Best day of my life

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.

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Our secrets

The first time I realised Zada might actually be a lesbian was in the car. My “gaydar” is pretty useless, it’s difficult to develop when you’ve always lived in countries where passing as straight is the only way for gay men and women to survive. So although Zada’s shoes and vest tops had made me briefly wonder, I did not think too much of it. We were driving to the office and she told me her team was spreading rumours about her and Lina, one of the officers in her team, being in a relationship. Apparently they had sent someone to stand outside her block of flats and see if Lina’s car was parked under it.

I expressed surprise and shock at the rumours and Zada answered with resignation… “I am used to it”. A little light bulb went off in my head and a million questions rushed to my mind, but the driver was there and his English too good for me to hide behind big words. It would have to wait. I just pulled out my phone and excitedly texted my girlfriend, thousands of miles away, to say “I think Zada might be gay”. Continue reading Our secrets

Clarifying values

I’m squatting down against the wall. Hiding behind a handful of colleagues. I will cry later, in my bare hotel room, but for now I squat. I pretend to be tired of course, it’s been a long day of workshops and we only have about 20 minutes left for the Value Clarification Exercise. Yet, I am scared someone will notice, how this affects me, how shaken I am, how unprepared I feel.

There are about 70 of us, colleagues working for an international organization, an institution you might say. Seven of us are standing on this side of the room, under a taped-up signed stating “Disagree”, and about 60 people are on the other side; they agree. Seven of us. Four of us are white. Two are expats from another African country. Thank goodness, Viola is there, my mentor, the person I am learning everything I know from and who I run to when I have a bad day at work. One of them, one, is a national staff, a Ugandan. “It must be because she lived abroad in South Africa” I find myself thinking.

The statement we are asked to agree or disagree with is simple: I would change my children’s school if I found out that one of their teachers was gay. Sixty of my colleagues are standing under the “Agree” sign and explaining why they would immediately move their children, report the teacher, protest with the school management. They are indignant, they are shouting, they are horrified at the suggestion. They use strong words. I will not remember them one day, self-preservation I guess.

Over there is Mary, the admin assistant I share an office with. We get along; she is a great office roommate, quiet and considerate. Sometimes her children pass by to pick her up at the end of the day. I guess she would not let them come anymore if she knew. There too is Fred, the friendly IT guy who is studying in Sweden part-time. We have drinks sometimes, I went to his house once to swap techno and trance CDs and watch Formula 1.

I have lived and worked with these sixty people for almost two years now. I care for them, they care for me. They like me, I am pretty sure. I think they respect me. They seemed happy when I extended my contract for another year. But today I let myself realise, probably for the first time, that they only like me because they do not know. If they knew they would not want to share a desk with meor invite me to their parties. They would not respect me.

I am gay. I came out to myself, my family and a small handful of friends, only a year ago or so. In Uganda (what a brilliant idea!). I am still learning what it means to be a lesbian, nevermind what it means to be a gay aid worker. Today, at our annual staff retreat, I am learning a new lesson. How it feels to be completely alone, rejected, reduced to squatting against a wall, to make myself invisible, by the simple power of words. Words of hatred and disgust hovering all around me.

There are words of support, too. A few people on our side of the room speak. It’s like a breath of fresh air that is quickly dispelled by the power of numbers; indignant comments hitting me like a giant wave. Later, there will be Shawn, my best friend, holding my hand as I cry in my room. Telling me those who hurt me are hurting him as well. Making me feel that I am not alone after all. Pushing me to join dinner in the garden, with all the other colleagues who will not understand why I am not dancing around the fire, why I am so quiet.

I will go to bed early tonight.

There will be a small earthquake in the morning, so that everyone has better things to talk about around the breakfast table. The last 20 minutes of the second day of the retreat will be quickly forgotten, a nuisance really, what did that all have to do with our organization or our work anyway?

I will not forget. It’s been four years now and that remains one of my most haunting memories. I cried. I talked about it with friends. I even called my ex girlfriend in the hope she would understand. I emailed our director, with inexperienced and tentative words, trying to explain what was wrong with the Value Clarification Exercise. Trying to explain how it could hurt someone like me, without of course admitting that I was in any way personally affected. She probably guessed from my unusual incoherence and my blushing.

None of the hate-ridden homophobic comments were challenged that day and to those sixty people the silence of the facilitators confirmed that their “Ugandan values” were right, especially since everyone who dared voice a different opinion were foreign or had lived abroad. I can still hear the excuses: we were running out of time, there was no time to have a more in depth discussion, the important thing is to start the conversation, we were never going to change people’s minds with such a brief exercise. No other organization would even mention homosexuality in Uganda. It was Uganda after all.

To this day, I am grateful to those who thought talking about homosexuality in the workplace in Uganda was important, although I do wish they had access to better resources to do it well. I am grateful to those who stood under the “Disagree” sign, allowing me to hide behind them and giving me a small glimmer of hope. It’s not that I did not know or I did not expect my colleagues to be homophobic. I had heard them talk about it during lunch-breaks, making jokes during meetings. But hearing the violence, the disgust and the depth of their loathing for me (and anyone like me) was still a surprise and an indelible reminder that no matter how close I would get to my colleagues and “friends” during shared coffee-breaks and weekend trips, no matter how hard I tried to be nice to the people who I spent my days with, I would never be able to be myself. Never.