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Having safe sex in Swahili

The re-criminalisation of homosexuality by certain African countries is a dangerous step backwards in the battle against HIV/AIDS and poses a serious health threat to these nations. Health workers hope that the freedom of the Internet will come to the rescue



Some 36 countries in Africa have anti-homosexual laws, but the focus has recently been on new draconian legislation passed in Uganda earlier this year and legislation seeking the death penalty for homosexual acts proposed in Kenya. The Ugandan law was promptly struck down by the country’s constitutional court as it failed to attain a parliamentary quorum and the speaker of the house acted illegally in putting it to a vote.

Those MPs promoting the legislation then hoped to pass a new version of the law before year end, but had failed to do so when parliament adjourned for 2014 on Friday, 19 December.

The new version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which proposed life imprisonment, also seeks to criminalise anything seen as funding, promoting or depicting homosexuality, even in fiction. (One imagines that not only Will and Grace and Noah’s Arc, but Downton Abbey and even The Wire would have to be banned.)

Some believe the law is really aimed at curbing funds for human rights and civil society organisations, many of which are in favour of so-called “gay rights”, a culturally problematic term.


Whatever ones views are on homosexuality, criminalisation is a disaster for public health. How can people be informed about sexually transmitted diseases when even a depiction or discussion of high-risk sexual behaviour is forbidden?

Launched this December, is a groundbreaking website with comprehensive sexual health information targeted at men who have sex with men living in east Africa.

The site is an initiative of Health4Men, a project of the Anova Health Institute headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa. Anova works with South Africa’s Department of Health. It partnered with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in 2013 to roll out a comprehensive education programme for African men who practice homosexual sex.

According to a joint press statement, although health workers from several east African countries have been trained to address the specific sexual health needs of men who have sex with men, the availability of quality, holistic, localised and relevant information for these men has been extremely limited.

Dr Andrew Tucker from Health4Men said, “Mobile phones are already changing the way we communicate with each other, and gain access to knowledge. enables MSM to find out how to limit their exposure to HIV no matter where they live.”


The site is fully bilingual, delivering comprehensive information in both Swahili and English to the privacy of a smart phone or a personal computer. Log on to the site and you will see how impressively fast it loads; almost as if it was an app already installed on one’s phone. The code has been specially written for speedy access on even the creakiest connection (unlike Anova’s own homepage which is full of the usual NGO bells and whistles). The mobile interface is as clear as a bell. Information can also be downloaded as a PDF file in seconds to keep for reference.

Photo courtesy of AIDS Alliance

Photo courtesy of AIDS Alliance

The eleven pages of information are in language that is clear and candid, though some of the English grammatical constructions are fairly complex. The Swahili translation had to accommodate key concepts which research by the organisation revealed had not been translated before. The translation, overseen by Dr Paul Semugoma, also needed to speak across different regional variants of Swahili.

In general speech, the scientific terms HIV and AIDS have had to be accepted into common speech, and this differs by language, dialect and locality. So, as appropriate and relevant to context, HIV and/or AIDS was rendered as HIV, ukimwi, virusi vya ukimwi (literally virus that causes AIDS), and also in some locally specific terms like ‘Silimu’ (Uganda).

‘Ngono ya mukundu’ though very literal as a translation for ‘anal sex’ is also not a comfortable term in common use, but was chosen for its clarity and specificity. Where non-specific language was necessary, the chosen terms were ‘ngono mume kwa mume’ or ‘ngono mume na muke’ (man/man sex, or man/woman sex)

Other issues were thrown up by such terms as ‘water based lubricant’. The translation of lube is ‘mafuta’ in Swahili, says Semugoma, generally meaning oil; an oily substance being something one wants to avoid with condoms. It was resolved as “mafuta ya kulainisha ya maji” transliterated as ‘the lubricating oil made of water’

It gets tricky. Many know the term ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, but for clarity top was transliterated as ‘ule aliye juu (anayeingia)’ or ‘the one who is on top (the one who enters)’ and ‘yeye aliye chini (mpokeaji)’– the one who is below/down (the one who is receiving)’.


‘Body fluids’ also presented a problem and was transliterated as ‘maji maji ya mwili’ (the waters of the body).

‘Pre-cum’ was generally not translatable in words that the common Swahili speaker would understand, and tended to mean premature ejaculation. It was left out, says Semugoma.

If the Ugandan law is passed, then on the face of it, would be in breach of that law. But the site servers are based outside of that country. Would internet service providers in Uganda be obliged to block access? Would accessing the site constitute the criminal act of abetting homosexuality?

Governments may now know more about their citizens than ever before, but as geographic limitations dissolve in the Internet age, the attempt to regulate and censor the private sexual lives of consenting adults becomes patently absurd and frankly stupid. It is an unworkable, backward, idiotic law.

But faced with on the one hand overblown anti-Western rhetoric and on the other hand a righteous resistance to being bullied by rich donor countries through trade and threats of withholding investment, it seems unlikely that a human rights based discourse is going to make much progress towards changing minds and hearts right now. A focus on health and education may well be a more productive strategy. It will certainly help save lives.