‘8,000 Homos In Two Regions: Majority Infected With HIV/AIDS’.
I looked up at my local newspaper vendor, a jovial old woman sitting behind a square, wooden table.
“What do you think about this?” Pause. “What do you think about gays?”
“Oooooh! I hate them!” she said.
Not an uncommon view here in Ghana, or across the African continent.
The particular story I had read that morning sparked a heated national debate about the moral and social acceptability of homosexuality in Ghana. The article quoted figures allegedly released at a conference held by USAID and was followed by a series of sensational stories in local newspapers and media outlets, with each headline more melodramatic than the last.
The issue reached a crescendo and made international headlines when Minister for the Western Region Paul Evans Aidoo on national radio called for all gays and lesbians to be arrested. The statement was made just days after the Ghana Christian Council called for a national ‘crusade’ against homosexuals.
The main concern expressed by community leaders and the general public is that gays are invading Ghana and spreading homosexuality – consequently attacking both Christian (and Islamic) religious values and African cultural sensibilities. But there is more to this issue than a few dramatic sound bites and a rather complex subtext to these condemnatory statements.
After recently speaking with African gay activists and academics about what they viewed as sensational and oversimplified reporting by Western journalists on the issue of homophobia in Africa, I thought it a good idea to write about the challenges Western reporters face and the ways that we can report on the issue in a more nuanced way.
I have found reporting on the backlash in Ghana challenging on a number of levels. Reporting on such a sensitive issue is a difficult task for any journalist trying to navigate their way through a new culture and cosmology (while also attempting to avoid being labeled an ‘imperialist reporter’ in Africa). Looking at the broader meaning and subtext that underlies the comments of others, a common practice for any reporter, draws attention to the complexity of issues, but it can also suggest that subjects are unable to fully represent themselves and articulate their opinions. However, digging deeper, moving beyond these surface level statements is the only way that journalists will get to the crux of this issue.
The ‘gay debate’ as it stands in the West is largely defined by the liberal democratic cultural and political values that are inevitably a reference point for Western journalists. While anti-gay groups in Western countries are represented in stories for the sake of balance and insofar as they have sway, liberal values and understandings of individual human rights frame the debate the journalist captures and creates within a story. The principles of Western liberalism are based upon the assumption that people ought to be free to do as they choose insofar as they do not harm others.
In many African countries, even countries with liberal democratic forms of government and institutions, a more communal understanding of social identity dominates. In a recent interview with Godwyns Onwuchekwa founder of Justice for Gay Africans – a London-based lobby group comprised mainly of gay Africans, he told me that journalists must understand fundamental cultural differences.
He suggested that the African notion of community and a strong emphasis on family poses major challenges to the advancement of gay rights.
“African cultures and black cultures are not built around people but communities, while anything to do with identity is connected to individuals,” Onwuchekwa said. “Being gay is a very personal issue that involves someone wanting to identify themselves as something and the community often stands against it.”
But appeals to cultural difference can also be problematic and deceptive and cannot simply be taken at face value. As anyone reporting in Africa will know, the notion of ‘culture’ can be used to veil blatant power and domination, and only a writer who is well versed in the nuances of a culture can draw the distinction between beliefs that are sincere and those that are expedient or manufactured.
The most common response that I have heard from Ghanaians questioned about why homosexuality is morally unacceptable, is that ‘it is not part of Ghanaian culture’ or ‘it is not part of African culture.’ However, this response implies that there is a universal consensus on what being Ghanaian or African is and means. But as most Africans and Ghanaians are themselves aware, the continent is filled with multiple tribes, clans and subcultures, with diverse social, political values and kinship structures. The idea that there is universal consensus on what is sexually permissible or acceptable is a fallacy.
Marc Epprecht – a professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University – has written extensively about the history of gender and sexuality in Africa and challenges the idea that the continent has a uniformly heterosexual culture. Epprecht has suggested that historically there have been a range of sexual identities and relationships in Africa, and that the notion of a uniform heterosexual identity was in part inherited from the colonial era.
In a recent column for the Royal African Society Epprecht criticises the Western media’s sole focus on the demagogy and dramatic expressions of homophobia in countries like Uganda and says there ought to be more of an emphasis on gay and queer activism and communities across the continent.
“My view is that Western reporters tend to seize on these bad news stories and give them more legs than they actually have,” Epprecht said when I spoke with him. “They get a hold of the issue and they tend to inflate it.”
Epprecht also argues that journalists must be cautious about depicting Africans as bigoted and uncivilized and look beyond the hateful statements and towards some of the broader socio-economic factors at play.
“Journalists must be wary about depicting Africans as uncivilized or somehow behind the West which is assumed to be the paragon of virtues and the pinnacle of human rights achievements,” said Epprecht.
But again, this poses a challenge and requires us to move beyond the sometimes violent claims of those who deny rights to gay people and who are often the most dominant voices in the debate. But are these angry statements not simply expressions of bigotry and prejudice? And how can one determine the broader social, political and economic issues that are feeding into the debate?
I do not think there is a definitively right way of reporting on this issue, but these are questions that journalists ought to be asking because issues that evoke the response that I have seen in Ghana rarely develop in isolation.
In Ghana there have been backlashes against the gay community before, but the most recent uproar originated in the Western Region, an area of the country that is experiencing significant socio-economic upheaval. The Western Region is expected to profit from the development of the Jubilee deepwater oilfield that began production in December last year. Many Ghanaians anticipate that the oil discovery will change their fortunes, and as President John Atta Mills said during the commencement of production that it could transform Ghana into a ‘modern industrial nation’.
Back in May, The Ghanaian Times published an article on a conference with a long and telling title: ‘Empowering cultural institutions and industries to mitigate the effects of foreign culture in Ghana in the era of oil exploitation, the role of stakeholders’ held in Sekondi, near Takoradi, the coastal city closest to the oilfield.
At the conference the Times reported the vice-president of the Western Regional House of Chiefs expressed concerns that homosexuality and lesbianism were ‘fast gaining roots in the Western Region, due to the influx of people with different backgrounds as a result of the oil discovery.’ The article continued: ‘He said the emergence of homosexuality and lesbianism in the region was posing much worry to the chiefs and people of the region, and, therefore appealed to the security agencies and all well-meaning Ghanaians to help check the practice.’
Since this conference, religious and community leaders and citizens have protested in Takoradi against what they see to be a rise in homosexuality within their communities. In many ways the backlash against gays appears to be a manifestation of fears of foreign corporate exploitation and cultural domination.
The overall causes for the recent upsurge in homophobia in Ghana are difficult to determine, but it is clear that the church is trying to assert political muscle and national media have been creating a sensation from the story. The Daily Graphic appears to have been running a public campaign and has been making front-page stories based upon the comments of anyone willing to make the loudest and most controversial anti-gay statements, regardless of their position of influence.
Reporting on the backlash against gay communities in Africa may be as difficult for Western journalists as it is for many Africans to discuss. But this is an issue that must be further explored as foreign reporters, myself included, are only just scratching the surface. Journalists must move beyond the sensational headlines and easy angles, in order to more fully represent the issue and help further the debate.
Clair MacDougall is a journalist who is currently based in Accra, Ghana. Her article ‘Rainbow People of God’ which focuses on the backlash against the gay community in Ghana features in this month’s edition of BBC’s Focus on Africa Magazine. She blogs about Ghana and West Africa at North of Nowhere.