NAIROBI — The sun feels even more scorching under the cap of pollution. Through her binoculars, Patricia Heather-Hayes, nicknamed "Trish," is scrutinizing a lioness sleeping under an acacia in Kenya"s Nairobi National Park. The energetic 60-something, who works in a legal office when she's not out here observing wildlife, knows the name of every feline. "This is Athi. She has three cubs," she says.
Further away, Trish follows the giraffes, the antelopes and the zebras through the savanna. Skyscrapers loom on the horizon. But whenever she strides along the park, she also sees plastic bags, bottles and other food packagings stuck in the bushes or abandoned on the side of the road. This 117-square-kilometer wildlife preserve, the only one in the world located just next to a capital city, is threatened by Nairobi's expansion.
"We find more and more garbage carried by the wind from surrounding residential areas or abandoned by tourists," she says with irritation. "Not long ago, I saw a snake stuck inside a soda can, dying."
In addition to her legal work, Trish serves as vice-president of an association called Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP). Once a month she and other organization members go on long voluntary cleaning missions. Summoning her patience, Trish maneuvers her Jeep so as to avoid the ruts but not miss any garbage, which she picks up with long barbecue tongs. Today, she will fill five 50-liter bags.
Four of the "Big Five"
The national park, created in 1946 by British settlers, is Kenya's oldest and welcomes 120,000 visitors every year. There are no elephants. "The park is too small and doesn't have enough forest for them," explains Hudson Okum, a guide at the Kenya Wildlife Service, the state organization in charge of national parks. But it does have lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalo, i.e. the other "Big Five" animals Safari tours tend to emphasize. All in all, the park has 80 different species of mammals, 450 species of birds, 40 of amphibia and reptiles and 500 different types of trees.
Lionesses at Nairobi National Park — Photo: FoNNaP Facebook page
Because of the reserve's location, on the southern edge of Nairobi, its northern, western and eastern borders are fenced. But it's open on its southern side, which leads to the Athi-Kapiti, a 2,200-square-kilometer semi-arid ecosystem, so that animals can come and go. "In the dry season, they come inside the park to drink in the man-made dams. Then they scatter out across the plains in the rainy season," the young guide explains.
But these annual migrations are now threatened by the city and its 3 million inhabitants. All sorts of buildings, factories and more or less unauthorized houses are sprouting everywhere. "In the 1990s, there were up to 10,000 wildebeests in the park but there are only a few hundred left today," says Muraya Githinji, the park's deputy warden. "There are fewer herbivores because they have less space than before and some of their migratory routes have been cut."
Roads, rails and fences
Northwest of the park, a China-backed project for a 30-kilometer long bypass was launched in 2012 by former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki to relieve traffic congestion in the capital. "Originally, part of the bypass was supposed to run outside the park's northern border," explains Paula Kahumbu, head of the NGO Wildlife Direct. "But in the meantime, that area was sold to realty developers under suspicious circumstances. So the government wanted to go through the park, not to demolish these illegal constructions. But only the Parliament is allowed to modify the reserve's borders."
Together with two NGOs, Kahumbu took the matter to court in May 2013 and obtained the suspension of the works on the disputed stretch. While the government is preparing a new plan, construction continues on the rest of the bypass under the watchful and worried eye of the NGOs.
Ostriches at Nairobi National Park — Photo: shikowanyambura via Instagram
On the northeastern edge, another project threatens to encroach on the park: a railroad for freight trains that will connect Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa and to Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. "This project too risks going through the park. Negotiations on the final route are ongoing," says Muraya Githinji.
In November, newspaper The Star reported on plans by the transport ministry to encroach even further into the park. "The land here has a financial value that the park, which doesn't bring in any money, is struggling to compete with," says David Marechal, an old Kenyan with a cowboy hat who raised lions for 13 years in the park's orphanage.
There are ploblems as well to the south of the park, where the plains are more and more broken up into small plots. "At the end of the 1970s, the Maasai people started to sell their land. People who counldn't afford to buy in Nairobi settled there. They put up fences everywhere, which hinders the movements of the animals," says Nickson Parmisa, deputy chief of the Kitengela area, southeast of the reserve.
"Island in an urban sea"
From a hill, Parmisa, a Maasai, points to the different human activities installed all along the edge of the park, on the Athi-Kapiti. There are six cement factories, quarries, flower farms, lodges for the tourists and the urban area of Rongai, together with its roads, buildings, shops and boards advertising for plots to sale.
Sunset over Nairobi National Park — Photo: Luca Noto via Instagram
This cohabitation between wild animals and humans doesn't go smoothly, especially with the pastoral communities that lead their herds to the edge of the park. "These last few years, lions have attacked the herds, and Maasai shepherds killed them in retaliation," Patricia Heather-Hayes explains.
To facilitate the cohabitation, her association, FoNNaP, financed together with Kenya Wildlife Service the installation of lamps around the pens. "These are flashing lights, to keep predators away," says Rik Banerjee, an 18-year-old student who took part in the project. Since then, no attack has been reported.
Parmisa placed his hopes in the first land occupation plan launched by the communities living south of the park and signed by the Ministry of Land in 2010. "The plan indicates where construction is permitted and which areas must remain virgin to allow animals to migrate," he says.
Unfortunately, it has yet to be implemented. Muraya Githinji isn't sure at this point if the zoning plan will ever go through. "Communities are divided and the temptation to continue selling the plots is high," he says. "If nothing's done, the park risks becoming an island in the middle of an urban sea."
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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