Linking aid to gay rights fails to deter a homophobic leader
LETTER FROM THE GAMBIA:THE SHEEPISH response elicited from the waitress was the first indication that something was amiss. I had casually mentioned that it had been a while since I had seen Sulyman at work and inquired as to his whereabouts, asking whether he still worked at the restaurant.
We had come to know Sulyman over the last 12 months from our frequent trips to the local restaurant. As we arrived he would greet us enthusiastically, attentively see to our needs and tell us excitedly about his plans to work as a music promoter and concert impresario.
I thought no more about the waitress’s caginess or Sulyman’s prolonged absence until several days later, when another of the restaurant’s regulars asked me if I’d heard about “what had happened to Sulyman”.
He informed me that Sulyman, along with 17 others, had been arrested and charged with engaging in “indecent practices”. Subsequent newspaper reports that named and showed pictures of the men outlined how the police had swooped on a bar after receiving information that a group of homosexuals were holding a party there. They were now being held in custody, awaiting trial.
Fervent homophobia prevails in the Gambia, with the country’s president, the multi-titled Sheik, Professor, Doctor AJJ Jammeh at the vanguard. In 2008 he told a political rally that gay people had 24 hours to leave the country. He promised “stricter laws than Iran” on homosexuality and said he would “cut off the head” of any gay person found in the country.
Most Gambians regard homosexuality as an abomination. Those suspected of being gay are treated with scorn and are shunned even by their families. This can most likely be attributed to the prevalence of Islam. In the Quran, homosexuals, called Lut, (the people of Lot) are condemned in the last address of the Prophet Muhammad.
Mercifully, Sulyman and his co-accused were later released on bail. I was informed that, following his release, most of his family members avoided him and that whenever he ventured out of his house, local children chased and threw stones at him at their parents’ behest.
Such is the feeling of venom among some here that a newspaper editor I know whose paper published an article defending homosexuality told me somebody turned up at the office making threats to kill the author of the article and demanded to know where he lived.
During the adjournment of the trial, President Jammeh has reiterated his contempt for homosexuals. Speaking recently, he asserted that “there is no room for gays and lesbians” in the Gambia, and threatened that “if a man doesn’t want trouble, marry a woman and not a man, but if you want trouble . . . have a man and see what is going to happen”.