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Condoms in jail: mere disgust no solution


As we grew up in the then Salisbury (now Harare) in the 1960s, there was this homeless man they called Dzvombi (Lizard), maybe because of the way he wandered at times languidly and at others hurriedly but aimlessly with his torn sack, around the rubbish dump by the Mukuvisi River where he squatted.

We were sternly warned by elders not to come anywhere near him because, they said in hushed tones, he “touches young boys”.

Being pre-puberty, I didn’t understand what that meant.

But my childhood friend Sam “Ma Bass” Guzha, who was a year older than me but who seemed to know things way beyond his age (no wonder he is now a pastor with his own church), whispered to me that Dzvombi was actually sexually attracted to young boys and he would fondle them and even go further.

That was my first awareness of homosexuality when I was barely seven years old.

Homosexuality has existed from time immemorial as the Bible tells.

In Ancient Rome, Emperor Julius Caesar (100 BC-44BC) used to sleep with young boys because this was a common thing at the time but that didn’t stop him from sleeping with women as well.

Celebrated Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was gay as well and he was imprisoned for it during the prudish Victorian era. Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), who “founded” Rhodesia and after whom this country was named before independence, was said to be “at least an emotional, if not practicing, homosexual”.

The first President of independent Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana (1936-2003), saw his reputation as one of Africa’s leading statesmen eclipsed by his trial, conviction and imprisonment for homosexual assault.

Yes, homosexuality cuts across eras, cultures and classes, from the all-conquering Caesar, to the homeless Dzvombi, to peace broker Banana.

It’s not a colonial creation; it’s a reality of life.

Homosexuals live among us and seek and find each other.

So homosexuality won’t go away because of moral puritanism or puritanical moralism; it’s a way of life for some people, a significant minority.

Enlightened societies have not necessarily accepted it but turn a blind eye to it as long as those so inclined don’t harm anyone or demand that others accept their “perversions” and the right to sue anyone who disapproves of their conduct.

Inasmuch as we have heterosexual perverts who have kinky tastes or, worse, rape children and women and go on to murder them, gays should not force us to accept their lifestyle as “normal”.

That is why in 2008 the US state of California, despite its reputation of social ultra-liberalism with San Francisco termed “the gay capital of the world” where the first Aids cases were diagnosed in 1981, voted against same-sex marriage.

The point I am trying to illustrate is that boundaries have been tested over the years concerning homosexuality and people have said this far but no further.

An emerging trend is that the old approach of regarding homosexuality as a major crime ought to be revised; some say it’s absurd.

But in the context of prison, it becomes a different matter altogether.

Recently, there has been outrage over whether or not prisoners in Zimbabwe, mainly male, should be issued with condoms in view of prevalent unprotected homosexual activity among inmates and the resultant high rate of Aids and other sexually transmitted infections.

Could it be that the prison environment actually brings out the true sexual nature of people?

Maybe a little instructive information and few facts will help channel this debate onto a correct and relevant pedestal by putting the issue in actual context.

The first point is that prison perverts both the mind and body; it plays tricks on them.

When males are thrown together for a long time without female company, they begin to see other differently as time goes on.

So they settle for whatever is available.

Heterosexual prisoners are known to sometimes fall in love with each other when confined together for long periods of time and in these situations, sexual activity is negotiated in a spirit of mutual respect and equality.

Those who have been to all-boys’ boarding schools will testify to such tendencies in dormitories.

The same behaviour has been documented in animals caged with the same sex.

Basically, they would have sex with whatever was around.

This could be what is happening in prisons because of the lack of female contact and being cut off from “the real world”.

Everyone has, to a lesser or greater degree, sexual fantasies, but these become perverted in a confined environment.

Such situations allow for condom use in that they are consensual.

The other point is that homosexuality in prison is a power thing.

It’s used to dominate in a crowded, filthy, violent, hungry environment.

To solidify dominance, you humiliate another man, and what worse humiliation than making another man a woman?

The same behaviour is seen among buffalo where the new dominant male will mount the bull he has just toppled from leading the herd.

According to one study, 22,3% of male US prison inmates had reported being a victim of prison rape.

What more in Zimbabwean jails which are stalked by hunger?

The reality, as research has shown, is that in most prisons, even those where authorities make a reasonable effort to maintain control, an inmate hierarchy exists through which certain prisoners enjoy a great deal of power over their fellows and other prisoners are exposed to exploitation and abuse.

This power balance is, of course, more marked where the authorities have ceded effective control to the inmate population.

In such cases where inmates run the prison, some of the most abusive relationships take place with little or no need for threats or other openly coercive acts.

For some prisoners, especially youthful first-timers, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation is so overwhelming that they submit to sexual exploitation without putting up any obvious resistance.

A person I knew closely could only remark on his release:

“There are animals there.”

I didn’t ask further as I saw he didn’t want to be reminded of what he had been through.

Many of the victims are mostly petty criminals at the mercy of hardcore offenders serving long terms or life.

So homosexuality in prison, like violence, is mostly situational and circumstantial in that someone who readily practices it behind walls will find it disgusting to do so after release.

Most convicts are straight when they go to prison, have unprotected sex with the same sex while they are there, and then go back to having sex with the opposite sex when they get out.

What’s the practicability of issuing condoms when most of the sex is rape and, as is known, rapists don’t normally use condoms, people may ask.

But then when the abusers see illness and death all around them with barely any medical treatment, they are bound to think twice about not using protection.

A new situation poses new problems, and new problems require new solutions; otherwise we will be burying our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, which is so dumb that it believes that if it can’t see its attacker, then the attacker can’t see it.

There is need for a practical, problem-solving approach, not these puritanical moral expressions of outrage. Let’s face up to this new situation.

Aids is real and we better take it head-on otherwise the falling rate of infection outside jails will reversed by released prisoners.

Let’s fight Aids on all fronts, including behind bars where there is 100% unprotected sex.

Expressing mere disgust over prisoners getting condoms provides no solution to this real grave issue.

Feedback: ctutani@newsday.co.zw

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