‘Leaving my tribe in Cameroon was the only way I could live openly as a lesbian’:
Influencer Bandy Kiki on rising above death threats to be the LGBT+ advocate she is today
‘There was a real sense of excitement, mixed with guilt and fear, when I first visited the Gay Village’
Manchester Evening News | One of the earliest memories Bandy Kiki can remember of growing up in Cameroon is the ‘earthy smell’ as the rain hit the ground after a scorching hot day.
The nearby fireside, used to prepare that evening’s meal, had now been whittled down to nothing but a sizzle.
It’s a far cry from Bolton, where Kiki, 30, now lives.
Venturing from Cameroon all the way to Greater Manchester is an achievement in itself but it’s made all the more impressive when you hear Kiki’s story for the first time.
Born into a Catholic family in Nso, a tribe located in the Northwest region of Cameroon, Kiki was brought up on being conservative, courageous and welcoming.
“As a child, I was inquisitive and that curiosity turned to pressing questions in my head as I grew older,” Kiki tells the Manchester Evening News.
“I remember wondering why a woman cannot become the Fon, which is the traditional ruler of Nso, even though a woman had founded Nso.
“Even when I found the courage to ask questions, ‘that is how it has always been’ was always a popular reply.”
In her early teenage years, Kiki started to realise she was developing romantic feelings for other girls.
In 2006, when Kiki was 15 years old, Cameroon was swept up in an ‘anti-gay crusade’ where more than 50 prominent figures were publicly called out for being homosexual by weekly tabloid L’Anecdote.
“I didn’t have the typical attraction to boys and while my friends went on and on about them, I was busy trying to unpack my feelings,” Kiki explains.
“But this incident made me aware of the legal implications of homosexuality in Cameroon.
“This, in addition to the Catholic doctrine against homosexuality, sent me on a war against myself.
“I tried to pray the feelings away but eventually gave in when prayers failed me.”
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In Cameroon, it is still illegal for same sex relationships. Anyone caught having relations with a person of the same sex can still face anywhere from six months to five years in prison.
“Homophobia is political in Cameroon and across most African countries,” Kiki explains.
“Politicians are aware that anti-LGBT+ laws help them gain support and win elections.
“Taking a strong stand against homosexuality is the easiest way to manage an economic crisis or excessive corruption.
“Homophobia is sadly one of the reasons why failed leaders are seen as national heroes.”
Driven by the same curiosity she had as a young child, Kiki decided she had to leave Cameroon to see what outside life could be like.
“When it came to my sexuality, I didn’t see the possibility of someday living openly in Cameroon as a lesbian,” she adds.
In 2011, Kiki moved to Bolton to pursue a degree at the University of Bolton after hearing about how good the British education system was.
It was during her studies that Kiki stepped foot on the world-famous cobbles of Manchester’s gay village for the first time.
“There was a real sense of excitement, mixed with guilt and fear, when I first visited the Gay Village,” she says.
“I remember being particularly astonished after seeing a lesbian couple next to me kissing.
“I came from a country where even heterosexuals don’t show that type of affection publicly.
“A part of me kept waiting for the police to show up and arrest everyone even though I knew we weren’t committing a crime.
“Again, this was because I came from a country where the laws say one thing and people in the position of power do another.
“I found it difficult to immediately celebrate my new found freedom and sense of belonging due to years of suppression and fear.”
At the same time, Kiki was very aware that she had been given a ‘fortunate’ opportunity that many other LGBT+ people back home didn’t have.
And so she felt compelled to do more to fight inequalities in Cameroon.
In 2015, she launched her own online blog channel sharing her political views and LGBT+ activism.
A year later, she was listed as one of the most influential Cameroonians under the age of 40.
in addition, she’s founded her own marketing and branding consultancy and is also the co-founder of Rem Clan, a gender-neutral online apparel clothing company inspired by the African and LGBT+ community.
Her work hasn’t always been welcomed with praise.
One website nicknamed Kiki the ‘most hated anglophone on social media in Cameroon’ while she would constantly receive death threats and sickening messages on a daily basis.
“In the beginning, the homophobic messages took a toll on my mental health,” Kiki says.
“However, as time went by I learned to not let them get to me.
“But I still have days when I am emotionally vulnerable and the toxic messages will have an affect on me.”
On another occasion, another group spread false information that Kiki was HIV positive.
“HIV is still stigmatised in many parts of Cameroon,” Kiki says.
“Spreading false information about my HIV status is a way of weaponizing that stigmatisation. Their goal was to make me look damaged and undesirable.
“When you advocate for LGBT+ rights in a desperately homophobic country, death threats and other toxic messages are typical.
“But, I know it is the right thing to do because unchallenged homophobia is extremely dangerous.”
Kiki is now using her platform to help two transgender women, Shakiro and Patricia, who were arrested in February for wearing women’s clothing and charged with ‘attempted homosexuality’.
“Shakiro and Patricia are currently at the notorious New Bell prison where they have shared a room with homophobic cis men since February,” Kiki details.
“They have also been subject to torture and verbal abuses by other inmates and prison guards.
“It is imperative to note the State Council has been unable to provide any tangible evidence against them thus far.
“Having direct contact with them is impossible however, I am in contact with one of their lawyers and also working closely with a local organisation called Working For Our Welling.
“In collaboration with the organisation, we have created a fundraiser to provide basic needs like food, healthcare and transportation for the lawyers who are helping them.”
The hearing is currently scheduled for May 11, after being postponed from its April date.
When asked if she ever thinks Cameroon will become a more accepting country for LGBT+ people, Kiki pauses but remains optimistic.
“Yes, I do,” she says.
“I’m hopeful that it will happen in my lifetime.
“Visibility and awareness is helping change a lot of minds but unfortunately it’s just not happening as fast as I would like.
“I think about returning to Cameroon on a daily basis.
“I want to be able to visit my mother’s grave who was unfortunately buried in my absence.”