I was particularly impressed by Mjomba’s humble and discreet demeanor when we both took a University course at Muhimbili in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in late 2010. He sat behind me and was the meekest of the class of gays, human rights activists, health practitioners and one or two (straight) students who made their homophobia known at the last day. They too, like Mjomba were Tanzanian.
The next time I met Mjomba was at a convening of LGBT activists and donors in Nairobi. He looked vibrant and that bit of shyness I saw in Dar es Salaam had disappeared. He seemed at ease talking to people and when giving a presentation of LGBT persons in Tanzania. He mingled freely and smiled a lot.
Yet, despite his cruel death and untold contribution to the nascent and fearful Tanzanian LGBT community, I am worried that, compared to Kato, his memory has faded away. There will be no international outpouring, calls for investigations or mourning or even an award.
We, as LGBT activists and defenders and the larger inter-national queer movement has failed Mjomba by not ‘making enough noise’ about his death. Yes, perhaps, there was no Anti-Gay legislation in Parliament waiting to spell death penalties or perhaps there were no random raids and police crackdowns in Tanzania, but deep down, Maurice identified as gay (to his close friends and partner) and advocated, in his (culturally) humble way, to advancing the rights and well being of LGBT persons.
Courage is not measured by standing in front of a marching band of enemies. Its measured by that internal push brought about by much thought of the consequences of one’s action – as it were, jumping in the deep when one has to jump. The step to the unknown is but a product of that. Maurice needed not to announce to the whole world he was gay for him to be known he was. He lived a quiet life; permeated by his work with injecting drug users and responsibilities in the gay group he helped form. His human rights work at the Center for the Promotion of Human Rights was admirable.
One of Kato’s endearing legacies is the Vision and Voice Award, that recognizes those working to eliminate violence, stigma and discrimination and demonstrate courage and outstanding leadership in advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people around the world.
Tanzania has been a ‘quiet’ country when it comes to LGBT. Rare are stories coming from this country of the abuses and violations that LGBT persons face – not because they do not happen but perhaps, there has been no one to shine the lens on them. The community, just now, is ‘coming out’ of the closet, albeit painfully slow and fearful. Yet, it is coming out.
What has pained me to the core is that not one single LGBTI or human rights or AIDS or drug user group, in Africa or the world, has come out to either offer condolences or condemn or call for investigations. Was it because Mjomba was not a ‘usual suspect?’
The blatant disregard to the death of Mjomba – circumstances notwithstanding – is tatamount to betrayal. We were quick to rush to Kato even before details later emerged he may have been killed for other reasons, not because he was gay. One critic even said that it would have been justified for Kato to have been killed for love than he was for being gay.
Mjomba’s death, sad as it was, existentially, may be what is needed for the world (and particularly LGBT activists and organizations) to point our gaze to this country. Time has come for us to stop ignoring what is happening in Tanzania. If history is anything to go by, we may see more of such murders being reported.
Award coordinator Daniel McCartney said that the Kato award is meant to ‘recognize those people that are not recognized in other areas and helping them to raise their platforms to speak outside their own country and show the struggle that LGBTI people are faced with in their environment.’
David Kato was well known, prominently out and well traveled. Mjomba was not. He did not need to. Both – one, out, the other, diminutive – worked for the same cause. The little Mjomba did and the little Kato did all add up to make a big change.
One way we can honor Mjomba and Kato is to stop, look again at their lives – the striking similarities and stark differences – these two had be, it their activism, life or death.
And when we do that, you will agree with me that the best way to honor Mjomba is award him this year’s David Kato Vision and Voice Award in recognition of his work and for highlighting Tanzania’s LGBT community.
There can be no better, appropriate, worthy and fitting recipient this year than Maurice Mjomba. Kato, I am sure, would agree.