By Andrew M. Mwenda
I was on a train at New York’s Grand Central Station on March 5 when a friend from my days at Stanford University entered. I was overjoyed yet embarrassed; one part of me wanted to hug her, the other to hide. She is a successful lawyer in New York married to a celebrated female journalist.
Given the proposed homosexual bill in Uganda, I was wondering how to explain myself to her; that my country would kill her and her partner if they visited me. I did not have much time to decide; she walked over to me with a big smile as soon as she saw me. I jumped from my seat and gave her a warm hug.
As expected, after exchanging pleasantries, she asked me what the ‘hell’ was going on in Uganda. How do I explain the craziness of Martin Ssempa and his gay porn videos at public rallies; the deeply held prejudices against gays and the ignorance that informs the debate? Since I arrived in America, I have been confronted with persistent questions about Uganda’s kill-the-gays bill at media interviews and public lectures I give.
Most Ugandans possibly don’t understand that cultural prejudices can be used against any group arbitrarily. For example, sections of white society today still believe that black people are animals like donkeys; that inter racial sex is akin to bestiality. It was an act of considerable courage that Barack Obama’s mother married a black man in 1960; equally a difficult choice for her white parents to accept it.
In Dreams from my Father, Obama says white kids used to laugh at his mother for this choice. When his grandfather complained to their parents, they would answer: ‘Well, you ought to tell your daughter how to behave herself. White people here don’t marry niggers.’ I have learnt from the prejudice against homosexuals in Uganda not to be hostile to racists because they are also victims of culture.
It is in this context that I have been trying to frame my answers to this vexing question. People here see David Bahati and Ssempa as Adolf Hitler; a man who stoked anti Semitic, anti gay and anti black hatred. I always find myself in the difficult position of explaining how good people genuinely convinced that they are trying to protect Ugandan (or Christian) culture from adulteration by the West can promote extreme injustice.
They are like the senator, the president, the congressman etc in America who for many years rejected inter racial marriage on grounds that ‘it is against our culture’; the male chauvinist in Togo still refusing his daughters to go to school in the name of tradition; the parent in Pakistan who marries off his 12-year-old daughter to a 50-year-old man in the name of culture; the religious cleric in Saudi Arabia who, in the name of religion, orders the stoning to death of a girl for premarital sex; the old woman in Kenya who mutilates the genitals of a young girl in the name of custom.
It seems most evil is not always promoted by evil people. A close reading of the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis shows that actually they were following an established European tradition. People of European descent had committed genocides against native populations in America and Africa. Religion (or culture) and science were always at hand to provide justification for mass slaughter.
Sven Lindquist’s book, Exterminate all the Brutes, is a refreshing and insightful account of the role of religion, tradition and science in promoting European genocides. Many Ugandans choose to bury their heads in the sand of cultural bigotry, Stone Age customs and archaic religious dogmas to persecute gays. Unfortunately, reality and science tell a different story; being gay is as normal as being a heterosexual.
Yet what is intriguing is the similarity of the basis of argument by either side in the gay debate in Uganda. The anti gay campaigners argue that homosexuality is an alien lifestyle to our country; that it is being promoted by people from the West using money. The pro gay campaigners here in the USA argue that the anti gay movement in Uganda is promoted and financed by right wing religious groups in America.
One side denies the domestic origins of homosexuality; the other, the local basis of hostility towards it. This is one way Africa is always denied initiative; events in our continent are seen as instigated from elsewhere as if we are a passive and idle people suffering from too much inertia; initiative in Africa is a sign of forces from outside.
Gays in Uganda ‘ like everywhere else in the world ‘ grow up only to realise that they are sexually attracted to people of the same sex. They do not need any money or propaganda from the West to have those feelings. Equally, anti homosexual feelings are born of ignorance and prejudice that is entirely local. Anti gay Ugandans do not need right wing money or propaganda to be hostile to homosexuality. If external influences play a role at all, it is insignificant and secondary.
Most debates everywhere tend to fall into this false and misleading pitfall; rather than debate the objective content of the argument, people focus on the subjective motivations of the participants. And it is not new; when King Philip of Macedon threatened to forcibly unite all Greek city states against Persia in 550 BC, Athens was polarised.
Demosthenes, the leading orator of antiquity argued vehemently against it; his rival Aeschines, argued in favour. Demosthenes was accused of being on the payroll of Persia; Aeschines of Macedon. Debate sunk into these accusations and counter accusations until Philip pounced. It happened to Nelson Mandela when he sought negotiations with apartheid; he was accused of having been bought off by whites.
Many enlightened Ugandans are afraid to openly challenge Ssempa’s bigotry and Nazi-like campaign against homosexuals for fear of being misunderstood as either being gay or having been bribed by rich gays in the West. Yet those who are unwilling to risk anything in the name of principle never get anything serious done for the cause of the advancement of mankind.