Abandoned and Imprisoned for Being Gay in Cameroon

Published: March 4, 2014

 The daily tally of prisoners in Yaoundé Central Prison, on the outskirts of Yaoundé, Cameroon, is on a chalkboard the size of a Ping-Pong table affixed to the wall. Today there are 4,113. The prison administrator—we started calling him “the Governor”—tracks the inmates. This one is in the hospital, that one is being transferred, another set free. Murderers, petty thieves, carjackers and burglars are among the 4,113—and at least twenty of the prisoners housed at Yaoundé Central Prison are there just for being gay.

 
Homosexuality is outlawed in more than eighty countries around the world, over thirty of which are in Africa. Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has been on a crusade to lock up LGBT people: working from a list of over 160 suspects, officials have made dozens of arrests. On February 24, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni signed an anti-gay law that allows for life imprisonment of LGBT people and penalties for people who don’t report a person they know to be gay. President Obama recently spoke out against Uganda’s anti-gay bill; Secretary of State John Kerry has decried the atrocities in Nigeria. But Cameroon has been spared such an international spotlight, even though it has been quietly arresting, charging and imprisoning gay people under article 347 of the penal code for years.
 
I sit with my back against the hulking chalkboard. My companions during the visit are two members of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS) and the Reverend Canon Albert Ogle, an Episcopalian priest, who heads the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation based in San Diego. His organization’s mission is to provide technical support to grassroots organizations working on human rights, HIV/AIDS activism and healthcare in the Global South. CAMFAIDS, which helps give a sense of community to Yaoundé’s gay population, is part of a coalition that coordinates a drop-in center providing basic preventative sexual healthcare to LGBT persons and runs the nascent prison outreach program.
 
Reverend Ogle has worked in Uganda over the past decade to build a coalition of inclusive faith groups, civil society organizations and healthcare providers to serve the LGBT community. In hopes of growing their coalition, CAMFAIDS invited Ogle to Cameroon to observe the dire situation for LGBT people, which has been grossly under reported by most Western media outlets. I asked Ogle why Cameroon hasn’t gotten the same international attention as Uganda or Nigeria. He could only speculate—perhaps, he said, because Cameroon is predominantly Francophone and the West focuses on Anglophone countries, or perhaps because Cameroon offers little strategic value to the US—unlike Uganda, which is a relatively stabilizing force in the region. Or maybe it’s because Cameroon lacks petroleum, unlike Nigeria, which is the largest exporter of crude in Africa.
 
Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, is the country’s second largest city and the prison there is one of the two biggest. The other is in the coastal city of Douala, the business hub of the country. LGBT prisoners can be found in both Douala and Yaoundé as well as the smaller prisons scattered throughout the countryside in smaller cities, towns and villages.
 
To get inside the prison, we have to jump through a series of hoops; by the time we were sitting in front of the Governor we had been working on the visit for two days. First, we must obtain “tickets” issued by the Ministry of Justice. On the appointed day, we are taken in a taxi to a small grocery store across the road from the prison. There we wait as a one of the members of CAMFAIDS negotiates our bribe price with the guard who will take us to the prison gate.
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