Homophobia in East Africa
Can being gay really stop you climbing Kilimanjaro?
I was prompted to write this article after we had been contacted by a gay travel agency from California, who were looking to climb Kilimanjaro later this year.
Amongst the usual fears they had about altitude sickness and the safety procedures on the mountain, they also asked how gay people are perceived and treated in Tanzania.
As a straight white male it hadn’t been a question that I had given much thought to before.
But the question is a pertinent one. After all, in neighbouring Uganda they passed a bill back in 2014 that banned homosexuality. Those caught breaking it could face up to seven years in prison. And in 2018 they increased the sentence to life imprisonment!
It may surprise you to find out that Tanzania is no more tolerant. It’s also illegal to be gay in this country, with ‘offenders’ facing a jail term of up to 30 years. The current president, John Magufuli, has been particularly keen to crack down on those who, in the words of the law, have ‘carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’.
Indeed, in November last year the US government advised its citizens to review their profiles on social media, to minimise the possibility of falling foul of the law.
I think it’s fair to say that we have hosted many gay men and women on Kilimanjaro. And we hope to continue to do so. And thus far, none of our clients have fallen foul of the homophobic laws of East Africa, nor – to our knowledge – got into any particular trouble because of their sexuality.
The reason why, of course, is that while, from a legal viewpoint, Tanzania is undoubtedly a homophobic country, the citizens themselves are usually far more tolerant.
They are also, if we’re being honest, a pragmatic people, that recognises that tourists bring in a lot of foreign currency into the country.
And if they want their share of all that foreign money, they need to be accepting too.
Nevertheless, it also pays to be sensible and discrete when visiting the region. In particular, your trip will run much more smoothly, and you’ll avoid any potential trouble, if you follow the following simple rules:
- Don’t flaunt your sexuality.
- Avoid public displays of affection with your partner or anyone of the same sex
- Avoid sexual liaisons with locals of the same sex
- If you’re travelling with your partner, you should expect to be put into a twin room (ie one with two single beds in it) rather than a double room (ie with one big bed for two people) – no matter what you actually requested.
- Be careful who you talk to about your sexuality and whom you discuss sexual politics with.
Follow these rules, and you’ll receive exactly the same same warm and friendly welcome as any other visitor to Tanzania.