For 41-year old James Wandera Ouma, LGBT activism has become his life's work. As the executive director of LGBT Voice Tanzania ( formerly WEZESHA ), Ouma works to advance equality, diversity, education and justice for LGBT people in Tanzania.
Recently, Ouma was in attendance at the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association's ( OPALGA ) annual awards gala at the invitation of two of the organization's founders, Mel Wilson and Nathan Linsk. Wilson and Linsk met Ouma when they traveled to Tanzania two years ago and last year they wrote a viewpoint article for this publication about Ouma and his organization. Ouma also attended the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ( ILGA ) World Conference in Mexico City, Mexico following his visit to the Chicago area.
"Tanzania is a country where human rights are not respected. LGBT people need to be recognized and respected as human beings and Tanzania doesn't recognize us as human beings," said Ouma. "We have a law that allows for a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison to life imprisonment for males who are accused and convicted of homosexual activity."
Ouma, who is openly gay, said that he's been arrested nine times for LGBT activism. The biggest problem, Ouma noted, are police officers who arrest people and leave them in jail for weeks or months without a trial.
"I just got released from police custody after spending four days in jail. They charged me this time with trying to recruit young people," said Ouma. "Recently we started a safe house for young people who've been thrown out of their homes. Our goal is to provide food and shelter for these young people. We also encourage them to continue their education so they will have a better future. When the authorities learned about this project they immediately came to me and accused me of training the young people at the shelter to become homosexuals. That was my only charge."
Ouma noted that the Tanzanian government has accused the west of importing LGBT people and ideas into the country as well as giving his organization money to recruit people into homosexuality and that isn't true. The fact is, Ouma explained, the west is importing religion into Tanzania not LGBT people and ideas.
"I was born in a remote village without any roads and I didn't have a car, motorbike or bicycle. I knew I was gay when I was young and at that time I had no contact with the outside world," said Ouma. "The life I lived didn't allow me to know anything because we didn't have telephones, radios or the Internet in my remote village. The question is how could I know anything about western culture if I didn't have access to any information about the outside world growing up."
Ouma said that it's not just the government that teaches hate, religious leaders in Tanzania also teach hate towards LGBT people. "I believe they [the government and religious leaders] are afraid," said Ouma.
One of the initiatives that Ouma's organization is working on is conducting a study to document human rights violations that are taking place based on a person's sexual orientation and/or gender identity. "We want people to share what is happening in their homes, work places, health facilities and public places. We want to talk to employers and find out why they don't want to hire LGBT people and we want to hear from parents who have LGBT kids," said Ouma. "We will be compiling a report that can be used as a tool and will be submitted to the members of parliament so they have first hand information about what is happening to LGBT people throughout Tanzania."
"We want to see Tanzania be a country where people are free to express themselves," said Ouma. "We want our country to be a place where people aren't sacrificing their lives because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Where people won't go to prison, get thrown out of their families, get expelled from school or lose their jobs just because they are LGBT. We want to reach a place where we can celebrate our lives. Even if we don't see equality in Tanzania today, the foundation has been laid for that to happen in the future."
Ouma explained that it is important for the international community to speak out about what is happening to LGBT people in Tanzania as well as put pressure on the Tanzania government so LGBT people in his country can be free and have the same rights as other Tanzanians.
As for funding, Ouma noted that LGBT Voice Tanzania doesn't have an institutional funder so all of their funds come from individual donors who make donations online. "Our organization needs money so we can continue running our programs. We want to start a clinic where LGBT young people can access healthcare and we already have the building but we need money and technical support so we can open the clinic," said Ouma. Ouma noted that OPALGA has already donated $500 to the clinic project.
See www.lgbtvoicetz.org for more information. To make a donation, visit org2.salsalabs.com/o/7315/donate_page/lgbtvoice .