Why do the Americans who follow international news know the names Aung San Suu Kyi, Elena Bonner, and Thich Quang Do but not Frank Mugisha? Why do they know Uganda is considering a law to punish homosexuality with the death penalty but they're unaware of the nation's heroic gay rights leader? Other people know Mugisha. Last year he won the Rafto Prize, the Norwegian global award for human rights, previously given to Suu Kyi, Bonner, and Thich, and he won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Our conflict-obsessed media leaves too many people with the impression all of Africa north of Joburg is a wasteland of ignorance and intolerance. Signs of gay progress are invisible here. The news stories are not balanced by, for example, the success of Kenya's first LGBT film festival last September. Social media was a driving force in the Arab Spring, but reporters never deign to mention the thriving online world of gay Africa, from the continent-spanning Behind the Mask to more local magazine's such as Morocco's Mithly, and, launched just last month, Rainbow Sudan.
Unfiltered, firsthand experience is best. Short of a long trip to see for yourself, you can immerse your senses in the Zimbabwean novel The Hairdresser of Harare [Kindle] by Tendai Huchu who now lives in Scotland. Told in the breezy style of another Edinburgh author who writes about Africa, Alexander McCall Smith, Huchu's book is full of surprises. Would you ever have guessed a struggling, 26 year-old single mom hairdresser would have a live-in maid? Funny, smart, and sensible, the narrator Vimbai is the queen of Khumalo Hair & Beauty Treatment Salon. That is, until she's gently dethroned by the salon's first male stylist, the charming, handsome 22 year-old Dumisani Ncube. He rents a spare room from Vimbai, allowing her a peek at his amazing abs but still blind to what Western readers will see instantly, he's gay.
Postponing this revelation until the end of the book is one of a couple of sticky decisions, but plot really isn't the point. The immense pleasure of The Hairdresser of Harare is its window into another world, where the characters display enviable insouciance in coping with delusional customers who want to look like Beyonce, massive currency devaluation, unreliable men, severe rationing, disapproving parents, official bribes, demanding children, military jackboots, family rifts, electricity blackouts, stale rap music, corrupt politicians, hellfire preachers, and worries about what to wear. To them, it's just life.
Although this is his first novel, Huchu is nimble in depicting every layer of social strata. The working-class girls style the hair of a dragon lady government Minister, and after she's (unwittingly) been Dumi's beard at his brother's wedding, Vimbai enters his family's life of immense privilege. Newly comfortable with infinity pools, armed guards, and a sister schooled in America, she struggles at dinner with the knife and fork, having always eaten rice with a spoon and chicken with her hands. It's a dazzling moment, telling the reader far more than the narrator knows. Similarly, we see all of Dumi's anguish and excitements as a closeted gay young man through details that Vimbai notes without understanding. Flawed in its final pages by sudden character reversals and re-reversals, the novel is still a rewarding and necessary read.