Mistrust and Hate The Frightening New Lives of Homosexuals in Uganda
On Feb. 24, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a law allowing for life sentences for homosexuals. Since then, members of the country's gay and lesbian community have been going into hiding or leaving the country. Western pressure has been ineffective.
Michael Kawuba is sitting in his church office reflecting on tumescence. "We Ugandans get an erection when we see a beautiful woman," he says. "Anything else is unnatural."
During the day, Kawuba works as a financial advisor, but once he is finished, he rejoins the battle against homosexuality. A friendly man of 31, Kawuba is married and has three children -- and he is not one to rant. But every second Sunday, he preaches to the Kakumba congregation. "The Bible forbade homosexuality. God rained down fire onto Sodom and Gomorrah" -- he continues in this vein for hours at a time, standing behind a wooden pulpit. The sanctuary is spacious with a roof made of palm fronds. A band including guitar, bass and drums players pumps out gospel music while worshippers sing along, sway to the rhythm and stretch their arms heavenward as they call out "praise the Lord!"
On Feb. 24, God would seem to have finally heard their entreaties. That was the day that President Yoweri Museveni signed a law making "aggravated homosexuality" punishable with sentences of up to life in prison. A first draft of the law had even called for the death penalty. Michael Kawuba invited friends over for the event and they watched their head of state sign the new statute. "We cheered like we were watching football," Kawuba says.
According to one survey, 96 percent of all Ugandans find homosexuality unacceptable and many are in favor of locking away gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Uganda has long been a model country in Africa: Though the regime is authoritarian, the country is stable and economically successful. Now, it has one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the continent, trailing only Nigeria's Muslim north, Mauretania, Somalia and Sudan. Now, homosexuality is a punishable offense in 36 of Africa's 54 countries.
Afraid of Attacks
The international community was horrified: The United States slashed development aid to Uganda, the Europe Union threatened to impose sanctions and the United Nations warned the country to uphold human rights. But the reactions have done little to help the gays and lesbians in Uganda: Many have gone into hiding or fled the country. They believe that a wave of arrests is pending. Most of all, though, they are afraid of attacks from anti-gay activists.
There are thousands of congregations like that of lay-preacher Michael Kawuba. They tend to be small, but are often radical. Many of them, including Kakumba Church, maintain close contacts with evangelicals in the US whose self-proclaimed mission is that of bashing homosexuals. In 2009, for example, the ultra-right-wing activist Scott Lively traveled to Uganda claiming, among other things, that gays are to be blamed for the Holocaust.
Michael Kawuba isn't prepared to go quite that far. "I don't hate gays," he insists. Indeed, he once even met with a homosexual man. "I wanted to know what they are like." But Kawuba was afraid to go to the meeting alone and arranged for two plainclothes police officers to accompany him to a hotel bar in the diplomatic quarter of Kampala, Uganda's capital. He and the gay man talked for a while before going their separate ways. But since then, Michael Kawuba thinks that he knows all there is to know about gays.
He speaks like a zoologist who has closely observed a dangerous species of animal. "The man was one of those who takes on the role of the woman during sex," he says. Such people tend to be more defensive, he continues. The really dangerous ones are those who take on the active role. They are also the ones who go after school children. "They offer money or sweets so that our children become homosexual," Kawuba claims, and proffers pictures of anal injuries to prove his point.
Homosexuality, Kawuba says, is learned behavior: You aren't born gay or lesbian, but it is a decision akin to that of choosing what sport to play. As proof, he notes that Luganda, the country's most-spoken language, doesn't even have a word for homosexuality. First, according to Kawuba's theory, it was the Arabs who spread homosexuality in Africa. Now, he claims, a Western lobby is promoting gays in Uganda in the hopes of receiving sex or pornographic materials from Africa.
'Arrogant Western Groups'
It is tempting to dismiss Kawuba's theories out of hand, but his beliefs are shared by a majority of Ugandans. Even the president says that "arrogant Western groups" are to blame for homosexuality in his country.
On the same day that Kawuba celebrated his triumph, Sam Ganafa and Dennis Wamala were also sitting in front of their television sets. They too watched the president sign the law -- and they knew that their lives had just become more complicated.
That same night, Wamala, 31, packed up clothes, a mosquito net and his computer and fled, a step he felt compelled to take because his neighbors know that he is gay. He moved into another apartment far away and is now careful to only visit cafés and bars where nobody knows him. Before he parks his car, he carefully looks around to make sure no groups of men are lingering about.
"We live in a cloud of fear," he says. "Each week feels like a year."
But he doesn't want to give up. He often wears a T-shirt from a lesbian-issues magazine he received at a gay and lesbian conference he attended in Berlin two years ago at the invitation of Germany's Foreign Ministry. It is a quiet, sly protest against hate. He just hopes that he doesn't run into anyone who understands German.
Dennis Wamala studied business administration and is the director of Icebreakers Uganda, a group that provides advice to gays and lesbians and lobbies for societal acceptance. They have found little success and their offices are now closed. The gay bars in Kampala have also emptied out and hundreds of homosexuals have left the country.
The new law, following years of debate, has led to an increase in hate in the country. Though homosexuality has long been forbidden in Uganda, and gays and lesbians were often the target of abuse, nobody was locked away for it. There were even bars and clubs where they could go undisturbed. But that has now changed.
'No Chance Against a Mob'
Attacks against gays and lesbians now occur on an almost daily basis, with human rights activists counting more than 70 cases since the law was signed. Dennis Wamala's boyfriend, an actor, decided to stay in France following a theater trip to the country -- out of fear. "We aren't so much afraid of the police," Wamala says. "When you get arrested, you can get yourself a lawyer. But you don't have a chance against a mob. Many in Uganda would prefer to see us dead." He says that the new legislation is a green light for people to take the law into their own hands.
Every few days, Dennis Wamala heads to a safe house in the Makindye quarter of Kampala. He knocks on the door three times and a slot opens so those inside can see his face. Then, a metal door swings open. Behind it is a narrow courtyard furnished with plastic chairs, dusty sofas and a television. One room is crammed full of boxes, the possessions of those who needed a place to store their stuff while they look for a new apartment or book a ticket abroad. In an emergency, people can spend the night here too.
The domicile's living room is where Wamala and the others organize their resistance. Their telephones ring constantly, with journalists calling from around the world. Government representatives from places like Sweden and the Netherlands also check in. They all want to know the same things: How dangerous is it for gays and lesbians in Uganda? And what can they do to help?
The activists are currently focusing on getting multinational companies to suspend planned investments in Uganda. The telecommunications provider Orange has already rescinded its advertising contract with the tabloid newspaper Red Pepper in Kampala. One day after the president signed the new law, the paper exposed "Uganda's top 200 homos." With their full names.
'Mistrust and Hate'
People like Sam Ganafa, whose photo was plastered onto the front page.
Since then, he hasn't even tried to hide anymore, and he continues to frequent Ram Bar, located in a rear courtyard in the city center. There used to be a party here every Sunday evening. But now, police drive by regularly, check IDs and take down people's information. "Close down or there will be trouble," one police officer threatened the woman behind the bar.
Since then, the establishment has been empty. "But we aren't in the mood to party anyway," Ganafa says. For weeks, he has been unable to go home and has been living at a friend's place. He has also been accused of rape by a young man -- a popular method of harassing gays.
In their search for evidence, police raided Ganafa's home -- they knocked down doors and confiscated his belongings, finding nothing aside from a few condoms. The trial has been progressing slowly, with the alleged victim having become mired in contradictions. "They don't have the courage to dismiss the charges," Ganafa says. "That would be a loss of face for the judiciary."
He wonders how the police intend to determine punishable relationships between homosexuals. "How can you prove love and sex between two men or two women? Do they want to march into the bedroom?"
Soon, Ganafa believes, the law will begin to affect Uganda's heterosexuals as well, as people begin to denounce their enemies.
"Those who want to damage others -- their neighbors, colleagues or a politician they don't like -- will only have to go to the police and accuse them of being homosexual." Law enforcement officials would be legally required to launch an investigation. "Mistrust and hate," Ganafa says, "will continue to eat their way ever deeper into our society."
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley