We didn’t have much time with the prisoners. Since it was in the Governor’s office we spoke in hushed voices. The PR guy sat near a 1970s television in a crisp white shirt, long jean shorts and a pair of high-top sneakers. He just listened in. Observed. Every once in a while he would interject an answer to a question we asked in excellent English. Then he settled back into his chair seemingly unaware of the televised funeral blaring on the TV.
The stories are the same. Each are jailed on “suspicion of homosexuality”. Each wait for trial. The legal system is horrible, one human rights worker told me. The men and women (really these are kids, probably no more than 25 years old some of them) are provided a lawyer. There is only one lawyer in Yaounde who takes on these cases with integrity and voracity. He is a human rights defender. But he’s the one who was forced last fall to take his family and flee to the US because of increasing threats against him. He does come back now and then; the other lawyers simply don’t care. The other lawyer who is a champion of the Cameroonian Constitution and human rights is based in Douala. Douala is on the coast and the road to Yaounde takes a bone jarring 4 hours. And she has cases in Douala.
Despite the horrific fact these people are in jail, the fact they are is the product of many systemic failures. Governmental, legal and religious systems have all failed miserably. When the first president of the republic came into power he implemented the anti-homosexuality law. Now, the current president, in power for over 33 years, writes laws. Not parliament, not the senate – the executive branch. So, even if there was any support for overturning the law the anti-gay executive holds all the cards – and the majority in both houses. Elections here are a farce. Cameroon is really a dictatorship greasing the suffering public for all they are worth.
The legal system – police, prisons, and the courts – are rife with graft. You can’t walk down the street in any Cameroonian town without having to pay some official some money for something. The prison guards are paid shit, when asked roughly how much we just got laughs. They bribe everyone who walks through the prison door or comes through the Ministry of Justice’s gate. With (effectively) no lawyers willing to provide LGBT prisoners, these people haven’t a chance.
Perhaps the largest most disturbing failure is that of the Catholic Church. Of the Christian population the Catholics hold the majority (roughly 39% to 26% Protestant) of souls in Cameroon. Archbishop Bakot of Cameroon said that homosexuality opposes humanity and destroys it. He said other things.
In his Christmas sermon, Bakot called same-sex marriage “a serious crime against humanity.” He said, “We need to stand up to combat it with all our energy. I am particularly thankful to our local media that has been spreading this message of it as a criminality against mankind,” (Reuters)
Bakot is no longer Archbishop of Cameroon. Though no official reason was given, he stepped down. It seems his message may not have aligned with Papa Francis’ more inclusive tone. At the moment there is no Archbishop – they seem to be between them. During our visit we met with the Papal Nuncio’s special monsignor and secretary. We pulled up to the sweeping entrance, large ornate gates and a beautiful view over the hills of Yaounde. Through the gate I saw team of groundskeepers cutting hedges, mowing grass and vacuuming up the trimmings in front of the expansive and quite beautiful Nuncio building. It was all very Catholic.
After some bargaining with the gate-keeper, we were led into a room to wait where he switched on a TV to CNN. I looked over at Albert and we exchanged raised eyebrows which said well, I guess we wait. Just above Albert’s head was a huge framed photo of Pope Benedict; behind me Pope Francis. I smiled at Albert – this look said I got the better pope.
I will write more on the Nuncio visit later. Except to mention many Catholic church make anti-homosexuality part of the catechism and have a special prayer the priests say condemning gays, More on that later too.
Back to prison.
The Catholic Church does have a presence there. Chaplains and Priests and Imams are made available for spiritual counseling. We asked to meet with any clergy present but were told there were none available (although it was Sunday and they told us mass had just concluded). As it turns out – as is always the case – it is the Nuns doing the heavy lifting for the patriarchal Catholic church. We were lucky enough to be in the Governor’s office when one came in after tending AIDS patients in the prison hospital.
More on that later – more on all of it later and there is so much all.