Getting them talking
Daniel Somerville | August 11, 2003
There has been a buzz word in Maputo for the last few weeks - "Manas". It means sisters, but implies an especially close, special bond. It is the name of an exhibition of photographs by Ditte Haarlov-Johnson, which is on at a gallery on Av. Julius Nyerere, an exhibition of photographs of some of Maputo's gay men - they are the Manas. The gallery is prominently placed in the centre of town with an open glass front and the entrance is free, throughout the day and into the evening a constant stream of people file through seeing the photographs and reading about this formerly hidden facet of society. There is a positive quotation from Nelson Mandela (translated into Portuguese) on the wall at the beginning of the exhibition, a comment from Ditte about her involvement with the sisters and some background on the project - there is also a testimonial from one of the participants, which had previously been printed in the sporadically published Mozambican gay magazine, Cores do Amor (Colours of Love) and a comment from an anthropologist talking about the merits of exposure.
What is remarkable about the exhibition is the courage and dedication it has taken to get it from idea to reality on the part of the photographer, but especially on the part of the subjects, themselves. The public in Maputo, hungry for cultural activity, are lapping up this exhibition, discussion on street corners and in the newspapers has been generally positive, if sometimes uninformed. In the guest book at the exhibition, of the hundreds of entries, only a handful, are negative. In a city where, as I was told on more than one occasion, there is an atmosphere of bi-sexuality among the entire population, this open and honest display of homosexual identity seems to have been received well and is a good first step towards the start of something - the start of a community with bars, a magazine, and an organisation, perhaps?
I met Ditte at the exhibition and we spoke a little about her works. "I chose to photograph in colour," she explained. "Because it is more immediate and real. The black and white photo-journalist style has ruled for so long in Mozambique - but that style can be alienating, it actually takes you away from the subject and becomes more about the image, the composition, the beauty of the photograph itself rather than being an encounter with the subject."
Although Ditte's photographs do not, as she says in her introduction to the exhibition, offer any conclusions about the Manas, they certainly do bring the viewer up close and personal with the men portrayed. The photographs are presented unframed - it is honest and sometimes brutal. There are some photographs which are clearly staged, where composition is important to the outcome, but there are others which capture the moment, seem more spontaneous and give insight into the lives of the subjects and how they relate to the rest of society. In all, one is left with a clear impression of a community of men, living openly, with courage and conviction - hoping with this public display to draw attention and ultimately acceptance from society.
The night before my visit to the gallery I had been out on the town with Luis, the initiator of Cores do Amor and something of a father figure for the gay community in Maputo. He has always been openly gay throughout Mozambique's chequered history. He runs a business and has been headmaster of three schools - an achievement of which he is justly proud considering the opposition he could have faced for his sexual orientation. He explained that one doesn't find gay bars in Maputo but there are several fashionable nightspots frequented by the arty-intellectual crowd (Ditte among them) and by gay people - there is also the bi-sexual factor to consider. Luis is in the process of having the Mozambican Homosexual Organisation registered with the government, a process he expects to take several months. The idea of the organisation, which is largely funded by private funds from within the community, is to create a lobbying and advocacy body to represent the community. He told me that in current law there is neither something for nor against homosexuality but that society generally is uninformed and ignorant of gay issues. He has, in the past, tried to open a gay bar but it had to close due to lack of attendance - he explains that many people are afraid to come out and be open. He encountered a similar response to the magazine, which he only publishes when there are funds available and which has encountered problems with the printers and publishers because of the nature of the content. Currently, occasional parties that bring together the community and a network of cell phone calls to let individuals know where the "crowd" is on a given night is the only evidence of a gay community.
If there is nothing in law that prohibits homosexuality and society and media are generally OK with gay people, the exhibition and the idea of a community, then what is the root of the fear and what are the barriers to be overcome? My answers came when I met with three of the manas at a barracas (shebeen or informal bar - in fact in Mozambique these establishments are licensed) on a street corner in suburban Maputo. Marsela and Dario both work in barracas and their corners have become the popular spots with the other gay men - Marcela worked at the one where we were gathered and Dario at another in a district outside of Maputo. Sicander drives a minibus taxi and has a cell phone, so is an important component of communication among the friends. The straight man who owns the barracas at which we gathered offered us plastic chairs and a crate to use as a table as we settled down to our beer and discussion - Ditte and another friend of the sisters, Luiza, joined us. During the animated discussion about gay issues and about why there is no community infrastructure several other, presumably straight, men joined as they came for their evening drinks. Here was clear evidence, if any where needed, that the fear is not about society or their communities - in fact the straight owner made several positive contributions to the conversation suggesting the formation of a group and activities attached to Aids day in December.
The atmosphere of emotion and a release of tension grew throughout the evening - Marsela even began to shed some tears at the thought of a community, and of freedom. Ditte explained that she had no idea, when she began her project, how it would affect the community; no idea of the significance of the exhibition to the people involved. Now however, the manas have taken over the driving seat - they crave media attention, have spoken to the newspapers and on radio and are seeking a TV interview in order to bring their issues to the public's attention - here is a group, already operating in an awareness building capacity, already mobilised around their issues and already strategising for the future with clear goals. They explained however, that none of them feel able to lead such a movement and none of them are economically placed to do so either. Aware of Luis' plans for an organisation there is some hope on the horizon but there is also some reticence about his paternal role.
I asked what, if anything, is their dream for the future and the answers were simple but focused - they want people to know about them and they want an organisation to turn to when they are being victimised. And in this lay the answer to my question about the root of the fear. Two of the men had been arrested and imprisoned for several months each on charges for petty crimes, which were unfounded. The police can simply take you out if they don't like the look of you - was their explanation. Another friend of theirs had had to sell his cooker in order to pay the bribe to be released after a similar incident. Our own experience of being stopped for speeding and asked for a bribe on a road so potholed that we could not have possibly been speeding informed us that accusations of corruption in the police are most probably true. They are, it seems, an agent unto themselves - not acting on the State's instructions necessarily, nor guided by the attitudes of society, but acting in order to extort and victimise gay people and create that sense of fear which hangs in the air. If someone did have the economic ability to open a gay bar or begin an organisation - what would the police do?
The truth is, something has begun - the exhibition it can be argued, may be a symptom rather than a cause, but it is certainly the current focus of the community. Gradually the manas are coming out into the open and with their mere presence they hope to gain some freedom from police corruption and oppression and acceptance from society generally. They are already the organisation they hope to build and they are already operating as a community - communication is the key to that, they already move with one heart and one goal. Once the exhibition finishes the test of the current surge in feeling and in activism will begin. Will the organisation be successfully registered? Will the group continue to capitalise on the ripple effects of the exhibition? What will be the next step? These are interesting times in Maputo, reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's famous comment: "The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about."
Behind The Mask
A peek into the Ghanaian closet
Malawi: Churches condemn condoms in prisons
Kenya: lesbians fight invisibility