Journalists would be there, asking her, ‘So, are you a woman?’; ‘Do you have a vagina as well?’; ‘Who does who with your so-called husband?’ And people are there, laughing. It was chaos. It was terrible. So terrible,” Chikalogwe recalls.
Journalist James Chavula also remembers very well the case that, for the first time in Malawi’s history, thrust LGBTI existences into the media spotlight.
“The Chimbalanga case [took] journalists by storm,” says Chavula. “It showed us that some of us have allowed ourselves to be so biased that our newsrooms have become extensions of the religious groups that we belong to. So it really exposed us. We talk about objectivity. We talk about being balanced in our reporting. We talk about accuracy. But all that was shattered in the way that case was reported.”
A 2019 report, Under Wraps: A survey of public attitudes to homosexuality and gender non-conformity in Malawi, found that 3.5% of Malawian’s over the age of 16 identify as LGBTI. This, the report noted, is more than double the ratio for South Africa (1.4%) and “well above the 2% rate that many countries are clustered at”.
Despite this, the report found, 80% of Malawians believe same-sex sexual relations to be “wrong”. Nine out of 10 people are also “not ready” to accept a gay man or woman in their family.
While much of this conservatism can be attributed to the deeply religious nature of the Malawian population (who are predominantly Christian), media representation of anything LGBTI-related is a significant contributing factor.
A 2016 report, Canaries in the Coal Mines, found that “in several of the [southern African] countries under survey, it was the mainstream media — rather than explicitly political actors — who triggered the official backlash against LGBT people.
“This is most evident in Malawi, where the state was prompted to act against Chimbalanga and Monjeza after their engagement party was reported in the Nation newspaper. The newspaper’s sensationalist reporting turned the subsequent trial into a freakshow and the accused into objects of national derision.”
Chavula says this “horrendous reporting” spurred him and a dozen other journalists across the country into addressing what he calls “our gaps”.
“A few of us came together. We approached the organisations that were involved in human rights and we put forward the idea that we needed training to understand LGBTI issues to start reporting [on] them correctly, to start debunking the myths and misconceptions, and to start reporting it with a human face,” Chavula says.
With assistance from CEDEP and the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, the group formed “an underground movement of journalists who want to correct these narratives”. In their bid to achieve this, the group underwent a number of training sessions.
One of these sessions was conducted by the Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ), a non-profit organisation that targets journalists in mainstream and religious media on how to better report on LGBTI issues.
Brian Ligomeka, co-founder of CSJ, says the organisation was formed in 2015 because of the poor coverage of issues to do with sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as well as LGBTI or minority issues. The two-pronged approach it takes to achieve this is through, first, producing media content on SRHR and LGBTI issues and, second, by training media practitioners on how to report professionally on such issues.
“Some [of the trainees] will start to understand the difference between, say, a lesbian and a trans woman,” says Ligomeka. “Things which initially they couldn’t understand [because] they would just look at everyone as gay. And they improve on their reportage. Some, due to their biases, will [continue writing] stories from their religious perspective. But the difference is that the treatment of the article becomes different.
“Also, apart from just quoting sources from the religious community who condemn this or that, they will also go and balance the story by quoting members of the LGBTI community or even ally organisations that work with LGBTI communities in Malawi. They might still include some elements of homophobia there, but the advantage is that one or two other sources will be people from either human rights groups or even LGBTI groups.”
Ligomeka adds that the initial days of carrying out the then-fledgling organisation’s work was hard.
“It was actually tough,” he says. “Because in Malawi, the issues that we deal with are regarded as taboos. Queer issues are regarded as taboo. In a conservative society like Malawi, when you deal with those things, you are called all sorts of names: you are a sinner, you are destined for hell, you are evil, you are an agent of darkness. All kinds of names, you know.
“So it was extremely tough and stressful. But we endured the stress. We endured the names that we are called. And we still exist up to today.”
Joseph Kayira is the editor of the monthly Christian magazine, The Lamp.
While he says “we are a publication that is open to all”, he admits that writing about queer issues hasn’t been easy, “even up to now”.
“If you write positively, where it means you go do an interview with a member of the LGBTI community, there’s always [going to be] a backlash. As you might be aware, the church in Malawi has not been forthcoming when it comes to issues to do with the LGBTI community.
“Here, it’s a situation where society looks at the LGBTI community as sinners, you know? So, to come up with a story that is well-balanced, you will find it is not that easy.”
It was in his current position as editor that Kayira underwent one of CSJ’s training sessions. “It was really, really good,” says the 50-year-old, “because I handle articles from the journalists, right? So with what I was taught that side, it helped me, when editing, to look at the language; to see if the journalist has balanced up the story; to see if there are any issues to do with homophobia and all that. So it was really an eye-opener, because even some of the facilitators were people from the church. So it was really eye-opening and so rich, you know, when it comes to covering these issues.
“I’ve also helped my colleagues in the newsroom to say, ‘Look, each time you’re writing about the LGBTI community, first of all, find out. Dig. Dig deeper. Come up with the real story. Don’t just, you know, go with the tide of the community and say, ‘They are sinners. We don’t want to do such stories.’ Let’s do humanitarian stories; stories that tell the truth. Nothing but the truth.”
Ligomeka’s hard work is yielding notable results.
“We are happy because we have seen an improvement in coverage of LGBTI issues,” he says. “We are also happy because we have become a reference point on these issues. Nowadays, even when other organisations want to train people on how to report on these issues, they actually contact us to be facilitators during such training. People also actually come to us saying, ‘We have seen articles in the newspapers, which you edited, and they were very good. Can you do training for other journalists?’ That makes us happy.”
The Canaries in the Coal Mine report vouches for this. It found that “CEDEP’s print media sensitisation programming in Malawi provides a regional benchmark: its results have been startling, and the Malawi print media now carries the most regular, informed, non-judgmental coverage of the LGBTI issues in the region, outside of South Africa”.
While this may be true, for Chimbalanga, the scars of her treatment at the hands of Malawi’s media remain.
“You know,” she says, “my former boyfriend, Steven, spoke to Malawi journalists after they pardoned me [from prison]. And a lot of journalists wrote about me. ‘Aunty Titi is a man, not a woman’, they wrote. Steven said that to the journalists. And the journalists wrote those things about me. Bad things. A lot of bad things about me.
“I remember last year, a journalist from Malawi called me, ‘Aunty, I need to speak to you.’ I said, ‘No!’ So, mna, I did not speak to him. No.”
The distrust the country’s queer folk have of the media may, for a long while, persist. But Chavula believes that “putting a face to these stories; putting a name to these stories” can do a great deal towards healing the rift — as well as fostering acceptance.
“Writing stories with a human face,” he says, “challenges people that think [being] LGBTI is a Western concept; [that] it’s a concept imposed on our countries by our colonial masters or donors.
“It really tells them that these people are our people. So how can we make them really truly be a part of our community, so that they can feel safe like any other person?
“We need to constantly remind them that the LGBTI community is made of people like any other… And we should be doing the right things to make them a true part of our society.” DM/MC