BRUSSELS – Shakiro – a transgender social media star – has given her first interview since she escaped from her home nation of Cameroon and arrived in Europe as a refugee.
Speaking exclusively to VICE World News, I joined her in Belgium, where she has recently been granted asylum.
Strutting across one of Belgium’s several rainbow crossings, Shakiro – who goes by one name – confidently stops traffic. She’s waving her pride flag, while wearing a bright pink jumpsuit and fluffy pink shoes. She knows she stands out here – and locals stop to take photos with her, proving that – but she tells me she loves it. This is a massive change from what she was going through just a few weeks ago.
Sitting in a cafe in Brussels, Shakiro told me how the experience of being locked up in Cameroon – just for being trans – has completely changed her.
“I remember the day I was in court and I was told that I was being sentenced to five years in prison for ‘attempted homosexuality.’ I collapsed,” Shakiro recalled, with tears in her eyes.
“I just wanted to drink something and die. My legal team was trying to make me feel better, telling me they would be working to set me free, but that sentence was like a death sentence. I didn’t think I would survive.”
Shakiro was arrested in Douala, Cameroon, in February 2021. She had just finished work, and was in a restaurant eating fried fish with her friend Patricia – who is also a trans woman and goes by one name.
“I saw police cars and I knew there would be trouble. One of the policemen asked me for my ID, but as a trans woman in Cameroon you don’t carry ID, because your identity is actually different to what your ID shows.”
Shakiro was put in a police car, where she was repeatedly quizzed about being a queer social media influencer.
“I had to sleep in the cell overnight, and the next morning I was taken directly to court. I was told that I was being charged with ‘attempted homosexuality’ which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, then I was taken to a nearby prison.”
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Shakiro and Patricia’s arrest was covered extensively by media outlets across the world, with campaigners and human rights leaders pushing the Cameroonian government to intervene and free the trans women – especially since they had been arrested on charges of “attempted homosexuality,” while just sitting in a cafe eating. However, Shakiro and Patricia were both found guilty and they were given the maximum sentences.
“I can’t count the number of times I was raped in prison,” Shakiro tells me, with fear suddenly taking over her face.
“In one night alone, I was raped by more than five men. Imagine being a transgender woman in a male prison, surrounded by thousands of inmates that want sex. I was traumatised every single day, with nobody to tell. These people with life sentences have nothing to lose, they will just kill you if you report them.”
After five months in prison, Shakiro was released on bail while she waited for new court dates for an appeal, but she was immediately violently attacked on the street.
“They stripped me naked and beat me, and filmed it for the internet. I think it was people who had been released from prison before me, because they would always say they were going to hurt me if I got out.”
“At that moment, I knew I had to escape from Cameroon – I had to run for my life, so I did.”
Shakiro’s first stop was Nigeria – an African nation which also has anti-LGBTQ laws, where she spent nearly a year and a half in hiding.
She calls Nigeria “the most homophobic country in the world.” She was “so scared” to walk down the street and be identified as her social media persona, or be clocked as a trans woman, that she didn’t leave the house.
“In Nigeria, I stopped taking my hormones, I deleted all of my social media, and I dressed like a regular man. I did everything I could to just blend in,” she told VICE World News, adding, “anything was better than being in prison in Cameroon.”
After experiencing more abuse and trauma in Nigeria, Shakiro contacted embassies across the globe, “begging for them to reply and help.” But she was ignored. The United Kingdom turned her away, as did France, she said, along with other major nations that are supposedly safe for LGBTQ people. But then, a response came.
Sarah Schlitz – Belgium’s secretary of state for gender equality, equal opportunities and diversity – emailed Shakiro directly, saying “come to Brussels as quickly as you can,” and Shakiro did exactly that.
“I’m now in a place where I can finally be the best version of myself”, she said, with tears in her eyes. “In Europe, you can walk freely as a queer person and people don’t bother you.”
Asked what she hopes to do with her life now, Shakiro quickly responded “I’m going to be Cameroon’s first trans lawyer,” adding, “my greatest aspiration in life is now to work to free all of the LGBTQ people who have been put in prison just because of who they are or who they love.”
“And I’m applying to be on Drag Race Belgium,” she added excitedly.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.
If you are feeling at risk of suicide or if you are worried about someone else call the Samaritans: 116 123 (UK) / 116 123 (ROI).