OPINION: Time to share the stories of LGBT+ youth in Botswana

by Bakang Ndaba | Success Capital Organisation
Tuesday, 21 May 2019 11:06 GMT

People cross rail tracks in the Central Business District (CBD), in the capital Gaborone, Botswana, September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When you are deemed deviant by family members, your internal struggles can lead to mental health problems

Bakang Ndaba is a poet, student and human rights defender and a volunteer at Success Capital Organisation, a NGO based in Botswana

Growing up, issues surrounding mental health can often be neglected.

Being raised in Botswana can bring challenges in terms of relations with close family members. This can often be reflected in the difficulty of having conversations about relationships, sexuality, wellbeing, abuse and/or depression.

Many young people are often raised by family members other than their parents, who might be working in different towns, or work long hours or simply be too poor to raise children.

In these situations, young people can find it difficult to discuss issues such as money and invasion of privacy. More importantly, cultural beliefs, parental assumptions and body issues can influence people who might want to seek help or advice from a doctor.

This is common when you are deemed a “deviant” in terms of your sexuality or gender identity. For someone growing up queer and not knowing it, this adds a layer of complexity to puberty, both in terms of peer pressure and discovering your life’s purpose. For some, these internal struggles can lead to suicide.

I tried to kill myself after feeling unheard, unseen and misunderstood. Yet despite this apparent cry for help, later the same day everything just continued as normal with my family. Food had been prepared, the TV was on and life moved on as if nothing happened. Looking back, it feels so embarrassing and empty.

The inability to discuss these types of matters openly leads to people internalising their fears and concerns. When you are able to share your thoughts and feelings with others, there is a resounding feeling of belonging.

We are often silenced in public spaces, just as at home. LGBT+ people live in an atmosphere where we risk persecution because of laws, or exclusion because of who we are.

There is a Tswana saying – “batho ba tla reng” – which means “what will people say”.

This is often used to dismiss or suppress issues of concern, even in adulthood, not exclusively about LGBT+ people, but frequently to silence anyone raising issues of abuse, hate speech and violence.

It is inherent in our culture to not bite the hand that feeds you – and remain silent. Those with power at home, in church, at school and at work are all culpable in this.

There are many facets an individual adopts both at work and their private life that might not reflect the so-called norms of behaviour. This is particularly true for people with a different sexuality, gender identity or sex characteristics, which we commonly call intersex.

The pain and harm they can sometimes endure is largely under-reported, which is why we need more young people to share their stories.

A sense of self-loathing, confusion and internalised stigma can further exasperate the situation.

Certainly, the legal situation must change, but society must also adapt and accept difference.

Botswana needs to open itself up to a civil society that is inclusive and accommodating of people’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

By sharing people’s stories, we can address the silence and attempt to reshape government policies and improve the lives of those currently seen as outside society. Botswana must accept difference and encourage openness.

The piece was co-written with Dumiso Gatsha, a part-time PhD (Law) candidate and also a volunteer at Success Capital Organisation