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Gay Ethiopian Health Worker Forced to Flee to Nairobi Shares his Story

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To escape homophobia and persecution, Efi moved to Nairobi, where life remains far from easy


Efi compares his move to Nairobi to Lady Gaga’s song “Mary Jane Holland”, although his life is drug-free and he is certainly not as “rich as piss”. The resonance is more about the song’s first verse: not being a “slave … the culture of the popular”, and being able to “fly under radar tonight/make deals with every devil in sight”. For this Ethiopian public health worker, in embracing his gay identity, made a deal with one of his country’s most abhorred cultural “devils”.

“When I was in Addis Ababa the Orthodox Church published this VCD [video compact disc] about homosexuality in Ethiopia,” the 25-year-old explains in the one-bedroom flat he shares with two friends in east Nairobi. “We were having coffee and a lot of relatives were in the house. When they saw it my aunt made a comment like, ‘If I find one of them, I will kill them’. I shrugged. Everyone said these are like western imported devils. If they know who I am, they will not accept me.”

Yet it was more than just family and cultural pressures that prompted Efi (not his real name) to flee Ethiopia for the Kenyan capital together with three gay friends in April last year.

As in many African countries, homosexuality is a criminal offence in Ethiopia. However, in contrast to places such as Kenya, where gay sex is yet to be decriminalised but the law is very rarely enforced, the Ethiopian government — one of the continent’s most authoritarian — uses antiterrorism legislation to imprison homosexuals for up to 20 years. In early 2015, in the run-up to Ethiopia’s general election in May, the government was cracking down on potential subversives.

Efi’s underground group of gay friends, who called themselves the House of LaFab, had just learnt that the authorities had been monitoring them for some time — including covert meetings they had had at the US, UK and Dutch embassies to garner support for gay rights. Efi feared that in the run-up to the election, in which the ruling coalition won 100 per cent of the seats, he might not be safe. “I was not ready to be outed at my age,” he says. “First of all, I’m not financially stable — I still live with my parents. If the government outs me, where will I go, where will I work? So we thought let’s go to Nairobi, take shelter and if things get better we can go back to our country.”

His family knows he went to Nairobi though not why — hence his refusal to be identified — or where he is now and why he has not returned.