A team of African and American activists traveled last month to homophobic Cameroon to plead for tolerance, justice and improved health care for LGBT people and others.
They raised their voices at a health conference, in prison, at the U.S. Embassy, at the office of the Vatican’s representative to Cameroon, and in meetings with local activists. This is their report on that trip:
St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation:
February 2014 activities in Cameroon
A delegation from St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation traveled to Cameroon in February 2014 at the invitation of the foundation’s partner organization, the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (Camfaids), which works for LGBT rights and against AIDS. The trip was scheduled to allow St. Paul’s members and allies to make presentations at the African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, which was held in Yaounde on Feb. 5-7. Other objectives of the trip, which included African and American activists, included advocacy for tolerance, justice and improved health care for LGBT people in homophobic Cameroon.
Health-care professionals, the staff of the Papal Nuncio and the U.S. Embassy, LGBT prisoners, and other LGBT rights activists were among those with whom they shared their concerns, details of emerging programs and collaboration and unmet needs, as well as hearing messages of support from the delegation.
In an exhausting schedule full of meetings and visits, the activists reached many key people in Cameroon with their message that the nation’s gay-bashing must stop, both for the sake of human rights and as a strategy for curbing the spread of AIDS. There was also a need to document the seminal local prison outreach program and the stories of LGBT people, which are not well known in the West.
African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights
Two members of the activist delegation made presentations at the conference:
Maxensia Nakibuuka, speaking as an HIV-positive heterosexual woman from Uganda, discussed her work creating a gay/straight alliance of home-based caregivers, establishing a health clinic that welcomes LGBT people and sex workers. and her upcoming work as newly appointed leader of the HIV outreach effort by the Catholic Church in Kampala, Uganda. As delegation member and journalist Andy Kopsa described Maxensia, “She is shaking things up. She is LGBT-inclusive and is on a mission to end the stigma that proves a deadly barrier to medical treatment. This means expanding home-based care to reach the most marginalized and most at risk populations: not exclusively, but inclusively meaning LGBT, women and girls are treated equally as any other HIV/AIDS patient. No stigma.”
The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, foundation president, spoke about efforts to improve health of lesbians, transgender people and women in general by working with larger organizations — the World Bank, the Catholic Church and World Vision. His presentation focused on the links between gender and LGBT inequality, often fueled by a Christian fundamentalist perspective on inferior gender roles for women and criminalization of LGBT people.
Berthe Marcelle Awoh Ngoume, a Camfaids member who founded the Cameroonian lesbian organization Lady’s Cooperation, attended the conference to network and discuss the largely unmet health needs of African lesbians.
Meeting at the Palace of Justice
The group needed to have its application for a prison visit approved by the Palace of Justice. The application was submitted in the morning and approved in the afternoon. (Among other responsibilities, the Palace of Justice, a branch of the Ministry of Justice, oversees visits to prisons by people who want to give food to prisoners.)
Meeting at the U.S. Embassy
The one-and-a-half-hour meeting with U.S. Embassy staff included Albert, Maxensia, Andy and Michel Engama, an LGBT rights activist from Camfaids.
Maxensia shared her experiences with Erika Lewis, who is the embassy’s political liaison. She talked about how it had taken almost a year of striving by members of the Good Samaritan Consortium, a cooperative health project serving both gay and straight Ugandans, before they were able to have discussions with U.S. Embassy staff in Kampala. They particularly wanted to discuss funding by PEPFAR and USAID that goes to faith-based organizations that have fueled the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Ericka was very interested to learn about the Ugandan consortium, particularly since a significant lack of cooperation among organizations within the LGBT community in Yaounde has cost them at least one grant award. Ericka was pleased to hear that Maxensia is prepared to revisit Yaounde to help with capacity- and coalition-building activities and to teach about her home health care program, which reaches some of the most neglected clients.
Michel (from Camfaids) thanked Ericka for the leadership that the embassy demonstrated after the death of Camfaids founder Eric Lembembe. “It was so important to have U.S. Ambassador Jackson and other foreign dignitaries at his funeral,” he said. “It meant so much to us all and to Eric’s family.” He also shared some exciting news — that Camfaids has received a 20,000-euro grant from the French cooperative ESTHER to fight HIV / AIDS and to assist LGBTI people who are incarcerated because of Cameroon’s anti-gay law. He will introduce those new staff members to embassy staff when they are on board. Up until now, all the visits and psychosocial support provided to the 25 LGBT prisoners in Yaounde have been completely volunteer-based.
Erika was kind enough to try to get an appointment for us with the Roman Catholic Papal Nuncio and she suggested we call over to his office because he was out of the country, but someone on his staff would be willing to meet with us.
Finally, we agreed to arrange a meeting between the LGBT community organizations and Ericka when they had completed their mapping exercise that we had agreed to facilitate. We would help them document services and networks already in place and what was missing. Ericka agreed to meet with groups when the overall plan was accomplished. We hope this meeting will happen in 2-3 weeks. The community is already working on this plan.
After the meeting, Andy said that the productive conversation left her hopeful. She added:
“Cameroon is no Uganda. Cameroon and Francophone Africa (I am sure and more sure after our meeting) is the new front for LGBT rights on the human rights stage. Uganda – for all its horrible issues – is light years ahead of the civil society here in Cameroon.
“But the first step is awareness that one needs help – the LGBT community needs help – and not just against the inhumane anti-homosexuality law that has 16 people imprisoned for being who they are – but to organize, collaborate and grow capacity and learning.”
Meeting with the staff of the Papal Nuncio
One goal of the meeting was to ask the Catholic Church to renounce the anti-gay statements made by former Archbishop Simon-Victor Tonyé Bakot. We shared our concern that the Catholic Church in Camerooon had been effectively leading the anti-gay movement in the country and our concern that Archbishop Bakot had not been disciplined for his anti-gay propaganda.
In the absence of Papal Nuncio Piero Pioppo, who was traveling, the Nuncio’s staff — Monsignor Erwin and the Nuncio’s lay secretary — met with the delegation. Albert discussed the letter sent last October as a formal complaint against former Archbishop Bakot. No formal response has been received. Albert told about some of the good ministries coming from the Catholic Church in Uganda and how Maxensia was here to share her model with the Cameroon LGBT and faith community.
Albert reminded them that, despite the Pope’s recent comments about the church welcoming and engaging LGBT people, Cameroon was the worst example where Catholic social teaching has been trumped by an anti-gay fervor organized by the Catholic Church. This began in 2009 when the Cardinal opposed the country signing the Mupoto Agreement because it would give rise to homosexuality. People were so upset about the information they were getting from their leaders that they were demonstrating on the streets.
Albert also shared the concern that many of the LGBT people we visited in prison were practicing Catholics, as was Eric Lembembe, the assassinated LGBT leader, yet there has been no condemnation of this violence nor any call for an inquiry. He said that it would be helpful if the Nuncio would meet with attorneys such as Michel Togue and Alice Nkom in order to understand the legal challenges that LGBT people face in Cameroon. It would also be good for church leadership to actually go into the prison itself and see that people are being held in inhumane conditions, which is seriously affecting their health, even in cases where there is no evidence to keep them in jail pending a trial. One young man has been waiting 7 months for a trial date with no evidence, just suspicion of homosexuality.
We asked if the church’s prison chaplains might like to meet with us and hear our concerns, but the Nuncio’s staff said that his office had no jurisdiction over the affairs of the Archdiocese now that Bakot had left.
The meeting was important, since it opened doors to allowing LGBT activists in Cameroon to introduce the Catholic hierarchy to people on the ground, which will allow them to engage the issue more effectively and, one would hope, pastorally. It might also help them to understand that when an Archbishop condemns a group of people from a pulpit, dozens of young Catholic Cameroonians end up starving to death in jail, disowned by their devoutly Catholic families.
Anyone can see with half a mind that these people should not be there. It may be necessary for the Catholic Church to show an act of contrition by calling for a Presidential Amnesty and then begin to monitor the extortion of gay people by the police and criminal justice system.
Bakot’s teaching and hatred of the LGBT community remains the Catholic Church’s greatest stain on any moral high ground in Africa. The fact Bakot has been moved into a church administrative function will stimulate the UN’s concern to the Vatican that perpetrators of violence and abuse must be brought to justice and not merely moved into a Diocesan Office.
The Pope’s words to the church and the world on LGBT people were kind and appreciated. But if Bakot remains in any function in Cameroon under the authority of the church, without any public investigation, then the Pope’s words remain an empty sound bite. The Catholic Church must clean up its house in Cameroon. In setting its house in order, it will send a clear message to Catholics throughout Africa that homophobia and sending fellow Catholics to jail is not the work of Jesus to repair the world. Cameroon can lead this debate with dignity, engagement with partners and the LGBT community itself and develop a strategic plan to provide pastoral care until the tyranny of criminalization is over
Meeting with local LGBT rights and anti-AIDS advocates
Several LGBT rights organizations took steps toward forming a coalition last summer after the murder of Camfaids co-founder, Eric Lembembe, but that effort faltered.
Several of them met with the visitors from the St. Paul’s Foundation. This was a good start, but much more work is needed. The St. Paul’s Foundation delegation held two meetings with local LGBT organizations on issues of gender, health, advocacy, communications and prisons. Given the serious personality and political issues we heard about, there is not much help we can give the LGBT community if they sabotage their own really good work by not figuring out how to work together despite their differences of strengths, service-delivery focus and meeting diverse needs.
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