“Every gay person is living in fear” in Tanzania as officials ask the public to help with arrests

Gay Tanzanians are living in fear after Paul Makonda, regional commissioner for Dar es Salaam, asked the public on October 29 to name gay individuals — as well as anyone suspected of being gay. “Give me their names,” he demanded, per Agence France-Presse. “My ad hoc team will begin to get their hands on them next Monday.”

The following day, he claimed to have already received more than 5,700 messages with more than 100 names, according to The Guardian. Meanwhile, a planned 17-member committee will seek to identify gay individuals on social media and arrest them.

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“Every gay person is living in fear,” Geofrey Mashala, a Tanzanian LGBT activist now living in California, tells The Guardian. “Even the parents of gay children are also living in great fear.”

Through laws dating from the British colonial era, sex between Tanzanian is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The Tanzanian government has been cracking down on homosexuality since 2015, when John Magufuli was elected president. In 2017, Magufuli said that “even cows disapprove of” homosexual practices.

Another Tanzanian LGBT activist, who wished to reman anonymous, tells The Guardian police in the country encourage the sexual assault of jailed gay men. “They take you to custody and tell other men: ‘This one is gay, you can do anal sex with them because he enjoys it in the streets,” he says, adding that he himself was arrested last year. “Luckily, I didn’t get raped, but some of my friends did. I remember staying for two days without eating, and not even drinking anything.”

Erin Kilbride, media and visibility coordinator for the human rights group Front Line Defenders, interviewed 80 LGBT people and sex workers over the summer and says that all but two of those 80 individuals reported being sexually assaulted or raped by police while in custody.

Additionally, Hamisi Kigwangalla, the country’s deputy health minister, confirmed to BuzzFeed News in 2017 that the country uses anal exams to try to prove homosexuality.

But homophobia in Tanzania isn’t just limited to the government, as Mashala explains: “If you are on the bus or walk on the street and maybe two or three guys start to shout: ‘Hey, he’s a gay, he’s a gay’. Suddenly, 10 people can join these two people, or 20 people, and start attacking you on the street.”

“You cannot do anything,” he adds. “You cannot go to the police. You cannot ask people to help you.”

Related: 57 men arrested in what homophobic authorities have branded a gay “sex cult”

Mashala notes that much of Tanzania’s progress toward LGBT equality has been undone over the past three years. “All the steps we made as LGBT activists — it’s like we have to start over again.”

Even worse, LGBT activists fear for their safety, as well. “If it ever gets noticed that you are an LGBT activist you will be arrested and they might just silence you in a way that people will never know,” Mashala said.

On Reddit, one user reported on Makonda’s campaign in a post titled “Pray for us.”

“Being gay is illegal in my country but I never thought they would go this far!” the user wrote. “I’ve been single since forever and nobody knows that [I] am gay, but this has really broke my heart. It is the most talked [about] topic at school, to the point that [I] am [afraid] to go to school.”

Tanzania isn’t alone. Amnesty International reports homosexuality is illegal in 38 African countries and is punishable by death in Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria, and southern Somalia.