Tanzania: One transgender woman’s pain amid fears of arrest

When news broke that the regional commissioner for Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, was setting up a task force to hunt down and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, Melody*, a gay transgender woman, immediately felt its brunt.

Meeting her for the first time a few days later in Nairobi, I could see she was anxious and guarded. She sat up straight, her phone on her purse in front of her.

She had just fled Tanzania for fear of being arrested after someone had outed her as “gay” and shared her photo on Instagram, along with those of five men suspected of being gay. Many Tanzanians treat LGBTI people as one, conflating a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation as the same.

As soon as Melody saw the post, she knew it was time to hide. She knew she was no longer safe. She ran to a friend’s house, where she wore a hoodie to hide her appearance and went to the home of a human rights defender who actively advocates for LGBTI people and sex workers.

Remaining in her beloved city was not an option

As Melody told me about her experience, she also explained the difficult situations that LGBTI people and sex workers in Tanzania are in. She said: “People are living in fear, you cannot trust anyone.” She explained that all those who were able, immediately fled Dar es Salaam for remote areas or moved to other neighbourhoods in the city. Only those completely unable to leave have stayed behind, locked in their homes.

For Melody, remaining in her beloved city was not an option, as her face was circulating on social media. In fact, once the regional commissioner had created his task force, the police immediately started patrolling Sinza, Kinondoni, and Masaki neighbourhoods, which are thought to be communities with LGBTI people.

“I want to kill myself.”

Melody also told me that LGBTI people are subjected to a lot of hateful language online. She said: “In Tanzania, we are never called by our names. I am never called Melody, I am called shoga, ssenge, malaya (homo, pervert, whore) and other insults.”

“People online don’t really care, to live in Dar es Salaam is to live the way people expect you to live. If people don’t understand you, then you are subjected to it [the hate] and immediately labelled LGBTI. I am now used to the insults. You must have a thick skin to live your life.”

At this point Melody broke down and cried saying, “I wanted to kill myself, I have thought about it many times.” She went on to say that nobody was there for her, except the human rights defender who helped her.

Melody was ready to flee. She took a taxi to go to her sister’s house to collect her passport and ID, all the while receiving calls from her friends about her photo being shared on social media. The driver, on overhearing her conversation asked her, “where have I seen you before?” She did not respond but asked him to wait while she popped into the house and back. But as she made her way back to the taxi, she saw people surrounding it and speaking to the driver, so she took off through a side exit and sped off in another taxi. She later learnt that the driver had called the police on her and that they had come to arrest her.

“No-one wants to be arrested and taken to prison.”

As she narrated her experience, I could see disappointment on her face that things have come to this.

“No one wants to be arrested and taken to prison. Which part [of the prison] will they put me in if I am arrested? I would rather commit suicide than be arrested. The things that happen in there are unspeakable,” she said.

Melody has one message for the Tanzanian government— “They should concentrate on more important things in society, such as development, and not people being gay and trying to live their lives.”  

On 4 November, the Tanzanian government issued a statement through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs denouncing Paul Makonda’s remarks and committing to uphold human rights, as enshrined in its own constitution and international law. However, it was soon known that 10 men had been arrested a day earlier in Zanzibar on suspicion of being gay – showing that the crackdown against the LGBTI community had not really been called off – and that Melody and many others like her remain at risk of arrest and detention.

* not her real name