By Andrew M. Mwenda
Since Ndorwa West MP David Bahati introduced a bill to kill homosexuals, I have become wary of the behaviour of Uganda’s international donors. They have threatened to cut off aid if the government goes ahead with the bill. This way, they are literally using their money to blackmail government to respect gay rights. Yet this approach, although driven by good intentions, is actually counterproductive.
Those hostile to homosexuals argue that gays are promoted by the West with money to undermine African culture although they have not produced even a scintilla of evidence to support this claim. But by threatening aid cuts if the bill is passed, donors are inadvertently proving the purveyors of this argument right. Donors should learn that cultural change should be a gradual internal process. To use force to make people change their attitudes would require a high amount of coercion that is certainly undesirable. Intimidation and blackmail are not effective weapons against cultural bigotry; open debate is.
In threatening aid cuts, I suspect Western leaders are actually addressing their constituents. Their electorates see the bill as a barbaric move to suppress a fundamental right. However, donors need to be careful not to be seen to be arm-twisting the government. The biggest challenge gays and lesbians face in Uganda is not state law (however draconian) but deeply held cultural bigotry by the society.
Therefore, a democratic government would find it difficult to resist popular pressure to hang homosexuals. Multitudes of Ugandans are homophobic and would not hesitate to sanction genocide against gays. To secure attitudinal change through force would require unprecedented violence. Our challenge is how to foster openness and tolerance. This can only be achieved through open debate.
This is why although Bahati is subjectively homophobic, he is objectively an ally of gays. By introducing his bill with provisions to kill gays, he has inadvertently opened debate on a subject that has been taboo in Uganda. In the process, he has given gays and progressive intellectuals an opportunity and a platform to enlighten Ugandans about sexual diversity and expose the fallacies that inform homophobia.
Since I wrote a column criticising Bahati, I have been impressed by the number of young Ugandans who have written to me saying the debate has made them rethink their prejudice. There have been critics as well and others who wrote calling me names. I had expected worse. My column also generated fierce debate on our website with the anti-homosexual side suffering a devastating but delicious intellectual beating.
A particular problem with Ugandan society is its low levels of openness. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller has written, openness to experience implies curiosity, novelty seeking, broad-mindedness, interest in culture, ideas and aesthetics. Our society exhibits low levels of openness partly because of the influence of tradition.
But as our society modernises and urbanises, a new cultural sophistication is consolidating. For example, in the current debate on Bahati’s bill, the most virulent anti-gay crusaders are largely (although not entirely) from rural areas, born in peasant families, are less travelled and are not widely read. So they lack exposure to diversity. The opposite applies to most of the people who are tolerant of gays.
It is easy to tell open-minded people; they tend to seek complexity and novelty, they readily accept innovations and changes ‘ and as Miller writes, they prefer grand new visions to mundane, predictable ruts. This sounds like a personality profile of Charles Onyango-Obbo. You cannot catch a person of his attitude and calibre in a homo-bashing rant.
People who are low on openness tend to seek simplicity and predictability; they resist change and respect tradition. They are often more conservative, close-minded, conventional and authoritarian. They follow the established cults as did their grand parents. Even in heterosexual relationships, they reject creative acts that increase intimacy. In the name of tradition, they support female genital mutilation, practice polygamy, beat their wives and want to decide for their children.
The Ugandan education system adds to the problem. At home, children are taught to obey their parents without question. In school, Students are taught to respect every opinion in a book or from the teacher instead of questioning it. That is why it is boring and frustrating reading opinions in our newspapers or listening to radio talk-shows. There is little attempt to add value to existing dogmas and beliefs.
Yet life is more complex than the ‘facts’ that stare us in the face suggest. A person from mars visiting a small poverty stricken village in Karamoja would find people living close to the Stone Age ‘ sleeping in grass thatched mud-huts, walking naked, cooking in medieval pots and eating from pre-historic wooden bowls. Visiting a high-tech firm in the Silicon Valley, he finds people building rockets that can navigate other planets millions of miles from the earth and yet keep sending pictures of what they observe.
It seems obvious to a casual observer from mars that the people in Karamoja are mentally inferior to those in the Silicon Valley; otherwise how do we explain such fundamental differences? Well the people in Karamoja will be black and the ones in the Silicon Valley will be white. Therefore, on the basis of this hard ‘evidence’, it is easy to conclude that blacks are inferior to whites in intelligence.
Actually, this ‘hard evidence’ of white intellectual superiority was the basis of slavery, colonialism and other forms of racial injustice visited on the black race. Today, most people know that the factors that shape the economic and social destiny of peoples are varied and diverse; the colour of one’s skin has almost nothing to do with it. The difference in achievements between a worker in Google and a Karimojong cattle-herder may be rooted in the simple accident of history and geography, not their mental abilities.
As we debate Bahati’s bill, we will learn that the factors that shape human sexuality are complex and we should therefore not kill anyone because they are different. We should punish those who sexually molest children and those who rape ‘ not because of their sexual orientation but because they violated some else’s rights while seeking sexual gratification. Happy New Year!