Coming out in Freetown
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UNHCR) - For most of my life, going to a hairdressing saloon has been a necessary inconvenience. I have never looked forward to it, nor exchanged confidentialities with my hairdresser. Hence, when this new hairdresser was recommended to me in Freetown, I remained as shy as I have always been, rushing in and out of his saloon, keeping my lips tightly shut.
However, over time I could not resist the friendliness and communication skills of Abbey. As he kept smiling at me, telling me about his nocturnal affairs - making no attempt to hide his sexual preference of being gay - I became interested to learn more about his turbulent life that had brought him from his native Liberia to Guinea and eventually to this unglamorous saloon in Sierra Leone.
When Abbey left the Liberian capital of Monrovia, he was still attending high school. A colonel of the West African ECOMOG peacekeeping force helped him financially to pursue his studies. But the assistance ended when the officer left the country, and Abbey decided to leave too, before he could complete his final exams. "Things are getting hard," he told the family he left behind. "I don't want to be forced to join the military and be killed."
That was back in 1996. He headed towards safety, with a group of friends to Nzérékoré in the Guinean rainforest. With no income and only rudimentary knowledge of French, he decided to move on to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. He was lucky as he was given the chance to learn a trade in a hairdressing saloon. The saloon was owned by a Sierra Leonean woman who had herself escaped from the civil war in her country.
Men at risk
In 1998, the war in Sierra Leone took a short break. Abbey's Sierra Leonean boss decided to return home and relocated her saloon to Freetown. She invited Abbey to follow her and that is how the 23-year-old ended up in the Sierra Leonean capital. He was the only male employee in the saloon but soon built up a good circle of clients among ECOMOG officers. To make ends meet, he also used to go to their houses to do pedicure and manicure.
This turned out to save his life. In May 1999, when RUF (the Revolutionary United Front) rebels entered Freetown, Abbey was arrested three times by ECOMOG forces who accused him of being a rebel because of his Liberian accent. Once, threatened with death, he was recognised by the driver of an ECOMOG officer who was among his customers, and released.
Now peace has returned to Sierra Leone. Abbey does not want to go back to Liberia: "I don't feel safe there." He feels happy and independent with his social and professional life in Freetown. He met new friends, among them many gays, but remains discreet when it comes to his sexual orientation: "It is difficult to be a refugee and being a gay refugee is more difficult".
Before coming to Freetown, gay Sierra Leonean refugees living in Conakry had warned him that openly gay men are not accepted in Sierra Leone. "They used to provoke and embarrass gay people," he was told. Although more relaxed after years of being in the capital, Abbey still heeds this warning.
There is a lot of stigma in Freetown around the gay community and "you can be open only to people you know and trust," he said. As jobs are scarce, homosexuals find it risky to come out openly as they are afraid of being fired.
Coming out in exile
Fellow Liberian, Rose, escaped from Monrovia in 1996, after rebels attacked her house and killed her father in front of the family. For her, it was the end of her youth and peaceful family life. Traumatised, she ran away to Ghana with a group of friends by car.
In Ghana, she was hosted in Buduburam refugee camp, where she attended a sewing training course with help from the UN refugee agency.
There, she also came out, starting a relationship with another woman at the camp. When the woman left the country to look for a better life in Europe, Rose felt lonely and isolated and decided to go to Sierra Leone. She did not want to go back to Liberia, as she was afraid about the security situation and her family, who probably would not have accepted her new personal choice.
The woman, much older than Rose, still supports her financially from overseas. Thanks to these contributions, Rose was able to build a small place of her own in Freetown. Unfortunately, her shelter burned down in an accident and she now has to share a place with other friends.
Still, life for Rose in Freetown is quite comfortable. She remains discreet about her sexual orientation. She thinks that her Sierra Leonean neighbours are not aware about her "world".
No more hiding
Abbey and Rose would like to share their concerns with refugees living in the eight Liberian refugee camps. "It is important to talk about HIV/AIDS," said Abbey.
"I am responsible for my future and I would encourage others to be responsible as well." However, he is wary that a refugee camp is a small community, where no privacy and security can be guaranteed and where homophobia reigns.
"Everybody should be aware about this disease," added Rose. "Practising safe sex and counselling are two important elements to prevent the disease."
Rose and Abbey are among the 66,000 Liberian refugees currently living in Sierra Leone. Their story is seldom told, but it should remind us of minorities around the world whose rights should also be respected and protected, whether at home or in exile.
By Francesca Fontanini
Freetown, Sierra Leone