Birthday wishes: world peace and all that crap

Yay, 42nd birthday coming up soon. The day means more for my kids than it does for me, primarily because they hide my gifts around the house and write clues to help me find them. I don’t really want anything, but I will probably get a bookstore gift card and some beer. Perhaps a Star Trek novelty toy. I don’t wish for things anymore, at least not like I used to when I was younger. Back then:
  • By the ages of four, five, and probably six, I wished that my father would come back to life, but deep down I sort of knew that wasn’t going to happen.
  • By 10 or so I wished for an X-Wing fighter, I got it and it’s still somewhere in the basement. But I don’t play with it anymore (please, I’m a Star Trek fan).
  • By 16 or so I wished for a role in a Star Trek movie. Hasn’t happened yet but I’m enthused by my chances thanks to the reboot. Also wished for innumerable chance encounters with plenty of girls I had crushes on. As best I recall, nothing panned out, but I don’t really care about that now.
  •  By 20 I wished I’d never opted to study applied mathematics and physics in university. Anyone sane would wish for that too.
  • By 24 I wished for Kraft Dinner, a Dunkin Donuts doughnut, and a Molson Dry. Those were days when I lived in Africa and my food and drink options were quite limited.
  •  I used to wish for world peace.

Ha! World peace. As if. Nowadays let me be more practical:

  1.  I wish for the immediate release of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, human rights defender who was arrested, beaten, jailed, and sentenced to life in Bahrain for defending the rights of others. Plenty of other innocent people are being held in prisons in Bahrain and also deserve to be released. Abdulhadi has been on a hunger strike now for over forty days.
  2. I wish the Syrian government would stop the bloodshed. One life lost is one too many. Ten thousand deaths in one year are unfathomable.
  3. I wish the Canadian government would do a better job of fulfilling its human rights obligations to the poorest of our nation, including the First Nations.
  4.  I wish the Canadian government and other rich nations would do their part and commit to the 0.7% pledge, whereby this small percentage of a state’s gross national income goes towards overseas development assistance. Canada’s percentage is hovering around 0.33%.
  5.  I wish that local non-governmental organizations working to protect the rights of others get the support they need to continue their work. This applies just as much in Canada as it does for small NGOs helping in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts of former child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere. These organizations are doing great work without all the fanfare.
  6.  I wish that all the nasty guys on the International Criminal Court’s list are caught and put on trial the way Thomas Lubanga was.
  7.  I wish governments, businesses, and average folks in a position question human rights abuses and violations do so more adamantly than ever before. I wish they could realize that there are solutions to nearly 10 million children under the age of five dying yearly from preventable diseases, there are ways to prevent the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who die yearly from pregnancy-related complications, and there should be more public outrage against millions of people dying in conflicts around the world.
  8.  I wish some people would stop arguing about rights that aren’t worth arguing about, like gay rights. They’re just rights, please accept them and do your best to “get it.” There is no ambiguity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.” Please find something better to do – plant some flowers or go ride a bike, but stop getting riled up over nothing.
  9. I wish people would stop thinking that poverty, disease, and climate change aren’t “their problems” – they’re everyone’s problems, and they will be our children’s problems too. Only they’re bound to get worse by the time our kids are as old as us.
  10. I wish people would care more and hate less.

Oh boy. I might wish for a beer while I’m at it. Make your life better, make someone else’s life better.

Talking about our values: now that ain’t easy

This blog entry was initially posted Friday, May 28. Since then, I was informed that the President of Malawi has since pardoned the couple. Great news to be sure, but it doesn’t mean the discussion ends now….

Original post:
A friend of mine posted a message on a closed online community in response to my post on the Malawian gay couple being sentenced to 14 years in prison for “indecent practices between males.” The penultimate line of his post was “Let us all examine our individual and collective values.” And there’s the hardest thing about being a human rights defender/activist/educator: being able to create spaces where we can openly and safely dialogue about these values.

Other human rights stuff pales in comparison: you can educate people on existing laws, constitutions, international human rights standards and mechanisms, jurisprudence, legislations, you name it. But to get to the heart of the matter, you’ve got to push people to safely voice their values, and at times those values contradict with value sets of others. Sexual orientation is a contentious issue because, and let’s be frank here, anything other than heterosexual – namely, LGBT – can rub plenty of us heterosexuals the wrong way. Growing up in suburban, mostly white Anglo-Saxon Montreal, seeing a gay couple was unheard of in the 1970s. Homosexuals were gay, or derisively labelled “fags” or “faggots,” with a typical motion of the broken wrist to emphasize their gayness. As a child, I was ignorant, and ignorance has a tendency to manifest itself as cruelty.

Sometimes, mind you, ignorance manifests itself as just plain ignorance. About 6 years ago in Senegal, while facilitating a workshop, the topic of homosexuals came up and one participant raised his hand and pondered aloud: “Perhaps some men become homosexuals because they are constantly rejected by women.” Oh come on, if that were the case, I would have become gay several times over in my twenties. Instead I suggested that we discuss the topic further over lunch.

More recently, a friend and human rights educator wrote to me and indicated that we should not be discussing issues related to homosexuality because it is against the will of God. Go see Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” Gays don’t fare much better in the Quran. I’d like to think that we are in an age where we can critically reflect on passages in any religious texts and interpret them through a contemporary lens and not restrict ourselves to a limited interpretation of scripture.  

A way forward must be to discuss our individual and collective values openly in a spirit of kindness, willingness to tolerate-accept-embrace, and ultimately respect each other. Vitriolic speech for either an anti-gay or pro-gay stance has no place in this type of dialogue. The blogosphere and online comments on related stories are abundant with viewpoints from opposite ends of the spectrum. We have to express our concerns, our fears, and our hopes. But those in authority, like the judge who sentenced the couple in Malawi to 14 years in prison, should not be in a position to impose such unreasonable sentences and utter blatantly discriminatory comments justifying the prison term to protect the public from “people like you.” His sentence was a judgement based either in fear, ignorance, political pressure, or all of the above. Whatever the justification, let this case be a catalyst to encourage people to be honest and open about their values, willing to listen to others whose views may differ from theirs, and ultimately become vulnerable – and strong enough – to admit that their values can and should change over time.


Oh Malawi, what have you done?

The sentencing in Malawi of two gay men to 14 years in prison because they professed their love for each other is wrong. Just plain wrong. You can call it morally wrong, or an affront to their human dignity, or a violation of their rights, but whichever way you look at it, it a clear instance of blatant discrimination. And the legal justification, arresting them under the penal code, is in direct contradiction with the constitution.

The couple was arrested for “unnatural offences” and “indecent practices between males” from Sections 153 and 156 of the Malawi Penal Code. This is not compatible with the constitutional protection against discrimination of persons “in any form” and its guarantee of “equal and effective protection against discrimination.” Not only that, discrimination is clearly prohibited in the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights. At a time when the Chair of the African Union is a Malawian, you’d think they’d be more careful about these things, no?

What enrages me about the ludicrousness of this act is not only the unjust detainment of these civilians, nor the denial of bail, nor the preposterously excessive jail sentence, but that such a shameful act by a government takes place in a country I proudly called my home for two years of my life. Back in 1993 when I arrived in Zomba, where one of the men is currently being held in a prison, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of every Malawian I met. These people had lived under the oppression of colonial rule when the country was known as Nyasaland until 1964, then under a popular but eventually power-hungry and nuttier-than-a-granola bar self-proclaimed President for Life, His Excellency Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The early nineties brought along a new wave of hope as Banda finally left politics and the door opened up for multi-party democracy at the same time as South Africa. You could sense that a positive change way coming.

Back then, we simply did not talk about gays. But I had heard that homosexuals who were “caught” were arrested and put in jail for years. Openly talking about homosexuality was a challenge back then. Anything related to sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS or other STDs was taboo. It was only by the end of my stay in 1995 that the use of condoms was gaining gradual (very gradual) acceptance thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign for Chishango condoms. But as for gays, not a peep. It was impossible to bring up the subject in any conversation. (Certainly not in the staffroom. It didn’t help that I taught at a school run by nuns.)

That was fifteen years ago. Thanks to courageous human rights advocates fighting for LGBT rights around the world, “all human rights for all” is actually starting to mean something. It is a struggle that is not without tremendous obstacles; recent clashes prompted by Islamic conservative groups in Indonesia have fueled the debate in that country, along with the police’s reluctance to either get involved or at a minimum protect the lives of the advocates. But I would have hoped to see a better outcome in Malawi. I want to have hope for a country like Malawi. They have not been run by a tyrant like Mugabe who said that homosexuals are “worse than pigs and dogs” and “a scourge planted by the white man on a pure continent.” (Time to retire, don’t you think, Mr. Mugabe?)

I want to believe that Malawi is different. I want to believe that, despite deep entrenchment of values rooted in predominantly Christian and Muslim faiths, there is room in the hearts of Malawians to understand that everyone has the right to equality and non-discrimination. For a people who have suffered so long, and continue to suffer, I cannot believe that they can allow a human rights violation like this to go on without taking action. They were silent under Banda’s regime, but that time is long gone. Malawi was labelled “The Warm Heart of Africa” and I want this to remain true. There is opposition and outrage at this sentencing as there should be, but until Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga and free to express their love for each other and lives their lives free of discrimination, we should not rest. We need to be vocal, we need to articulate that their rights are being violated, we need to urge the government of Malawi to release them and to revise its penal code, we need to speak up. Let’s not leave the advocacy to Madonna or content ourselves with the political pressure of other governments and organizations who may withdraw aid to the country. I want to believe in the Malawi I cherish so deeply in my heart.

Photo: from The Guardian