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FEATURE

Swazi gays get first same-sex club in kingdom

How many gays are there in Swaziland?


James Hall | April 07, 2005

MBABANE — At least 11, judging by the first anonymous men who signed up to join the kingdom's first same-sex adult club .

Said an Mbabane attorney: "If it's true that 11 guys want to be members, that breaks down to one undercover cop and 10 of the most naive men on the African continent." Like most people contacted to speak on gay issues in this small conservative country, he insisted on anonymity.

The attorney sees the club engendering "limitless" opportunities for blackmail, financial and political. He plans to visit the club when it opens and hand out his business cards to potential clients.

"The British colonial law against sodomy is still on the books. It's inviolate. The traditional leaders who run the country despise homosexuality. They are Mugabesque in that way," he said .

King Mswati, speaking at a national prayer meeting on the one occasion when he mentioned same- sex relations, said gay people were possessed of Satanic notions, and out of charity the nation should pray for them.

Deputy Prime Minister Albert Shabangu last month told Swazis they should prepare for the "inevitability" of same-sex marriages.

In announcing the establishment of the gay bar, Pholile Hlatjwako, an Mbabane entrepreneur, said it would call itself the Laughing Club.

Hlatjwako, a self-described straight man, plans to laugh all the way to the bank. The club members who will populate his bar will come predominantly from the nation's most affluent stratum, he said.

"The kind of people who we have signed up so far are not the average Swazis. Most of these people are well off," he said.

Government officials and company heads are expected to visit the club with their privacy guaranteed by management.

The attorney scoffed at the notion saying: "Unless they use a secret tunnel or one of those Star Trek transporter beams, the patrons will be spotted entering and leaving the building. You can bet that our incomparable Mbabane street toughs will be loitering outside, hurling their insults."

The police may also be an uninvited presence. A source at the Royal Swaziland Police Force said a raid might be carried out at any time at the behest of outraged traditional leaders.

The nation's foremost traditional leader, Jim Gama, the governor of the royal village of Ludzidzini, 20km east of Mbabane, was apoplectic when alerted by the Swazi media about the imminence of the gay bar.

"If this is happening then one is made to think of Gomorrah and Sodom!" he thundered. Gama wears two influential hats , with his most popular being the long-reigning top radio personality of a conservative talkshow.

His role as governor of Ludzidzini also makes him the indvunankhulu yeSive or traditional prime minister of the nation.

Speaking about the gay bar, Gama said: "This is done by evil people. This is something that not even the Bible allows and our culture does not allow. This is not acceptable even by nature."

One gay Swazi man, code name Emerald, responded: "The charge that being gay is against nature is ridiculous. If it's unnatural, no one would do it, like making love to a ghost. If you want to see male dogs doing it with each other, or male pigs, go to any farm."

Emerald is one of the new breed of urban Swazi gays who has left the barnyard behind him and looks forward to patronising the Laughing Club.

"I am the way I am and if you control my sex drive you make me a slave to you. It's that simple. Straight people need to be educated," said the dark-skinned, quietly- spoken man of 27, whose incipient pot belly contradicts the stereotype of the gay man with the gym-toned physique.

He pulls a paper out of his wallet, and holds it up, saying: "I carry this with me. Sometimes I read it. It's from Nelson Mandela. He said: 'There was a time when I reacted with revulsion against the whole system of being gay. I am ashamed of my initial views, coming from a society which did not know this type of thing. I understand their position and I think they are entitled to carry on with what pleases them.' "

The announcement of a gay club in Mbabane was treated as an alien onslaught in the local press.

"Gays invasion!" said one headline.

Subsequent reports seemed to conclude that if there was one common denominator among gay Swazis, it was that they were married men and women.

One example is Emerald's friend and sometime lover, code name Ruby, a diminutive man of 25 with a large head, wide smile and a penchant for malachite necklaces, bracelets and rings.

"There is too much pressure from the family to remain unmarried and giving them kids isn't enough. A real Swazi man has to sire sons," Ruby said.

After agonising whether to give in to his family and take a wife, going to the extent of even assembling a small herd of cattle to use as a bridal dowry, Ruby's dilemma was solved by Swazi custom.

"As long as I was still collecting cattle, my family was satisfied I was on my way to the altar. I had no idea who I'd marry, then my brother died of Aids so I inherited his wife and kids," said Ruby.

By the Swazi custom of kuteka, the new widow was incorporated into the household of her husband's brother.

Homosexuality may not be legal in Swaziland, but polygamy is.

"She came to live with me with her two children. Now I am a married man with kids. My family loves me for accepting my responsibility as a Swazi man.

"I told my wife: 'I know you don't love me, so if you find a man on the outside and have an affair, I cannot blame you, but we must keep up appearances at home to honour custom.' "

She agreed.

Both men said they had hooked up with gays from other countries visiting Swaziland on "gay safaris".

Local tour operators have discreetly tapped into the lucrative world gay tourism market and offer holiday packages to game parks.

"We saw two male rhinos have sex together and that was rich," said Emerald.

"These white gays told us we have rights. We are protected by human rights accords.

Swaziland signed these accords. Government is legally obliged to protect us. The sodomy law is illegal," he said.

As for the Aids issue, both men said Swazi gays were very careful to practise safe sex. – Behind The Mask


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