Georges Kanuma, the Burundi LGBT activist and beloved friend to many, died April 14 at age 36 after a bout with malaria followed by kidney failure.
Georges was Burundi's premier and out gay activist. He founded the Association for the Respect of the Rights of Homosexuals ( ARDHO ) , the only LGBT advocacy group in Burundi, and worked to provide resources and support for HIV and AIDS patients. I first met Georges last year, almost exactly a year ago, at a workshop I was presenting to a small group of international LGBT activists. We tend to render our dead in saccharine terms, but it is no exaggeration to write that he struck me as one of the sweetest and kindest people I have ever met. I warmed to him instantly, feeling both protective and protected in his presence. Without engaging in the flamboyance and bombast adopted by so many gay leaders, he simply went about his work quietly and effectively. My first inkling of his strength under pressure came when I saw him hastily leaving a session at a Heartland Alliance conference a few weeks later. When I cheerily asked him where he was going, he responded that a law against homosexuality had just been passed in Burundi and that he needed to take action immediately. I only found out the enormity of that law and Georges' work around it much later.
I regret that I never met Georges again. We kept in touch over Facebook and I worried about his safety as he worked and traveled under a repressive government. I never imagined that he would be struck down by something as prosaic, to me, as malaria. While I cannot claim to have been among his close friends, Georges left an impression on me. I feel that it is imperative to let the world know how important his work was and the great loss felt by activists and friends around the world.
By sheer coincidence, some of the same people who attended the LGBT conference last year were here last week for the same event, and I met with a few of them over lunch in Boystown to talk and reminisce about Georges. The group included Rosanna Flamer-Caldera of Sri Lanka's Equal Ground; Georges Azzi of the Lebanese group Helem; and Matthew French and Sean Casey, both of Heartland Alliance. Flamer-Caldera described Georges as a "very sensitive, soft-spoken and quiet guy who made a point without raising his voice an octave." She said that his death was "a loss for the global south; he died needlessly and his death is a blow to us all."
Casey seconded that emotion when he described Georges' death as "pointless, frustrating and totally unnecessary." Gesturing at everyone around the table, he said, "This would never have happened to any of us here: We would all have been foreigners with insurance. Georges died because he was an activist without insurance." Casey provided details about the circumstances of Georges' death, which came about because he suffered kidney failure. Burundi has no dialysis machine and Casey's Heartland Alliance colleagues in the country tried desperately to get him evacuated to Nigeria for treatment. But they were delayed by bureaucratic excusesthe plane was too small, the doctor wouldn't sign the release, and so on.
Casey spoke admiringly of Georges' bravery, which was, he said with a laugh, almost extreme to the point of lunacy, a thought echoed by French. When the bill criminalizing homosexuality passed in Burundi, Georges had the option of applying for asylum in the United States. Yet, he decided to return, even as his friends worried about him being arrested.
Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch and a friend of Georges, also remembered that same moment when the activist could have stayed in the U.S. Speaking by phone, he said, "His case for asylum would have been an open-and-shut one. But he felt such a degree of commitment to the cause and the people he was fighting for; I had to respect his decision." Long emphasized Georges' tremendous accomplishments in a country with a huge amount of political repression and social surveillance, "Georges took these tiny networks of MSMs, lesbians and gays and turned it into a community of activists."
Long said Georges' death was "a reflection of the collapse of the African health system… he died from a minor and manageable disease. He was also a health activist. It's a miserable irony that he died of the same thing he was trying to solve." Long wants people to understand that Georges' death shows that, "We must realize that there are strong, indigenous voices of activists who have accomplished a lot in Africa. Georges' death is an immeasurable loss but he left a story and an example for people not just in Africa but the world."
From elsewhere, the comments flowed in, speaking to a collective sense of loss experienced by the international LGBT community. From Toronto, the activist Akim Adé Larcher wrote in an e-mail, "For me, George was a friend and inspiration. I hope through his death we remember to continue the fight not just about LGBT human rights, but about advocating that governments take responsibility for providing a social net that could have prevented Georges' death." Jawad Hussain Qureshi, South Asia analyst with the Canadian government, wrote from Ottawa: "I will remember him as a visionary and a pioneer for LBGT rights. He gave me hope. He inspired me." The Nigerian activist Olumide Makanjuola wrote a heartfelt note: "It is too soon for a man like Georges to leave us now but I am sure he still lives in our heart and community. Georges, I did not get to see you again but you live in my heart forever."
For those of us left behind, there are still the memories. I remember Georges' kindness, gentleness and quiet strength and I am struck by the love and respect he engendered in others. Georges Azzi remembers a friend who persevered through adversity and poverty, once stranded at the airport in Paris for two hours because he couldn't afford cab fare. But he also remembers those cold days last March as the two of them huddled together during cigarette breaks, Georges wearing a hat with a giant snowman on it, part of the incongruous winter gear he had scrounged up in Burundi. "What brought us together," said Azzi, "were the cigarettes, but then I realized how much he had done with such limited resources." And then, he said, simply, "I miss him."