In 2007 Dr. Crystal (Cal) Biruk received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “The Politics of Knowledge Production in Collaborative AIDS Research in Malawi,” supervised by Dr. Sandra T. Barnes. In 2015 Dr. Biruk then received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on “The Politics of Vulnerability in the LGBT-Rghts/global Health Nexus in Malawi”. Most recently Dr. Biruk received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Workshops on Research with Key Populations.”
On 20-21 June 2019, in collaboration with Dr. Alister Munthali and Gift Trapence, I convened “Workshops on Research with Key Populations,” which drew 20 Malawian scholars drawn from fields such as anthropology, sociology, history, political science, and psychology. I formulated the concept for these workshops on the premise of facilitating open conversations and knowledge sharing on LGBTQI+ issues in Malawi amid state-sanctioned homophobic discourse. I hoped to provide a space for interested participants to network and gain deeper exposure to scholarly perspectives on these issues, and to share opportunities for future research and collaboration. Further, I anticipated that the workshops could build links between a local LGBTQI+ organization I work with and scholars of gender and sexuality, so as to enhance future potential collaborations and consultancies.
The workshops were held at the university to capitalize on nascent interest, observed by myself and colleagues, in LGBT issues. Given that the Global Fund in recent years awarded its largest ever grant to Malawi—contingent on inclusion of sexual minorities in HIV and AIDS programming and policy—it is a pivotal moment to generate interest among Malawian scholars and students in research questions that might enable local expertise and participation in the collection and analysis of empirical data pertaining to the health and other concerns facing men who have sex with men and other LGBT persons in Malawi. Nurturing the interest of a small community of Malawian scholars and students in LGBT issues, I think, can help dispel the general sentiment that ‘gay issues’ are the purview of white westerners and imperialism.
The workshops opened with three presentations on research and programming with key populations in Malawi, followed by a lively question and answer session. The presentations were given by Malawian experts with experience working with key populations in the sectors of academia (political science and medicine) and civil society, respectively (a programmes coordinator for a Malawian LGBTQI+ rights organization based in Malawi’s capital). Taken together, the three presenters covered in great detail existing research on sexual minorities in Malawi, ethical issues involved in working with vulnerable populations and within a homophobic environment, overview of national policies as they intersect sexual minority issues, and community-level responses and programming directed at the many needs of sexual minorities.
The workshops were a very fruitful space in which interested academics found opportunity for frank discussions on a sensitive issue. The general consensus of the group—following vibrant discussions and debates—was that it is the role of researchers to contribute to building a high quality and robust body of evidence that can shed light on issues facing key populations, and that can enhance existing programming and interventions and policies. Participants particularly enjoyed small group discussions centered on pre-circulated readings authored by African scholars of queer theory and gender and sexuality in Africa. Many of the concepts and themes drawn from these texts enabled participants to draw links between manifestations of “queer” across time and space, and to put forth examples and anecdotes that helped localize LGBTQI+ issues.
The most excitement in the workshops was around mobilizing the expertise in the room (qualitative and social science research) to fill important gaps in the research that has been undertaken up to now with key populations in Malawi (which has primarily been focused on HIV/AIDS transmission, biomedical issues, and health). In this regard, those present were interested in issues such as, for example, the history of homosexuality in Malawi, inclusion of ‘other’ LGBTI persons in research programs (lesbians, gender non conforming women, transgender persons) overly focused on MSM, issues around mental health and counseling or provision of safe spaces, access to justice, development and agriculture, indigenous forms of ‘homosexuality,’ issues around language/translation and naming (for example, as they pertain to the questions and tools used by Afrobarometer to measure homophobic attitudes in the country).
The workshops culminated in the formation of a “think tank” that has committed to using their expertise to bring important qualitative and social scientific perspectives to issues faced by key populations in Malawi, and, also, to mobilize evidence and data to erode stigma and homophobia in the general populace (through, for example, holding research conferences on the topic, or sharing findings in public venues like radio or media publications). This think tank has called itself “Key Populations Research Programme” and is based at Centre for Social Research in Zomba, Malawi. I will head up the Programme, in collaboration with my colleagues Dr. Alister Munthali (CSR, Malawi), and Gift Trapence (CEDEP). The think tank has put forth an ambitious plan to secure funds from foreign and local sources that can invest in research programs that draw on the expertise of the group.
Importantly, this workshop was a monumental moment in which CEDEP has built an important bridge with University of Malawi, facilitating dialogue, collaboration, and exchange of ideas and opportunities. One major problem faced by CEDEP—an LGBTQI+ NGO I work with in Lilongwe, Malawi—is the shortage of consultants they can draw on to undertake consultancies who are well versed in and familiar with terminologies, issues, and general contours of the key populations space. It is my hope that the bridges built at these workshops will help solve this problem, and also present opportunities to expand its existing research foci to include, as well, important social scientific inquiries that will inevitably lead to better informed and evidenced advocacy, better tools and instruments, better policy, and better interventions.
The Programme has, up to now, created a listserv and a Whatsapp group to facilitate staying in touch, and, in order to preserve momentum, is aiming to source funds to support future meetings for the group. The purpose of the meetings will be to strengthen the network, include speakers and presentations and training modules to enhance the knowledge and familiarity of researchers with key populations issues, terminology, etc., and enable gathering space to collaborate in person on relevant calls for proposals, sourcing funds, and developing research questions. The intimacy and interest in collaboration among participants was high, and enabled by informal socializing during tea breaks, lunches, and a dinner for participants held at a local restaurant.
We hope that the Programme will become a model for other countries, and that research and inquiries undertaken by the Programme will help build a robust evidence base to contribute to a multisectoral approach to the diverse and complex issues faced by key populations in Malawi. The event and ensuing excitement around these issues have been first hand evidence of the value of engaged anthropology that builds on momentum around research agendas and issues emergent in local contexts.