UBUNTU IS A word that makes me cringe. You might also know it as obuntu or unhu. It comes from the root word ntu, from Bantu languages in Africa. Ntu meaning human, bantu meaning people, and ubuntu meaning humanity. Since it became popular in the 1950s, this word has been placed at the heart of African philosophy, treated like a mysterious element from which an alien civilisation draws its power. Ubuntu has become synonymous with pan-Africanism, community, and other words that were corrupted in the mouths of dictators.
In South Africa, it is ubuntu and it was a philosophy used during reconciliation after apartheid and thrown back in South Africa’s face when xenophobic attacks were directed at citizens of the countries that stood with them in unity during apartheid. In Zimbabwe, it is unhu and it is a philosophy of humanity in a country where the president believes gay people are lower than pigs and dogs. In Uganda it is obuntu and it is the same philosophy that defends the opening of our borders to refugees in a country that ranks with Nigeria and Zimbabwe among the most punitive countries for LGBTQ people.
Welcome to Uganda, the most hospitable country on earth. This is our unofficial slogan as ‘the pearl of Africa’. Thousands of expats have voted Uganda one of the most welcoming countries to visit as a foreigner. Not just because it’s so cheap and simple to enter the country, but because you will be welcomed with open arms, cheap food, excess amounts of beer, beautiful women, handsome men, rich cultures, hosts of majestic creatures and birds, and endless scenic views of rivers, lakes, mountains, plains and rock formations. You can also come for the oil.
We don’t believe in portion control. When we eat, we eat heaping plates of homegrown food. And when we export, we export our minerals, our coffee, our natural resources and our best minds. We open our doors to refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. Then we turn our own people into refugees.
Since 2005, thousands of LGBTQ people have fled Uganda into Kenya. Uganda was afraid that, along with fashion, iPhones and condiments, we had imported Western ideals like individualism, Western vices like homosexuality, and Western sicknesses like depression and anxiety.
There are hundreds of tourist attractions across Uganda, but one you cannot avoid is the equator. It is set on the main highway; driving south-east from the capital, Kampala (towards Rwanda), you cross it at Kayabwe, Mpigi District. Most people just take photos by the signs, but the vendors at the site try to convince visitors to come see proof that they are actually at zero-degrees latitude. They take you three metres into the northern side and pour water into a metal sink and show you how it drains in a clockwise motion. Then they usher you three meters into the southern side and show you how the water drains counter-clockwise. Your last stop, the moment you’ve been waiting for, is at the equatorial line drawn across the highway and tourist centre. The sink here, they emphasise, drains straight down at the balance of gravity.
When I visit this site with fellow Ugandans they see right through the trick. I’m amused and irritated because Ugandans are wise to bafere (con men), but their scepticism applies only to small cons like these. We remain oblivious to the big cons. The average Ugandan won’t give money to beggars on the street because their begging is more likely to be an organised effort than an act of desperation. However, the average Ugandan might also willingly lie flat on the floor to kiss the feet of Elvis Mbonye, a man who named himself a prophet, threw himself a dinner that cost attendees a large portion of their salary, placed himself on a throne and invited people to adore him. And they did.
If you believe in an illusion long enough, it becomes real. The borders drawn by the colonisers were an illusion that we allowed to become reality. The name Africa was a continental christening that we accepted. The African identity was a mash-up of thousands of ethnic identities and a few European standards that we wore like a costume, but we lost ourselves in the character. We don Dutch wax prints and call them traditional dress. We attend weddings in modified saris and adopted gomesi, and celebrate our ‘traditional’ spirit. We stubbornly hold on to adopted tradition, resisting the fluidity of identity.
We say it takes a village to raise a child. We say it’s about the community. We say, ‘Obuntu, ubuntu, tuli omu, one love, one Africa.’ We shout ‘This is Africa!’ like we’ve hit the climax of cultural consummation.
Foreigners and Ugandans alike talk about ubuntu and African socialism like it will save us from the downward spiral of capitalism. While one group of bazungu might come for oil and coffee, another comes to learn about obuntu. But they only find an illusion. Community in Uganda might mean sharing and uplifting each other, but it might also mean protecting the reputation of a community leader who defiles a young girl. It might mean raising a child to be proud of their culture, or it might mean raising a child in fear of being different because they might ruin the reputation of the community. It might mean open doors, open arms and bountiful parties, or it might mean a young woman is beaten by a mob to within an inch of her life and left to die in a ditch because she dresses like a man and sleeps with other women.
GROWING UP QUEER in Uganda means growing up in some form of isolation. When I began discovering the queer community in Kampala in 2014, I also began rediscovering how to breathe with ease. My first time at a queer event was tense. I kept glancing around, afraid that it was a trick or that a mob was forming outside, waiting for us. Then I saw lesbians dancing, and gay men and trans-women out-dancing them, and I began to breathe. I slowly opened up to the community and made contact with my tribe. I exhaled.
In 2016, I attended the opening of Pride Festival and was relieved to find it as plain as any other function in Uganda. No drama, no attacks, just local music and a lot of people showing off their outfits and their partners. I had to work that week, and missed out on the Mr and Mrs Pride Pageant. While working away at my computer, I received a message on WhatsApp from a gay friend who had attended the event.
There’re police here.
My heart stopped. My mind raced. I kept messaging back, trying to get an idea of the situation, but he was slow to respond. I took to Twitter and immediately found updates. Despite the festival having made agreements with the Uganda Police Force, local officers had surrounded the club where the event was held and barricaded in the attendees. Police assaulted trans-women and trans-men especially, pulling at their hair and dresses, and kicking them when they were down. They took pictures and threatened to use them to out people. Attendees huddled under tables and booths. Some tried to run away – everyone was horrified when one young man jumped out a window on the fourth floor of the six-storey building. Those who were dressed in clothes that aligned with their perceived gender were not harassed as much. They used their bodies to shield trans-women and trans-men as they tried to change into different clothes and, in the case of many trans-women, frantically undo hair that had taken them hours to prepare. The organisers of the event tried to talk to the police, but were arrested and taken away. Lawyers who defend the queer community arrived at the scene and, after tense negotiations, pageant attendees were released.
Across Kampala, the air was flooded with fear, anger, humiliation and hundreds of signals transmitting the same message: Are you okay? My friend came to my place immediately after, and when I opened the door he broke into tears. I ushered him in and poured him a shot of cheap gin. We sat together for hours, wondering how morning was going to break. Were the pictures going to be published? Would this be a repeat of 2010 and 2014, when newspapers forcefully outed queer people by publishing their pictures on the front page? I held my breath.
AFRICAN ACADEMICS AND activists have tried to debunk myths about homosexuality in Uganda and across Africa. Most especially that homosexuality is not ‘un-African’, that it is not ‘a Western import’. Rather, they argue, it’s the religious beliefs and laws recently introduced to Uganda that fuel homophobia. Homosexuality is neither Western nor African. It is human. Treating LGBTQ people as equals is neither a Western nor an African ideology; it is a tenet of humanity.
There were queer people in various communities across pre-colonial Africa. Some were absorbed into accepted roles in society. In Uganda, there were the mudoko dako (an alternative gender status) in Langi, Iteso and Karamajong culture. Among the Bagisu of Kenya and Uganda, there were inzili (hermaphrodites) and buyazi (transvestites, now used as a derogatory term). Most famously, Kabaka Mwanga II, king of Buganda, was known to be bisexual.
Homosexuality was not unheard of across Africa, though it was tolerated in some places more than others. Some relationships and alternative gender roles were accepted or even expected, depending on spiritual practices, status, wealth, age and the availability of partners of the opposite sex. Some were considered taboo.
Then came the trade-offs. The British came bearing formal education systems, the Bible, respectable clothing and laws against homosexual practices. Uganda eventually gave way at different points, trading our own beliefs, clothes, methods of education, and varieties of relationships and identities for those of the colonisers. Those who turned more quickly and thoroughly to Christianity and British political systems were rewarded. Over time, our communities dissolved and regrouped within new borders with new hierarchies, under an illusion of unity. Later, we changed into the costume of pan-Africanism and ubuntuism.
Long, complicated threads can be traced from the initial 1902 laws outlawing homosexuality to the repercussions of the anti-homosexuality bill in 2014. Imagine Uganda in the 1900s. The landscape is changing, the laws are changing and everywhere white people are telling black people that they are uncivilised, immoral and ignorant. They teach us to dislike our bodies, to reject our beliefs and to embrace Jesus, our only hope. They turn us against each other and dissolve our political systems. They create new systems. With this distraction, this big con, they begin taking our natural resources. They grant us the independence they had taken away from us, trusting us to keep their systems in place.
We go through political turmoil, war and tyranny, and the illusion changes again. Then one man leads a resistance against a dictator and we are free. We begin to recuperate. Over the years, more countries come and take more resources – or we hand them over. The rich get richer, corruption grows along with debts to other countries, and HIV erupts like a curse and steals lives. Every year there are more people and fewer jobs. Anger brews, and the man who liberated the country now holds it captive in its fear of war and terror. Everyone is looking around for someone to blame.
In 1999, two years before an election, the state-owned newspaper New Vision reports that the president has ordered the arrest and imprisonment of homosexuals.
In 2007, Red Pepper, a tabloid newspaper, outs LGBTQ citizens under the headline ‘HOMO TERROR!’
In 2009, an anti-homosexuality bill is introduced in parliament. Red Pepper outs more LGBTQ citizens under the headline ‘Top Homos in Uganda Named’.
In 2010, Rolling Stone, another tabloid newspaper, names and shames hundreds of people as homosexuals. It publishes their addresses. Many queer people are subsequently attacked.
In 2011, gay activist David Kato is murdered.
In 2014, two years before elections, the anti-homosexual bill is signed by the president. The next day, Red Pepper outs more LGBTQ citizens under the headline ‘Top 200 homosexuals’.
HOW DO YOU feel when you read or hear the word homosexual? Do you panic? Does it spark anger? Is it a clinical word to you? Or is it charged with emotion? If you are Ugandan you will be either afraid or angry, because you hear that word only when accusatory fingers are pointed at you, or when you are pointing an accusatory finger at someone else.
Creating a scapegoat, a common enemy to distract from the divisive tribal, religious and political issue, is how a ruler fabricates an illusion of heroism: that he is saving us from moral erosion. And behind him stands a dangerous jester, Simon Lokodo, the Minister of Ethics and Integrity – ready to distract the masses with obsessive rants about short skirts, pornography and homosexuality, while repeating and emphasising key words: values, ethics, community, Ugandan, African. The national motto resounds, ‘For God and My Country’.
Queer people, especially gay men, are blamed for everything wrong in Ugandan communities. The same churches that exploit hopeless people under the guise of turning sinners into ‘fishers of men’ accuse gay men and lesbians of ‘recruiting’ young people. The same people who shun homosexuals and believe them to be ‘gay for pay’ (lured into homosexuality with the promise of money) are unwilling to employ gay men, which would prevent any need for them to solicit sex as a way to make ends meet. The same authorities that arrested the activist Kizza Musinguzi for protesting homophobic violence turn a blind eye when he is then raped by other men in prison.
In 2017, the government ordered telecom companies to block the SIM cards of anyone in the country who did not register for a national ID. This arrogant breach of people’s right to communication was ignored. Out of fear or listlessness, not a protest was sparked. But a single person raising their voice in defence of equal rights for the queer community will be buried under verbal abuse and picketed at every venue. Smothered frustration is directed at the queer community.
In the meantime, pastors invest in a gospel of prosperity and lure people with promises of blessings that will fill their accounts with money and their passports with visas. They convince members of the congregation to perform sexual acts in exchange for divine blessings. They sell ‘holy’ rice at more than ten times its value because it will bring financial blessings to the buyer. And if the people get restless and angry, they say the devil is at work and convince them to wait for their blessings and not to look for money outside of the church, or they might get involved with homosexuals. And they say that homosexuals are eroding the community. And the congregation hands over their money and says, ‘Amen. For God and My Country.’
IMAGINE MY BODY is an archive. Open my mind and rummage through the memories. See what decisions and circumstances brought me to this point. Flip through my synapses and reveal my habits. Scrutinise my DNA and uncover my history.
My body gathers information and stores it in my tissues. Muscles remember how to throw arms up in defence, how to cross them in refusal and how to open them to embrace another. My body has recorded moments of pleasure so it can recreate them, and moments of pain so it can avoid making the same mistakes. There is knowledge my body learned over time and knowledge it has possessed since birth, like loving women and needing to belong. If I cannot be allowed to love women freely, I will wither. If I am rejected from my community, I will perish. Now imagine every body is an archive.
Since pre-colonial times, the triumphs, humiliations, actions, reactions and inactions of the Ugandan population have been recorded in each body and mind, and passed down through generations. This includes the fear, the feigned politeness, the shame towards our black bodies, the repression of our sexuality, the anger at every political blow. All of it, repeating itself in our habits and knowledge, entrenches itself in our beliefs. And from the first time a British official or preacher said the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘sodomy’ with disgust, that inflection of anger whipped itself into our bodies and remained in our minds.
If we have to hide and repress our sexuality, we will wither, but if we are rejected for being different, we will perish.
THE OBUNTU PHILOSOPHY is commonly explained as ‘I am because you are’. I imagine that every person interprets this to benefit them – like the corrupt government official who thinks, ‘I am rich because you are poor’, and laughs to himself. What it should mean is that the humanity and love expressed in a community is what allows the individual to prosper. From the time I was in school, reading about this philosophy in a book by John S Mbiti, up to now, I have never felt this spirit anywhere in Uganda other than in the queer community. Of course the queer community has its own problems, like the ongoing need to categorise ourselves as studs or femmes and adopt other gender-normative labels. This particular practice can rob a queer and questioning person of their confidence and return them to that feeling of isolation. But at least these conversations are being had without tear gas or baton blows.
Another famous philosophy of Mbiti comes from his discussion of African spirituality, where he states that in Africa ‘the dead are not dead’. I’m not sure if the ancestors are watching over us. What I do know is what the dead endured when they were living did not end when they died. As long as we move forward in actions that are blind to our history, we will never be at peace with our identities and beliefs as Africans or Ugandans or in our ethnic and tribal groupings. We will never shake off our history, no matter what illusions we hide behind. We will continue to be because we were.