Well-funded Riddles: Notes from Uganda’s sexual culture war
As Christians fall out over gay rights, the Ugandan state, built on martyrs resisting alleged homosexuality, has some soul-searching to do.
The journalist’s approach to any topic is to seek out those caught up in the story and get their views. This is not that kind of a story. The wires are replete with anecdotal despatches of African “homophobia” in which for the past decade in East Africa, Uganda has become Ground Zero.
The latest flashpoint is a new bill tabled in parliament last week containing proposals to further criminalise homosexual acts. This move has followed what, a decade after the introduction of the first bill entrenching the colonial-era law criminalising homosexuality, has become a familiar script.
A decade ago, a letter of sympathy and condemnation written by then President Obama was read out at the funeral of a gay activist found battered to death in his home. Western governments ratcheted up the pressure through issuing public warnings to African governments that their anti-homosexual attitudes and policies were unacceptable.
This time around, it is clerics at the highest levels of Christian mother-churches in Europe that re-opened the schism. In quick succession, the Church of England and the Pope have expressed support for LGBTQ communities. While the Archbishop of Canterbury and the CoE’s synod only went as far as blessing same-sex unions (rather than endorsing them outright), the Pope expressed his full sympathies with homosexuals – a major development in the Catholic Church’s position on the issue.
The leadership of the Anglican Church in Uganda, as well as many Evangelical groups, stand at a polar opposite. Their fulminations against this “abomination” dominate the airwaves, consultative seminars, and the pulpit.
Feeling trapped, the Ugandan government resorts to some complex tap-dancing. Last time round, the president assented to the bill, and then performed outrage when it was quashed in the courts due to a previously “unforeseen” but very visible parliamentary error in the process of its passing.
This time, there was some initial hemming and hawing at the finance ministry which is legally obliged to scrutinise any proposed legislation and clear it (or not) via an instrument known as a Certificate of Financial Implication (read in this case as: “what if the donors actually cut off the money this time?”).
At the best of times, human sex can be a complicated issue and remains a bone of contention in societies all over the world. Tales from the North attest to this. Two decades ago, the Bishop Gene Robinson controversy, in which the openly gay Episcopalian priest was made a full bishop, precipitated a full-blown schism, first within the US Church (where Anglicans are known as Episcopalians), and then in the global Anglican communion. New iterations of this controversy around homosexuality continue to split Anglicans to this day.
This is the conundrum that Uganda’s civil society – to the delight of the dictatorship – cannot unpick. African despots’ recitations of 20th century European history – showing women being allowed to vote just 90 years ago, poor people maybe another 20 before that, and sexuality being fully legalised less than 30 years ago – makes them ask why their 60-year old countries are being denied the right to a similarly leisurely democratic evolution.
The discourse is further confounded by the perceived Western mindset of being obsessed with sexual matters that is then transmitted globally as “normal” as a result of its global cultural dominance.
Only the native voice is truly silent. Public discussion about sex is not the done thing in most African societies. This is not to say that sex is never discussed; there are many culturally-designated spaces where the most explicit expositions on sexual matters are held.
This differentiation held until the pressures of the War Against AIDS broke down the barrier between the private and the media-tised space, creating a European-like free-flowing sexual media-fest.
But that is not all. Like most former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda is an institutionally racist contraption that started life as an a war of conquest against African natives. The mission-school trained elite that inherited the colonial governor’s seat has maintained the colonial’s muzzling of native opinions over a whole range of policy issues such as land and governance. It is, therefore, not logical to expect that native voices would be magically included in this debate either.
Uganda is not a democracy. It retains the organisational logic bequeathed it by its roots in the colonial project. The state is apexed by powerful interest groups descended from the various African warlord factions that secured the colony for Britain. Prime among these are the Anglican Church, one of the biggest landowners in the country, owner of nearly half the country’s schools, some hospitals and rural clinics, and, until the eve of independence in 1962, the one religious group whose members had the exclusive and legal right to rise to the very top of the civil service by dint of their religious denomination.
Uganda’s ruling NRM party, the donor community, the powerful Christian factions, and human rights activists all bear perspectives that seek no benefit in hindsight but dominate the debate to the point of silencing all other voices.
Perhaps this is not a discussion about sexuality. Perhaps it is about theology and the organisation of knowledge. Perhaps it is about the weight of history. Perhaps it is just about good manners. Or voyeurism.
A conflict between history and motives
The Adventurer John Hanning Speke was a man of his Victorian times. Such men would never take orders from an ordinary woman, let alone an African one.
Speke was in pre-Uganda in 1862. He was seeking African assistance to be shown the location of the Nile’s source (so that he could then “discover” it immediately thereafter).
In his review of Speke’s journal, Sean Redmond comments on the practicalities the adventurer had to deal with:
“Speke provides a truly valuable, day-by-day account of life at an African royal court…Speke found himself in turn caught between Muteesa and the Namasole (the queen-mother) as they manoeuvred for prestige and power. The two were jealous of each other over Speke’s company, so he favoured now one, now the other, visiting them in turns, trying to cajole their permission to continue on to the Nile….”
In that passage we learn that there was a woman of considerable institutional power in the African court.
Reflecting on the evidence in African systems of “gendered political power” in her essay “Queen Mothers and Good Governance in Buganda”, American researcher Holly Hansen states that African women are “one of history’s most politically viable female populations”.
Such voices were not heard with the appointment in 1997 of the first female Vice-President in Uganda. Presaging the donor-driven excitement at the election of Liberia’s first female president, commentators promoted the idea that these ascensions to neo-colonial office were ground-breaking developments – that African women were holding political power for the first time.
There is more. Native religion in Buganda has always been heavily dominated by women priests. Put another way, the notion of a woman taking a leading role in religious matters is not a conceptual problem for some African cultures. This reality should be contrasted with the schism that threatened to break the Anglican Church when the issue of ordaining women priests was tabled for the first time a decade before the current controversy over women Bishops that also shakes the global Anglican Church today.
And more. A form of female same-sex marriages was a practice among the Igbo, and remains so among the Kikuyu and Akamba in Kenya today. Whether sexual in nature or not, the mere fact of its existence shows a scope of conceptualisation of marriage in African minds, that did not exist within the Judaeo-Christian one.
Like the Nile discovery and sexual discourse, until the European hand has been placed on African events, they have not happened.
How will any aspect of African life be understood when Africa as a whole, in her actual manner and customs, has never been fully acknowledged?
Many small tragedies of mind and method flow from the failure to answer that question. An understanding of sexuality may well be the biggest casualty.
Sexual Imperialism: a brief history
3 June is Uganda Martyrs Day. A public holiday, it attracts pilgrims from all over the region.
It commemorates the day in 1886 when a toxic nexus of politics, death sentences, and Western condemnation over sexual matters was first brewed in this region. Christian missionaries brought down Buganda’s King Mwanga, publicly denouncing him as a homosexual after he burned scores of young Anglican and Catholic converts at the stake for resisting his alleged advances.
Beatified by Pope Benedict XV on 6 June 1920 and canonised by Pope Paul VI on 18 October 1964, the martyrs, 45 in all, are recognised as the first Christian martyrs on the African continent. From Dakar to Mombasa, the name St. Kizito – the face of the martyrs – has become synonymous with Catholic schools, hospitals, and churches.
The execution of the converts became a major proselytising tool and forms the very ideological foundation of the Anglican and Catholic churches in the entire East African region. To be clear: the growth of the Christianity in East Africa is rooted in the very homophobia its planters now condemn.
The Christianity that liberated Africa from her ancestral darkness has left many of its African followers bewildered. They fail to understand how global theology changed while the founding Bible stayed the same: “Did the Uganda Martyrs die in vain?” asked a dismayed African cleric at the 1998 Anglican global summit in Lambeth.
The question arises: was Canterbury’s shift motivated by the Holy Spirit, or by prudent compliance with the new European legal regime, now dressed up in theological arguments?
In industrial Europe, as labour was forced off the land and absorbed by the factories in the cities, the workplace became the site of legislation against racial and gender discrimination, and sexual exploitation. Abuses and injustice at the workplace, because they affected a significant percentage of the population, had an immediate negative impact on individual livelihoods.
This may explain why such uber-progressive legislation was not a pressing issue in the face of other concerns, even one century after the close of The Enlightenment. The poet, Alfred Douglass, is found musing about “the love that dare not speak its name” in 1894. Was it not reasonable enough then?
In effect, countries like Uganda are now under pressure to abandon the European liberation implanted here by mission Christianity for a new kind of liberation championed from the same source, but without the ideological wiggle-room to navigate the same transition achieved at its source.
In its almost 40-year stranglehold of state power, Uganda’s ruling party has more than a little blood on its hands, from the battlefields of northern Uganda, to the well-documented state torture chambers in the capital, the devastated villages of eastern Congo, and most recently, in the streets of Kampala, turned into a bloody pre-election theatre in 2020 by state security agents. Its record of human rights abuses, which attained truly spectacular levels at the height of the aid-giving, has left some government opponents wondering why this particular bill attracted direct donor intervention a decade ago and prolonged Western anxiety in its second iteration this past week.
Further examples of the usual habits of a dictatorship – media censorship, detentions without trial, suppression of demonstrations, and election-rigging – are rife in Uganda, and well-documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The Ugandan government remains, however, a mainstay of Western grand strategy in the region. Over the past 37 years, President Museveni has been feted by no less than three US presidents, and has been the willing ally of every single administration in Washington in securing their interests in the Great Lakes. In exchange, Uganda has been allowed to live off donor money.
None of them have been able to explain why the possible fate of an estimated 500,000 gay Ugandans weighs more on their conscience than the actual fate of those Ugandans and Congolese who in their uncounted numbers have perished at the hands of this regime.
Such contradictions must provide grim satisfaction to Africa’s dictators.
In discussing the prospects for progress, we can all now deploy, when the need arises, a certain users’ lingo: euphemisims and code-words such as “challenge”, “marginalisation”, “intervention” come readily to mind. We can all link our dilemmas to various UN-endorsed resolutions calling for their alleviation. We know where the websites and the libraries are located when we need the intellectual ammunition to back up our positions. The flip chart, the marker, the workshop microphone and the Twitter handle: these are the implements that keep us ensconced in our natural habitats.
Activism now has a format and a lexicon. It used to even have a dress code, in the heady kitenge gown-and-matching headdress-wearing days of the UN Decade for Women.
In just over a century, we have thus moved from a situation where Western dominant opinion politically condemned homosexuality and overthrew an African government because of it, to one where it denounces those African governments that condemn it today.
Power does not need to justify itself.
If African society here is indeed now rigidly opposed to any arrangement that deviates from a monogamous heterosexual universe with clearly demarcated boundaries for women, it is European Christianity that has made it institutionally so, and not necessarily the native cultures, where the evidence points to a more nuanced – some might say, more complex – approach to these issues.
This is a story of how the future of African sexuality has become a hostage to two traditions of the European Enlightenment.
As a writer, I should have followed the normal path, and relayed the stories of people embroiled in the tale, but this has refused to be that kind of story. The details are not at issue. Oppression and discrimination exist. But this is not new, and it is not limited to any one group. It is the way Ugandans are condemned to live.
Nobody who should be able to could explain why nobody’s position made sense, except the native position that nobody except the native knew existed.
This is essentially a quest for an all-encompassing view on marriage, sexuality, gender, religious leadership, and a conceptualisation of what is and what is not generally useful in the realm of civic coda.
Nobody who should seemed to know that.
Endings, and Beginnings
A thought is not a real thought until a white mind has also thought it. Once it has been thus endorsed, it then becomes his thought. Once it is his thought, then it is the only thought worth having, and all other thoughts must step aside.
The presumption seems to be that the complexities of human sexuality were discovered only when the Western world encountered them, and as the Western world reached its conclusions about them, then these now stand as the only Valid Thoughts.
In the end, societies must decide for themselves how they want to live. Uganda’s governing processes have never been inclusive enough to capture that. The three-way debate between the secular elite, donor governments, and the Christian establishment – all very well-funded – is narrower still.
The questions, like the oppressed citizens, remain impoverished.