by Max Fuchs, 19/08/2021
On Tuesday, 10th August 2021, I had the opportunity to interview Namibia’s most famous sex worker Mama Africa in the office of the sex worker led human rights organization Rights not Rescue Trust (RnRT). Mama Africa is the executive director of the NGO and welcomed me in her office for a talk of almost two and a half hours. I have learned about the history of RnRT’s founding, the vulnerabilities LGBTQIA+ face in Namibia, the legal status of sex work in the country and how the sex work is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic but also about the personal believes and backgrounds of Mama Africa which are driving her commitment as well as activism for Namibia’s queers, sex workers and other marginalized people.
I added (legal) background information to the statements in the interview for this article.
Content Note: Before you continue to read, be aware that the following article includes experiences of and reports about homophobic, transphobic and sex worker hostile discrimination and violence. Some of the experiences are also described visually. Make sure you feel safe, probably read with a friend and take breaks if it is too much.
Founding of RnRT under the pressure of threats and violence
According to Mama Africa, the history of RnRT began with the homophobic call outs of founding president Sam Nujoma in the 1990s. Nujoma, celebrated by many Namibians as the “Father of the Nation”, stated on the SWAPO Women’s Council Congress in December 1996 that “all necessary steps must be taken to combat influences that are influencing us and our children in a negative way“ and further that “homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society.” Later in 2001, Nujoma even encouraged the police to “arrest, deport and imprison“ homosexuals and explained to his audience of UNAM (University of Namibia) students that “homosexuality and lesbianism“ were not allowed in the country. Just a month later at the opening of an Agricultural Development Centre, he was threatening to deport back homosexuals arriving at the international airport Hosea Kutako near Windhoek “with the same aircraft“. Homosexuality would be against God’s will and devil’s work. The Namibian president from 1990-2005 was not alone with his homophobic attitude but supported by the SWAPO Youth League, certain ministers demanding the “elimination“ of homosexuals in parliament as well as former Minister of Home Affairs Jerry Ekandjo who addressed police recruits that they would need to make sure there was “no gayism and lesbianism in Namibia“ and should “pledge to eliminate them from the face of Namibia“.
Words become acts and as a result of the hate speech of the president and SWAPO members several LGBTQIA+ were assaulted by Namibian police and army. Wearing an earring as a man, also as a straight man, was reason enough to get stopped and beaten up by the Namibian Defense Forces (NDF) in these days, Mama Africa explains to me.
She knows about the struggle from her very own experiences. In the end of the 90s, Mama Africa was doing her sex work in Garten Street in Windhoek-Central when NDF soldiers came by to assault her.
“They have beaten me up, they have stripped me naked. The cars have passed. They illuminated my private parts and also masturbated me, stopped the cars saying: ‘Look at his face! It’s a woman’s face but look what is under here!‘ So for me they have not just violated me, they have also raped me.“ – Mama Africa
Afterwards the soldiers imprisoned her, putting Mama Africa in a cell with men. Those men raped her, getting applause by the police.
This humiliating experience caused a long-term trauma which lasted for years. Mama Africa reached out to The Rainbow Project, Namibia’s first LGBTQIA+ NGO which was founded in response to the homophobic and threatening statements of Nujoma in 1996. Together with TRP she tried to identify her perpetrators, going to the police stations looking for them. They never found them and so Mama Africa let it go. Many counselings and trainings were attended by Mama Africa to cope the pain. Finally, she traveled to South Africa to be initiated as a traditional healer which helped her to make peace with the experience.
In 2008, Mama Africa attended the International Women’s Conference in Cape Town and spoke to international sex worker’s organizations and movements about her plans to organize demonstrations. She was advised to found a legal organization to do so. Back in Namibia, Mama Africa started to search for allies and in 2009, RnRT was legally registered.
Since then the NGO has been promoting “access to health, rights, education and safety of sex worker industry in Namibia in a way that enables and affirms their occupational human rights and freedom.“ Today the board of RnRT consists of sex workers, gays, trans men and trans women and by that is diverse itself. Being active in most regions of Namibia the NGO is well connected on a national but also international level.
“You are not free in this country (as LGBTQIA+)”
Queer people are still facing many vulnerabilities in Namibia, Mama Africa criticizes in our interview. Homosexuality is not illegal in the country itself but anal sex between men is criminalized as crime of “sodomy” as part of the Roman-Dutch Common Law which was inherited from former colonizer South Africa at Namibia’s independence in 1990. The Legal Assistance Centre is not aware of any court cases which have been dealing with consensual “sodomy” since independence. However, the stigma of criminalization affects the lives of gay men in a negative way. Besides, it blocks progressive laws as gay marriage. In the last four years, several same-sex couples (consisting of a Namibian and a non-Namibian citizen) which married in foreign countries (South Africa and Germany) went to court to fight for the recognition of their marriages and by that the right of permanent residency and working permit for their non-Namibian spouses. Namibia’s queer community is waiting excitedly for the verdict of the High Court which is expected in January 2022. Additionally, a gay Namibian-Mexican couple which married in South Africa as well and has gotten three children through surrogacy in South Africa since 2019, demands the Namibian citizenship for their children which is denied by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration, Safety and Security so far. A first verdict is expected on 13th October 2021.
There are not only legal challenges for LGBTQIA+ in Namibia. Mama Africa mentions the stigma and discrimination in daily life. Queer people would be often insulted as “moffies”. The human rights activist explains that the word comes from Afrikaans and originally meant short, beautiful gloves worn by wives at their marriages. Nowadays it is used like the English word “faggot”. According to Jimmy Pieterse of the University of Pretoria the word “moffie” went through several discourses of meaning in Afrikaans in the 20th century. Not only on the streets but also online on Social Media like Facebook many Namibians would show their blatant homophobia. Mama Africa speaks from cyberbullying.
Again, words become acts and thus Namibian queers face violence and murder, too. Mama Africa is concerned about a series of murders on community members in the last years. She even speaks of a serial killer who is convincing his (or her) later victims to take him (or her) home to murder them in their own family houses. The police would be investigating.
She gives another example of queer hostile violence in Namibia. In 2020, a trans woman was tied up to a chair and slapped with a donkey whip many times in Gobabis in Eastern Namibia. The perpetrators were filming the brutal attack, insulted the woman and did not even stop when the chair was falling down and the person laid on her back. The video went viral on Social Media, not only in Namibia, Mama Africa continues. She showed me the video during the interview. It was actually too much for me. I can still remember the screams of pain of the woman. I did not need to watch the shocking video but Mama Africa prefers to speak with proof as she explains. Sometimes people would not believe her when she is talking about the violence queer people are facing in the country.
Last year, after she had seen the video, Mama Africa went together with other activists to Gobabis to demonstrate in front of the Magistrate’s court which is working on the case. One of the perpetrators was already sentenced to N$ 100,000 (about 5,882 €) but the case is still going on.
Being exposed on Social Media would be another problem. Sometimes LGBTQIA+, especially trans women, would go into clubs and people put drugs into their cups. Later the drugged persons would get tired and could not concentrate anymore when the perpetrators would strip them naked, recording them and exposing their genitals claiming those women would be actual men.
Family would not be safe for many queers as well. Some get kicked out of their family houses for what they are. Losing home and economic support they end up in the streets doing drugs and sex work or stealing to survive and eventually end up in prison. The Corona pandemic even worsened the situation because many of those queers who had a job lost it and face economic struggle now, too.
“Christian fundamentalists are the biggest political party”
One of the reasons for the stigma and discrimination of LGBTQIA+ in Namibia would be the Christian fundamentalism in the country, Mama Africa says. Although she doubts that 90 % of all Namibians are Christians, as officials state, she thinks about Christian fundamentalists as the biggest political party in the country, influencing the law makers.
One example would be prisons denying condoms to inmates because providing protection could encourage the inmates to the so-called “unnatural acts” of “sodomy”. A decision with great consequences. Everyone would know that sex is also happening in Namibian prisons. Raping in prisons concerns gays and transgender as well as straight men. All of them are endangered to HIV infections if condoms are denied. People would enter the prisons HIV negative and leave years later infected by the virus, transmitting it to their families and to their sexual partners. Namibia would never reach the triple 95 goal of UNAIDS (announced by UNAIDS in 2014, aiming to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030 by achieving 95% diagnosed among all people living with HIV, 95% on antiretroviral therapy (ART) among diagnosed, and 95% virally suppressed among treated) if condoms and lubrication are not provided to inmates in prison, Mama Africa assumes.
The Christian fundamentalism would go back to colonial times, especially apartheid. Mama Africa remembers the 70s when future Namibians were forced to attend church services by the police. Everyone found in the streets on Sundays would have been arrested and extra church services for children were institutionalized, too.
Sex work in Namibia
Among the laws inherited from apartheid era another is “The Combating of Immoral Practices Act 21 of 1980”. It criminalizes sex work as “immoral practices”. Mostly third parties such as “pimps” and “brothel-owners” are concerned by the law. However, brothels are forbidden completely and a brothel is defined as “any house or place kept or used for purposes of prostitution“ which always makes sex work inside illegal. Standing in a street and promoting him- or herself for prostitution is also forbidden by this law as well as living on the earnings of prostitution. Living “wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution” can be punished by a fine of N$ 3,000 or three years of imprisonment or both according the law.
Additionally to possible imprisonment and court cases, sex workers experience different acts of violence in Namibia. A regional study among sex workers in Namibia found out that 93 % of the sex workers experienced physical and sexual violence, 92 % economic violence and 97 % discrimination done by clients (87 %), police (81 %), community (42 %) and health workers (14 %). 65 % of the sex workers were arrested in the last year, on average even twice and most of them were detained for 24 hours per arrest. In arrest 81 % of them faced violence such as forced sex (87 %), beatings (83 %), earnings stolen (78 %) and condoms stolen (60 %).
According to the Legal Assistance Centre trans female sex workers and male sex workers are especially concerned by violence and imprisonment by the police. Situations of trans female sex workers being arrested in cells with 20 – 30 men and getting raped in the showers are reported.
Sex work in Namibia is also affected by Corona. Mama Africa talks about the challenges through the lockdown but especially about the risk of getting infected with Covid-19. Therefore, she is always promoting via press and Social Media to her fellow sex workers to use telephonic or online options for sex work such as zoom and not getting involved into “flesh to flesh sex work” at the moment. Find more advises regarding sex work during Corona on RnRT’s Insta page.
A dystopian forecast on Namibia’s HIV rate
Namibia’s HIV rate was 8.3 % in 2020 and by that the 5th highest HIV rate in the world. Although the country could achieve great successes in its fight against HIV/AIDS in the last years by providing HIV tests, PrEP, PEP and ART to the Namibian population for free, a tester of the NAPPA (Namibian Planned Parenthood Association) Clinic in Windhoek’s borough Okuryangava shares his concerns about more HIV positive results after the pandemic with me during a break. He explains his dystopian forecast that due to the pandemic and the lockdown many people lost their jobs and also possibilities to sell Kapana (grilled meat), fruits and other stuff along the streets. Already before Corona the unemployment rate of Namibia was 20.4 %. This economic tough situation might force people into sex work. As sex workers who urgently need money they are in a weak position to demand protection during the sexual intercourse. If someone offers a hundred bucks for sex but only without protection people will take the money out of necessity and no condom will be used. This might increase the amount of positive results when more people come for tests after lockdown again.
I confront Mama Africa with this dystopia in our interview and ask her what she thinks about it. She agrees. Especially young people whose unemployment rate was even about 38 % in 2019 would suffer a lot. Difficult economic situations would lead to substance abuse and early sex work. Young sex workers would especially have sex with elders which would not be safe but the elders are the ones who can pay money. Many young people do not go for ART treatment once they are tested HIV positive because of the ongoing stigmatization, Mama Africa adds concerned.
“I was a street kid in the day and sex worker in the night and also transgender”
Mama Africa knows what she is talking about when she tells me about the challenges Namibia’s youth is facing. Born in the 70s, Mama Africa grew up with eleven siblings, all raised by her single mother after her father died during Namibia’s independence war in the mass grave of the Cassinga Massacre. Growing up during South African apartheid, Mama Africa was eating from the bins and doing drugs in an early age. She tells me how they put glue into the blend of guava juice smoking it to get high. Besides, they drank alcohol and fuel, smoked dagga (cannabis) and did other drugs. In the age of just ten years Mama Africa got involved into sex work to earn some money. At the same time, Mama Africa started to wear women’s clothes (as considered by society) and developed her transgender identity, putting her into an even more marginalized position. She knows that the street kids nowadays are still going through a lot.
Mama Africa adds that she would like to write a book about her life one day, telling the world her story.
Despite her own struggle, Mama Africa has always been a “people’s person”, as she considers herself and cannot see the suffer of the vulnerable. Already in the 80s when she was still living with her family, she shared her food and gave accommodation to other people in need. That’s why the community gave her the name “Mama Africa” which is her name until today.
She believes in two things. At first, God as creator. Mama Africa is not believing in the bible though as the bible was written by human beings with many different translations, she explains. She is also very critical towards the church and accuses the church to still rob the people and being blind for crimes as the corruption going on in Namibia. At second, she believes in her African ancestors. As traditional healer she would be able to hear her ancestor’s spirits speaking to her.
Due to her believes, Mama Africa is convinced that God makes no mistakes in his creation. Neither gay animals nor gay people would be a mistake but a blessing. She explains that she once talked with a Damara king who said that homosexual behavior is found among animals, too. If there is a gay goat among the livestock this goat would not be slaughtered but raised until it dies by a natural death one day. This goat is seen as a blessing and so are gay people in a house. A believe which was confirmed to me also by another Damara I spoke to. Therefore, traditional healers would not think bad about homosexuality, Mama Africa continues.
As part of her spiritualism Mama Africa tells me also about Ubuntu, a Southern African spiritual understanding that humans are made by humans or as it is explained by someone else: “I am because of who we all are.” It drives her community work and activism she is doing without demanding something back as reward. However, working with humans would not be easy and she also experienced huge disappointments from people she supported once.
“Enough is enough now”
I learned to know Mama Africa as a very interesting person in the more than two hours she was taking time for me despite her full day and a few phone calls which interrupted our chat occasionally. Coming from a poor and challenging background Mama Africa knows what people are going through in Namibia, especially the marginalized. Although she experienced disappointments and violence herself, she never stopped to support and fight for her communities. Quite the opposite of giving up activism and on humans, she tells me about the newest plan of her and other human rights activists of the country to found a political party for vulnerable people such as sex workers, LGBTQIA+ as well as home- and landless people among others to run in the parliament election in 2024. The reason for this new ambition is simple: “Enough is enough now”.
 Legal Assistance Centre. 2015. Namibian Law on LGBT Issues, p. 65
 ibid., p. 67
 Legal Assistance Centre. 2015. Namibian Law on LGBT Issues, p. 78
 ibid., p. 80
 Legal Assistance Centre. 2015. Namibian Law on LGBT Issues, p. 79