Veteran African human rights activist Joël Gustave Nana Ngongang, widely known as Joel Nana, 33, died Oct. 15 after a brief illness.
He worked as a human and LGBT rights advocate and as an anti-HIV activist at local, national and international levels. His main work focused on African countries, including Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa, as well as in his native Cameroon.
He was also a strong pan-Africanist who articulated a broader agenda than just LGBT rights and spoke against domination by the Global North.
Nana helped found and eventually served as executive director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), the first Africa-wide consortium of organizations focused on addressing HIV and human rights of gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM). Under his leadership, AMSHeR was
instrumental in raising awareness and mobilizing young African professionals to network and advocate for their rights and health.
AMSHeR-led efforts aimed at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights led to Africa-wide resolutions denouncing violence and discrimination against LGBT people. Moblizing AMSHeR members to attend and be visible at International AIDS Conferences, Nana helped focus global attention on the alarming rates of HIV infection among gay men and men who have sex with men in sub-Saharan Africa – and articulated how the HIV epidemic can be attributed to fear, violence and discrimination against gay men.
As a founding member of the MSM Global Forum, Nana also contributed to advancing global networking, learning, research, and awareness of MSM and gay men’s health and rights globally. He contributed to and participated at many United Nations meetings, conferences and charters.
Nana also co-founded the Cameroonian advocacy organization Alternatives-Cameroun in 2005, served as Africa researcher for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and worked at Behind the Mask, a South Africa-based publisher of gay and lesbian news in Africa.
Ever an activist and champion of community mobilization, Nana worked most recently with the World Health Organization and other partners to mobilize community leadership and advocacy around other public health threats, such as ebola.
From 2009 to 2014, he served as executive director of AMSHeR. He left that organization under a cloud, when he and AMSHeR had a falling-out over his use of donor funds.
At the time of his death, he was chief executive officer at Partners for Rights and Development (Paridev), a Cameroon-based consulting firm that specialized in human rights, development and health in Africa.
He fulfilled the role of loving parent to his niece Sorelle, and his strong family support rooted his sense of independence and purpose, said Ron MacInnis, deputy director of the U.S. AIDS’s Health Policy Project, who was a colleague and friend of Nana.
From Johannesburg, South Africa, AMSHer issued a statement on behalf of its board, steering committee and membership, mourning the death of its “pioneer Executive Director (ED)” and stating:
“Mr. Nana was AMSHeR ED from 2009 until early 2014, and during that time he oversaw the establishment of the Coalition as a critical community voice on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, and HIV health access for Men who have sex with Men (MSM) in Africa.
“He will be remembered for his tenacious and courageous stand on the importance of MSM and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities being the frontline faces and voices of the fight against their oppression. Joel Nana was a fierce and passionate advocate who led pioneering work on these issues in his native Cameroun and across Africa.
“The AMSHeR family extends our sincere condolences to his family. May his soul rest in peace.”
During this year’s London Pride, the Out and Proud Diamond Group honored Nana was one of its African LGBTI Heros.
This article has been repeatedly revised as activists in Africa and elsewhere have contributed their comments and recollections. Special thanks to Ron MacInnis, deputy director of the Health Policy Project, for his contributions.