The Sister walked into the Governor’s office. This was before any prisoners were brought in. She labored under the weight of two large bags as she approached the Governor to sign some paperwork. She wore just the head-piece of a nun and it was pale blue – almost grey – instead of the black most of us associate with nuns. A large metal crucifix hung from her neck. She wore a long skirt and sneakers and she came up to just above my nose.
It was divine intervention that she walked in to the Governor’s office, Albert said. He wanted to reach out to the Sisters while in Yaounde but hadn’t gotten a chance.
We spoke with her briefly. She was there to deliver care to the HIV/AIDS patients. There is a hospital ward but care is lacking. It seems much of the care comes from outside groups like the nuns. I don’t remember now what Albert said exactly – why we were there? who we were visiting? We did establish this particular order served the SIDA (or AIDS) population. She looked tired, took Albert’s card and wished us good luck.
The nuns don’t visit any inmates except those they tend to in the hospital. Sitting, talking now to the six prisoners we find out that clergy of any kind must request to see an inmate – not vice versa. It seems an odd thing, clergy requesting to see a prisoner. But so many things are odd here at the prison. That the prisoners must pay their own way, buy food, beds and pay for medical care.
The young woman I spoke to, condemned for homosexuality and serving a five-year prison term, has a terrible rash up and down her legs. She cannot afford the medication she needs to treat it. She has no family. She tells me ils sont morts – “they’re dead” – and she tears up. I lean in to whisper to her, the Governor and the PR guy still watching and listening.
I ask her – what about the nuns? Can’t the nuns help you? They come in to the hospital? Can we ask? She scoffs, non, they are only there for the SIDA patients. She wipes her eyes and goes stone cold. Perhaps this is why she has no God? Perhaps this is why she laughed out loud when Albert asked her what religion she practiced.
The Catholic Church in Cameroon should be ashamed of itself. The Catholic Church in Cameroon must answer for its fomentation of anti-gay hate. The Catholic Church in Cameroon must make this right. And, the Catholic Church has the authority, means and reach to do it, but so-far have not. After the homophobic Archbishop made his Christmas declaration against homosexuals, the Church dismissed him from that post. The word is that he still functions within the diocese in some capacity. Catholics are masters at shuffling priests around. They have years of practice shuffling molesting priests from one congregation to the next.
With Papa Francis in place – perhaps there is reason to hope the Church will change. But, even if The Church does – Africa is a tough nut to crack. Africa doesn’t pay much attention to Rome when it comes to matters of homosexuality. Nor to child brides, poverty or the rights of women to access reproductive healthcare.
Of the six prisoners in Yaounde being held under suspicion of homosexuality four are Catholic. There is no pastoral care or oversight. Reverend Albert tells me this is bad, that the Church – the priests and nuns and Imams serve as watchdogs. They can come in to the prison, see the abuses and make a stand against it. But that doesn’t happen here since clergy must request to see prisoners, not the other way around. Effectively these six, and their fellow LGBT prisoners have no voice.
They are alone. A deep dark endless alone like none of us can imagine.
CAMFAIDS, a human rights, health and LGBT group is doing amazing work with the prisoners. Every week or so a representative from CAMFAIDS comes to the prison to see how the LGBT population is doing. (I will call him Robert) Robert was feverishly taking notes during our talk in the Governor’s office. He was speaking to each of the prisoners getting information presumably to relay to their exiled lawyer in Washington DC. There is little else CAMFAIDS can do besides be the face in the prison’s endless wilderness, bring food when they can and offer 10 minutes of comforting conversation.
CAMFAIDS is doing this with little to no money. They are doing it grieving in the wake of their leader, Eric’s assassination. They are risking their lives and imprisonment by doing this work.
Our prisoner friends have murdered no one. The have stolen nothing. They are just babies. Albert tells them just before we leave “God has not forgotten you”. I read their faces. Their faces tell me they have heard that one before; there is no hope in any of their eyes; just fear, anger and incredible sadness. As we leave we all shake hands and embrace the prisoners who consent to be embraced.
Walk into the courtyard following the guard who will let us out. She has beautiful orange and blue plaited hair and a red cell phone holster on her hip. Albert and our escorts are a bit ahead of me. I turn around to look at the surroundings. The prison officials kept us in a very sterile environment – relatively speaking. No prisoners laying on a cement floor 20 to a cell. No fights no rape. No piss and shit in buckets but I know it is all there beyond the courtyard. We had been show every courtesy by the Governor – See? We’re not so bad!
I look back once more – they took my camera so I would have to remember this all. I saw our six prisoners being led by a guard toward the far wall. Cut into that far wall was a doorway – a small one that could fit maybe two abreast if the two squeezed closely together. Just beyond that open door I could see people – many, many people through a broken down iron cell block door. Walking back and forth and back and forth – it appeared an organized moving circle of prisoners out for mandatory exercise or maybe it was just a large holding pen. But there were so many of them.
There were our six – through the cut out doorway and through the cell door held open by one of the guards, motioning them to get a move on back to the yard. One by one I watched as they all disappeared.