On Sacrifices, Intentional and Otherwise
June 14th, 2010
Once we learned that Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were pardoned by Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika following their sentencing for fourteen years at hard labor for breaking that country’s anti-sodomy laws, I think we all understood that this would mark the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. In our naÃ¯veté, I think many of us assumed that this new chapter would somehow be a more peaceful one. But that was not to be. They’ve split now. Steven announced that he’s taking a wife — a womanly wife. And now it appears that Steven’s betrothed may be the village prostitute. The Malawi press, naturally, are having a field day with all of this.
Meanwhile, Tiwonge appears to be taking this all in stride:
But reacting to the news, Aunt Tiwo said he was not informed by Monjeza about the split.
“I have just learnt the new from newspaper. I am sad that he has communicated to the press without talking to me,” said Chimbalanga from Lilongwe.
“I respect his decision to marry a woman. He has a right to make that decision but I am also free to marry,” he said.
“I will be married for sure,” said Aunt Tiwo.
The entire world seemed to have placed a lot of hopes in this couple — that they would stay together, settle down, perhaps leave Malawi to seek asylum elsewhere, and just generally live happily ever after. Just like in all of our most beloved movies and fairy tales. But if one were to turn to fictional romance for inspiration, Romeo and Juliet might be a more instructive example: two lovers whose relationship is condemned by all of society, doomed to spend a few rare and furtive moments together before taking their lives. Steven and Tiwonge haven’t ended their lives fortunately, but they have apparently killed off their relationship.
Romeo and Juliet have become fictional heroes for star-crossed lovers everywhere. Steven and Tiwonge probably aren’t destined to be regarded as heroes by a lot of people, and that is unfortunate. National cemeteries are filled with the dead of war, and we decorate the headstones with flags and flowers in memory of their sacrifices. But those wars, too, have produced what we might call the walking wounded: those who struggle with physical wounds and emotional scars. Some of them, most visibly, we see homeless on the streets. “Why can’t they just shower, shave and get a job?” we ask ourselves, completely failing to understand the world from their point of view.
And so many of us make the same mistake with Steven and Tiwonge. “Why don’t they just leave and seek asylum elsewhere?” some ask. That’s much easier said than done. The U.S and Great Britain both have a terrible record of turning away LGBT asylum seekers. Too often, judges and magistrates rule that if they would only stay hidden and behave themselves, they would have no fear of imprisonment or the gallows. Asylum is not an easy option, particularly with the rising anti-immigrant nationalism that has been raising its head in both countries.
Besides, let’s say Steven and Tiwonge are awarded asylum — then what? They’re separated from friends and family, and the only culture they have ever known. They are poorly educated and unable to speak English beyond a few simple phrases. While it’s easy to suspect that Tiwonge may thrive in such a challenging situation — she seems to be the one who has overcome the most hurdles in all of this with her self-assurance intact — it’s no guarantee that either of them would be able to make it, let alone make it together.
In trying to please two very different worlds — the deeply homophobic world that is Malawi society, and the world of the gay community which sees each struggle through the lens of human rights advocacy and heroic struggle — Steven and Tiwonge has satisfied neither very well. It turns out that they just weren’t cut out to be heroes. They were just two crazy lovebirds caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot like a lot of other walking wounded among us.
In fact, heroes rarely triumph personally. For every Rosa Parks, there were countless others lynched, jailed, or otherwise broken. For every war hero, there are homeless veterans. And yet, didn’t they also sacrifice something very dear to them and their families for our freedom?
I suspect that Tiwonge may somehow make us proud, but it looks like Steven will probably disappoint us. He has a drinking problem (can anyone blame him?), he says he was never gay, he’s now marrying a woman, she appears to be a prostitute — did he or someone else pay her to marry him? I don’t know, but one thing I can predict is that whatever twists and turns his life takes from now on, each development will be gleefully detailed in the national press where even the most respectable outlets have failed to hide their contempt and derision.
All of this is a reminder that it’s not always great heroic characters who are called upon to make sacrifices for a besieged community. Sometimes it’s just ordinary people who have neither the constitution nor the wherewithal to be heroes in the classical sense. And yet, they sacrifice anyway, in ways that they may not completely understand or intend. And in that vein, Steven’s and Tiwonge’s sacrifices continue.