Abandoned and Imprisoned for Being Gay in Cameroon
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.
Prisoners have to pay for their own food, our CAMFAIDS friends tell us, so while we’re in the grocery store, we buy bags of tapioca and cane sugar for the prisoners we are going to meet.
Finally, a female guard, the shop owner’s sister, collects us. Her uniform looks military: drab green, brown epaulettes and a red beret. I assume the uniform is standard issue; the Louis Vuitton handbag she is wearing probably isn’t.
It is Sunday—visiting day—so the entrance gate is crowded. Families wait in bleacher seats, like you would see at a small town Little League game, only made of wood. We are shuffled to the front and make our way inside. I move to cross the threshold but stop and wait as a man with a wheelbarrow full of leaves and feces walks past.
The prison is just a cement box. Inside there is a small, open courtyard, a pass-through for visitors. We are taken through the courtyard to the Governor’s office.
It is very hot. Reverend Ogle, sitting next to me in a priest’s black suit and high, crisp collar, must be boiling. Across the room the CAMFAIDS representatives sit in two dirty plush recliners that have no feet.
The Governor sits behind a hulking metal desk. He takes our passports and our prison tickets and pulls out a pad of paper and starts taking down our information. The pad is brand new—it isn’t some official register—and it occurs to me that this is all for show. They don’t really keep records here, not of visitors and not of prisoners, unless you count the giant chalkboard. The Governor continues to scratch out our details with a pen he plucked from his bright green “Chicken Little” branded pencil holder.
From a window in the Governor’s office, I watch a man have a violent seizure, his body jerking in the dirt. I reflexively yell out, “Doctor!” The Governor is unmoved, scrawling at a notepad at his desk and receiving a revolving set of guards saluting him sharply. Slowly, people gather around the seizing man. An onlooker placed a paperback book under his head for comfort.
Finally the prisoners we requested to visit—five men and one woman—are brought in to the Governor’s office. We shake hands and introduce ourselves. I thought we would get to speak with them in private or at least not in the Governor’s office, but it appears not—we have to take the space we are given.
Four of the six inmates we met have been held from a few months to over a year without trial or official charges. They remain in prison under what officials say is “suspicion of homosexuality.” The other two have been tried and found guilty—“condemned,” as they put it. The man is to serve two years; the woman is in for five.
The burden of proof to arrest someone on suspicion of homosexuality in Cameroon is low. If a nosy neighbor decides a person is gay—or if they just don’t like them—the neighbor can call the police and the accused is often arrested. Policemen sit out front of clubs rumored to be gay-friendly and arrest men and women as they leave. Parents may report their children, or siblings each other. Not every arrest results in a prison sentence—if the accused can pay a sufficient bribe, they are sometimes set free. Often, they’ll be rearrested and extorted again and again.
The man who was found guilty is very frail, his shoulders hunched over and his chest caving in. His lightweight purple tunic looks tie-dyed at first glance, but closer examination reveals stains and holes where the fabric has worn through. He didn’t talk during our visit except to answer questions with “Oui” or “Non." We asked if he had any family who visited. He didn’t respond. His friend, a fellow prisoner, answered, “His family abandoned him.”
The female inmate whispered that she suffers routine abuse at the hands of prison officials. She doesn’t say what kind of abuse and I know enough not to ask. She was recently in the hospital for a severe rash on her legs; she needs medication to heal it but she cannot afford the prescription. Healthcare isn’t provided to inmates at Yaoundé. The prison doctor only dispenses aspirin tablets. If a hospital stay—or any other treatment requiring more than an aspirin—is necessary the prisoner has to pay for it. She has no family. She tells us “Ils sont morts”—“They’re dead”—and tears up.
It’s not just healthcare that is lacking at Yaoundé. Prisoners must buy their own beds—but the prison doesn’t sell them. There is little access to potable water; a new water line prison officials want to dig is caught up in red tape.
We couldn’t talk openly in front of the Governor with the prisoners about the details of their arrests. The Governor tried to look busy, writing in his note pad taking phone calls, but he was obviously listening. We learned more about the prisoners from members of CAMFAIDS, when we could talk out of the Governor’s earshot. One prisoner was arrested for being in a bar that is a place where LGBT people are welcome; another was turned in by a neighbor for allegedly having “loud sex” and one for just looking “feminine.”
Of the six prisoners, two had families who abandoned them, one had periodic visits from an aunt, one had parents who had passed away and two said nothing. Abandonment, stigmatization and brutal beatings by a LGBT person’s family often precede an imprisonment. And if there is no jail time, the gay person is often cast out by family and community.
* * *
Anti-gay laws have been on the books in Cameroon since the colonial era. After Cameroon was granted its independence from France in 1960, the first real president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, grandfathered an anti-sodomy provision into law in 1972. Cameroon’s current president, Paul Biya, who has been in power for thirty-one years, supports the law; his party holds majorities in parliament.
The brutalization and imprisonment of LGBT persons in Cameroon is rampant in the villages, not just the big cities. A woman who works with a human rights organization in Cameroon told me recently that she gets at least “four calls a week” from LGBT persons in the rural areas, typically reporting familial abuse, abuse by the authorities, jailing and subsequent bribery by officials for their release.
Public opinion polling in Cameroon is hard to come by, but a 2007 Gallup poll found 84 percent of Cameroonians said their country is “not a good place” for homosexuals. The activists I met agreed that the public generally supports criminalization. Youth Day, a national holiday, coincided with my last day in Cameroon; celebrations included a massive parade through Yaoundé with groups marching with the President and other dignitaries. One group carried a banner so large as to require four young men to carry it that read “Youth Prohibit the Road to Homosexuality!”
The former director of CAMFAIDS, Eric Lembembe, was brutally murdered last year. Two of our CAMFAIDS hosts in Yaoundé discovered Eric’s body. The pain of his death is a still fresh wound to the men who found him. In tears, they recount finding Eric, his neck and feet broken, signs of burns on his hands, his body left to decompose in his apartment. They tell me it was an assassination and the definition seems apt. CAMFAIDS feels to its members like a family and Eric was a de facto father leading a fragile movement. It took the outrage of human rights groups and a statement condemning Eric’s assassination from the US Embassy to get Cameroonian officials even to investigate the crime. To date no arrests have been made.
The legal system is horrible, one human rights worker told me. Men and women accused of homosexual conduct are entitled to a lawyer but few lawyers are willing to be associated with these cases. Michel Togué, the sole lawyer in Yaoundé who defends LGBT people on the basis of human rights, was forced to flee with his family to the US because of death threats. He comes back sporadically; mostly, it is CAMFAIDS that supplies LGBT prisoners with some kind of legal aid. The only other human rights lawyer, Alice Nkom, is based in Douala, a bone jarring three-hour bus ride away. And she is kept busy with death threats against her and cases of her own.
* * *
The Catholic Church has played a major role in fomenting anti-gay hate, in a country that is 39 percent Catholic. In a Christmas sermon a few years ago, former Archbishop Victor Tonye Bakot called same-sex marriage “a serious crime against humanity.” He continued, “We need to stand up to combat it with all our energy. I am particularly thankful to our local media that has been spreading this message of it as a criminality against mankind.”
Shortly after these statements, Bakot stepped down; some insiders in Cameroon suggest his dismissal came directly from the Vatican. Bakot’s resignation seemed like encouraging news. But activists in the local community told me that the Catholic Church of Cameroon has since crafted an anti-gay prayer that proclaims LGBT people an abomination to God, written it into the official catechism and continues to preach it from altars around the nation during mass.
Before we leave, Reverend Ogle tells the prisoners we met “God has not forgotten you.” They don’t look convinced. They are living in a desolate solitude few people know. We stand to leave, shake hands again and embrace some of the prisoners.
We didn’t see prisoners lying on dirt or cement floors, or twenty people crowded to a cell. We didn’t see any fights or rapes. We didn’t see the buckets that serve as prisoner’s toilets. But we know from first hand accounts of former prisoners it is all there beyond the courtyard wall. The conditions at Yaoundé prison are barbaric for murders and thieves, but for innocent LGBT people, the prison is a hellish existence of unrelenting mental and physical abuse. Not only are they imprisoned unjustly; they face higher risk of mistreatment by authorities, prison doctors and other prisoners.
At the end of our visit, we follow a female guard out into the courtyard. She has beautiful orange-and-blue plaited hair and a red cell phone holster on her hip. I turn around for a last look at the surroundings. The prison officials kept us in a relatively sterile controlled environment: the clean entry courtyard, the hospitable environment of the Governor’s office.
Then I saw the six prisoners we just visited being led by a guard toward a door cut out of the far wall at the back of the courtyard. Just beyond the opening, through the bars of a broken down metal cell door, I could the movement of dozens of prisoners. They were all walking in concentric circles. Maybe they were out for mandatory exercise, or maybe it was just a large holding pen. The guard held open the cell door. He motioned to the six to get in and I watched as, one by one, they all disappeared.
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