Little Steps: Underground Activism in Ethiopia

Addis Ababa appeared almost like a mirage, spreading out along the valley below from the crest of a climb through the mountains. All of the riders were a little on edge by the time we reached the city, having spent five days cycling through picturesque but grueling gorges and mountain passes. It was slow and arduous work, and Addis represented a place of rest and sanctuary.

For me, Addis was also the first place where there was a good chance of contacting some of the LGBT rights organizations that I was hoping to meet along the cycle. While Cairo has a thriving underground gay scene, there wasn’t enough time at the start of the trip to make connections; in addition, the political climate has turned increasingly dangerous for LGBT people in recent months. In Sudan, there wasn’t even a question of meeting with an organization. LGBT people in Sudan evidently come to Ethiopia – which, as we’ll see below, isn’t exactly a safe haven.

I was in luck. A friend from Yale and his wife invited me, some of the other cyclists, and several of their friends to their home for a delicious and greatly-appreciated pasta feast. One of the guests knew just the person I should meet: a young Ethiopian who was starting an underground project to deliver essential education and health care to the LGBT community in Addis.

I met Haile (which is not his real name; I’ll use pseudonyms throughout the post) the next evening at a coffee shop downtown. He invited me to come to dinner at his house, which he shares with a number of other gay Ethiopians who are working on the advocacy project. As we walked, I asked him about the gay scene in Addis. Everything is undercover. There are no gay clubs; although when Haile and two dozen of his friends show up, the club gets pretty gay pretty fast. Some establishments are more tolerant than others, but few places encourage frequent visits.

Haile’s circle of friends mostly consists of men, although he does know several lesbians in the city. He doesn’t know anyone who is transgender. He told me that, while the gay population in Addis is no doubt as large as one would expect for a major metropolis, the community exists in a plethora of isolated pockets. Most men develop friendships within a tightly-knit circle that they form through online connections. These groups generally have some overlap with other groups, but it isn’t extensive.

The online fora that are most useful for meeting people include a handful of gay dating sites and Facebook. While the Ethiopian government censors the internet extensively (porn sites, for instance, are blocked), for some reason the government hasn’t yet figured out that Manhunt is not a website about missing persons. Grindr also works, probably because it only requires a cell network and not an internet connection. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Grindr, let’s just say that it’s enormously popular but subject to abuse. It’s not necessarily the safest way to meet people, especially in a country where the stigma against homosexuality is high and where being openly gay is dangerous.

Gay men in Ethiopia are subject to jail sentences of up to 15 years for homosexual acts (even longer if there is transmission of HIV). Lesbians can no doubt be similarly persecuted; but as is true for several African countries, the criminalization statute is vague and arguably does not apply to women. It was unclear to me how frequently women have been prosecuted under the penal code.

Indeed, Haile didn’t know anyone personally who had been subject to prosecution or a conviction. But he pointed out that the real effect of the law was to remove any form of legal protection for the gay men he knew. If someone is raped or robbed during a sexual encounter, there’s nowhere to turn. The threat of blackmail is high, as people are extremely and understandably worried about being outed. Citizen arrests are also a problem, as hotel workers and others feel that the law allows and perhaps even obligates them to expose what they see as illegal activity. Most importantly for Haile, there are no public health services. People are fearful of seeking medical advice for any conditions that might require a revelation of how that condition was obtained. In a country where the HIV rate is still high, let alone the prevalence of other STDs, the inability to obtain education and treatment is devastating.

imageHaile and a group of around a dozen of his most trusted friends decided they needed to do something about what they felt was a public health crisis. They formed an underground organization dedicated to educating the LGBT community about important health issues and providing a space for counseling, outreach, and eventually treatment. The name of the group is Dana, which is Amharic for “little steps.” The group also refers to itself as 1Zega. Zega, which means citizen, has become a code word that gay men use to identify themselves in Addis.

I met seven members of Dana that evening at Haile’s house and chatted with them as we shared a spicy salad and a hearty tomato pasta. The group is diverse, highly educated, and clearly passionate about the project they are creating. Their members include a doctor and a public health worker, as well as a graphic designer and a filmmaker.

I asked them several questions about what it was like to be gay in Ethiopia. Most of the guys are not out to their families, although there seemed to be a few instances where the truth was understood but never acknowledged. One of the men, Mule, lives with his boyfriend Boche. Mule was buying a new mattress with his sister one afternoon when and she remarked that he might want a bigger mattress so Boche could fit on it. Other than that offhand comment, the subject of Mule and Boche’s relationship never came up between Mule and his sister – despite the fact that Mule first overheard a discussion about homosexuality between his parents. They were speaking about Mule’s stepbrother, who was also gay. I asked Mule if his stepbrother, unlike his sister, had been more open to a discussion about sexual orientation. Mule shook his head: “He committed suicide before I could come out to him.”

The group communicates with each other in person and over Facebook. All of the members have two Facebook accounts: one with their real name that they use for work and family, and one with a fictional name that they use for their personal lives. When I asked whether most gay men in Addis had a face Facebook profile account, one of Haile’s colleagues corrected me: “I wouldn’t say it’s a fake account. It’s the only place where I can really express myself.”

imageMuch of the motivation to form Dana occurred as a reaction to an anti-gay rally that was to be held in Addis last April. The rally was sponsored by a group of religious leaders, such as Dereje Negash, the head of a group associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Negash said that the rally was not designed to harass gay people, but to advocate for stricter criminalization of gay sex. Haile and his cohorts orchestrated a series of responses to the rally that exposed the contradictions in the statements made by Negash and other organizers. The government eventually cancelled the rally when the Orthodox Church withdrew its support, although it’s not entirely clear what caused this sequence of events. In any event, the solidarity created between Haile and his friends in response to the rally was a motivation for them to take further steps to address the public health crisis they saw in the gay community in Addis.

Many of Dana’s efforts are in the trial stage. Just a week before my arrival, the group had its first training and outreach session. The session involved around thirty people divided into two groups: sixteen came to Haile’s house, the others met privately with members of Dana wherever they felt most comfortable. Haile said that they had originally planned to host the training at one of the European embassies in Addis, an embassy that I won’t name but which has lent some support. Unfortunately, the embassy withdrew the offer for space at the last minute, perhaps because it was concerned about diplomatic repercussions with Ethiopia. Haile shrugged off the disappointment and said it was for the best: a private home is more conducive to discretion anyway.

imageThe goal for the training session was twofold. First, Dana wanted to test the materials it has prepared to disseminate public health information. Second, the group was hoping that the trainees would feel empowered enough to take the instruction back to their own circles of friends and discuss health issues with a larger community. Dana targeted people from diverse friend groups so it could extend its outreach as far as possible. Needless to say, all the people who attended the first training session found out about the event through private invitation and word of mouth.

In the future, Dana hopes to continue its outreach through a variety of methods. It has a Facebook page and is developing a website, which will facilitate an online clinic in which volunteer doctors can answer questions anonymously from people who have concerns about their sexual health. The group is also in the process of editing a short film which will describe the daily lives and struggles of gay Ethiopians.

Not surprisingly, Dana could use increased funding to pursue these projects. Out in Africa Ride is currently looking at ways to get money to the group, which is much harder in Ethiopia than in other countries. The main obstacle is the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which limits the funds a group can receive from foreign sources. We’re currently studying the law to see if there are possibilities for working around this requirement.

Dana works in dangerous territory. From all accounts, the current government is just as repressive as previous regimes, and it is unclear what would happen to members of the group if they were discovered. Beyond formal punishment and legal action against them, many members could face ostracism from their families and from their work.

Nevertheless, they have each other. Even from my brief meeting with the members of Dana, the closeness and solidarity of the group was apparent. It is, perhaps, the one silver lining of oppression: a recognition and appreciation of a shared humanity in the face of a common enemy. When I explained to the group how gay men can be judgmental and snide to each other in other cities – how I have heard many gay men make racist, sexist, anti-lesbian, or transphobic remarks –, I was met with blank stares. In places where rights are better protected, how do we forget so quickly that there is far more that brings us together than keeps us apart? The interactions between members of the group and the dedication and courage with which they are trying to make Ethiopia a better place for LGBT people were an inspiring reminder for me of the little steps we all must take towards greater understanding, greater empathy, and greater kindness.

Posted in Ethiopia, Travel Blog.

One Comment

  1. Such tremendous courage, and just to be fully human. We have a long way to go. Baby steps indeed. Every journey of 10,000 miles begins with one step. Love, mom

Leave a Reply