The wives, mothers and friends who hide their sexuality

The wives, mothers and friends who hide their sexuality

Over a period of a few months, the BBC spoke to dozens of young lesbians in a country where homosexuality is illegal. They told us about their day-to-day lives and how they use secret memes to connect with each other on social media platforms and chat apps.

We have substituted those images with that of a violet for the purpose of this report. The violet does not belong to the group in Burundi or – to the best of our knowledge – any other LGBT+ groups in East Africa or the Great Lakes.

It’s a great day to meet friends in the park. The women are in high spirits, chatting animatedly, playfully sketching patterns on each other using body paint, and sharing a picnic.

They meet once a month, in different places. Sometimes in public but mostly behind closed doors. Most of them are wearing jeans and T-shirts in various colours, patterns and styles.

The T-shirts are important because printed on each one is a discreet, matching symbol. It’s an in-joke – a sign of their identity and independence. Something only they understand.

They could be fined or imprisoned. But there is also the danger that people within their own communities may turn on them.

Nella

Nella sends a photo to the BBC using an encrypted app. She’s pictured sitting on a chair with young children around her.

Another photo appears and this time she is wearing loose jeans and a lesbian cougar dating fitted T-shirt. It’s the same T-shirt she was wearing in the park with the women.

Her curled black hair is visible and falling on her shoulders. She’s sitting at a table in an open-air restaurant, her arm around a young woman whose hair is styled in thin cornrows. Both women beam megawatt, toothy smiles.

Her family don’t know, of course, and she’s taking a risk meeting up. Someone who knows her family may see her. But she’s sure she won’t be recognised, because when she goes to meet her girlfriend, she removes the hijab she wears at home.

Nella was 17 years old when she fell in love with a girl for the first time. They met through sport – something Nella had been passionate about since she was a young girl.

It didn’t turn into a relationship, Nella says, but she knew then that there was no going back. It wasn’t a phase or a crush.

She also knew that she couldn’t tell anyone. She was from a conservative Muslim family. Dating was not an option, let alone with a woman.

The secret language of lesbian love

Nella was born in the city of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. The country, which is one of the world’s poorest, is located in the African Great Lakes region. It has struggled to gain stability since the end of a civil war in 2005, and when it does hit the international headlines, it’s mainly this image that is portrayed.

But this is one-dimensional, says Nella, it’s as if real people with hopes, dreams, love and desire have no place here.

When she was a teenager, Nella dreamed of going to university. But her family were constantly urging her to get married. They would introduce her to members of the extended family, in the hope they could find a match.

When her parents died, Nella’s brothers increased the pressure. There was no money for an education, they said, and besides they didn’t believe a woman needed one.

They knew of a rich man who was interested in her. There was little time to lose, they insisted. At 20 she was getting on a bit.

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