Burundi’s LGBTQI+ Community Finds Room to Breathe at “Community Center” ￼
Based in Bujumbura town, Community Center provides psycho-social support and medical care in a safe space where Burundi’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community can gather.
Report by H.M, Contributing writer
“I owe my life to it,” said Eddy (not his real name), a gay man in his late 20s. Stigmatized as “demon-possessed” by his neighbours in northern Bujumbura, Eddy dropped out of school at 18 and fled to Gitega, Burundi’s political capital. That’s where he met a friend who told him about Community Center’s services. Eddy credits center’s weekly sharing sessions with helping him and other LGBTQI+ youth overcome fear and come out.
“Twice, I tried to end my life, but each time, a voice inside me whispered: “You are not alone, you are better than that.’ Community Center was my guardian angel in times of distress,” Eddy said.
Commnunity center offered Eddy new friendships, new acquaintances, and new opportunities to “taste the delights of life.” He now supports other community members as part of the Center’s peer education strategy.
Since opening its doors in 2011, Community Center has helped many LGBTIQ+ people like Eddy stay on their feet.
Asla (not her real name), a Muslim lesbian in her mid 20s who found refuge at the Center, said her sexual orientation still divides her family.
Asla’s parents supported her when she came out in 2020, but her siblings said she had “branched off towards the path of Satan.”
“Even though my parents wanted to protect me, I saw myself banished from the family home. I was no longer invited to any of the family celebrations. My brothers and sisters did not want me near their children. “Get away from this possessed woman” was their only refrain. I was like an outcast,” Asla said.
With pressure from all sides, Asla began to wonder if she really was abnormal. For two years she cut ties with most of her family and only spoke with her mother.Asla’s studies became her escape.
“I was determined to show my family that a girl can be in love with other girls and can fly on her own,” she said.
In her first year at the Lumière University of Bujumbura, Asla learned that she wasn’t alone.
“It is as if there was telepathy. On the first day of the start of the academic year, girls, probably lesbians like me, scanned me from head to toe. Winks were coming from everywhere,” she recalled.
She started visiting the Community Center when a college friend told her about its services and soon joined the team in charge of mobilisation. She now helps other LGBTQI+ people in dire straits come out and benefit from the centre’s psychological support.
Jeanne (not her real name), the mother of a gay son, was reluctant to visit Community Center until she met Asla. “She was able to find the right words to accept my son’s status,” Jeanne said of Asla.
Jeanne then created a WhatsApp group to help parents whose children are gay, lesbian, or transgender “manage” the announcement of this news and help prevent their children from being stigmatised.
“For the masks to fall around homosexuality, we need the energy of people like Asla and Eddy,” said a psychologist working at Community Center. “It is thanks to their desire to no longer live in anonymity that the lines are moving.’’
Since 2011, Community Center has grown to help more than 400 people. K. L., one of the center’s managers, describes this growth as both good and challenging. Community center’s team is now working to extend and diversify their services throughout the country to include emergency housing and financial assistance for persecuted LGBTQI+ people.
Beyond these services, partner organizations recognize how important the Center has been in changing mentalities. “The medical follow-up of key populations in the town hall of Bujumbura thanks to the Center’s peer education strategy has made it possible to play down myths linked to homosexuality,” said Charles (not his real name), an employee at a local HIV/AIDS prevention NGO.
Despite these advancements, some Community Center employees and beneficiaries worry about the Center because it is in the sights of the municipal authorities who accuse it of “advocating homosexuality.” In October the Center’s landlord told staff to look for another home out of fear he would be persecuted. Since the late President Pierre Nkurunziza criminalized homosexuality in Burundi in 2009, anyone seen as sympathizing with the LGBTQI+ community has faced additional suspicion and scrutiny.