Before David Bahati, Idi Amin was certainly the most infamous Ugandan abroad. It seems he might be in for some competition. Since tabling the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, the Ndorwa West MP has been vilified around the world.
“I read about it, they were all calling me the most homophobic man – I didn’t understand what they mean,” Mr Bahati told the Daily Monitor in May. “Stopping that kind of thing does not make you say that you hate or fear the person who does that. Actually we love them, but we hate what they do.”
Africa is rarely known for positive things in the West. The usual suspects—famine, Aids, poverty, war and corruption— continue to top the headlines. However, a new topic is starting to define outside opinions of the continent: anti-homosexuality, for which Uganda has become the poster child.
How it started
It can be traced to a whirlwind of events. One year after Bahati’s bill, a fledgling tabloid ran a headline that called for homosexuals to be killed. Three months after that, in January this year, one of the men pictured under the Hang them headline, David Kato, was bludgeoned to death in his home. Amin himself couldn’t have written a better script.
Kato’s murder prompted a number of statements from Western embassies, which linked it to Mr Bahati’s Bill and the tabloid article. Outcry against the “Kill the Gays” Bill came to a head in May when it was expected to be tabled again after going through committee debates, but Parliament broke off without voting on it.
The murmurs that Mr Bahati intends to reintroduce the Bill before the current Parliament persist, as do the Bill’s repercussions. Just last month British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut aid to countries that “persecute homosexuals.”
Mr Bahati has welcomed the attention his Bill has drawn, telling the New York Times in an interview that he hoped that “Uganda can provide leadership in this area of moral decadence, using... this bill as a platform.”
Uganda’s reputation certainly preceded itself when it was ranked the top country to visit in 2012 by Lonely Planet, a reputable guidebook publisher. But the negative reactions came swiftly. Most of the commenters on its online article were quick to connect Uganda with Mr Bahati’s Bill, and drew unfavourable conclusions. For many in the West, it seems Uganda has become an emblem of intolerant societies.
The first person to comment on the list agrees that Kampala could be one of the safest cities in Africa, unless: “…you’re lesbian or gay for whom beatings and murders are a regular occurrence.” Another commenter who identifies himself as a gay man says the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community “are attacked with no provocation” in Uganda, and wonders why any would visit.
It goes on, a few virulent remarks here, “People generally get the kind of government they deserve. Idi Amin seems like a good fit for these “affable people”, while others try to put the issue into context.
But do Ugandans recognise the country in that comments section? Do gay people “stand a pretty good chance of being killed” while here? Are most Ugandans “religious fanatics and ignorant people” and is our media “massively controlled by a corrupt government?”
Locally, the debate stirred by the Bill has largely hinged on religious morality. Most Ugandans adhere to conservative religious beliefs and these, as well as tribal ones, frown upon homosexuality.
But even if more than 80 per cent of Ugandans are Christians, opinions about what should be done to homosexuals vary enormously. You have on one side, Old Testament fundamentalists like Bahati who believe that homosexuals should be killed, while on the other you have people who believe it’s too drastic.
Richard Madanda is a 33-year-old boda boda rider who identifies himself as a Christian. “Homosexuals should not be killed,” he says. Instead, “they should be arrested or fined. The Bible says it’s a sin, but it’s God who punishes sins, not man”. When asked why they should be arrested, he says that homosexuality contravenes our culture and that’s why the law classifies it as a crime.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, as it is across the majority of the continent. Commonwealth countries like Uganda inherited that criminalisation through colonial rule.
Val Kalende, a Ugandan gay rights activist now based in Canada, says the fight against the existing penal code provision was hard enough. Now, Bahati’s Bill complicates everything. “The future for gay rights in Uganda is definitely decriminalisation of homosexuality. To rid ourselves of the laws our colonial masters imposed on us,” she said. “But of course, the biggest threat to change is fear and ignorance.”
Their struggle, says Kalende, is not being pushed by the West but by trying to achieve basic human rights. “When we began our movement about 10 years ago, our goal was not to demand for special treatment. We are demanding for the same rights that every Ugandan citizen enjoys,” she says.
“In the future when my children enrol in school I don’t want them to be bullied simply because their mother is a gay rights activist. I want to apply for a job and know that I will be evaluated not on the basis of my sexual orientation but on how qualified I am. This was our vision and it is the environment that we want to create in Uganda.”
Another Ugandan gay rights activist, Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, was one of dozens ‘outed’ by the local tabloid last year – her photo and details published under a banner calling for gays to be hanged, warning of the threats they pose to children. She has been physically attacked for her broadcasts against homophobia in the country.
“For every human rights violation that happens in Uganda, we need Ugandans to stand up and say enough is enough,” she says. “At the end of the day Uganda is not alone, we operate in a global village.”
Not everyone shares her views. A 27-year-old second-hand clothes seller in Kireka who identified herself as Mama Sara says she does not care if the Bill scares foreign visitors. “Let them remain in their countries, after all they are the same people who are promoting homosexuality.”
How the coutry has been branded
Judith Adong, a playwright, has written a work on the challenges homosexuals in Uganda face and the lengths they undergo to hide their orientation. Titled Just Me, You and The Silence, it was recently read in New York and performed at the Royal Court’s Theatre in London. In both cities, the reaction to her nationality was similar.
“Before, when people heard that I’m from Uganda it used to be, ‘Oh, so you’re from Idi Amin’s country.’ Now it’s ‘You’re the people who want to kill homosexuals,’” she says.
Ms Adong says she believes Ugandans who support the Bill don’t understand its full implications. “
Many of them (gay Ugandans) are afraid to come out because they would put their friends and families in danger. If the law is passed, the police will want to know why their families and friends did not report them before,” she says.
Obbo Ogule, a 30-year-old boda boda rider, agrees that there were components to the Bill of which he was not aware. He says while he doesn’t support homosexuality, he firmly disagrees with the death penalty for homosexuality, as well as the provision that criminalises a “failure to disclose the offense” – which includes families, even doctors and lawyers.
According to a middle-aged American tourist the Daily Monitor spoke to in Kampala, the Bill will deprive Uganda of what she said was a lucrative and sizeable tourist market. “Homosexuals should stay away from this country if it passes a Bill that says they should be killed. It doesn’t make sense to come to a country where you’ll be forced to move discreetly or face death if you’re arrested,” she said.
But Julia Mayershorn, from Britain, says if it was a matter of visiting countries where the population is comfortable with their sexual life, then for gay tourists, “Middle East and Africa destinations are more or less limited to South Africa and Israel.”
Kalende believes the commenters on Lonely Planet are blowing things out of proportion. “What such people want to do is to place gay rights ahead of other human rights and they are the reason African countries are still overly homophobic. If people want Uganda to be boycotted because of homophobia then they should make the same noise when opposition leaders and journalists have their rights abused by the State.”