On Sacrifices, Intentional and Otherwise

Jim Burroway

June 14th, 2010

Tiwonge Chimbalanga (foreground) and Steven Monjeza.

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 naïveté, 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.


June 14th, 2010

What we don’t know– and probably never will– is whether they’re doing this because they really have become different people with no place for each other in their lives– of if these decisions have been made under threats, even a condition of their release from prison. The Africans caught up in the gay hysteria seem to fling “gay” and “pedophile” at each other while they flip-flop from gay to straight to gay like Americans flip the finger in rush hour traffic. It can mean anything from actually gay to “your church has more people than mine, so you’re a homosexual.”


June 14th, 2010

I think the best thing we could do is recolonize Africa until we change their attitudes toward LGBT people. The last time that happened they got the wrong ideas; we need to correct them now.


June 14th, 2010

The photo caption is wrong. Steven is in the background. Tiwonge is in the foreground.


June 14th, 2010


I hope that’s sarcasm… they aren’t children that need to be led. They do need to be corrected through international pressures, though.

Priya Lynn

June 14th, 2010

Candace said “What we don’t know– and probably never will– is whether they’re doing this because they really have become different people with no place for each other in their lives– of if these decisions have been made under threats, even a condition of their release from prison.”.

Candace, as I recall they were told when they were pardoned that if they continued their relationship they would be re-arrested so it appears very much that the decision to split was made under duress.


June 14th, 2010

I wish for Steven and Tiwonge: flourishing lives with ongoing peace, joy, bounty, and fulfillment (whatever form their destinies call for those to manifest). Having tasted a few of the anti-gay moral panics in the US, I can imagine (but don’t presume to know the totality of their situations) some of the immense forces storming around and projecting onto these individuals.

I agree that if we must employ a US/Eurocentric cultural narrative to make sense of things, Romeo and Juliet is a poor fit. So far, a more congruent narrative would be George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 — government intrusion and control, illicit lovers, imprisonment, the death of love and breaking of spirit, …


June 14th, 2010

A truly sad situation.

EZ, I also hope you are kidding because Africa and the Middle East is still embroiled in conflicts due to the artificial countries created with absurd boundaries drawn up by European colonialist powers. The last thing we need is for America to try it’s hand in the mess.

Paul in Canada

June 14th, 2010

…and speaking of reluctant ‘heroes’ – what has happened to Rentboy and creepy luggagegate Rekers…?

Lindoro Almaviva

June 14th, 2010

OK, not to sound like a party buster but:

The State Department createsNew Passport Rules for Transgenders and we have not even touched on the subject.

I understand that this couple is suffering and I understand that they do deserve our pity and our attention, but so do transgendered Americans.

Just needed to get that off my chest.

Timothy Kincaid

June 14th, 2010


You are correct that this issue deserves attention.

Sadly, I don’t cover transgender issues as often as I could because it’s an area in which I’ve found that I just am not informed well enough to avoid making assumptions or giving offense.


June 14th, 2010

Yes, priya, I understand that they were told not to associate with each other because doing so was grounds for re-arrest and imprisonment with no pardon to be had– but we STILL don’t know if the public statements of “there’s plenty of other fish in the sea” and the decision of Stephen to marry the village whore were genuine decisions, or made under duress. There is a bit of difference in simply not seeing each other any more, and going to the extremes they have gone to.

They may be carrying out a supplied script, or they may have snapped under the persecution and harassment. African prisons are notorious for torture and beatings, so who knows what happened to them while they were imprisoned.

We have no way of knowing if it’s one, the other, or a little of both.

Priya Lynn

June 14th, 2010

Candace, I think its a pretty safe bet that they’re behaving out of duress.


June 14th, 2010

Thank you for your opinion, priya.

It’s also a pretty safe bet that being beat and tortured in an African prison will scramble your brains and you might act a little strangely as a result of it.


June 15th, 2010

Allow me to clarify, since I can’t edit a post: I think bisexuality is much more common in African men than is acknowledged, and that’s probably the source of much of the rabid homophobia–it keeps their own Gay at bay if they scream and rant loud enough at somebody else. I have noticed “gays” in the Uganda debacle go from gay to straight in the blink of an eye– and that’s just not possible for a homosexual to do. Nor is it possible for heterosexuals to go “gay” simply because they are offered some cash by one of those debauched Westerners that apparently prowl Uganda 24 hours a day, looking to pay for the Gay. I imagine it’s a cultural thing to be able to go back and forth that way, and there may be “duress” involved, but perhaps that’s not the entire answer. I think sexuality in Uganda is traditionally a little more acey-deucey and fluid than we have been led to believe.

Nothing is ever all one way or the other.

Priya Lynn

June 15th, 2010

Candace, bisexuals don’t go from gay to straight “in the blink of an eye”. We may go from a partner of one sex to the other but we always remain bisexual regardless of who we are with.


June 15th, 2010

priya, you might want to note that I didn’t say “bisexuals go from gay to straight in the blink of an eye.”

What I said: “…go from gay to straight in the blink of an eye– and that’s just not possible for a homosexual to do. Nor is it possible for heterosexuals to go “gay”…”

I opined that bisexuality may be culturally common (though publically and officially denied) among African men and a cause of the seeming ease with which those labeled “gay” seem to switch orientations at will.

Perhaps if you read my posts with a little less eagerness to refute them, you might differentiate between what you THINK I have said and what I actually said.

However, thank you for defining for me what a bisexual is, even though I have been bisexual my entire life and teach courses on human sexuality.


June 15th, 2010

Come on now, “not a hero”? The author wants to make them into gay leaders, to put them on a pedestal, but is disappointed when he cannot. These expectations are too obviously unreasonable. The article mentions ‘drinking problems’ and marrying women who are prostitutes. This is ridiculous. They basically narrowly escaped with their lives (the 14 year sentence would have been a death penalty for at least one of them) and are being constantly hounded by the media. Their own president called their love ceremony satanic. These guys have never had any education or role models telling them that it’s okay that they’re gay. The author seems to believe that these guys, coming from the circumstances they have, should somehow live up to our Western ideals of what it means to be gay. If I had been through all they had been through, I would settle down with the first man I met too and tell everyone I’d never been a lesbian. In short, sorry for my rant, but this author has WAY too many expectations for these guys.

Jim Burroway

June 15th, 2010


Reading comprehension FAIL.

I think you should re-read my piece. The whole point of the piece is that regardless of whatever one may think of Steven Monjeza and how he is handling the pressures being exerted against him, he is making very real sacrifices for the LGBT community in Malawi. My piece is almost the exact opposite of what you seem to think it is.


June 15th, 2010

My apologies. Of course that is what you meant. Perhaps, my frustration is better directed in the same direction as yourself – towards those who are expecting a Hollywood ending for Monjeza and Chimbalanga. In bringing up what the Western media has been saying about these two, it seemed as if you were giving credibility to these ideas and putting them on equal ground with reality (well, as you and I see it). My apologies again.

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