“The law is to know somebody”

If every person has a story to tell, then there are over 900,000 in Ottawa.

However, there are none more compelling than that of Philippe Humuza.

“Humuza fled his country of Burundi for Canada in 2000 in order to find stability, education and escape homophobic legislation and discrimination.

That was just nine years before the Burundi president criminalized homosexual relations for the first time in the country’s history. Sentences range from five months to five years.

Humuza stated how before last year, homosexuality “was tolerated. People knew it was there but no one talked about it.” He added, “now there are beatings, and with the corruption there, people are arrested even if they’re not gay so that they can be blackmailed.”

“There are no laws to protect homosexuals. The law is to know somebody from a good family.”

Humuza pointed to additional social expectations that also stigmatize homosexuals in Burundi.

“There is pressure in our culture where you’re expected to get married at a certain age. Then there’s pressure for when you’re going to have a kid, then a second kid. There’s always pressure, pressure, pressure.”

Humuza stated “most gay people in Burundi are married, to satisfy their families, to protect themselves. If you’re not married at a certain age people think you’re weird, or there’s something wrong with you.”

“Canada changed me though,” Humuza recalled. “In Europe I felt like an outsider, a foreigner. But once you’re in Canada you meet all these cultures and languages and you fit right away. It’s like, ‘welcome home’.”

Since then Humuza has gained confidence, a large circle of friends, and Canadians accept him for who he is and he can now be open in his sexuality. He works at a local clinic in Somerset.

However, it was a strange experience for him. “I’d been pretending all my life and hiding, and suddenly I was in the open.”

Humuza recalled one event when living in Montreal that demonstrated how he had become adept at blending in. “Even in the ‘village’ where I knew it was safe, just seeing two guys just holding hands or kissing, I found it weird.” He laughed. “I had to look over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, and then I remembered, ‘I’m in Canada’. It took some time to adjust.”

He also admits that he still does not like to watch firework displays. “The noise just reminds me of people firing AK-47s at night in Burundi,” he stated matter-of-factly

Now in Ottawa, Humuza finds it more conservative than Montreal. However, he has grown used to it. He said, “it’s like being in a village, whilst also being in a big city.”

Humuza will be returning to Burundi next year, for the first time since the new law was passed.

“I don’t expect any problems,” he said. “However, I will come back to Canada. I have changed too much now to stay in Burundi.”