By Esther Nakkazi
Last week I went to cover a meeting ‘Coalition of human rights and the Constitutional law’ at Imperial Royale hotel in Kampala. Tempers flared, people spoke emotionally as they debated the anti-homosexuality bill.
The guest speaker was Professor, Makau Mutua, a scholar in law, gender and sexuality. He spoke about human rights, why people are homophobic and tried to explain that there is no normal sexual orientation because whatever one has is normal to that individual.
Before I discuss my thoughts let me back up a bit on my neighbor from Spain, Anna Maria. One Tuesday morning, as is the normal practice with Anna-Maria Penu my friend and neighbor, we left home for work.
Anna-Maria and her husband Ernesto (who speaks very little English) just about two months ago (but this happened 2 weeks into their stay in Uganda) came to Uganda and lives on the apartment just above mine in Kiwatule.
I sometimes invite them over the weekend for lunch or dinner to taste Ugandan food. The reverse has also happened enabling me taste the real Spanish omlette for the first time. (It tastes so different from any other Spanish omlettes I have eaten)
Anna-Maria came to Uganda for a journalism fellowship under the International Federation Journalism (IFJ). She is a politics writer and works with one of the Ugandan daily newspaper, The Monitor.
That Tuesday we boarded a taxi (matutu-14 passenger seater) to go to work and as usual started talking about the yester-day activities. She had gone for one of the political party, Forum for Democracy Congress (FDC) press conferences and was making an assessment of the two party candidates Dr. Kizza Besigye and Maj Gen. Mugisha Muntu.
But at the press conference she said, she had missed an opportunity to ask a good question. Why was the opposition silent about the anti-homosexuality bill when these parties like FDC talk about promoting democracy, and human rights? Fair enough question but time was up by the time she raised her hand.
So we engaged in a talk about homosexuality in Spain. Deducing from her talk it was basically human rights respect. We were so deep into talk that I did not notice the silence that had engulfed the taxi, everyone in the 14 seater-commuter taxi listening in on our conversation.
Now taxis (matatu) in Uganda seat 3 people per row, in the front row of our seat was a fat man who listened attentively to our conversation. He could have been irritated all the while because he suddenly turned and almost angrily asked Anna-Maria if she really thought it was proper to practise homosexuality.
In Uganda, we shall never accept it because ‘we have to protect the traditional family’, he said. His thoughts were not any different from the usual in Uganda.
Africans are generally homophobic, Ugandans are not any different, the very few who are not have been either exposed, are open-minded or are both.
So Mr. X (the fat man)‘s next question to Anna-Maria was what would she do if her son married a fellow man. At this time he really sounded irritated or angry and had now turned starring at her.
Of course all the while she labored to explain about rights to which he answered that in ‘countries’ like where Anna-Maria comes from they encourage people to become gay which made her raise her voice a little bit.
She tried to explain that if her son were gay that would be his choice she would never interfere but she definitely would not have encouraged him into it. His take on this was that if his son ever engaged in homosexuality, he would kill him. What! She was stunned. Okay at this point I thought we should just switch topics.
Why, there is mob-justice in Uganda, which she has no idea about and the last time an American reporter had an assignment about homosexuality at the same newspaper, she was almost deported. Fortunately we got to the stage where she alighted and immediately Mr. X turned to me and emphasized that in Africa we shall never allow homosexuality.
He also expressed a fear (common among many people) that if Uganda did not accept a bill that outlaws homosexuality, the greater part of the population would become gay. At the time I was alighting off the taxi to yet another day of hard work.
Now first forward to last week’s meeting where Prof Mutua gave a brilliant talk explaining why homosexuality is a right, why being gay is termed ‘un African’ and giving reasons why Africans are homophobic.
Then the discussions began. Odonga Otto a member of parliament made it very clear that, he was thinking and speaking like 90 percent of his colleagues in parliament, ‘MPs do not consider homosexuality a right and it will never be a right in their lifetime’ in Uganda. The author of the Bill, Bahati, is also of this position that homosexuality is not a right. Period.
As the discussion progressed there was one basic issue, in this seminar mostly attended by lawyers and human rights activists, that Ugandans would not accept homosexuality as a human right.
Well it could be a right, alright but given the way other rights are violated and not defended there is a point in what they are saying. During the workshop, there was a demand for a scientific explanation to homosexuality. Some participants in the meeting (MPs) just let Prof Mutua know that if there was scientific evidence as to why people become homosexuals, then the debate would be different and they were convinced that it was a health problem.
Of course if there is scientific evidence, it is hard to come by, and if this will be the basis for MPs to pass the bill then they probably will, there are hardly any studies that justify it as a health problem. Even if it the studies were done, they were not in Africa, which could be another debate. But many people in Uganda think it is a habit, which is learnt, and as some Pastor alleged is motivated by money, ‘we can treat them psychologically and talk them out of the habit’ he concluded.
Now here are some thoughts and observations on this issue: It could be true that homosexuality could have been among some African societies, and even in Uganda, who knows? But prior to this Bill no one seemed to mind it.
The community now feels that they are being oppressed and coarsed into knowing and debating homosexuality. Some lady who travels frequently for international meetings recently told me ‘it is not our agenda at all. We have more serious problems and I feel oppressed when I am exposed to homosexuality talk’. Many have echoed this, for a poor country like Uganda is it its agenda?
Secondly, the way different people debate and look at issues depends on a number of factors. The ability to just listen and allow debate on an issue without necessarily attacking or getting emotional is a preserve of very few human beings and neither does it follow the intellectual level of an individual.
Most of the fear expressed in Uganda is that when is not outlawed, half of Ugandans will become homosexuals! One explanation given for this is, in a country like Uganda, I guess just like in most of Africa, communities still thrive and someone is everyone’s business. The communalism and culture means society has established standards, if it does not fit it is judged wrong.
Homosexuality has been judged wrong, and I have heard this one interesting opinion that if a generation allows morals to degenerate, the next generation pays the penalty. To back up on this is the now rampant human sacrifice in Uganda. ‘The fore fathers practiced it and accepted it now society is grappling with it’. There is also an argument that communalism promotes ‘copycat behavior’ thus the fear that half of the population will become gay.
Which brings me to another point that was talked about by Prof Mutua, that homosexuality is considered ‘un African’. Mr. X asked Anna-Maria why do you people bring homosexuality here. Of course his idea was that she represents a whole race.
The situation prevailing is of a rich man telling a poor man you have to accept and adopt this system.
The poor man could be having that system alright, but when he senses that the rich man is insisting to the point of cutting off some privileges, then he will become a stubborn mule.
For the mere reason that apart from a few human rights activists, the people on one side telling Ugandans that the anti-homosexuality Bill is terrible are not Ugandans, so it comes off as forcefully imposing a position on a community, which has gained independence and thinks they can run their own affairs.
The threats and prominent presidents’ condemnations with all African presidents silent does not help matters. The Bill being a private members Bill, whose owner, an accountant, by far and large has failed to authoritatively defend it passionately is another matter. On one TV programme it was a total mess. This could help if there were Ugandans interested in not having it pass through but the ‘push’ factor.
I mean we know that character may be an issue but if someone is passionate about something they will defend it to the last point, just like Miria Matembe boldly defended castration if men could not zip up! Bahati is not really audible about the anti-homosexuality bill.
I will say this again, the homophobia is intense but so is the push factor from outside. My feeling is that the Bill could never ever be passed, how many people would end up in prison, from churches, medical practioneers? But when the forces out of Uganda make it their point to crush it the insiders feel alienated from it and probably will have the more reason to not let outsiders dictate on how they conduct business.
Just like Anna Maria explained the more she lives in Uganda, the more she understands Mr. X’s reaction. There are so many factors that make society tolerate each other, but the key to all this is dialogue, which is still limited. In one of the traditional proverbs in Uganda they say people from the underground can never tell people living on earth how hot the temperatures are or how bright the sun is shining. They are from the underground!
The people on earth can figure out that actually hot temperatures are bad and decide to plant trees to cool it off, or they are good, when the people from underground insist they automatically become stubborn mules!
(This is what I have heard, seen, observed and also partly mm opinions. It is interesting that a friend does not even want me to write about this topic, it is demonic she says! I am a Christian but enjoy debate and knowing what people think)