Make way for Alice Nkom

Alice Nkom

Last year was a busy year for Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom, but then again … it was a busy year for the Cameroonian government, and its various allies, persecuting and prosecuting anyone it suspects of being gay, lesbian, transgender, of a sexuality, feminine, or different.

This year promises, or threatens, to be equally busy. This week, leading Cameroonian LGBT rights activist Eric Ohena Lembembe was found tortured and murdered. These are urgent times in Cameroon, as noted today at Africa Is a Country, and Alice Nkom, as ever, is in the thick of the urgencies.

Alice Nkom was the first woman to become a lawyer in Cameroon. That was in 1969, and she was then 24 years old, and she’s been kicking through ever since. Over the last four decades, Nkom has been a leading civil rights and women’s rights activist and advocate in Cameroon, and for the last decade or so has become famous, or infamous, for her defense of LGBTIQ persons, communities and rights.

In February 2003, Nkom established ADEFHO, L’association pour la défense des droits des homosexuel(le)s. The Association for the Defence of Homosexuals has suffered threats, attacks, intimidation. Nkom has received death threats. She has been imprisoned. She has been threatened with being disbarred. And she persists and returns to court again and again.

In December of last year, Alice Nkom once again was in the news when an appeals court upheld the three-year sentence of her client Jean-Claude Roger Mbédé, whose crime was sending another man a text message that read, “I’m very much in love with you.” In July, Mbédé was released provisionally, and so this sends him back to jail, to the harassment and assaults “at the hands of fellow inmates and prison authorities on account of … perceived and unproven sexual orientation”. He goes back as well to the general hellhole of Yaounde incarceration, a prison originally built for 600 that now houses 4,000.

In February 2012, 10 women were arrested on suspicion of being lesbians. No proof was given. No proof was needed. Suspicion is enough, when it comes to protecting the nation. Men have been arrested and imprisoned for hairstyle and for drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream. These crimes of fashion proved the men were feminine and thus gay and therefore worthy of incarceration. Perception is everything.

All of this is happening, as Alice Nkom has argued repeatedly and to varying degrees of success, in a country that has a modicum of respect for the rule of law, to the extent that it has codified due process. The law that authorizes the current abuses is Article 347, which, somewhat ironically, may not even exist. Again repeatedly and to varying degrees of success, Nkom has argued that the law never passed through the appropriate committees and procedures in the National Assembly.

No matter. Somehow this non-law law has authorized the State disruption of a seminar on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, because there was something in the air about empowering sexual minorities. Perception is everything.

It’s not easy taking the high human rights road to attack the State. In Cameroon those organizations that have argued and mobilized around health issues pertinent to same-sex relationships, and particularly to MSM communities, have fared better in the international sphere, vis a vis funding, and have even received some support from the Cameroonian government. But when Nkom received funding from the European Union, “she was immediately threatened with arrest and a fatwa by pro-government youth groups.”

Last year, when her own arrest seemed imminent, Nkom wrote to leading Cameroonian LGBT activists: “Do not worry for me. I believe I will be arrested in the coming days, but I will not lose sleep over this or, especially, abandon what we have begun together.” It’s been a busy year for Alice Nkom, a year of pushing on, pushing back, pushing forward. Nkom has heard the rumble of violence, menace and threat, and has a direct response: “Threats like these show us that the fight must continue”

(A different version of this was originally published at Africa Is a Country. Thanks to Sean, Tom and the collective for the collaboration and support.)

(Photo Credit: Journal du Cameroun)

Is Marie Therese Njila Nana a human being? Are you?

Subjected to the trials of Job, Marie Therese Njila Nana has survived with dignity, and is rewarded, by the United Kingdom, with prison and worse.

Nana is from Cameroon. In her area, her family was fairly prominent. When Marie Therese Nana converted to Pentecostalism, her family took, bound her, tortured and beat her. She fled to another part of the country, joined a local Pentecostal Church, and tried to begin a new life.

She lived in that town for ten years. Then the Church decided she must marry a Church elder. Nana refused, and was forced to move again, to avoid violence.

She met a man from another tribe, whom she married. Her family discovered this and sent nine masked family members to her house. They beat her.

Her husband left for Germany, for work. Threats, and worse, from Church and family escalated. Marie Therese Nana tried to reconcile with her family. She returned home to meet with her parents, or so she thought. Her family held her for days, beating her senseless and humiliating and degrading her, all in an attempt to `purify’ her. Then they took her to the police, where she was further beaten.

Marie Therese Njila Nana then fled, to England, where she applied for asylum. Which was denied. The Home Office claims that Marie Therese Njila Nana can return safely to Cameroon, because there are `support services’ available. Not the police, notoriously corrupt and violent and beyond reproach. Her family has proven its capacity to reach her anywhere in the country. The Pentecostal Church as well is all over the place. And her name is known. But somehow the United Kingdom Border Agency has decided that Marie Therese Njila Nana is not a true candidate for asylum.

And so they sent her to Yarl’s Wood, where she has been for the last nine months. Nana describes her experience in Yarl’s Wood as torture. According to doctors, she is clearly suffering from trauma, and has received no medical attention. To the contrary, guards have taunted and harassed her.

This is not surprising from an agency that commonly and blithely uses forces on pregnant prisoners. This is not surprising from an agency that, in report after report, is found to treat prisoners with abuse, violence, and viciousness. Prisoner after prisoner reports that the staff treats them “like dogs”, like animals. Marie Therese Nana puts it succinctly: “English people need to know that there are concentration camps in their country where aliens are tortured and oppressed.”

And now, the United Kingdom plans to send Marie Therese Njila Nana back to Cameroon. What’s the reward an African woman gets for having survived violence after violence after violence? More violence.

Marie Therese Njila Nana asks, “Am I a HUMAN BEING? I ran from my country to save my life and I just seek asylum. After destroying me mentally more than 8 months now they plot to send me back to my killers.” But the real question is this, “Are we human beings?” Only concerted and collective action to stop the flight, and all the flights, will do, if we want to answer, “Yes. Yes, we are human beings.”

(Photo Credit: Muse / bensmawfield)