Killing and dy­ing in God’s name

Be­ing gay in Uganda is like be­ing sen­tenced to death, writes Ler­ato Mo­goatlhe

The Sunday Independent - - DISPATCHES -

DAVID Ba­hati does not punch the air when he com­pares ho­mo­sex­u­als to ter­ror­ists and drug traf­fick­ers. His body lan­guage and peace­ful tone dis­guises the war­mon­ger in him. It is im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve that this mem­ber of par­lia­ment is work­ing “ev­ery day, all day”, to end ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in Uganda. The dead­line he has set for him­self is May 12 next year.

“The Bi­ble says those caught in sin should suf­fer death. The Qur’an says hang them and throw them over a cliff,” he says. “These are the words of God, by God.”

Ba­hati says he was “cho­sen” by God to ta­ble the anti-ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity bill in par­lia­ment.

“God chooses peo­ple he uses to de­liver hu­man­ity from calamity. He used Nel­son Man­dela to de­liver peo­ple from op­pres­sion in South Africa. He used Martin Luther King jun to speak about the evil in Amer­ica and he used Mother Theresa to help the poor.”

There is a pic­ture of Ba­hati with a group of pas­tors with their hands spread over his head as they pray for him dur­ing a church ser­vice. It is among those taken by a French pho­tog­ra­pher who has been doc­u­ment­ing ho­mo­pho­bia in Uganda since Jan­uary. Other pic­tures show a com­mu­nity sup­port­ing the anti-ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity bill. Plac­ards read: “God cre­ated Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve”. Oth­ers: “Pro­tect our chil­dren from sodomy”. Chil­dren look as pas­sion­ate as adults rais­ing their fits against the “evil”.

In one pic­ture, taken dur­ing a church ser­mon, pas­tor Martin Ssempa, a sol­dier in the war against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, holds a lap­top as his flock falls into hys­ter­ics. He was show­ing a clip of sex­ual fetish say­ing it was gay pornog­ra­phy and typ­i­cal ho­mo­sex­ual im­moral­ity. Women raised their hands up to God as rivers of tears poured down their faces: “God help us de­liver Uganda from evil.”

The ho­mo­sex­ual peo­ple in Bene­dicte Des­rus’s pic­tures look pen­sive and fear­ful. They are lonely cast-outs, dis­owned by fam­i­lies and at­tacked by their neigh­bours. In one poignant pic­ture, a group of les­bians whose faces are not shown gather around burn­ing twigs and leaves in a rit­ual ask­ing “God and the gods” to stop the one-year-old bill from be­ing passed into law.

The cru­sade to pre­serve cul­ture and God’s al­leged will was re­newed on Oc­to­ber 2 this year by 22-year-old Giles Muhame.

His three-month-old weekly tabloid, Rolling Stone, car­ried an “ex­pose” of “Kam­pala’s top 100 ho­mo­sex­u­als”. “Hang them”, de­clared the head­line. At least 29 pic­tures of the “men of shame” and “heart­less les­bians” were in some cases ac­com­pa­nied by in­for­ma­tion on where they live. It was part of a se­ries aimed at “strength­en­ing the war against the ram­page that threat­ens our so­ci­ety”.

Gay rights or­gan­i­sa­tions took to the supreme court to sue for vi­o­la­tion of pri­vacy. The case is on­go­ing.

“Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity,” laments Muhame, “is a creep­ing evil and an af­flic­tion spread­ing in Uganda like wild fire.”

Like Ba­hati, and the “95 per­cent” of the pop­u­la­tion, Muhame wants the anti-ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity bill passed as soon as pos­si­ble.

The bill will not stop at le­galised murder. The pub­lic will be ex­pected to guard against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity: if you see two men or women hold­ing hands or kiss­ing you will be obliged to re­port them to the au­thor­i­ties.

Em­ploy a per­son sus­pected for be­ing gay and you will be break­ing the law. Med­i­cal health pro­fes­sion­als who treat gay peo­ple with­out re­port­ing them to the po­lice within 24 hours will be abet­ting a crime. Teach­ers, par­ents, relatives, taxi driv­ers, wait­ers and ab­so­lutely ev­ery­one in Uganda’s pop­u­la­tion of over 30 mil­lion will be break­ing the law if they do not act against ho­mo­sex­u­als by re­port­ing them within 24 hours of a meet­ing. They will face up to seven years in jail.

Ba­hati says, if en­acted, this clause will “en­cour­age cit­i­zens to be re­spon­si­ble”.

The “re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zens” fol­lowed Rolling Stone’s call by at­tack­ing openly gay peo­ple be­fore and af­ter Rolling Stone’s “pub­lic ser­vice”, in con­tin­u­ing with the ter­ror on ho­mo­sex­ual cit­i­zens.

Uganda is hos­tile to ho­mo­sex­u­als, says 35-year-old “out and proud” ac­tivist Bob. Like some gay peo­ple I speak to, Bob never uses his sur­name in me­dia in­ter­views. Openly gay peo­ple and ac­tivists walk around para­noid.

They have been driven un­der­ground. They are in ex­ile in their own coun­try. They hide their or­gan­i­sa­tions in of­fices free from any iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. They so­cialise in gay bars whose names can never be re­vealed, bars known only by peo­ple who have been in­vited there.

And even then, you never know who is watch­ing or when a news snip­pet al­leg­ing drug-fu­elled or­gies will ap­pear in a tabloid. It is a life lived in hid­ing. “We live in fear,” I keep be­ing told by peo­ple I meet at two gay bars I went to. “It is the only time I can be in pub­lic and smile from ear to ear,” says Ju­lian Pepe Onziema, an ac­tivist and pro­gramme di­rec­tor at Sex­ual Mi­nori­ties Uganda. The ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tion is not reg­is­tered. “For ob­vi­ous rea­sons,” notes Onziema, sound­ing re­signed to life.

Onziema, who has been ar­rested and at­tacked more times than she cares to count, says the fate of ho­mo­sex­u­als is the only thing that unites the dis­parate lo­cal re­li­gions.

Mufti Sheikh Ra­mad­han Muba­jje, a Mus­lim leader, last month expressed con­cern that pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in the forth­com­ing elec­tions have not taken a po­si­tion on the “evil” of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

The “hos­til­ity and crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of sex­u­al­ity”, Onziema says, “de­nies ho­mo­sex­u­als space on the pub­lic agenda.” Onziema’s or­gan­i­sa­tion is one in sev­eral that have de­cided to fight for the rights of sex­ual mi­nori­ties in Uganda. Oth­ers in­clude Free­dom and Roam, Queer Youth, Spec­trum, and Youth Re­pro­duc­tive Health Link.

They may be de­nied pub­lic space, but they are de­ter­mined to fight for their rights.

Bob says the coun­try’s re­li­gious ob­ses­sion fu­els ho­mo­pho­bia.

Uganda is deeply re­li­gious. Mosques are next to Chris­tian churches. In the dusty streets of down­town Kam­pala, con­gested with hu­man traf­fic, hawk­ers, cars, scoot­ers, wheel bar­rows and bi­cy­cles, you can hear sounds of evan­ge­lists shout­ing, “Yesu.” You are also struck by the ubiq­uity of hawk­ers sell­ing posters in­scribed with Bi­ble verses and those por­tray­ing Je­sus Christ.

Cars are em­bla­zoned with state­ments like “have ab­so­lute faith in the almighty. It is a uni­ver­sal cur­rency”.

Pub­lic taxis, lor­ries and buses of­ten have re­li­gious dec­la­ra­tions and Bi­ble verses.

Craft shops sell wood carv­ings of Je­sus on the cross. “Uganda is tied to re­li­gion,” says mid­dle-aged Florence Mwe­sigiye. “The prob­lem with ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is that it is taboo to the re­li­gious and cul­tural val­ues we’re bound to. But killing peo­ple is tak­ing it far.”

Grace Nsiro of Kisengi is also against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. “They (ho­mo­sex­u­als) need to seek God’s for­give­ness and moral rehabilita­tion.” Like Mustafa Ad­bu­lahi, he is op­posed to the death penalty.

De­spite be­ing barred from con­ven­ing in pub­lic, some of the groups who fight for uni­ver­sal hu­man rights did, as they of­ten do, on World Aids Day to ad­vo­cate uni­ver­sal ac­cess and hu­man rights for all, as their black T-shirts read. The size­able sea of black T-shirts stood out in a crowd of peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions at an event held in Kam­pala.

There were ed­u­ca­tional banners about safe sex. None of them in­cluded ho­mo­sex­ual groups. “It is al­most as if we don’t ex­ist,” Bob notes. In an­other sub­urb at a ho­tel’s con­fer­ence room, sex­ual mi­nori­ties gath­ered to have their moment on World Aids Day.


The day-long work­shop fea­tured speak­ers from var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions. They talked about hu­man rights, ad­vo­cacy and net­work­ing.

Health and sex ed­u­ca­tion took on a cen­tral role.

Ac­tivist Frank took the podium to speak about the re­al­ity of be­ing gay in Uganda. Ho­mo­sex­u­als are de­nied med­i­cal treat­ment. A gay man of 20, Su­lah, died two weeks ago of Aids com­pli­ca­tions. He had long be­ing de­nied treat­ment by the hos­pi­tals he turned to. Even if he had the medicine, he’d still be too poor to af­ford eat­ing at ev­ery meal time: em­ploy­ers are not fall­ing over them­selves to hire gays.

This prej­u­dice was ac­knowl­edged by a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the as­so­ci­a­tion of Uganda’s nurses and mid­wives, who said it was about time health-care pro­fes­sion­als stopped treat­ing gay peo­ple with con­tempt by re­fus­ing them treat­ment or other ser­vices.

Two med­i­cal doc­tors were also on site. Dr Ge­of­frey Mu­jisha, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Most at Risk Pop­u­la­tions (MARPs) Net­work and Dr Thomas Muyunga Aquinas, who put life above prej­u­dice, are rare in Uganda.

MARPs con­ducts work­shops around the coun­try to open di­a­logue in an at­tempt to change pol­icy. Dr Aquina, whose nick­name is the “Good Sa­mar­i­tan”, is fa­mous – and ap­pre­ci­ated among the gay com­mu­nity – for de­liv­er­ing com­pas­sion­ate and judg­ment-free med­i­cal help. They ar­rived at the ho­tel armed with med­i­cal kits. They also of­fered med­i­cal con­sul­ta­tions and treat­ment.

The risk of in­fec­tion was widely spo­ken about at the work­shop: like all sex­u­ally ac­tive peo­ple to­day, Uganda’s sex­ual mi­nori­ties are concerned about the spread of HIV. They are also wor­ried that the govern­ment’s prej­u­dice is in­creas­ing the risk: one of the myths about HIV and Aids is that you can­not get in­fected if you have anal sex. It has led to the rise of a phe­nom­e­non known as be­ing on the down low. It is an African-Amer­i­can slang named af­ter het­ero­sex­ual men who have sex with men.

Crim­i­nal­is­ing sex­u­al­ity also pro­motes ho­mo­pho­bic vi­o­lence. Les­bians get raped for com­ing out. How many bro­ken women do we need in this bat­tered con­ti­nent that’s still rav­aged by dis­ease and poverty?

Yet, the cham­pi­ons of the anti-ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity bill re­main adamant in their cru­sade. “The world has been cap­tured by ho­mo­sex­u­als,” notes Ba­hati, “Uganda is go­ing to lead the war against it.”

And while anti-gay sen­ti­ment is not new in Africa, it seems to be gain­ing mo­men­tum.

Malawi ear­lier this year sen­tenced a gay cou­ple to life im­pris­on­ment af­ter they wed. They were re­leased af­ter in­ter­na­tional out­cry. When he is not lam­bast­ing the West for Zim­babwe’s woes, Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe is de­cry­ing the evil of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Kenya’s Prime Min­is­ter Raila Odinga last week called for the ar­rest of Kenya’s ho­mo­sex­ual com­mu­nity. Mean­while, anti-gay bills like Ba­hati’s are in mo­tion in Su­dan, Rwanda and the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo.

But ho­mo­sex­ual mi­nori­ties are not pre­pared to give in.

“We are tired of hid­ing” Onziema says, “and we will fight even if we get killed or thrown in prison.”

HO­MO­PHO­BIC: A woman takes part in a re­cent anti-gay protest in Kam­pala, Uganda, where ho­mo­sex­u­als live in ex­ile in their own coun­try. The two in­serts above, show a new Ugan­dan news­pa­per that unashamade­ly pub­lished the names and ad­dresses of gay peo­ple.

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