Lesbians in Cameroon had long been mingling in secrecy but now “corrective” rapists are teaching them ‘a lesson’ right under the nose of authorities.
By Arison Tamfu
*Nadine sat baby-in-lap and had a sad look when she opened up to tell her story.
The day was breaking and the sun rose above a brush of towering trees in the distance in Bertoua, chief town of Cameroon’s East region where she was born and bred. Nadine looked at the baby in her hands, a hale and hearty one-year-old boy who was sucking her thumb forlornly as if he is one with his mother’s turmoil. Mother and son have 23 years between them.
The baby whimpered when she shifted him from the right shoulder to the left, cast an empty gaze to the ground and almost in a whisper, said: “The father of my child raped me”.
Seven years ago, Nadine was in love, a queer-kind-of-love. Growing up, she realized she was the girl who crushed on other girls. She thought she was bewitched. While in a girls’ secondary school, she fell in love for the first time with a girl from her class.
“It was a wonderful experience to be in love with someone and to feel those magical moments and sensations. I had never felt that way for anyone, never,” she said, a shy but beaming smile spread across her face.
But her first love came at the wrong time and wrong place. It was furtive. It was forbidden. Two years later, her traditional, conservative family that didn’t see lesbians and gays as human beings, began suspecting that she was a lesbian. She remained tight-lipped about her sexuality but not for long.
Her uncle soon laid bare her male gender expression and convinced the rest of the family members that she was possessed by a demon. Countless prayer sessions in churches and home and traditional rites could not cast out the “demon” in her. Eventually, her uncle came up with a solution to “correct” or “cure” her homosexuality – so he thought.
He requested the services of a tall, muscular guy who was Nadine’s neighbourhood friend and classmate. His assignment was simple: sleep with her.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the muscular guy asked Nadine to come to his house for a school assignment. While there, he asked her to help sweep his house as he was expecting visitors. She obliged.
“He plunged on me from behind as I started sweeping the floor,” she recollected. She screamed but he cupped her mouth and forced himself into her. That was just one of the several rape cases she endured. She reported to her parents but they all thought she deserved it until the mother noticed the pregnancy months later.
“I gave birth to this child. I do not even know his real father since many of them raped me,” Nadine said inaudibly, making eye contact with the baby.Nadine told me the bittersweet experiences of her love story in front of her mother. The sun continued to shine from a cloudless sky as the wind whistled through trees. Nadine’s mother excused herself and vanished into her mud house. Moments later, she stepped out, reclaimed her seat and took charge of the story.
“When I realized my daughter was a lesbian, I started questioning things. Why her? Why now? Why me? Why, why and why? I was depressed. And then she told me about the rape cases, I did not know whether I should be happy that she had finally ‘tasted’ a man or devastated that she was raped,” said the 55-year-old mother.
“In my culture and Christian belief, lesbianism is a sin, a curse and an abomination…
” she said but she was quickly interrupted by Nadine.
“It is not a sin or abomination Mama, ” Nadine said, raising her voice for the first time since the interview started. “I am a girl who loves girls. I am human, I am your daughter and I believe in God as well. There is nothing wrong with me Mama. You just have to accept me for what I am, for what I want”.
The ensuing silence is palpable. The afternoon breeze carried the sound of insects. Again, Nadine’s mother vanished into the house without a word.
Nadine later told me that, two years ago, she would have been scourged, grounded and at worst expelled from home for opening up about her sexuality.
The following day, I headed to the capital, Yaounde to probe yet another case of suspected rape of a lesbian.
It was a school day at the University of Yaounde I and 23-year-old *Juliet who claimed she was raped two years earlier had skipped classes to nap at home. Dusk was falling.
Juliet turned out to be a confident, eloquent, pretty and bright girl – fair, of medium height and with an infectious smile. As a teenager, Juliet was attracted to women. “I told myself it was a curse and it will pass,” she said.
When it didn’t, she did what African children are trained to do: pray the bad spirits away. At church and at school, she had long been told that falling in love with someone of the same sex was a sin and could also mean that she has been accursed.
So, she started dating men, trying to rewire her brain but nothing worked.
Mired in grief and with no one to talk to, at 19, she had already attempted suicide twice.
One year later at university, she gave up, succumbed to her desires and fell in love for the first time with a girl she met in a club. She was dark and skinny, with kind eyes and a generous soul, Juliet said of her newfound lover.
“I had such a memorable time. My heart finally received something that for many years it had longed for. I found happiness, true happiness,” she said.
She was so excited and decided to open up to her friends about her sexuality and that’s when her nightmare began.
She remembered how in 2020, her distraught mother visited, haste in her leg and worry all over her face. She had noted her eccentric appearance and found out from her ‘friends’ about her sexual orientation.
“My mother said: ‘You’re not my child. I can’t have a child like you, you’re a disgrace to humanity,” Juliet recalled.
She was harassed by her friends and her parents tried to take her to healers to “cure the disease”.
In the end, only one friend stuck by her side. In December 2020, while she and her lover were returning from a Christmas party, they were ambushed and kidnapped at gunpoint and taken somewhere far away. “They were six of them. Three of the men raped me and the three others raped my girlfriend. They said they were helping us and that the rape will help us become normal or straight girls,” Juliet said with a sigh of melancholy and paused to fight back her tears. “We reported to the police and nothing has ever been done”.
Three weeks after the rape incident, on an ordinary day, she walked into the hospital, confident that she would saunter out a few minutes later alive and healthy. After all, she was in good health, apart from minor nuisances; fatigue, nausea and vomiting.
A touch and then blood test conducted. The verdict was shocking.
“I was pregnant,” she said with a chuckle, eyes still puzzled but with a resolute countenance.
Months later, during one of her prenatal sessions, she was tested HIV positive.
“I was unhappy. I hated the world,” said Juliet as she tried to feed her daughter, who is now two years old.
The experiences of Nadine and Juliet have become such a norm in Cameroon that no one sees it as a big deal.
Across the country, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are subjected to ‘corrective rape’ by strangers, their families and criminals who believe that homosexuality is a mental illness that needs to be ‘cured’.
According to Humanity First Cameroon, an LGBTI umbrella organization, one in five lesbians in the country reported that they had been raped.
“The true scale of the problem is much worse as most rape cases go unreported,” said Alice Nkom, a prominent Cameroonian human rights lawyer and LGBTI activist. She stressed that violence against LGBTI individuals has become a real concern.
“Being homosexual in Cameroon means living in terror and violence, permanent violence,” she said.
Section 347 of Cameroon’s Penal Code prohibits sexual relations with a person of the same sex, a crime punishable with up to five years in prison said Victor Njinti, a human rights advocate and stressed that, that does not justify violence against “fellow human beings”.
“And worst, those who rape these girls just go away with their crimes scot-free and move around the neighbourhood like normal people. Strange,” he said.
Inside the mind of Perpetrators
I set out to find the perpetrators of ‘corrective rape’ for a rare glimpse into the prejudice and practice of their hate crimes. It was a simple but dangerous task.
I travelled to Akwa neighbourhood, believed to be a center of illegal narcotics activities in Cameroon’s commercial hub of Douala, to meet *Ndem.
A homeless person and notorious drug user, it was the crack of dawn on an early July morning, so Ndem-was-not-high.
Ndem, 32, sat on a stone on the pavement and strained his bloodshot eyes to look at a woman who was flanked by two men, hurrying to work. “She looks like one of them… the girls who hate boys and sleep with other girls,” he said slightly raising his head in her direction.
A desolate man who said he served three years at remand after he was accused of stabbing someone during a burglary, Ndem emphasized that he has tidied up his life and doesn’t even think about jail or gangsterism anymore.
What he does think about, quite often, is teaching those “little idiots” who sleep with other girls that they are not boys.
“I started in 2018 and I still f*** them today by all means possible,” he said.
He called to mind one particular Friday evening in 2021 when, he claimed, he taught a lesbian “a lesson” that changed her life.
“I was smoking and she approached me and asked if I could share with her. I told her I don’t smoke with girls. ‘I am not a girl and I don’t sleep with men. I like girls’ she said. I was irritated when she said that. That evening, I lured her to a dark side of the town and gave her the f*** of her life. She screamed, cried and tried to escape but I overpowered her. Today, she has a child and a boyfriend. That was not rape, it was help. I helped her to become a girl she was born to be. I am sure, secretly, she is thankful to me for the help,” Ndem said with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Most of his victims have been in their twenties, but in December last year he picked up an 18-year-old in the city. “I have done it to 17 lesbians and will do more if I get the opportunity. I don’t go looking for them but if I come across them, I make it happen,” he said and added that he despises gay men as well and could kill them if “I get a good chance”.
“Our custom and Bible are completely against homosexuality,” he continued. “We will never accept marriage between a woman and a woman or a man and a man. Not here. Never. Not on my watch”. He got off the stone where he was sitting and walked into the street, saying he was craving to drink and smoke but not without warning me first.
“If you try disclosing my identity after this interview, I will find you and hurt you. And even if police know, they won’t do anything. They have never stopped me before. They are Cameroonians like me and know homosexuality is against our laws and customs,” he warned and left.In Yaounde, I met *John, 35, and his friends at a nightspot drunk and getting stoned. It was the dead of night. He jumbled words about how he was an educated and a responsible man but his career as a teacher was in tatters and he was planning to switch to engineering.
In a distance, we sighted two girls cautiously but gently kissing each other in the club.
Furious, John cursed and insulted them.
“This is vanity. That’s why when I have the least opportunity, I forced them to sleep with me,” he said fuming.In 2021, he was overwhelmed by feelings of depression after he found out that his younger sister, who had travelled to America was about to get married to woman.
“It was shocker to our family. Since then, I make sure I f*** mostly lesbians. I force them if they don’t want to. I have done that to over 20 of them now and some were happy and thankful afterwards,” he said.
When I asked how he would feel if the same fate befell his daughter one day, and he heard that she had been sexually assaulted in any way, he said: “That is different. I am giving their parents what they want – a girl who is a girl. I have a different answer if my daughter becomes a lesbian.
”What is the answer? He won’t say but preferred to explain further why he “helps” lesbians.
“Uganda just passed one of the best anti-gay laws, which includes jailing same-sex bitches for life and even killing some. That is what all African countries should be doing right now. Look, there is no place for homosexuality in Africa. It is a Western thing. Girls here do it for money. They are looking for a way to survive but we won’t allow that to happen here,” he continued as his friends nodded in agreement.
Fair share of blame for the government and security forces.
Alice Nkom is adamant that Cameroon’s political leaders must take “a lot of the blame” for instigating a “reign of terror” against LGBTI community in the country. “There is growing violence against them because the tone is set by the state. Any individual thinks that he is superior to a homosexual because he knows the state supports him,” Nkom said.
Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, Cameroon security forces were failing to protect LGBTI people from violent attacks and instead arresting the victims.
In April 2022, a crowd of about eight men armed with machetes, knives, sticks, and wooden planks, attacked and molested a group of at least 10 LGBTI people who were attending a party at a private home in Yaounde.
When two of the victims reported the case to gendarmes on duty, they instead beat and humiliated them, then released them after they paid a bribe.
“They (Gendarmes) called us ‘faggots,’ ‘devils.’ They said: ‘We should kill you because you are monsters and searched our phones looking for any ‘evidence’ that we were gay,” one of the victims told the rights group.
HRW said, it was just one of 32 cases of violence and abuse against LGBTI people across the country in just six months, an increase of 88 percent from the same period in 2021, as recorded by Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, a human rights organization advocating for LGBTI.
“And the violence happens under the nose of security forces, they encourage it,” Njinti said.In 2020, two local human rights NGOs including Alternatives–Cameroun and Advocates for Human Rights reported that the state condones and participates in violence, persecution, and discrimination against LGBT persons.
When it comes to gender identity, the Cameroonian government does not mince words.
“The position of the Cameroonian government on the definitions of gender, sexual orientation and identity in Cameroon is clear and devoid of any debate. It is not possible to talk about LGBT+ people in Cameroon,” said the country’s Minister of Territorial Administration, Paul Atanga Nji.
Nji made the statement in June 2023, after the government banned a planned conference debate on homosexuality rights in Yaounde, by French Ambassador for the Rights of LGBT+ Persons, Jean-Marc Berthon.
“Ambassador Jean-Marc Berthon can stay in Cameroon at any time, (but) it is not possible to grant him any authorization in the context of the purpose which motivated his trip”, Nji added.Four months after, on September 22, 2023, state-run media regulatory body, the National Communication Council (NCC) ordered the suspension of French channel, Canal Plus Elles from broadcasting in Cameroon.NCC boss, Joseph Chebongkeng Kalabubsu said, the channel was guilty of airing programmes which convey “obscene practices with homosexual tendencies…practices contrary to our laws, as well as to our morals and customs”.
“Such attitude by people we expect to defend and protect us actually make our suffering worse,” said Nadine referring to government officials and security forces. “I believe that there are lesbians and gays in the government and security forces. They don’t want to face the reality. They are afraid of opening up and losing votes and the people.
”The United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled that the criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct between adults violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Cameroon is a state party.
“So it is incumbent on the government to protect the homosexuality community. In Cameroon, international agreements and laws override national laws,” added Njinti who claimed that he regularly receives death threats for defending gays and lesbians.
Moving OnTo survive, lesbians in Cameroon now use coded language to communicate, operate in secrecy and frequently changing the public places where they gather.
But Juliet said that such safety measures cannot guarantee safety, underlining how 20-year-old Kenfack Tobi Aubin Parfait was beaten to death in 2018 by his older brother who suspected that he was gay.
“It is a veritable war against us but we will keep on fighting. Our freedom is in our hands and it is not going to be given to us on platter of gold,” Juliet said.
“The fight continues though we are discriminated as girls and then as lesbians,” said Nadine whose girlfriend eventually sought asylum in France for fear of persecution. “One day, we will live here openly, happily and freely”.
Until then, “who is next?” is the question every lesbian and gay in Cameroon keeps asking, too afraid to imagine their chances of survival if attacked, yet too conscious that the possibility is just around the corner.
*Names changed at the request of interviewees for safety rreason.