'Come out of the shadows'

JEERING: Gay couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga handcuffed outside a Blantyre court in this 2010 file photo. photo: reuters
JEERING: Gay couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga handcuffed outside a Blantyre court in this 2010 file photo. photo: reuters

CAPE TOWN - Thrown into jail for 14 years under Malawi's anti-gay laws, Tiwonge Chimbalanga has no regrets about the marriage ceremony that became a symbol of Africa's intolerance towards homosexuality.

In his first press interview since being granted asylum in South Africa, the 24-year-old, who was freed amid global pressure, urged more Malawians to come out of the shadows as the country's ban on same-sex relationships eases.

"I don't have any regrets, I didn't do anything wrong," Chimbalanga, who identifies as a transgender woman despite being tried as a gay man, said.

Known as "Aunt Tiwo", Chimbalanga and partner Steven Monjeza drew a harsh spotlight on deeply conservative Malawi after the couple were arrested for holding a traditional engagement ceremony in late 2009.

Branded as Malawi's first openly "gay lovebirds", the pair were sentenced to a maximum 14 years with hard labour as an "horrendous example" and led away from the court handcuffed to one another while onlookers jeered.

"I had mixed feelings because on the one hand I felt it was a wonderful thing for me to do a normal, natural thing like getting married, while on the other hand it was very painful," Chimbalanga said.

"I was beaten in prison. During the trial security guards ill-treated me. I was verbally abused and suffered inhumane treatments. I have scars from the beatings. Yet I felt good that I was able to do what I wanted to do."

International outrage eventually forced a begrudging presidential pardon from the late Bingu wa Mutharika, who doggedly described the couple as "insane" and their ceremony as "satanic."

A recent moratorium on the ban on same-sex relationships under new President Joyce Banda is encouraging, but the war is far from over, said Chimbalanga.

"The thing that I wish for in Malawi is that all gays, lesbians and transgenders must come out and have their rights like everybody else. It seems that in Malawi there are human rights for the rich and another set for the poor."

After their release the couple broke up and Chimbalanga spent months hiding in a safe house before being ferried last year to South Africa, the only African country where gay marriage is legal. Homosexuality is illegal in 37 countries on the continent.

Chimbalanga is supported by local transgender NGO Gender Dynamix and Amnesty International and in her new one-room home, reached by an outdoor staircase lined with pot plants, a bulging file of papers documents her ordeal.

Inside are letters of horrified outrage and support from around the world, a sheet detailing the British-era colonial charge of "buggery" and newspaper clippings that scream headlines like "I still love Aunt Tiwo - Monjeza".

Chimbalanga said mostly "there was no accurate reporting, I felt the stories were sensationalised, exaggerated and taken out of context. In other parts they reported fairly."

She added that "there was a point when I was turned into a cartoon and they wrote stories that were defamatory. Up to now I don't trust reporters from Malawi, I refuse to talk to them."

Chimbalanga believes the couple were targeted as they were the first to make their relationship so public.

- Sapa-AFP

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