When Djamil Bangoura speaks, the Senegalese LGBT community listens. Article 319 of the Penal Code, which prohibits and penalizes homosexuality in Senegal, mutes LGBT voices. Bangoura unifies a community marginalized in a country known for its hospitality, and he has over 10 years of experience organizing sexual minorities in francophone West Africa. In 2003, he established Association Prudence, a LGBT health and human rights advocacy group based in Dakar.
Since its establishment as a grassroots organization, Prudence has grown to serve 500 Senegalese in the local LGBT community . The group primarily targets men who have sex with men (MSM), focusing on HIV/AIDS sensitization, education, and testing. Bangoura envisioned an organization that engages the community, providing home visits, group discussions, prevention education, and HIV/AIDS testing. The HIV/AIDS prevalence is 0.5% in Senegal, but the prevalence ranges between 38.4-44% among Senegalese MSM.
Prudence improves the community’s health by reducing poverty, unemployment, homelessness, violence, stigma, and discrimination. Bangoura’s work, which is recognized by international LGBT advocates, is not often acknowledged in a society that silences its gay brothers and sisters.
Bangoura grew up in Pikine, one of Dakar’s suburbs, and he accepted his sexuality at the age of 22 after friends pushed him to discover the LGBT community. Like most LGBT Senegalese, Bangoura never came out to his family because others labeled him as goorjigéen, the Wolof translation for homosexual.
“I lived quietly, but unhappily,” Bangoura said. “I was like someone who was imprisoned by himself. I was scared to express myself.”
He understood the consequences of identifying as LGBT in Senegal.
“Physical, moral, and verbal aggressions,” Bangoura said. “Someone will label you as something. They’ll call you homosexual. They’ll label you while insulting your families, treating you like animals.”
While producing music with Senegalese rappers in Dakar, Bangoura entered a romantic relationship with a German friend who financially supported the studio. Once the group discovered their relationship, Bangoura’s partner left the country, and the studio closed. After working with his partner for 10 years, Bangoura lost his job at the studio. He tried to find work for three years.
“I didn’t have any more money, so I found myself in real poverty,” Bangoura said. “I had absolutely nothing. I couldn’t support myself. After three years of unemployment, I couldn’t pay for my apartment.”
Homeless and unemployed in Dakar, Bangoura connected with Serigne, a friend who introduced him to other gay Senegalese. An informal LGBT organization invited Bangoura to a five-day workshop, and it changed his role in the community. He was inspired to turn from music to advocacy.
“I’m unemployed, but I know how to create something,” Bangoura said. “We’re going to see what we can do.”
“Young men have shown me a lot of light,” Bangoura said. “It’s because of this [organization] that I’ve discovered I’m not alone, but there are others, too.”
In the early 2000s, there were no formal LGBT organizations registered with Senegal’s Ministry of the Interior.
“We need to take preventative action for this community,” Bangoura said. “It’s hard. We need to try to support this organization that is the only of its kind, and finally I realized this is an opportunity.”
Bangoura understood he would need to initially frame Prudence as an HIV/AIDS prevention service rather than an LGBT advocacy group in order to gain approval from the government. Although same-sex acts are illegal in Senegal, the Ministry considered Prudence as an HIV/AIDS organization, not an LGBT organization, at a time when the government made strides in prevention efforts.
“And what they told us in response was that they would give us the approval, but not because we’re gay, but because of the objectives they saw in our application,” Bangoura said. “That’s why they would sign, and finally they signed the approval, and Association Prudence became the first organization of gay Senegalese to be officially recognized .”
Established in 2003, the Ministry officially recognized Prudence in 2005.
“Finally we have an association that is solely comprised of the LGBT community whose objective is to fight against HIV/AIDS, which is too high in our community, and to fight against injustice,” Bangoura said. “We promote justice, fight poverty. It’s all part of our primary objectives. Help those infected with HIV to have better treatments and follow-up care. That’s our objective.”
Today, there are 14 organizations improving health outcomes among Senegalese key populations, which include MSM, sex workers, and people who inject drugs. Not only is Bangoura the president of Prudence, but he also leads RENAPOC, the National Network of Key Population Associations. RENAPOC, collaborating with the National Alliance Against AIDS, streamlines the objectives of all 14 organizations.
“Young men have shown me a lot of light,” Bangoura said. “ It’s because of this [organization] that I’ve discovered I’m not alone, but there are others, too. ”
Bangoura has experienced stigma and discrimination and witnessed violence against his community because of Article 319.
“There are certain actors and certain politicians who say that homosexuality is not prohibited by Senegalese law, but, to me, that’s false,” Bangoura said. “This article in the Senegalese constitution condemns homosexuality. That’s what I see. Nobody can say anything else.”
After the police arrested members of Prudence in 2008, Bangoura sought refuge in France for six months before returning to rebuild Prudence.
“I prefer our partners to support our organizations on the ground so that we can continue what we already started,” Bangoura said. “If everyone leaves, then nothing will change. [Prudence] is founded, and they support us. We stayed, and we’re here.”
A letter sent from the Ministry of Health in April 2016 signaled the government’s evolution on LGBT issues. Awa Marie Coll Seck, Senegal’s Minister of Health, invited Bangoura to represent key populations at the United Nations. The invitation confirmed his decision to work with young and vulnerable Senegalese identifying as LGBT.
“When we start to talk, it’s like they’re retelling my story,” Bangoura said. “So I see that we all have the same story.”
Interviews were conducted in French and translated to English.
Image: Djamil Bangoura, courtesy of Association Prudence Facebook