Yaounde Prison – I wasn’t supposed to take photos but did. Then they took my camera.
The prison is a cement box. Inside there is a small, open courtyard. A pass through for visitors. This is the courtyard where I watched a man have a violent seizure. I watched as his body jerked in the dirt. I could see him from my chair in the Governor’s office. As I watched the man I reflexively yelled out Doctor! Albert was locked in conversation with a young man imprisoned 7 months without trial. The governor sat scrawling at a notepad at his desk receiving a revolving set of guards saluting him sharply, then slapping their arm down to their side.
The man still seized but now people had started to gather round him. Help must be on its way.
I returned focus to the 6 prisoners. Four are Catholic, one is Muslim, the other laughed out loud when Albert asked her faith. I couldn’t take my eyes off the Muslim. He was a shell. Small, maybe 5 feet tall. He wore a floor length lightweight purple tunic. It looked tie-dyed. I looked closer and realized the light spots where stains and where the fabric had worn through.
He is sentenced to two years in prison for homosexuality. There was no evidence but the judge “condemned” him anyway.
I don’t think he spoke more than a “oui” or “non” during our visit. He nodded to questions or shook his head otherwise. When we asked about family – where is your family? do they visit? he didn’t answer. A friend seated next to him answered for him, “His family abandoned him”. The Muslim man didn’t move or speak. He looked like he was receding in on himself, first his chest closing, pulling in his arms then his legs until he is gone.
Yaounde prison is inhumane for murders and thieves, for the innocent LGBT person it is unrelenting mental and physical torture.
Of the six prisoners, two families abandoned them, one had periodic visits from an aunt, the other’s parents were dead and other two said nothing. Abandonment, stigmatization and often brutal beatings by a LGBT person’s family precedes an imprisonment. And if there is no jail time, the gay member is cast out by family and village.
This is the standard, not the exception.
I look back to the seizing man in the courtyard. A fellow prisoner – or perhaps visitor – rolled him on his side and mercifully slid a paperback book under his head.
The brutalization and imprisonment of LGBT persons in Cameroon is not exclusive to the big cities. It is rampant in the villages. A woman who works with a human rights organization in Cameroon told me over dinner last night she has at least “four calls a week” from LGBT persons in the rural areas. The reports are typically the same: familial abuse, abuse by the authorities, jailing and subsequent bribery by officials for their release.
I was watching CNN last night in my room. There was a segment on the gay problem in Sochi. They addressed the Russian law banning so-called “gay propaganda”. For sure any time LGBT persons are marginalized or have their rights restricted it is bad. But the attention on Sochi for its anti-gay issues is a blessing and an absolute outrage.
CNN showed a bar full of people somewhere (western/global north) drinking and partying raising money for the LGBT community. Cut to an interview with a member of the crowd, he said, “I am just so worried about what will happen to LGBT persons in Russia once the Olympics are over and the light stops shining on them”. In Russia, there are currently no LGBT persons imprisoned. It would probably disturb him greatly then that the light has never shined on Cameroon.
(To be continued)