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Leila, Niya – and later Nella Liquid Stranger Shirt formed a community. Now there are dozens of women who see themselves as Burundi’s secret lesbian collective. Some have support from their families. A few are married with children. No-one is openly out. When the group first formed, they mostly hung out. Burundi is well known in the Great Lakes for its vibrant nightlife. Bujumbura has fewer than 500,000 inhabitants but maintains a vivid youth culture.
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The city, with its colonial-era Art Deco buildings surrounding a market, a football stadium and places of worship, sits on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The country has been home to bouts of conflict since independence in 1962. But today, for many young people enjoying the nightlife in Bujumbura, those tensions feel another lifetime away. Many members of the group say they have experienced violence at the hands of family members who became suspicious about their sexuality.
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Tourists from neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo can be found enjoying the nightlife in the clubs or the five-star hotel bars. Leila, Niya, Nella, and their friends would often meet at these places. But listening to each other’s life stories led to a somber realization. Being a lesbian in Burundi was not just culturally frowned upon – it was dangerous. The woman, while being a lesbian, was not arrested for her sexuality the authorities were unaware of it, she believes.
It was because the woman had retaliated against domestic abuse in her family home, and lashed out against her abuser. Leila thinks domestic abuse in families where a woman is suspected of being lesbian or bisexual is a big cause for concern. The group has heard of abuse as a result of sexuality but it is impossible to verify. Often women withdraw their stories for fear of Liquid Stranger Shirt what might happen to them believes the case is not as cut and dried as it seems.