Today’s headlines in Kabale, Uganda
In Uganda, you can’t miss the debate about this law. Indeed, on my first full day in Kabale, a KIHEFO employee started talking to me about it. The following weekend it featured prominently in the sermon given at the consecration of the new Anglican Bishop of Kigezi.
I have been meaning to write about it since I got here, but it has taken me some time to begin to understand the viewpoint of the ordinary Ugandan. Such is the gulf between the liberal West and highly conservative African nations. It is no exaggeration to say that, whereas in the West the debate is about whether gay couples should be able to wed in a religious ceremony, in Uganda the debate is quite literally about whether gay people should face the death penalty.
We often hear about Uganda, and more recently Nigeria, as though these are exceptions. They are not. Homosexual sex is illegal in around three quarters of African states. This is the norm for Africa.
It is also notable and, as I will argue, not merely coincidental that a number of African countries are now moving towards more draconian penalties for homosexuality just as Western countries are liberalising law relating to gay marriage.
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced as a private member’s bill (meaning it did not come from the Government) by MP David Bahati back in 2009, and it has taken over four years to become law. In fairness, the Government was initially lukewarm to the legislation but the hesitation was probably caused by concerns that international donors may turn away. But in February 2014, President Museveni signed the Bill into law despite a personal intervention from US President Barack Obama.
The Act (as it now is) further criminalises homosexuality in Uganda. Homosexuality was already illegal, but now there are stronger penalties and the law can also penalise people who either know gay people or support gay rights.
In trying to understand how ordinary Ugandans regard this issue, it is firstly important to remember the context. The majority of people in Uganda live in brutal poverty, often in rural areas, with effectively no access to the outside world. For many of them, this debate will seem irrelevant; they are more interested in their day to day survival. In any case, they have no way of accessing a liberal media that might give them a range of views on the subject. Even if they did take an interest, Uganda’s political system virtually excludes them from any meaningful role in the debate.
So, in my view, most Ugandans are fairly ignorant towards this issue. Even speaking to well educated, liberally-inclined Ugandans, they often don’t really understand what homosexuality is. They don’t really approve of it even if they are prepared to tolerate it.
In this vacuum of knowledge and understanding, locally-based institutions such as churches and schools have dominated the debate. On my first weekend in Uganda, when I attended the consecration of the new Bishop of Kigezi, I was fairly shocked by the content of the sermon. I had expected Uganda to be a conservative country, I was stunned to hear a bishop being applauded for comparing gay people to children with infectious diseases. The implication, of course, is that homosexuality might spread if it is not contained.
God’s plan for the family
Recently, I saw this blackboard in a Ugandan primary school, there is a picture to the right. The board shows “God’s plan for the family” with a number of different types of families listed. Number 4, homosexual couple, has been conspicuously crossed out. Ugandans are taught from a young age that homosexuality is unacceptable.
I was talking to one Ugandan human rights activist recently who said that now the President has signed the Bill, he is virtually guaranteed re-election. For President Museveni, there was a trade off between aid funding and electoral success in the rural areas on which he depends for support.
In this environment, misinformation and strange rumours have spread wildly. Ugandans commonly believe that gay people offer financial incentives to bribe others to be gay. I have heard of gay people aggressively “recruiting” (their word, not mine) others. This view is so widely held that I hesitate to dismiss it entirely, perhaps there has been bribed male prostitution in Uganda. In any case, talk of recruiting implies that there is some secret, Masonic society of gay people vying for control of Africa. Most people would agree that sexuality simply doesn’t work that way. Ignorance mixed with ultra-conservative attitudes has allowed these kinds of conspiracy theories to flourish.
Also common is the view that homosexuality is not of Africa. That it is unnatural, not naturally occurring in Africans. That it was brought by Europeans when Africa was colonised.
Ironically, there are some who argue that it is the regulation of relationships that was introduced by colonisers.
Personally, I think this is a moot point. I suspect pre-colonial Africa had as many different attitudes to relationships as there were tribes. The important point is that there is a widely held view that homosexuality is not natural to Africa.
It is here that social conservatism mixes with nationalism. Politicians use this issue to demonstrate that they are defending, as they see it, traditional African values. They define themselves against the West and so tap into strong anti-colonial feelings. Western nations, like the US or UK, that try to threaten Uganda with sanctions or reduced aid risk looking like colonisers. They should be aware that they may strengthen the hand of Ugandan politicians who want to depict themselves as defenders against Western imperialism. Though in my view, donor money moving from the Ugandan Government to Ugandan NGOs would be no bad thing because of the endemic corruption in the Government.
This is why I argue that there is a link between the liberalisation of homosexuality legislation in many parts of the Western world while, simultaneously, a number of African states are introducing more authoritarian laws.
All of this is interesting, but it does not get us anywhere near to a solution. Life is horrible for gay people in Uganda. Not only do they face severe jail sentences for expressing their feelings, but even meetings of LGBT activists are broken up by police. The new law makes it a criminal offence to fail to report a gay person. This is to say nothing of the routine discrimination that they must face in a country where so many people casually assume that homosexuality must be sinful.
It is also probable that the Act has entrenched or worsened homophobic views. The Act has made homosexuality into an issue and toughened attitudes towards it.
In such circumstances, it is little wonder that so few Ugandans have come out publicly. Yet, I can’t help but think that this fact has entrenched the view that homosexuality is not African. The shortage of prominent gay people in Africa allows people to believe that it is abnormal and with no human face, gay people are thought to occupy some shadowy underworld. Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan writer who recently came out, should been applauded for his bravery.
If there is a silver lining to this story, it is that when I was born (in 1987) attitudes towards gay people in the UK were almost the opposite of where they are now. In my lifetime, a relatively short period of time, there has been a massive shift in attitudes. I am sure that when attitudes in Uganda begin to change, they will move just as quickly. But I don’t see any signs of them moving anytime soon.
I have come to be very fond of Uganda, it is a beautiful country and its people are kind and generous. This Act does a disservice to the country’s reputation.