For Steave Nemande, the highlight of the last few months wasn’t winning an international activism award and getting to travel around the world to presentation dinners in his honor. The highlight was last week, when he handed the Prime Minister of Cameroon — his country — the first copy of the report he had completed with Human Rights Watch. Nemande is openly gay, and the report was on the violence committed toward gay men and lesbian women in Cameroon, where homosexuality is still illegal. To fight the injustice, he founded Alternatives Cameroun, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the many homosexuals who live in fear.
“In Cameroon, it’s very difficult to even meet officials. There’s confusion, and you don’t even know how to get to [the officials],” said Nemande. The prime minister promised he would examine and consider the claims in the report — a victory in itself, Nemande pointed out. (Just afterward, the foreign minister, for whom they had also brought a copy of the award to present, denied him reception.)
Though his homeland may not yet support him, Nemande and imprisoned Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo (also the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize) were honored with the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, given annually by Human Rights Watch (HRW). At the dinner and awards presentation last Sunday, Nemande took the stage while Xiaobo was honored in absentia, since he’s currently fulfilling an 11-year prison sentence in China for co-authoring Charter 08, a petition for the rights of the Chinese people. Tong Li accepted Xiaobo’s award as a fellow activist and friend. Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize this October; HRW, however, chose him as the Des Forges Award this past spring — long before the Nobel winners were announced.
“The idea that it’s all talk, and that the human rights movement is not getting anything done, is just not true,” said Victoria Riskin. She’s chair of the Santa Barbara Committee of Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit known for its in-depth reports on violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the first few weeks of November, HRW hosts annual dinners around the world to honor their award recipients. Santa Barbara is just one of more than a dozen committees that are receiving Nemande and Xiaobo.
Nemande’s trip will keep him in California for several weeks, a place that he says has been friendly and welcoming to him. He says that the problems we have here — homophobic insults, lack of legal gay marriage — are the problems he dearly wishes he had in Cameroon, where lesbian women can be kept from their children and gay men beaten and attacked, all with government support.