The following is the English version of Bisi Alimi’s recent interview with Huffpost Germany, which is part of his TEDx Berlin talk tomorrow, Saturday, a talk about HIV among gay men in Nigeria.
This article was written by Steffen Wüller, and first appeared on the German Impatient Optimists, a blog of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Bisi Alimi must be a brave man. In 2004, he came out as gay on a nationwide television show and almost got killed for standing up. He had to flee to the United Kingdom where he has become one of the most important activists for HIV and LGBT rights. On September 6th, he speaks at TEDx Berlin. In the interview, he talks about his coming out in public and explains why he strongly believes in the power of social media.
Impatient Optimists: Bisi, your coming out on TV is now ten years ago! You had to leave Nigeria and start a new life in London. If you look back now: Would you take the same decision?
Bisi Alimi: There have been times in my life, when my answer would have been a clear ‘no’! But right now, I definitely have to say, that I would do it again. My life changed for good. I mean, I am invited to TEDx to give a talk because I stood up ten years ago. I am in a position right now, where I can give a voice to the suppressed homosexuals in Nigeria and all over Africa. But I cannot deny that I paid a price. My friends and my family rejected me and I was almost killed, so I had to flee to the UK. I have lost a lot. But for me, in this situation in my life, it was the right thing to do. If you want change, you have to challenge the status quo. And that is what I did.
Impatient Optimists: In Europe, growing up is still not easy for young gay men and women, especially out of the bigger cities. How can we imagine life as a young homosexual in Nigeria?
Bisi Alimi: You really don’t want to experience what it was like for me growing up and what it is like for thousands of young people in Nigeria at the moment. For me, it was a constant fear of rejection and harassment by the police. It was a huge battle, and it is certainly not better these days. Nobody talked about being gay in public. A lot of gay men were married and pretended to live a ‘normal’ life. In this environment of permanent threat, I failed to do something and I have no regrets for what I did. Still, about 90 Percent of Nigerians are against homosexuality. But today, we have a growing debate about the decriminalization of homosexuality, not only in Nigeria, but from Uganda over Kenya to Somalia, and all over Africa.
Impatient Optimists: In many African countries, it has become a popular political instrument for the government to ban homosexuality by law. Recently, in Nigeria, the government under President Jonathan passed a strict law, declaring homosexuality as a serious crime. Same-sex relationships are illegal. How do you think that tense atmosphere impacts especially the younger generation?
Bisi Alimi: One of the narratives that we are getting out of Africa is that we are having an increasing number of young, well-informed, non-conformist people. Due to the increasing access to the internet, this generation is well-informed and independent from the national television and newspapers, that are mostly controlled by the governments. Maybe behind our head, there is still a picture of the “wild” Africa. Of a people that is still tribalistic, living with barely no electricity. But Africa has moved on. And I see that on the internet every day. I read the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. There are many young bloggers in Africa. Those young people talk about gender issues, sexual identity or public health. And this is changing the conversation around homophobia on the continent. It is demystifying so many things that have been seen as taboo before now.
Impatient Optimists: How are the repressions and new laws affecting the fight against HIV/Aids?
Bisi Alimi: Since the terrible law came into force in Nigeria, we can see the negative effects all over. You can get ten years of imprisonment for providing services to known or perceived homosexuals. But the law does not spell out what “service” means. It leads to an atmosphere of constant fear. Providing accommodation, selling food, providing medical healthcare, offering transportation… Everything could be a service and nobody wants to go to jail. Clinics that are providing HIV services to men who have sex with men fear to engage with the community anymore. They have no idea how they can handle this problem and are turning back those people or are forced to go underground to help.
Impatient Optimists: If you take a look at the statements of political leaders, you are confronted with a debate about “africanism”. The anti-gay coalition is claiming that homosexuality is “Un-African”. How do you oppose to this assertion?
Bisi Alimi: I think that we have good role models in Africa. Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu, those men showed the world about African values. People like Mugabe, Museveni or Jonathan dare to define what is African and what is not. These are greedy old men, whose only interest is what goes in their own stomach. Africanism is not about greed! I grew up in Africa. I was told: You’re not complete until your neighbor is complete. You cannot say that you have had a good day until your neighbor has had a good day. It was about compassion, sharing and helping each other. And it still is about supporting each other and being your brother’s keeper. It’s not about greed, not about corruption, not about calling for the killing for other people just because you don’t understand or like them.
Impatient Optimists: You use social media a lot to share what you have to say. Do you think that Twitter and Facebook help to change the public opinion?
Bisi Alimi: It is. The media is mostly controlled by the governments in Africa. So the social media is the only way to get alternative information. We have to get used to these alternative platforms. But then, I see a bright future. Not all the people in Nigeria are online. But the upcoming middleclass is. And the number of those who have access to the information shared via social media is growing. And what will happen is that they’re going back to their villages and sharing their information. The more we get the information out, the more the information will filter down to the parts where there is no internet available.
Impatient Optimists: One last question. Our blog is called ‘Impatient Optimists.’ Would you consider yourself an impatient optimist?
Bisi Alimi: I think I am patient. I don’t want to rush things. Some things just need time. But at the same time, I am not going to sit down and wait for it to happen. I have to make changes happen myself. So, to some extent, I can consider myself as a borderline impatient optimist. There has started a conversation about the state intervening in the personal freedom of all the people. And I really hope that in twenty years, we will have a law where you cannot discriminate against other people on the basis of their sexuality. And that is possible. If I don’t believe in change, I wouldn’t do what I’m doing.
Bisi Alimi, 39, is an Aspen New Voices Fellow, a Nigerian gay rights activist, public speaker, blog writer and HIV/LGBT advocate who achieved notoriety when he became the first Nigerian to come out of the closet on television. He is living in London.