Ellen Chademana is Soulforce’s newest board member. It’s only through a harrowing struggle as an LGBT activist in her home country of Zimbabwe that she came to be in the United States.
Ellen was an employee of GALZ, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, in the capital city of Harare. The LGBT community support center is under constant surveillance and harassment from the regime of Robert Mugabe, the 88 year-old authoritarian president of the southern African country. Mugabe has famously, and repeatedly, called gays and lesbians “worse than pigs and dogs” in various public forums and in the state-controlled media. Because of this official government sanction of hatred of LGBT people, homophobia is rampant in the state and local media and among influential religious leaders in the country.
In May 2010, Ellen and another colleague were arrested at work and were sent to the notorious Harare Central Remand Prison, a rotting jail built to house black prisoners during the country’s days as minority white-governed Rhodesia. There Ellen endured unimaginable abuse at the hands of the local police forces as they tried to force her to reveal names of LGBT clients that GALZ served. The following is her account of her living nightmare in the colonial prison:
“In 2010 I was arrested in Zimbabwe for being a gay activist, and for speaking out my mind. I was falsely charged with undermining the president and possession of pornographic material. Undermining the president, that’s a lifetime in jail, and pornographic material, probably a sentence of a year or less. But I didn’t have any of that—I was falsely charged.”
Ellen and her fellow employee were arrested because the office displayed a letter from former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown criticizing Mugabe’s anti-LGBT rhetoric and commending GALZ for their work. The arrest and the false charges were designed to ostracize Ellen in the community and shut down conversation about civil rights for LGBT people.
“I was in prison for six days and they really didn’t want me out. Every day they’d pull me out, put me in a dark room, beat me, kick me in the stomach, hit me under my feet with a rubber club. To this day I can’t even put on high heels because of that.
“I went through so much torture. At times I was made to sit, to squat for an hour with no support. But mostly it was the beating that they did. Every day, they would call me in, asking for information on who is gay, who is lesbian in the country because I work hand-in-hand with them. So I refused to give them names. It was because I kept refusing to give them names that they kept beating me up every day.
“In the cells, I was being tortured too by the prison guards. At one time I was scared for myself because I thought they were going to rape me. They’re capable of doing that, and they’ll get away with it.
“The cell that I’m in there’s no water or plumbing. There’s feces on the floor, there’s urine on the floor, and you’re not allowed to wear shoes. I cried the first days, because I never thought I’d find myself in a situation where you smelled yourself and you feel very dirty, I never thought that would ever happen. I cried the first days until I couldn’t cry anymore. I’d walk and I’d step on the feces and the urine.”
Exacerbating these already inhumane conditions, Ellen is diabetic and had no access to insulin. She was having her monthly period and had no access to sanitary products. The “food” in the prison, if it can be called that, is rancid and contributes to diarrhea and cholera for long-term prisoners.
It was Ellen’s brave refusal to name names and compromise the safety of the LGBT people that GALZ served that worsened the torture and extended her imprisonment. She came up with some clever countermeasures to keep the police guessing. As she says, “I had a lot of time to think about what to do when I was in the cells.”
They would ask for information, they wanted names, a database. They had my laptop and my computer that I use at work. All the information was right there in front of them.
“They called me in every day, made me switch it on, and then they would ask me to get information. So, whilst they were not looking, I would open the documents and delete.
“They would say, ‘What are you doing?’
“And I would say, ‘I’m going to check in the recycle bin.’
“And then I’d go into the recycle bin and I’d delete them again. I just kept deleting.
“Just before I was released there was a guy, I think he was a senior guy in the police force. He gave me a pen and paper and said that I should give him the names. He really forced me to give him the names. I told him, ‘People don’t give their real names at the center, we use pseudonyms.’
“He insisted I give him names, so I started to write, ‘Beyonce’… ‘Rihanna’…
“He said, ‘Who is Beyonce? Who is Rihanna? Where are they?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know who Beyonce is, I don’t know who Rihanna is, but they just come to the center.’
“He said, ‘This is no good.’
“I said, ‘That’s what we do.’ Eventually he just gave up.”
Ellen’s case was taken up by Front Line Defenders, an Irish organization that provides international legal support to human rights workers in trouble with their local governments, and by the United Nations.
“The day that I knew that the U.N. got involved, and my lawyers told me that I was going to get out tomorrow, I spent the whole night standing, holding the bars, just looking at a little hole where I could see outside. I was waiting for the sun to come up, because I knew when the sun came up I was going to get out. I spent my birthday in the jail. It was six days, but it felt like an eternity. They could have made me stay there longer.”
Even after being released from prison, Ellen’s problems with the Mugabe government were far from over.
“My trial for possession of pornography took a year; and after that one ended I had to now go on trial for undermining the president.
“Before they started that trial, I was invited to another workshop in the United States. So I came. It was a nonviolent conflict workshop in Boston. I was here for a week. I was supposed to go back after a week.
“I was sent an e-mail from back home saying I should wait a few days before coming home, because the police were looking for me. So I stayed for a couple of weeks. But then it was a month, two months, they’re still looking for me. They’re going to my family’s house, my job, everything looking for me. So I ended up deciding to seek asylum in the United States. I told my boss I couldn’t keep staying here; I needed to do something.”
The GALZ offices had been raided again in August of 2012. This time, forty-four members of the organization were arrested and beaten in a similar manner to what Ellen had endured. The center is closed now.
“So I started seeking for my asylum. I got my asylum in the U.S. in December 2012. It was so quick. The asylum officer was really nice. She said, ‘It was an honor to meet you.’ She said she had heard so much about me. My lawyer came out and was like, ‘I have never heard an immigration officer say that to anybody.’”
Ellen is now working at The Attic, an LGBTQ youth center in Philadelphia. She continues her non-violence work through War Resisters International. Soulforce is proud to have Ellen Chademana as a board member, and as a witness to principles of relentless nonviolent resistance to oppression in the face of brutality and humiliation that most of us in America cannot even imagine.