Young people in Namibia – especially in the Erongo region – are bracing themselves for a prolonged restriction on movement in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.
Cut off from school and usual gatherings with friends, young people face various challenges, from disrupted education to difficult home environments, and for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and more (LGBTQ+), the experience of restricted movement often carries an additional threat – being ‘outed’ to family.
In fact, the United Nations Free and Equal campaign, an initiative to afford LGBTQ+ people legal and social protection worldwide, has documented increased danger for LGBTQ+ people as a result of lockdown measures across the world.
The situation is especially dire for countries where same-sex relations are still criminalised, like the majority of African countries with sodomy laws.
In other circumstances, countries like Uganda and Nigeria have enacted new legislation over the last decade, often draconian in nature, to persecute LGBTQ+ people.
Nevertheless, hope exists with Mozambique, Angola and Botswana repealing their sodomy laws in the last five years. Meanwhile, this past week, Gabon became the first African country to revoke a recently adopted law criminalising same-sex relations.
In Namibia, young people are building upon the movement started by LGBTQ+ advocates such as Liz Frank and Elizabeth !Kaxas. Though prevented from meeting in real time, young people have seized upon social media to make their voices heard. Two such individuals are Omar van Reenen and Rodelio Lewis, both from Walvis Bay, a town currently at the epicentre of Namibia’s Covid-19 infections. Van Reenen is a student in politics, gender studies and biochemistry at the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Oswego in the US. When not shouting down an encroaching phalanx of police during the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Van Reenen leads the student government of SUNY Oswego.
He is also an advocate for LGBTQ+ people in Namibia, and was one of the first to raise the alarm regarding the human rights abuse of a transgender woman in the Omaheke region during stage one of the state of emergency on his Twitter account (@OmarvanReenen).
Van Reenen received a full scholarship to SUNY after he applied during his final year at a local Walvis Bay secondary school. But since the Covid-19 lockdown began in the state of New York, his scholarship has diminished and he has relied on the goodwill of his professors to survive, in addition to limited funds from home. This has not stopped him from advocating the rigths of others.
“LGBT people have been some of the worst hit, we have lost our livelihoods,” he says.
On the significance of the sodomy law in Namibia, the Immoral Practices Act of 1980, Van Reenen says the country’s strength can be found in its diversity.
“Namibia is only strong when it sees its multitude of diverse people’s groups as its biggest strength. This is only achievable with the repeal of this law and encouragement of respect and tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community. The Immoral Practices Act is not only a clear violation of the Constitution, but also of international human rights law,” he says.
Lewis describes himself as “a coloured Namibian, actor, radio presenter, commercial model and queer activist”.
Like Van Reenen, he is an advocate for his community, participating in the #BeFree dialogue for LGBTQ+ inclusion, hosted by Namibia’s first lady, Monica Geingos, at the National Theatre of Namibia in May 2019.