Susan Mirembe Nalunkuma a Ugandan lawyer and frontline feminist currently working with the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA)-a South African based organisation as the sexual rights network coordinator also serves as the Board Chair for Kuchu Times Media Group. Ms Mirembe is the co-founder of an LGBTI organisation The Tara Foundation that works to support the mental and psychological wellness of LGBTIQ Ugandans.
What is Tara Foundation all about and what do you envisage?
The Tara Foundation is a long term dream of mine. Together with many of my activist friends, we’ve always talked about what we need to do to serve the community besides just organizing. We know that there has been focus on health particularly MSM health, and it became obvious that there is a gap when it comes to dealing with mental and psychological issues that arise with coming out, being outed as well as the inner battles that many LGBT persons go through.
People struggle with drug abuse, depression and a lot of other mental health challenges; with Tara Foundation, we just wanted to find a way to address these things. We provide scholarships for queer people to study in Uganda. It could be a degree, diploma, or vocational program. These are intended to equip people with skills and educational capacity to better themselves and also contribute to our community in more meaningful ways.
Tell us about your journey as a civil rights activist and lawyer for the marginalized communities.
I have been an activist for a long time- sometimes , you have to come out to yourself as an activist not as the person who wants to sit on the sidelines and just observe what is happening. I identify as an activist because primarily I work with the LGBTI community; I think that our community is often left on the sidelines and the best way to respond is to do the work ourselves. We can’t just keep saying we want this and that without making any significant contributions to these very needs.
My journey started in high school because that's when I realized there were many injustices in particular towards same-sex loving individuals and those that were outside of the binary. This was a very big reason behind my decision to go yo law school. I thought this would be a good way to address the challenges that the LGBTI community faces, but I’ve learnt that the issues we face are interlinked with the general issues that everyone else faces. Because of this, I have embraced my activism more broadly rather than limiting myself to just LGBT issues.
We know that you were one of the 14 people recently detained in Tanzania, please tell us about this ordeal
First off, I will start by saying thank you to all those that came out and made noise on different social media platforms, it helped a lot for the people to show that kind of solidarity. We truly appreciate everyone who who emailed, sent messages quietly and those that mounted the pressure to have us released- I know my team also appreciates this general love.
The organisation I work with focuses on two broad areas, women’s human rights and sexual rights. With the sexual rights program, we work with the social movements to try and get access to justice by connecting them to lawyers for legal representation; a lot of groups we work with face a big challenge of getting lawyers who can represent their causes. To counter this, we do capacity strengthening of lawyers especially on the knowledge they need in order to represent these clients effectively.
For the past two years we have been working in Tanzania with the social movement and in the last year, the movement in Tanzania felt they were now able to see themselves as a human rights movement that responds to issues. In recent times, there’s been need for the movement to respond to the ban on lubricants. In 2016, the Tanzanian government banned importation and distribution of lubricants claiming that these promote homosexuality and later, the few available drop in centres that had been initiated by previous governments were closed off.
The meeting I was attending on October 17th was a legal consultation between lawyers and their clients to identify who the best lawyers for this case would be and what issues would arise. It was a client consultation just like a therapist sitting with a patient in a closed room. When a lawyer consults with a client it is not an offense.
This meeting was raided by the Tanzanian police force. We had experienced a few security issues before noticing that the meeting was being surveiled. We had to make decision on whether to close off the meeting or proceed and leadership on ground felt it was alright for us to continue since we were not doing anything illegal.
We were arrested on the scene and some of the clients that were arrested were not even in the room, they were at a restaurant on the floor above ours. We were all put at the back of the police truck and driven to the Central Police Station. Here we were interrogated for hours about the meeting. They already had our concept note and agenda so they knew what we were doing. The lawyers from Uganda and South Africa were driven back to the hotel to pick our passports and deposit them with the police. The next day we had to return to police and process bail even though they had said there were no charges against us; they also said we were not being investigated since there was no offense.
We got bail the next day and kept reporting to police until the morning of 20th October when we were told that our bail had been canceled alleging that we had paid a bribe to get bail in the first place. Please note that these allegations were baseless. We were detained on Friday and taken to an underground cell for days as our files moved to various departments. At the district level they had concluded that we committed no offense but the Officer in Charge Benedict Mambosasa decided that there must be a case against us.
We later discovered that police had been keeping us here planning to conduct anal test exams on the people they had arrested. Together we were six women and five men.
Court denied the police’s applications for anal test exams twice since they lacked credible grounds to push for them. We were in detention for a total of seven days ; we slept on cold concrete floors with no blanket or mattress, we were not wearing anything warm, had no shoes, and there was no running water.
On the bright side, this incident exposed so many injustices in the Tanzanian system. The world is now aware of the excesses of the abuse of power by the Tanzanian government. People are also aware of the impunity that goes on in that country and we are happy that now the voices of the social movement in Tanzania can be assisted.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Look out for Ms Mirembe’s full video interview as she further analyses the cause of the rights suppression in Tanzania