It was supposed to be one of the best days of my life. The day my debut novel, The Paths of Marriage, came out. For nearly four years, I had toiled with the 100,000+ words that compose what I consider to be my single greatest achievement. The result was a story that I am supremely proud of, and a message that I wanted to embrace to my core. Much of that message is embedded with my identity as a brown, gay women.
Parallel to my ascent as a writer, my primary professional life of an international development/ICT4D practitioner with the UN dotted my consciousness. How on earth was I going to balance being the author of a book with a gay main character while continuing on work that focuses in not-South-Africa-sub-Saharan-Africa? That was a question for later, I decided.
Later came sooner than I thought.
On 7 August 2014, an email popped up in my inbox with the subject, Votre candidature. I read the first line of the body, « Faisant suite à votre candidature pour la consultance en objet, j’ai le plaisir de vous informer que l’UNICEF Burundi vous a sélectionnée pour ce travail. » The UNICEF office in the tiny central African nation of Burundi had written me, saying they wanted me to lead one of their top projects in the health and nutrition team. The post was to last at least a year. The timing of that email could not have been worse.
I knew for the sheer level of poverty in Burundi, most people were not concerned about homosexuality; there were far more pressing concerns. I knew I had worked in far more anti-gay environments, and had accordingly been careful to separate my personal and professional life. Still, the region and the country are not known for its inclusiveness, and this time, I was faced with a complicated decision – do I out myself online as gay and become the messenger of my novel, or do I continue to separate my queer identify from my online persona?
I opted for the latter, for at this point, I had already turned down several posts in areas I knew to be intolerably homophobic. If I wanted to continue my career in development, I decided Burundi was the best field option I would ever find.
On 1 October 2014, the day my novel came out, I thus found myself back in sub-Saharan Africa. The UNICEF Burundi office is in a compound that resembles the MONUSCO headquarters – semi-permanent structures that can withstand years of use or be vacated with just a few hours notice. The shipping container that had been converted into our office housed just three international staff, myself included. The rest of building belonged to local staff, staff whose views on homosexuality I was not sure and had no clear and safe way of knowing.
“Congrats on the book!” one of my international colleagues shouted to me as he walked into the building. I glanced up, seeing his smiling face staring in my direction. He was a Scandinavian new to the world of development. His congratulatory sentiments of the book and its subject matter were genuine. My reaction was pained.
I flashed a quick smile while stifling cry for the pang in my stomach. In an email, I thanked my colleague for his enthusiasm, but made him promise to not mention the book again in the office. My pride for my work was not worth the risk of being outed to local staff, who ensured my general safety in the field, issued my paychecks, arranged for my travel, and provided powerful links to my counterparts in the Ministry of Health. My well being, my livelihood, my job performance was dependent on local staff.
I decided to leave the office early that day and work from home in the afternoon. On my work computer, I carried on as though today were like any other. On my personal computer, I posted purchase links, blog entries, social media updates, and photos, telling the world how groundbreaking this day was for me. As the congratulatory comments poured in through the web, I felt a thick wave of sadness creep over my body.
Of course, I had to play off being in Burundi during my book launch in a positive light. Indeed, I was aware that as US citizen, I am far luckier than most LGBTQ African citizens. Still, the overwhelming negative feelings of missing such an important occasion continued to weigh on me. A few colleagues came over after work to say their congrats, but there was no party, no hugs, no words of inspiration to mark the day. There was instead paranoia of being outed, anger of not getting due recognition, and helplessness in realizing my life here could only be this. My life in Africa could not include that other life as a queer writer.
Two weeks later, I found out the only teacher to whom I dedicated my novel died, and I made the tough decision to quit my job at UNICEF. There was no extreme violence or assault directed in my way that prompted me to quit. There was no immediate threat of being fired. There was simply an innate frustration that comes with not being allowed to be who I am. There was simply an innate unsustainability created by a lack of effort on our employers – the UN, INGOs, etc. – to create a safe and open environment.
It was supposed to be one of the best days of my life. It is now a day I would rather forget.
Mala Kumar is an international development practitioner and writer based out of New York City.