By Siân Lambert – Kaleidoscope Trust Communications Manager
“In Botswana, family is everything. Your responsibility isn’t just to yourself, it’s to your whole family and it’s your family who will shelter you and keep a roof over your head.
“If you’re successful and keep your identity mostly undercover then you’ll be accepted. But it’s difficult for LGBTI+ people to find work, especially if it’s obvious that you’re queer. And if you’re queer and not working you’re seen as useless. We hear all the time of LGBTI+ people who have been chased out of their families, and sadly we can’t offer them accommodation. But we can listen to them, give advice and help them to find peace and healing. That’s what being a COLA is all about – touching people’s lives.”
I’m sitting in a meeting room in Gaborone, Botswana with two colleagues from Kaleidoscope Trust. It’s the last day of our week-long scoping mission to Namibia and Botswana and a small group of amazing volunteers are telling us their stories. These are some of LEGABIBO’s COLAs, which stands for Community Organisers, Leaders and Activators.
LEGABIBO is Botswana’s longest established LGBTI+ civil society organisation. For over twenty years it has successfully advocated for LGBTI+ rights in Botswana, driving forward the legal challenge which led to the country’s Supreme Court overturning the colonial-era anti-sodomy law in 2021.
But it can be easy for an organisation which focuses on advocacy and campaigning to lose touch with the community it represents. The COLAs programme is one of the ways in which LEGABIBO connects with the wider LGBTI+ community and links them to advice, support and current campaigns.
COLAs are LGBTI+ individuals who are well known within their communities and who have volunteered to be a go-to person for advice and support. They receive training so they can provide paralegal advice, can link to psychosocial support (where it exists) and can pass on information about where to access services such as healthcare and training.
Very often they are just a sympathetic ear to listen, in a country where LGBTI+ people continue to face high levels of discrimination and violence.
“It is tough sometimes,” one trans woman tells us, “Because we are community members too and we are often facing the same issues as the people we’re trying to help. I hear from other trans people about their difficulties accessing healthcare or getting the hormones they need and that’s my reality too. There are days when the dysphoria is so strong and I just want to hide away. But I also want to keep being there for others. I know that sometimes I can help, just by writing an email or signposting someone to some legal advice.”
COLAs are also the link between LEGABIBO’s advocacy and the wider community. In the recent country-wide consultation carried out by the Botswanan Government on potential changes to the Constitution, COLAs attended local meetings to stand up and make the case for LGBTI+ rights to be recognised.
The visibility that comes from taking such a role is not always easy. Recent protests organised by evangelical churches have seen large numbers of Batswana taking to the streets carrying homophobic signs and pledging to ‘protect children’ from homosexuality.
“I definitely have the fear of exposure,” one lesbian tells us, “Most of us are not fully out in all areas of our life. When the church demonstrations were happening there was a huge march in my home town. It was supported by the church my family goes to. I just couldn’t talk to my mother or look at photos, I was so afraid that she may be on the march. So yes, when I stand up to speak as a COLA I do have that fear.”
But the COLAs we speak to are adamant that despite the challenges of the role, which is voluntary but carries a small stipend for expenses, they are dedicated to continuing to make a difference.
“This doesn’t feel like a job, it’s something I need to do to help my community,” one volunteer tells us, “The people I speak to are not comfortable being known, even to LEGABIBO. Walking through the doors of this building would feel too risky to them. But they can speak to me and I can be that link.”
By the end of our time speaking with the COLAs I am close to tears. Throughout our week-long visit to Namibia and Botswana we have met so many incredibly brave human rights defenders leading the fight for LGBTI+ rights, whose skills and resilience I am in awe of. But in this room I am reminded of the importance of something which stands behind all that activism and advocacy: community. Yes, the COLAs will continue to support the push for change. But they will also stand with countless LGBTI+ community members for whom that change cannot come soon enough, and do their best to provide them with advice and support in an often hostile world.
Kaleidoscope Trust has provided funding to LEGABIBO to support the COLAs programme, enabling them to access paralegal training to support community members to understand their legal rights and to make the case for constitutional reform which would protect LGBTI+ people. During the COVID-19 pandemic we also provided emergency funding which enabled LEGABIBO to work with the COLAs to identify LGBTI+ community members in dire hardship and deliver emergency food parcels to them.