Uganda

Homosexuality, which is illegal in Uganda, is commonly believed to be a vestige of colonialism. As the country’s LGBT community struggles for acceptance, some experts are noting that there’s evidence that homosexuality was present in Africa long before foreigners came.

KAMPALA, UGANDA — Ronald Mugisha was 13 years old when he told his parents that he was gay. Their response wasn’t what he hoped it would be. His father believes that homosexuality is a western phenomenon, and that Mugisha must have learned from someone to prefer men.

“They took me to rehab for two weeks hoping that I would be redeemed and my feelings would change,” he says. “But that didn’t change me.”

Eventually his father gave up, Mugisha says, but he still encourages him to “behave heterosexual” in public.

“No one taught me to feel this way,” Mugisha says. “It happens naturally to me that I am attracted to fellow men.”

It’s a widely accepted belief in Uganda that homosexuality didn’t exist in Africa prior to colonization. Many say it’s born from western culture and that it goes against African values.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has said that children in Uganda are recruited into homosexuality by “arrogant and careless western groups”. Museveni isn’t alone among African leaders who have made such statements. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, has described homosexuality as “a scourge planted by the white man on a pure continent.” Former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi once said that “homosexuality is against African norms and traditions.”

Gays and lesbians in Uganda say these beliefs reinforce negative attitudes and validates society’s rejection of them.

In Uganda, that rejection is severe. Homosexuality is illegal here, and there have been movements to make homosexual acts punishable by death.

Human rights abuses against people who are not heterosexual are rampant. A 2016 report by Sexual Minorities Uganda documented 264 cases of discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, including physical threats, violent attacks, torture, arrest, blackmail, eviction, mob justice and family banishment.

Joyce Buyinza, a lesbian, says her father disowned her due to her sexual orientation, saying that he doesn’t want to have a child who doesn’t respect African culture.

But she argues that homosexuality is African.

“When we trace our history, we learn about gay people existing in our communities,” she says.

Sylvia Tamale, a human rights activist and lecturer at Makerere University School of Law, says homosexuality in Uganda predates colonialism. It was neither fully condoned nor totally suppressed, but it was, without question, acknowledged by multiple groups including the Langi, the Iteso, the Bahima, the Banyoro, and the Baganda, she says.

It is widely believed that Kabaka Mwanga II, a Buganda king who ruled from 1884 to 1901, was gay and even burned young men to death if they resisted his sexual advances. Other accounts say Mwanga was bisexual, and still others claim he was heterosexual and had many wives.

Brenda Namayengo, who refers to herself as a culturalist, someone who loves African culture, says historical accounts claiming that Mwanga was gay are inaccurate.

“We have to understand that those who wrote about Mwanga’s homosexual tendencies were people who hated him: the white missionaries,” she says. “In their imperialistic, Christian mind, they distorted his image, and painting him as a homosexual was part of their propaganda. Homosexuality has never been an African sexual orientation.”

Namayengo says she believes that western groups pay Ugandans to promote homosexuality.

“Those homosexuals and lesbians in Uganda are given a lot of money to promote this western behaviour,” Namayengo says. “Because they are lazy and don’t want to work, they see promotion of homosexuality as a quick way to make money.”

Mugisha, the man who came out to his family when he was 13, says that’s not true.

“I had never interacted with any white person who offered me any money before I discovered that I felt this sexual attraction towards men,” he says.

Tamale says it was actually foreigners who brought anti-homosexuality teachings. British colonizers, via their teachings of Christianity, convinced many Africans that same-sex relationships are inhuman, she says.

“Unfortunately, it is believed by the majority,” she says of that teaching.

Western missionaries historically labelled homosexuality as evil, so gays and lesbians hid themselves, says Jennifer Makumbi, who writes historical fiction.

“It happened in the shadows, in secrecy. It became seedy,” Makumbi says.

Sexuality is very personal in Uganda, she says, so most Ugandans first saw openly gay people on western television programs and films. They associated it with western culture.

“When more gay people became visible, in film and in the music industry, Africans who are gay got confident and started to come out and be conspicuous,” she says.

Alex Kiwanuka, a heterosexual man, say local languages included references to homosexuality long before colonists arrived.

The Baganda for example use the word Okulyaebisiyaga to describe sex between people of the same gender, he says.

“How could we have arrived at a word like Okulyaebisiyaga if we didn’t have gay people in our communities?” Kiwanuka says.

Elizabeth Kemigisha, a human rights lawyer, says Ugandans need to unlearn the notion that homosexuality isn’t African.

“Learning needs to start in primary school and at homes,” she says. “This perception needs to be stopped.”

 

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.