Even death cannot stop the violence against gays in this corner of the world.
Madieye Diallo’s body had been in the ground for only a few hours when the mob descended with shovels on the weedy cemetery in Senegal. They yanked out the corpse, spit on its torso, dragged it away and dumped it in front of the home of Diallo’s elderly parents.
The scene of May 2, 2009, was filmed on a cell phone and the video sold at the market. It passed from phone to phone, sowing panic among gay men who say they now feel like hunted animals.
“I locked myself inside my room and didn’t come out for days,” says a 31-year-old gay friend of Diallo’s, who is living with HIV. “I’m afraid of what will happen to me after I die. Will my parents be able to bury me?”
A wave of intense homophobia is washing across Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries.
In the last year alone, gay men have been arrested in Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that would sentence gays to life in prison and include capital punishment for “repeat offenders.” And in South Africa, gangs have carried out so-called “corrective” rapes on lesbians.
“Across many parts of Africa, we’ve seen a rise in homophobic violence,” says London-based gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell, whose organization tracks abuse against gays and lesbians in Africa. “It’s been steadily building for the last 10 years but has got markedly worse in the last year.”
To the long list of abuse meted out to suspected homosexuals in Africa, Senegal has added a new form of degradation – the desecration of their dead bodies.
In the past two years, at least four men rumored to be gay have been exhumed by angry mobs in cemeteries in Senegal. The violence is especially shocking because Senegal, unlike other countries in the region, is considered a model of tolerance.
“It’s jarring to see this happen in Senegal,” says Ryan Thoreson, a fellow at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission who has been researching the rise of homophobia here. “When something like this happens in an established democracy, it’s alarming.”
Even though homosexuality is illegal in Senegal, colonial documents indicate the country has long had a clandestine gay community. In many towns, they were tacitly accepted, says Cheikh Ibrahima Niang, a professor of social anthropology at Senegal’s largest university. In fact, the visibility of gays in Senegal may have helped to prompt the backlash.
The backlash dates from at least February 2008, when a Senegalese tabloid published photographs of a clandestine gay wedding in a suburb of Dakar, the capital. The wedding was held inside a rented banquet hall and was attended by dozens of gay men, some of whom snapped pictures that included the gay couple exchanging rings and sharing slices of cake.
The day after the tabloid published the photographs, police began rounding up men suspected of being homosexual. Some were beaten in captivity and forced to turn over the names of other gay men, according to research by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Gays immediately went into hiding and those who could fled to neighboring countries, including Gambia to the south, according to the New York-based commission. Gambia’s erratic president declared that gays who had entered his country had 24 hours to leave or face decapitation. Many returned to Senegal, where they lived on the run, moving from safehouse to safehouse.
In March 2008, Senegal hosted an international summit of Muslim nations, which prompted a nationwide crackdown on behaviors deemed un-Islamic, including homosexuality.
The crackdown also coincided with spiraling food prices. Niang says leaders saw an easy way to reach constituents through the inflammatory topic of homosexuality.
“They found a way to explain the difficulties people are facing as a deviation from religious life,” says Niang. “So if people are poor, it’s because there are prostitutes in the street. If they don’t have enough to eat, it’s because there are homosexuals.”
Imams began using Friday sermons to preach against homosexuality.
“During the time of the Prophet, anytime two men were found together, they were taken to the top of a mountain and thrown off,” says Massamba Diop, the imam of a mosque in Pikine and the head of Jamra, an Islamic lobby linked to a political party in Senegal’s parliament.
“If they didn’t die when they hit the ground, then rocks would be thrown on them until they were killed,” says Diop, whose mosque is so packed during Friday prayers that people bring their own carpets and line up outside on the asphalt.
Sermons like Diop’s were carried on the mosque’s loudspeakers as well as in Senegal’s more than 30 newspapers and magazines.
Around this time, in May 2008, a middle-aged man called Serigne Mbaye fell ill and died in a suburb of Dakar.
His children tried to bury him in his village but were turned back from the cemetery because of widespread rumors that he was gay. His sons drove his body around trying to find a cemetery that would accept him. They were finally forced to bury him on the side of a road, using their own hands to dig a hole, according to media reports.
The grave was too shallow and the wind blew away the dirt. When the decomposing body was later discovered, Mbaye’s children were arrested and charged with improperly burying their father.
In the town of Kaolack three months later, residents exhumed the grave of another man believed to be gay. In November 2008, residents in Pikine removed a corpse from a mosque of another suspected homosexual and left it on the side of the road.
The grave-robbing has shocked even hardened gay activists, such as Nigerian Davis Mac-Iyalla.
“People have done horrible things (in Nigeria). I have seen people spit on coffins and people spit on graves,” he said. “But it stopped there.”
Among the people who appeared in the photograph published from the gay wedding was a young man in his 30s from Thies. He was an activist and a leader of a gay organization called And Ligay, meaning ‘Working together,’ which he ran out of his parents’ house.
He was HIV-positive and on medication.
When the tabloid published the photograph, Diallo went into hiding, according to a close friend who asked not to be identified because he too is gay. Unable to go to the doctor, Diallo stopped taking his anti-retrovirals. By the spring of 2009, he was so ill that his family checked him into a Catholic hospital in downtown Thies, says the friend.
He was in a coma when he died at 5:50 a.m. on May 2, 2009, according to the hospital’s records.