TAKUNDA Munashe was only 13 years old when he started selling his body to other males while living in Mtapa, a high-density suburb in Gweru, the administrative capital of the Midlands province in Zimbabwe.
For Munashe, now 29 years old, it was not because he was looking for a ticket to his next meal as is usually the case in such circumstances; he simply wanted a cellphone.
He had watched some of his friends browsing from one application to the other at school — and because his parents could not get him one — he decided to get one for himself.
“It is not like I was forced into sex work. I have always known that I was different, but I didn’t really know that I was gay. It was at the age of 11, that I knew I was attracted to other boys. So it was my friends who told me that they could help me if I wanted a cellphone. It was just this teenage excitement of having fun. My parents who were on separation looked after me quite well and I do not blame them for the decisions I made that time when I was young,” Munashe said.
“It was then I started getting into relationships with other males. The challenge for me that time as young as I was; was not being able to negotiate for safe sex. I was living in a small town and I was not empowered enough to seek medical care. How would I approach the nurses and tell them that I was suffering from a sexually transmitted infection? I would let it heal by itself.”
As Munashe grew older, his sexual orientation became an open secret and all hell broke loose when his parents discovered that he was dating other males in 2011.
“Being born to African parents, they were in denial. They got very angry and attributed their separation to what they termed my abnormal behavior. I was taken to prophets, traditional healers anything you can think of, but that did not change me,” he said.
“I was forced into an arranged marriage — twice — thinking that it would change my ‘behaviour’. I sired three children from the marriages. I decided that I was not being honest with my life and I left to live the person that I am, that is being gay. I think my parents have just given up.”
Munashe said with three children to fend for and with no job he found himself going back into sex work.
Zimbabwe’s economy is in the doldrums with a debilitating liquidity crunch evidenced by the acute cash shortage in the market, low capacity utilization of less than 50% and the closure of hundreds of companies from various sectors of the economy. This has resulted in the increase of the country’s unemployment rate to more than 90%.
“Sometimes I visit nightclubs to get clients, but most of the time I operate via my mobile. Some of my clients just call if they want sex. I also meet my clients online. With years of experience, I don’t run out of ways of how to attract my clients.
Depending on the type of client, day and month, I take home between US$40 and US$150 per day,” Munashe said.
His job, however, comes with numerous risks.
“You have not graduated from sex work if you are not raped. You have to experience rape along the way in this profession. As male sex workers, we are also attacked by female prostitutes as we will be competing for the same clients. Police also harass us and take our money and because we are male sex workers having sex with men, we are not protected unlike the female sex workers because it is taboo in this country. It can get one arrested. We are extremely discriminated.”
Munashe, who is also a devout Christian, today chairs Male Sex Workers in Zimbabwe, an advocacy group that helps gay men who are economically disadvantaged.
“I go to church almost every Sunday. I am not stealing from anyone. I see God in me and I love myself. People have to accept and love me the way I am because that is me. I am not going to change,” he said.
Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz) director Chester Samba in an interview said there were a number of gay sex worker organizations that have been formed specifically to deal with how they can be empowered against a discriminative society.
The groups, including Zimbabwe Sex Workers Alliance, Male Sex Workers of Zimbabwe and Rainbow Leaders, cater for the gay sex workers’ rights and health needs.
“That is a new terrain for us, but the main challenges that the gay sex workers face in Zimbabwe are mostly health issues, the ability to negotiate for safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases and accessing health services. The attitude of nurses at public institutions is a cause for concern.
“At times nurses call each other and say come and look; we have a (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex) LGBTQI person with an STI, or some bring a Bible and throw it over their laps,” Samba said. “They also face challenges of being extorted by those they would have entered into a relationship with. Hoping to get money out of it, they expose them. Law on the criminalization of same-sex also creates problems for this community.”
The constitution guarantees rights such as equality and non-discrimination, but is silent on specific rights for LGBTI community. Zimbabwe criminalizes same-sex relations.
Former president Robert Mugabe was a fierce critic of homosexuality and was known for making homophobic statements over the years, going to the extent of describing gay people as “worse than pigs and dogs”.
The Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) director Itai Rusike told the Zimbabwe Independent that his organization subscribes to the principle of leaving no one behind in order for the country to move towards achieving universal health coverage. CWGH has branches across the country.
“The ongoing political reforms in Zimbabwe need to be part of a wider effort to realize the right to health and be a critical enabler to social justice and equity. As such while we agree that the right to health is entailed to a progressive realization we call on the new Zimbabwe government to ensure that those who are currently left behind are prioritized first,” Rusike said.
“This includes the poor, prisoners, women and children and marginalized populations, including men who have sex with men, transgender persons, drug users and sex workers, many of whom are currently denied their right to equal access to health services.”
Samba, in addition, hoped that President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his new government would desist from the discriminatory remarks Mugabe used to make against the LGBTQI people.
“In 2017, we recorded quite a number of cases of harassment and intimidation on our members. However, I must also say that there was a massive decrease may be because the political players have been busy with factional fights and so forth.”