Mokoomba (on screen) played the song “Together,” an HIV/AIDS anthem written especially for the meeting. Image by TJ Maposhere. Zimbabwe, 2015. Add this image to a lesson
Officials unsuccessfully attempted to change the name of the "MSM Zone" in the ICASA Village. Image by TJ Maposhere. Zimbabwe, 2015. Add this image to a lesson
Owen Mugurungi, head of Zimbabwe’s HIV/AIDS response, was disappointed more men who have sex with men did not attend ICASA. Image by TJ Maposhere. Zimbabwe, 2015. Add this image to a lesson

In the hours before the opening ceremony of the 18th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) last November 29, there was lots of hallway chatter about the possibility of activists staging a disruptive protest. Normally, this would be a dog-bites-man story: An international AIDS conference without an activist zap would be like a World Cup match without fans. But this year’s ICASA, the largest AIDS conference held on the continent hardest hit by HIV, took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, and President Robert Mugabe was famous for not tolerating dissent—especially when the main protesters were expected to be from the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and intersex (LGBTI) community.

Mugabe, who will turn 92 in February and has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, has put the world on notice that he rejects the idea of gay rights and finds homosexuality an abhorrent violation of the country’s cultural values. “We are not gays,” he infamously declared at the United Nations General Assembly a few months before ICASA. At a political rally in 2013, he vowed to behead homosexuals and declared that they were “worse than pigs, goats and birds.”

The ICASA conference theme? AIDS in Post 2015 Era: Linking Leadership, Science & Human Rights.

Several AIDS activist groups boycotted the meeting.

Tunisia was supposed to host ICASA 2015, but the Society for AIDS in Africa, the meeting’s organizer, pulled the plug after the March 2015 attack at a Tunis museum that targeted tourists and killed 21 people, and in July chose Zimbabwe instead. This would be one of the biggest conferences held in Zimbabwe, which has been sanctioned by the European Union and the United States for human rights abuses and Mugabe’s undemocratic ways. The country’s largest conference center was in such a sorry state that a month before the meeting, First Lady Grace Mugabe pledged $300,000 to help repair chairs, lighting, and carpeting.

The venue’s challenges became apparent even before the opening ceremony kicked off—but they weren’t about its physical state, which had a charming faded elegance. The conference center is attached to the country’s largest hotel, a former Sheraton rebranded the Rainbow Towers—yes, rainbow, the symbol of gay pride and its celebration of diversity. When delegates staying at the hotel checked in, a few hundred were told that they would have to vacate their rooms by December 1 because Chinese President Xi Jiping was arriving and his delegation wanted the first few floors emptied. The conference organizers could not find enough alternate hotel rooms in Harare, so they planned to move the delegates en masse to Bulawayo, a city nearly 300 miles away, and fly them back and forth each day. I’m not certain that anyone actually did this, but the very idea led to lots of guffaws and words unprintable in family publications.

As it turned out, no protest of any sort occurred at the opening ceremony. It did not lack for entertaining moments, though. Spectacular local dance troops welcomed the crowd as it filed into the cavernous conference hall. The few thousand people in the audience twice were asked to rise to their feet to welcome Zimbabwean Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and then told to retake their seats because he had yet to show. Third time was the charm, and the woman next to me leaned over and noted that Mnangagwa was the former spy chief of Zimbabwe. The conference center had WiFi, and when I Googled Mnangagwa I learned that his nickname in Shona was Crocodile because of what Reuters called his “stealth and ruthlessness,” and that he was appointed in December 2014 along with a second vice president. “The two vice-presidents have no real big function except that they are my deputies,” Mugabe said at the time.

Quoting from Mugabe’s “We are not gays” UN speech, Mnangagwa reminded the delegates that Zimbabweans “reject attempts to prescribe ‘new rights’ that are contrary to our norms, values, traditions and beliefs.” But that’s as far as his gay bashing went.

Mokoomba, an Afro-fusion group, played a song written especially for the meeting. The idea of a peppy HIV/AIDS anthem makes me groan—I’d have a similar reaction if the lyrics were about malaria, diabetes, or hypertension—but “Together” rocked and had the audience shaking their things and clapping along. It was a wonderful respite from the dull procession of speakers who began their talks by recognizing the many people on stage, by name, one by one, and then said “all protocols observed” just in case they left anyone out.

But the lyrics for “Together” had an absurd undertone given that no speaker even dared mention LGBTI rights:

Together we have done it
Together we have fought
Together we can reach
Long life and an HIV free generation

The only moment that even approached activism for the LGBTI community was when Luiz Loures, second in charge at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said he stood “in solidarity” with “key populations,” a list that includes men who have sex with men (MSM). AIDS activists indeed later criticized his boss, Michel Sidibé, who also spoke at the ceremony, for not mentioning “key populations” in his talk. But “key populations” is code lingo to begin with, which, considering that homosexuality is a crime in Zimbabwe, made this a pretty tame criticism both from Loures and the activists.

I later asked Sidibé, who in 2010 helped convince Malawi’s president to release a gay couple it had sentenced to 14 years in prison, why he had not used his bully pulpit to denounce Mugabe’s pronouncements about homosexuals and explain how they undermined HIV/AIDS efforts and human rights. “You don’t win, you don’t advance the agenda, by confronting one person,” he told me, stressing that many people in Zimbabwe did not share their president’s views about homosexuality. “You just polarize.” He also wanted his ICASA visit to broadcast the UNAIDS push to “fast track” attempts to end the AIDS epidemic. “I wanted to avoid that ICASA would be all about the words of President Mugabe,” Sidibé said, assuring me that he never shies away from speaking about LGBTI rights. “I don’t want to be taken hostage by President Mugabe’s position on these issues.”

The UNAIDS representative in Zimabawe, Michael Bartos, who says there’s an enormous gap between “the outside perception of the country and the inside reality,” had an intriguing philosophical take on Mugabe’s homosexual tirades: He thinks they have more to do with liberation from colonialism than homophobia. “Unfortunately for Mugabe, the question of accepting a Western gay rights agenda has become symbolic of accepting a particular Western path to development,” Bartos said. “The question is how to pragmatically work through that.”

For now, Zimbabwe has opted for the toleration dance.

ICASA’s “Community Village” adjacent to the conference center had booths representing a wide array of groups. At one labeled “MSM Zone” I met with gay activists from Zimbabawe and several other African countries. Kennedy Olango, who is with the Men Against AIDS Youth Group in Kenya, told me that the conference attempted to have them change the name of the MSM Zone. “They wanted us to call it Key Population M or Key Population S,” he laughed, noting that Kenya has a strong LGBTI movement. “We have the right to call ourselves whatever we want.”

There were more serious complaints against the government. Beyonce Karungi, a transgender woman who came from Uganda—where a mob had viciously attacked her only a month before—said she was detained at customs for three hours. “Which kind of thing are you?” she said they asked her. “I was scared. I thought they couldn’t do this. This is ICASA.” Karungi understandably was outraged, but, obviously, they relented and let her in.

A headline in Zimbabwe’s NewsDay proclaimed that “Govt Clamps Down on Gays” following another incident at the airport in which an LGBTI group that represents several African countries had material “seized,” presumably for excise tax reasons. The South Africa-based group, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) had their materials returned, and they displayed them in their Community Village booth. AMSHeR also said the government pulled down parts of their exhibition because it had “colorful and attractive messaging,” but they let them put it back up.

Chesterfield Samba, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), had a most practical view of his government’s treatment of the ICASA delegates his president purported to despise. “I’d like to acknowledge the attempt they’ve made to deal with key populations and make us part of it,” Samba told me. GALZ members, including Samba, repeatedly have suffered from government harassment, as documented in Human Rights Watch’s 2015 report on the country and by the World Organization Against Torture. But he stressed that for ICASA, Zimbabwe’s health minister and his underlings held several supportive meetings with GALZ and other LGBTI groups from outside the country, assuring them that their delegates attending ICASA would not be harassed. “It’s a good start,” said Samba. “There are challenges in this country for LGBTI, and we’ll find a way to overcome them. On the ground the attitudes are not as bad as they are higher up.”

Owen Mugurungi, director of the AIDS and TB unit in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care, in particular is widely respected by HIV/AIDS advocates, and when I met with him he was anything but a cagey government bureaucrat with crafty non-answers to questions. UNAIDS’s Bartos told me that Mugurungi and other top HIV/AIDS officials in the country were “extremely knowledgeable and competent” and “world class in terms of what they’re capable of.”

I asked Mugurungi if he had discussed LGBTI issues with Mugabe. “We can’t, but there are certain things we can do below the radar,” he said. “It’s not the same amount of gain you’d want to see in the West, but for us it’s a big step. We lose small battles but we look at the whole war.”

The ministry, for example, takes “a public health approach” to offering services to MSM. “When they come to see us, they are not persecuted,” he said. “But the huge challenge we face is that it is difficult for an MSM to go to a clinic and say, look, I’m MSM. We try to make sure our health workers are trained and sensitive.”

Mugurungi said he was disappointed that many MSM chose not to attend ICASA. “I thought their coming here would make a huge difference,” he said. “When people talk about MSM it’s like an abstract. If you see somebody come to you and say, ‘I’m an MSM’ or ‘I’m a sex worker’ or ‘I’m HIV positive’ it makes a difference. The only way to defeat that fear and phobia is to put a face to it so people will see it.”

The conference still had an interesting mix of delegates. They came from most every country on the continent, and I did not meet a single other journalist from the United States. It’s a sharp contrast to the larger biannual international AIDS meetings, only one of which has taken place in Africa in 30 years (though the next one will be held in Durban in July). The meeting also featured several provocative presentations about the challenges to end AIDS and a few innovative interventions, which I wrote about for Science.

On December 6, two days after the conference ended, New Zimbabwe ran a story framed around an interview with AMSHeR’s executive director. He asserted that the country would have not been selected to host ICASA without the group’s support, which in turn brought the economically struggling Zimbabwe millions of dollars in revenue. The headline read, “Gays claim Zimbabwe should be grateful, claim they made ICASA possible because of them.”

In the repressive atmosphere of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, this poke had the flavor of an activist zap—read the incendiary comments it triggered. And maybe more importantly, it allowed the country’s LGBTI community to have a last laugh.

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