Confessions of an Accidental Activist
As an erstwhile PERTBUM (Privately Educated Riot Thug Backing Underground Movements), I had, in my youth, occasionally enjoyed the company of real activists. My preferred Underground Movement, Hekate sound system, was only collaterally activist, and the politics were correspondingly sloppy and oblique – we were only ever loosely (some would say ‘louchely’) involved with politics, and that is the way I liked it. Imagine my horror, then, when last year I found myself the subject of an international media shitstorm, and my innocent name tarnished with the label: “gay activist”. This would have caused no little derision in the dormitories of Westminster School, had the unfortunate incident occurred 20 years earlier.
2007 found me at a loose end in Uganda. The London underground had lost its lustre and my life had degenerated into meaningless anaesthetic abuse (to be distinguished from progressive psychonautical exploration). Africa held promise, particularly Uganda, with its absence of haughty white settlers, seemingly anarchic society and pulsating night-life. For a PERTBUM who simply wanted to open a Bohemian cultural centre in the tropics, the soil there looked exceedingly fertile and uncomplicated.
However, when I set forth from England with this missionary intent, Uganda, unlike some other parts of East Africa, had no historic tradition of western-style ‘arts’, except in music and dance. Painting, sculpture, cinema, literature and stage theatre were all barely nascent in the 1970s when Idi Amin came to power. Despite his nasty reputation, Amin was the last Ugandan leader to pump serious money into the artistic crucible of Makerere University. However, this patronage was curtailed by the slow eruption of a vicious civil war, which effectively continued from the mid-70s to the early-90s. This was accompanied by the epidemic of AIDS, of which Uganda was one of the worst cases in the entire world. “In such condition”, as Hobbes noted, “there is no place for… arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death.” However, such condition was perfect for a Leviathan-type state, externally-imposed economic structural adjustment, a recourse to fundamentalist religion, and the invasion of an army of NGOs. In this daunting, post-conflict condition, where were ‘the arts’?
Since Amin’s day, Makerere has become a sorely-neglected institution, despite still being the main source of artists and critics. Its Music, Dance and Drama department (MDD) is now nicknamed Musiru Dala Dala (meaning ‘Very Very Silly’). With zero government funding for the arts, Ugandan theatrical productions today tend to fall into two types: NGO-driven issues-based drama and populist, lightweight comedy. The former has the express intention of ‘sensitising’ people about a particular issue connected to the NGO that is funding it: water sanitation, recycling, coping with HIV, etc. It is usually crude propaganda with little artistic merit, imaginative narrative or compelling staging. The other type, populist comedy, is normally funded by a wealthy backer who seeks to recoup his costs by selling lots of tickets. Predictably, this results in ‘lowest common denominator’ entertainment, which has some small appeal to all. Slapstick, scantily-clad women and bad songs are the order of the day. There are some few notable exceptions to these types, but they struggle to find either funding or audiences.
Venturing into this relatively virginal territory, I successfully established my mission in 2011, Tilapia Cultural Centre (1). Bored senseless by several patronizing NGO productions that had disgraced our premises, I was keen to produce a show that was entertaining, professional and provocative. The theme and narrative of the play was to be decided by members of Rafiki Theatre group, who had hitherto worked only on NGO-funded drama. They were assisted in this enterprise by a travelling poet from Oxford, Beau Hopkins, a man with a Shakespearean eye for universal dilemma. I asked the Ugandan group to devise any story they liked, and I would organize funding, auditions, rehearsals, performances and publicity, while Beau would work on perfecting the dialogue. When I heard what they had finally decided to focus on, I groaned inwardly. It sounded like I would be producing yet another ‘issues-based drama’, for they wanted to make a play about homosexuality.
This ‘issue’ had recently come to light in Uganda thanks to the tireless efforts of radical Christian sects from the US Bible Belt. Uganda has long been a target for missionaries of all persuasions. (I myself was once accused of being a ‘cinematic missionary’, for attempting to bring Godard to the natives.) From the Arab explorers to the European imperialists to US AFRICOM, all foreign powers’ adventures in the Great Lakes region have been accompanied by waves of proselytisation: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Human Rights. In the early 2000s, US Evangelists launched an ambitious bid for spiritual supremacy in Uganda. Along with the usual strategies – building schools and medical centres, channeling money from metropolitan collection plates into local churches, demonising the other faiths – a small group of fanatics from within the Evangelist movement deployed a tactic familiar to students of terror politics: they identified an ‘enemy within’.
Homosexuals are an almost ideal ‘enemy within’, particularly in the context of a post-colonial, predominantly-Christian country. They look like heterosexuals and can blend in secretly with our society; they are born into our families as normal people, but then are lured into deviancy through clandestine recruitment practices; the agents of this spiritual corruption are non-African and, therefore, imperialist; while they claim to be engaged in consensual relations with other adults, homosexuals are in fact specifically targeting our children; but, thankfully, since homosexuality is a vice that is learned (rather than genetic or connected with unconscious preference) they can be straight-forwardedly cured by embracing Christ. Uganda already had colonial-era laws in place to deal with ‘unnatural acts’, but for Scott Lively, a Californian evangelist, this was not going nearly far enough.
Lively had already worked hard to combat the onset of sexual liberty in his native USA and had gone on to practise his preaching in God-less Latvia. He was co-author of ‘The Pink Swastika’, which blamed Nazi barbarism on its homosexual elements, and founder of a Christian lobby group that protected the normal family from moral degeneration. This front-line storm-trooper in the ‘culture wars’ of the western world then flexed his straightening tongs in the direction of the Dark Continent. After organising meetings with national and grass-roots leaders of the Ugandan evangelical community, Lively managed to communicate his apocalyptic message to a huge, receptive audience, including members of the political class. Inspired by Lively’s revelations that the UN itself was responsible for spreading homosexual propaganda in Ugandan schools, a committee of MPs tabled a private member’s Bill in 2009, aimed at curbing the alien deviance (2).
Whereas the old laws merely tackled isolated acts of sodomy – treating them like any other ‘unnatural’ preference – the Anti-Homosexuality Bill focused on homosexuality as a contagious, catastrophic, cultural plague that was on the point of engulfing Africa. The new proposed penalties were draconian, including life sentences for repeat offenders and the death sentence for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, defined to cover rape and sodomy while knowing one is HIV+. Though these aspects of the Bill got the headlines, by far its most disturbing aspect, to me, was the proposed punishment of ‘failure to report homosexuality’. This crime carried three years in jail for a family member, friend, work colleague or member of the community, who failed to report a homosexual or act of homosexuality to the police within 24 hours of becoming aware of him/her/it. A leading Ugandan doctor wrote an article claiming that this would destroy the principle of the Hippocratic Oath and lead to a rise in HIV-infection, as gay men became afraid to visit health professionals. A few intellectuals voiced nervous concerns about minority discrimination and the politicisation of an issue that used to be viewed as a more or less harmless eccentricity. Soon, calling someone a ‘bum-shafter’ would no longer be a schoolyard cuss, but a dangerous political denunciation.
However, with the support of the rabid, born-again First Lady, the Bill seemed destined to pass. Its puppet promoter, David Bahati MP, proudly proclaimed that the Bill enjoyed unanimous, cross-party support in parliament. He was almost right. Homosexuality had been successfully presented by Lively and his Ugandan supporters as a lethal threat, and this perception had spread so widely throughout the Christian-leaning mass media, so that even expressing a moderate view of it was like apologising for paedophilia. Indeed, the very few contrary voices in parliament all began with “Of course we all know that homosexuality is a frightful abomination…” and went on to object that the bill was merely superfluous, since laws already existed to punish sodomy (3).
Naturally, the international community (i.e. the US, Canada, Britain and a handful of EU countries) threatened to cut aid to Uganda if the Bill became law. Obama denounced it as ‘odious’ and others claimed it transgressed the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Since around 25% of Uganda’s GDP comes from international donors, the pragmatic president, Yoweri Museveni, quietly and indefinitely shelved the provocative piece of legislation. In a leaked speech to the ruling party’s executive council, he gave a valuable insight into the priorities of the world’s rulers: “I’ve been on the phone all morning to Hilary Clinton, Gordon Brown, etc. and they all want to talk to me about one thing…” (4). In parliament, the Bill was no longer to be discussed, but, outside parliament, homophobia had gained far too much political currency to go away.
Just as David Bahati MP had been elevated from obscurity by association with the Bill, pastors like Martin Ssempa had built their careers around this new terror. In unholy conjunction with the tabloid press, a church-led campaign to eliminate homosexuality began, ranging from the smearing of rival pastors as child-molesters, to the printing of alleged homosexuals’ photographs on the front page of The Rolling Stone, a new publication apparently dedicated to the homophobic cause. The latter even ran an absurdly comic story, claiming that the World Cup terrorist bombings in Uganda were the work of ‘gay Islamist generals’. However, amusement at this outlandish, desperate propaganda quickly faded. Weeks after the images of ‘known homosexuals’ were published, a prominent LGBTI activist was murdered in his home. The hitherto ridiculous campaign seemed to have become deadly.
To this day, controversy persists about who or what really killed David Kato. His detractors claim it was a sodomised street-kid taking revenge, an outraged neighbour, or an act of God. Some of his supporters point their fingers at the government, others at the homophobic pastors; more generally, however, The Rolling Stone was condemned for “creating an environment where homophobic violence becomes acceptable and normal” (5). Proof of the judiciary’s impartiality on the issue came with the judgement against the tabloid, finding that it had unlawfully, irresponsibly and libellously intruded on the privacy of the individuals named and depicted in its crusade; each of the latter was rewarded such handsome compensation that the red-top rag was forced into the bin. Few tears were shed.
Kato, in death, became simultaneously a martyr for gay rights and evidence of God’s swift vengeance. As with the issue of homosexuality itself, it became almost impossible to mention Kato’s name without taking sides. It was within this febrile context that our play was conceived.
The River and the Mountain is not a didactic play. It does not have a particular moral or message. Its themes are far wider than homosexuality, which acts chiefly as a point of tension within a universal story of ambition and betrayal. In fact, the first Act contains only one reference to homosexuality, as a complicating factor in a drama centering on a syndicalist uprising at a factory. If the play is ‘about’ any particular ‘issue’, it is really about the tensions arising from the rapid changes that have taken place in Uganda in the last 50 years: the transformation to a capitalist society; the lack of understanding between generations; and the evolution of the politics of identity.The protagonist of The River and the Mountain, Samson, is a senior manager at a cooking oil factory who successfully exposes his boss’ illegal suppression of a strike and is then made CEO of the company by the Minister of Industry. His childhood friend, Olu, is determined to become a pastor and pop-singer, but has little talent and is jealous of Samson’s success. High on his new fame, Samson drunkenly confesses his homosexual tendencies to Olu, who then outs his friend publicly to further his own career in the church. His mother forgives him, but prophecies that “No good can come of this.” Meanwhile, Samson’s corrupt former boss has founded a homophobic NGO called ‘Families First’ with the help of his wicked ‘Lady Macbeth’ wife. Under pressure from Christian civil society, and facing growing discontent from his workers at the factory’s failure to succeed in the punishing global economic climate, Samson confronts all his detractors live on national radio, discussing his sexuality openly and without shame. The result is a national debate, with Samson at the centre; disastrous for him, but great for everyone else. In a maddened state of hubris and self-loathing, his old friend Olu vindictively whips the factory workers into a rage of homophobic hysteria and class resentment, and Samson is butchered by the very people he had saved in Act One.
Despite the grisly ending, the everyday lyricism of the script and the dynamic direction rendered this production into, primarily, a comedy. Absurd characterisations, musical interludes, localised dialogue and lively choreography all made this potentially-serious play both entertaining and widely-accessible to watch. We were delighted to see middle-class Ugandans coming back to see it for a second time, bringing their children with them – so, by popular decree, this was family entertainment. How then did it end up being covered by the international media as a piece of gay activism? Why did the National Theatre decide to ban it? And how did the play’s hapless producer, an innocent PERTBUM in the tropics, end up demonised, incarcerated and eventually deported back to England? The answer is an old cliché: Life Imitated Art.
Just as Samson, the tragic hero of the piece, believed to the last that his genuine innocence and moral integrity were enough to avert catastrophe at the hands of his enemies, so too did we believe that no-one could take our play to be more than a satirical smirk at current affairs. Though we anticipated that The River and The Mountain would be ‘instrumentalised’ (in the words of our prophetic playwright) by both homophobes and rights activists, nonetheless, we felt confident that, once seen by enough people, its innocence would be publicly vindicated (6). Unfortunately, the judgement would not be passed by those who had seen the play itself, but by those who took it as an opportunity to earn themselves political capital. In other words, it mattered not what we were actually doing, but what our enemies said we were doing.
‘Enemies’ is perhaps an overly-dramatic description of my un-doers, for, in truth, I represented very little threat to anyone. I, and our play, were merely pawns in a much bigger game. The ‘queen’ was the aforementioned First Lady, an evangelist who has deliberately wooed American born-again Christian donors into supporting the dictatorial government of her husband. In turn, their ‘bishops’ ensure that a substantial number of the flock of the various religious denominations support the party that occupies the highest moral ground. Meanwhile the ‘knights’ and ‘rooks’ of press and police, leap and block to present and enforce the government line. One enters such a playing field at great risk. In such circumstances, it makes perfect sense for the more insecure members of the ruling party to capitalise on the idea of ‘foreigners spreading homosexual propaganda’.
The seed of our demise was planted by 2 pawns who had turned up to audition and had thus read sections of the play, but did not make it into the final cast (one because he could not act; the other because he was too important to come to rehearsals). Initially, both had sung the praises of the script at the auditions: “It’s so important what you are doing”. But then, when they realised that the actors were getting a respectable per diem + salary, and that they had subsequently blown their chances of getting a slice of the pie, they stabbed us in the back – secretly reporting to the senior management of the National Theatre that we were ‘activists’. We had submitted an official booking form, a synopsis and full script to the National Theatre in May, and their admin had confirmed our booking: three performance dates at the end of August. Although we had other dates booked elsewhere, the National was clearly the most prestigious venue, where we would reach the largest and perhaps most discerning of audiences. So it was a little annoying when we received a cold email from the hitherto friendly admin, a week before our premiere, stating that our script must be ‘reviewed’ by the Ugandan Media Council before performances could take place at the National.
I had already sought clearance in June and been told by a junior official that it was not necessary. However, three days before the premiere, I found myself in the inner sanctum of the Media Council. The office was located, appropriately enough, on the 13th floor of the decaying Communications House, next to the Prime Minister’s Office. This was now Tuesday. I had duly sent in a script by email the Friday before, but was told we must submit a hard copy. I sent in a hard copy on Monday, but was ominously told that I, David Cecil, must come in and present a signed hard copy myself. Pius Mwinganisa, the Secretary of the Media Council, did not stand when I entered, but looked up at me through thin-rimmed spectacles, papers frozen mid-shuffle in his hands. He looked every bit the ‘bahima’, an ancient ethnic grouping associated with the ruling party. His nose and chin tapered to points and his small mouth was as down-turned as the British economy. (For Afro-philes’ point of visual reference, he was the spit and image of Paul Kagame of Rwanda, sharing also that cruel monarch’s disposition). He muttered a formal courtesy and I sat down with an open grin that was supposed to say: “Innocent! Harmless! Almost silly!” He returned my look with an unsmiling “Cold. Brick. Wall.”
Pointedly, he asked: “You like living here, don’t you?” I replied positively to this, quoting verbatim from their tourist brochures. “You have a wife, two children, no?” Indeed, indeed I did (but, how did he know?) “So, Cecil, why are you doing this?” What? (innocent again) Doing what? Long pause, then a pointed look: “Didn’t you know that homosexuality is illegal?” The absurdity of the question almost tipped me backwards off my chair, as was intended. Yes, I said, of course I knew that, but, as far as I was aware, the portrayal of a homosexual – in a play or a film or a novel or a painting – was not even referred to in law. He sneered at this cleverness; clearly I was missing the point. Then, again suddenly: “Who is behind you?” I, mock-ignorant, looked over my shoulder and back at Pius. Shrug. “Where are you getting the money to do this?” Ah… money… if only we had donors! (This was, alas, quite true).
For someone like Pius – a vigilant nationalist, warden of the popular media’s morality – it was inconceivable that a foreigner would come and make a play with a homo-hero in Uganda simply for entertainment. Of course there was ‘someone behind me’. My gentle protestations that the instigators of the play and its entire cast and crew were black, hetero Ugandans, were met with exaggeratedly incredulous expressions and unequivocal statements: “These things are not part of our culture”. The counter-argument that (like European food) it was a question of learned tastes made no sense. That some people might be interested to see a play featuring a gay hero, was like suggesting to Pius that we normalise perceptions of men who penetrate goats. We know it happens, but it is disgusting, unnatural and unGodly. It certainly should not be put on-stage for entertainment.
He informed me that it would take two weeks, at least, for the Media Council’s committee to review the script and pass judgement upon it. Why two weeks? I asked, by now unsmiling. “How long did it take to write?” It had taken Hopkins a remarkable 3 and a half weeks from workshop to completion – no mean feat for a three act play. “Exactly!” exclaimed Pius with triumph, “And so how long do you think it will take us to read it?” His mind-boggling logic nearly had me on the ropes – this was like Alice in Wonderland re-mixed by the Soviets. I countered that, following his own logic, he could not possibly have read the Bible, unless he had lived for several hundred years. My words verged on blasphemy and he shot needles from steel-framed eyes. I quickly went into begging mode: we had worked on this for several months, at great personal cost; the director was a true Christian who had nearly become a pastor; all the cast were completely straight and practising monotheists; and, most importantly, we could not delay the production a single week, since the leading actor was due to travel immediately after the last show. The frost on his brow seemed to melt a little. “I will do what I can”, he said with a faint smile. We were, indeed, soon to see what he was capable of.
Two days later, the day before Friday’s press premiere performance at Tilapia Cultural Centre, I received a phone call at 6pm. It was Pius: “I have your document,” he said without emotion “you may collect it now.” The phrasing was neutral enough for me to punch the air and leap onto a passing boda-boda (motorbike taxi). Communications House was nearly-deserted and I chose to mount the stairs to gain a gradually ever-more commanding view of the duskening city. Kampala at sunset is peculiarly atmospheric: the air feels heavily cooked by the heat of the day; the marabou storks are ever more visible, wheeling sluggish in the rosy-gold air above the littered streets; time slows to allow the people to enjoy this ‘magic hour’; their pace upon the pavement droops; and at 7:17pm, the darkness closes abruptly over all.
Before being shown in to see Pius, I was presented with a closed, manila A5 envelope. The junior secretary instructed me to read and sign the document inside. It stated, in about three paragraphs, that due to the sensitive nature of the subject of our play, it would first have to be cleared by the Media Council’s 11-strong committee, and that they would have to reach a unanimous verdict. This would take at least 2 weeks. Before such approval was forthcoming, the play was “not to be performed in any public place or theatre”. The staging of a press premiere on Friday was therefore “unadvised and premature”. (Premature theatrejaculations!) Oddly, this letter contained no reference to any law, or even to the legal authority of the Media Council. Where was “according to article 23 (b) of the Naughty Plays Act…” or “by the powers vested in me to stem the rising tide of filth, as Deputy Chief Inquisitor of the Holy Order of the Sacred Church of Our Lord, I do hereby command thee to…”? The only thing perhaps elevating this document to a status above “stern threat” or “rude note” was a list of intimidating CC-s at the bottom: ‘The Prime Minister’s Office’; ‘The Chief of Police’; ‘The Head of Media Crimes, CID’; ‘The Minister of Ethics and Integrity’. I mentally added to this list ‘His Royal High Executioner’, ‘The Pope’, and ‘Almighty God’. You can CC anyone you like, it doesn’t mean they’ll read it. Surely the Prime Minister and his illustrious thugs had better things to do than fret about amateur dramatics?
I duly scrawled a signature on the corner of the page and was shown in to see Pius. This time, he stood to greet me and shook my hand. “You have signed the letter?… Good good. Please take a seat. I have waited over an hour for you to come.” I was so grateful. He slammed an open palm onto his copy of the script, which lay on top of his desk. “This… is a most impressive piece of work.” So you have read it? “Yes, yes. Most impressive. Hopkins [the writer] has clearly worked hard at this. It is an excellent piece of writing.” I was very glad he liked it. “Do you understand what we are saying in the letter you just signed?” I understood the content of the letter, but not the reasoning behind it.
Pius sat down at last and leaned back thoughtfully in his leather office chair, staring into the upper-corner of the room. “When I was a young journalist, I travelled widely, saw many things. Perhaps too many things. I was decadent: drinking, smoking, womanising. I also read a lot. Some of the things I read were not… improving, but they broadened my understanding of the world, or so I thought at the time.” I nodded sympathetically as if I too had read such books and was equally aware of their dangers. “In the end though, I was lost. I remember sitting under a tree…” (And then a piece of Forbidden Fruit dropped on your head?) “…with a bad hangover, thinking to myself – ‘Where am I going? What am I doing?’” (Good question! Where the Hell are you going with this?) “Then, it came to me: I had no meaning in my life, no higher purpose.” (And probably a shit salary too.) “I had no God.” (Aaaah… The Road to Damascus.) “And so, I found God or, rather, He found me.” (Great, well done – can I go now?) “What is your religion, Cecil?” I replied that I was raised an Anglican, but do not follow organised religion any more. I believe in something else – perhaps Nature. I sense a great force behind Creation, like that which you call God. (This was a stock response of mine, designed to deflect proselytisers into a more interesting conversation). Gravely, he stared at me for a few seconds before speaking again: “Well, there is our reason.”
After another good half hour or so of cod-theological discussion and ruminations on ethics in public life, he wound up our chat, with a satisfied air. He had delivered the verdict of the Council and had poetically justified it with an intelligent discourse on the higher meaning of this judgement. However, squirming like a naughty worm in the back of my cerebellum was the knowledge that his law-less, vaguely-worded ‘order’ carried as much water as a sieve. We were both thereby permitted the glow of the smug, self-confident winner. A rummy state of affairs indeed!
We shook hands, warmly, and, as I was leaving his office, he shot me a last line: “You do understand what will happen if you try to put on this play?” (My worm had obviously squirmed audibly!) I said that I understood the risks involved and promised to convey the import of the letter to my team. He gave me a pursed-lipped smile and bade me farewell. I left the room with a curious admiration for his character and grave doubts about his sanity.
As the lift descended from the 13th floor, I felt a great rising in my chest, not caused solely by the downward motion of the elevator. Here was a challenge; I was resolved. The doors opened at the 11th floor and a sage, bespectacled lady entered, with a cracked and cheerful “Hello!” We briefly discussed the weather and she told me she was a meteorological scientist. What, I asked, was the forecast for the weekend? (I was worried that rain on the tin roof would drown out the voices of the actors in our theatre). “Do not be deceived by this sunny day. Very soon, storms are coming. The pressure is changing, and the storms will come, you’ll see… Very nice to meet you. Good night!”
Oh, had I but listened to these prophets! Why did I not heed the warnings of strangers placed in my way with such evident purpose? Why did I listen to the optimistic words of friends? Or to the goading threats of enemies? It is in chance encounters that Fortune lies.
After showing the Council’s letter to my friend Godwin Buwa, a respected human rights lawyer, my resolution stiffened into a shield. Back at Tilapia Cultural Centre, my tongue cut sword-like as I addressed the assembled cast and crew. These were the risks and here were my balls. Even if the worst came to the worst, they had nothing to fear – it was my name, not theirs, on the paper. But even that mattered not to me, the paper could enforce nothing. “What about those scary CC-s?” I was asked. Well, I replied, why don’t we write a letter back, and CC it to the British High Commission, Barack Obama and David Cameron? Job done, doubts stowed; overly-confident laughter and doubles all round. We were in business.
The premiere was a roaring success – the actors roared their lines, the crowd roared their laughter and we all roared our defiance at the impotent Media Council. Our hands were pumped by the great and good after the show. Reuters had filmed it, Associated Foreign Press had primed the wire; the Daily Monitor, The East African, Africa 24, local listings sites and even Makerere University’s Start Journal covered it. All promised glowing reviews. We slammed the air with our fists and hugged each other joyously like supporting actors in a cheesy Robin Williams movie. Euphoria, vindication, hubris. Despite our confidence, I had issued a warning before and after the show: since the Media Council had insisted that the play was not to be performed in public, the journalists in attendance must not release any report of the play before we said they could. They kept their word and we prayed that, with no press attention, we would get any audience at all for the subsequent performances.
The weekend was, if anything, even more gratifying. The prophesied thunderstorms came but did nothing to keep people away, only forcing the actors to yell over the drumming roof. The show was free to enter, so local audiences poured in, along with friends, family members and city-wide theatre fans. (They had somehow heard what we were up to, despite goons ripping down our posters wherever we had glued them around the city.) The bar did handsome trade afterwards and, in the ensuing convivial atmosphere, I conducted informal vox pops. The most pleasing reactions were from the locals. We were told that we captured the ‘real Uganda’ on-stage; they had never thought about ‘homos’ like that before; the church was fairly portrayed, it can indeed be hypocritical; what was the phone number of the hot chick who played the ssenga? (Our play featured a seductive dance by one of the traditional sex doctor ssengas or ‘aunties’. I showed the voluptuous actress the Jessica Rabbit cabaret scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and her hips afterwards swivelled like funky puppies in a bag.) Pastor Samosa, who makes the best street food in our neighbourhood, cornered me after the show. Could we perform the play at his next church service? There were so many important points we raised that the flock must deal with. I told him to lead the flock to us, which he duly did on Sunday night. Far from being condemned as a homo-joint, as some regulars had gloomily predicted, Tilapia was now lauded locally as the best bar this side of Kabalagala, even by born-again pastors.
That Sunday, our day-time rehearsals were rudely interrupted by the cacophony of a ‘drive-by’ truck on the street outside. These irritating vehicles traverse the suburbs, advertising, at distortedly-high volumes, mosquito nets or new dancehall CDs, with the monotonous messages blasted from a mounted, mobile PA. The writer and director ordered me to go and silence the offenders with my notorious expatriate righteousness (an act I have perfected over the years). To my surprise, they were advertising an event connected with our play. That night we had double-booked: MC Ziggy Dee was due to play a post-performance gig at Tilapia. He was the one-hit local hero behind a famous dancehall song, whose title is a pun on “My Penis”. At the gig, one of his guest MCs came on stage with the following words: “Tonight we have watched a play that shows that homos are real people. That is OK and it was a funny play. But now you are going to hear it from the other side!” And he then immediately launched into a raucous homophobic ragga song, challenging even the most broad-minded of our regular white customers.
Though I have always avoiding politicising the impact of the play myself, this was close to my proudest ‘activist’ moment: here was the most open and even-handed public dialogue I had yet heard in Uganda about homosexuality. We liberals shouted our bit and the homophobes shouted theirs. We were actually conversing on a level playing-field. We laughed, drank, danced and threw things at each other. This was the authentic public sphere in autonomous action, not dictated to by pastors and politicians, not patronised by the intellectual press and rights-apostles, but expressing itself with cultural artefacts of its own making. It is a great shame that all the activists, politicians and journalists who said so much about the play, while understanding so little, were not there to witness the fraternal confrontation and conviviality of that blessed night.
Monday was our day off and represented the last chance we had to persuade the National Theatre to host our play for the next three days, as they had originally agreed. Emboldened by the testaments from the locals and the reviewers, the director, the writer, the star and I set off to central Kampala. Waiting in the shade of the decrepit, leafy gardens of the country’s biggest theatre were journalists from Reuters, Associated Foreign Press and The East African (the regional weekly). They vocally supported us, but must have been wishing for an outright ‘No!’ from the National’s admin. That would be a juicy scoop to be lapped up by the international media.
Prynce, the star of the show, went inside to talk to the Production Manager of the National. Prynce was a prize draw for our play, an internationally-renowned Ugandan actor with many lucrative advertising contracts. His alluring, Satanic grin beams down at you from every other billboard in the country and his persona is consistently macho: advertising beer, playing Rambo characters, bearded, muscular, leonine, broad-nosed – the epitome of Ugandan virility. Surely, he could persuade the National that we were not just a bunch of homo trouble-makers. He came back shaking his head: “No way. Big no.” The reporters rushed to get their quotes from the homophobes, and we put Plan B into action.
In my second conversation with Pius, I had mentioned in a vaguely threatening manner that since we had invited lots of media to the premiere, banning the play would definitely risk getting negative headlines. I asked Pius what I should say, if I was asked by an international journalist why the play had been banned. Eh Pius? What should I tell them? This would not make either the National Theatre or the Media Council look good, would it? He had brushed this off as irrelevant to the essential, bureaucratic point: the play was not to be performed before it had been cleared officially by the Council.
So this was our Plan B. If the National and the Council were going to block the play, we would let loose the dogs of the fourth estate. Tell all the journalists that had attended the premiere that they could now run the story. Put the play back on at Tilapia. Pour large whiskey. Call the lawyer.
On Tuesday morning, I was staring in disbelief at an article in the Hawaii Herald Tribune, entitled: “Gay play banned in Uganda”. Associated Foreign Press (AFP) and Reuters, the biggest news agencies in the world, had put the story on the wire and it had been syndicated from Helsinki to Honolulu. The best thing in all of this for me, was that Isaac from AFP had done a great write-up. He had described the play in moderate terms, put it in context and made the National’s reps sound like insecure Neanderthals: “The National Theatre’s production manager Edwin Mukalazi was worried that the play’s themes were too much of a ‘sensitive issue’, dealing with a topic he described as ‘something that does not stand for our mandate.’” ‘Well’, as someone commented: ‘what is their mandate, if not to provide a platform for exciting new theatre?’ (7)
The play’s trumpet has been sufficiently blown here, but suffice to say that the three ‘substitute’ shows back at Tilapia, organised and advertised frantically at the last minute, were just as successful as the opening weekend. More varied audiences, sharper performances, greater confidence in our righteousness – we were proud to have been banned. Fuck the National. The bar revenues at Tilapia were at an all-time high, as was I, in every sense.
The final two performances at the up-town cultural centre, MishMash, played to a more bourgeois audience, including the renegade Bishop Senyonjo and lots of bemused expatriate white folk, who said we were ‘terribly brave’. In this environment, we felt like kids from a council estate doing a risque rap show at The Barbican.
On the last day of the whole run, while buying fake champagne from the local Indian booze dealer, I received a strange phone call from a thick-voiced man. He refused to identify himself but said that I must see him at once. I hung up. At 8a.m. the following morning he called again, and I hung up again, after he failed once more to explain properly who he was. At 11 he called back and said: “This is the police. We want to speak with you.”
Beau Hopkins, the playwright, accompanied me to the offices of the Media Crimes Division in Kibuli CID HQ. The CID in the UK have improved in appearance since the 60s, sporting sharp suits, iphones and waxed motors. Their Ugandan counterparts have gone in precisely the opposite direction, since Independence. The Kibuli offices are located in what looks like a post-apocalyptic parking lot, with endless rows of rusting, smashed-up cars amongst which naked children gambolled and stinking trash fires wove their greasy fingers in the sky. The offices themselves were scarcely in better shape, but were guarded by a fine pair of colonial-era cannons pointed silently at the goats tethered in the front yard. When we walked into officer Emmanuel’s office, the first thing Beau noticed was the Media Council-headed paper lying face up on the desk; it was quickly turned over, in an inept attempt to cover up what was going on. Emmanuel alleged that ‘some members of the public’ had complained about a play we had put on and so this ‘informal’ interview was to establish the nature of the play and our involvement with it. The lamentable man had been so badly briefed and was so clearly unsuitable for the job that we afterwards agreed that either CID Media Crimes were a bunch of muppets, or this was a ploy to lull us into a false sense of security. In a funny way, both interpretations turned out to be true.
Returning a week later from a hectic and debauched music festival in Kenya, I was called in for another interview with the CID, who sounded surprised that I had returned to the country which I had shamed. I brought a lawyer with me this time, John Francis Onyango, who specialises in minority representation (I was white and presumably gay, so two boxes ticked there). This was a much more serious occasion – there were now 2 senior police officials, a clerk and a political representative in attendance. Beau Hopkins came along again too. He had been a lawyer in the UK and had done his homework. Beau vehemently objected to the Head of Media Crimes’ interpretation of the Law, without showing him the respect due to a senior officer. (Ugandans often feel obliged to venerate these senior officers, as assumed victors of the recent war.) Beau’s objections were angrily over-ruled and he was promptly ejected. Alone with the more diplomatic Onyango, I ate humble pie and nodded in guilty agreement to everything he said. I was taken into another room and read my charges by the Chief of Police for our division: two counts of ‘disobedience of an order by a public official’, each carrying an automatic sentence of two years. If found guilty, I would serve a minimum of three years, with time off for Good Behaviour. Pending trial, I submitted my passport and was placed on Police Bond (a type of bail).
Outside, I was surprised to see Onyango smiling as we walked away. His face broke into a jeering grin. “Relax. They have never successfully prosecuted anyone for that. It is a minor misdemeanour and deliberately vague. How do they want to define ‘disobedience’? What exactly constitutes ‘an order’? Does the Media Council have official authority over you in this case? This is a stupid, colonial-era law. With any luck, they will not even waste time getting the case to court. At worst they’ll drag it out over a few months of inefficiency. This is an act of desperation on their part, because you have not actually broken any law. They have given you a slap on the wrist, that’s all. Let’s get a beer.”
The following Wednesday, September 13th, I went to see an old family friend, John Nagenda. In his prime, John was a top cricketer, successful businessman and the senior spin doctor for the president for many years. He is now an international-award-winning novelist, inveterate whiskey-drinker and much-loved man of the people. A Big Man, but not arrogant. In a chat a few weeks earlier, the first question he had asked me about the play was: “Is this about David Kato? [The murdered activist.] Because that is what I have been told.” This alarmed me, since it meant that people in his lofty circles had been discussing it. When I put this to him, he claimed they were not ‘significant people’. (As it turned out later, you do not need to be very ‘significant’ yourself to create a catastrophe, you just have to hijack a ‘significant’ event. As we had done, in a way, with the play and the gay rights saga.)
On the way to John’s that Wednesday I had received a strange call. It was the reporter, Isaac from AFP, asking: “How do you feel about the court appearance tomorrow?” What court appearance? “You’re going to be in court tomorrow, according to my sources.” Well, if you say so… “You heard it from me first!”
Hearing this, John Nagenda commented that if I was going to court the next day, Thursday, I should be OK, since their usual nasty trick is to stick you on remand on a spurious pretext on a Friday, so that you’re forced to spend the whole weekend in Luzira Prison. “It is not somewhere that a dignified person like you would want to spend any time at all. They put people there to humiliate them”. My mind drifted back to some of the undignified squats that a dignified PERTBUM like me had happily lived in as a youth, and I relaxed a little. John’s 12 year old malt further tranquilised the nerves and we mulled over happier things in the throbbing, bushy twilight.
The next day, I duly went into Kabalagala Police Station to sign my bond for the second time. On the pathway in, there indeed was Isaac AFP and a Daily Monitor (opposition paper) photographer. I waved happily and walked inside the gloomy, rotting concrete building. The pressmen tried to snap me from the doorway and they got into a fight with some zealous cops. I could hear their shouts getting more indignant as I was led into the Chief’s office. Suddenly there was a chaotic shouting from somewhere else in the building, the door burst open and I was suddenly hauled into the OC’s room (Officer in Command). He was apopleptic and directing his indignation at me: “What is this circus?! Why have you brought these people here?! You want to make a spectacle of yourself, eh?!” My meek protests were cut off as Isaac and the Monitor guy came tumbling into the room with torn shirts, cradling their cameras and yelling about rights. They had the frantic, wild-eyed look of educated men who’d been in a fight. Worse, their babies had been threatened. “You touch this camera again and the whole world will hear about it!” threatened Issac. “That is a public area! You want to break my Nikon? You are just thugs!” shouted Monitor man. The OC’s veins bulged and he shook his finger furiously at them. “Just you you you shut up!” and he switched again on me: “You! You are the cause of this media circus! Take him to court! Kati kati! (Now now!) Move!”
A casual visitor to Uganda can catch glimpses of the justice and security system – armed guards everywhere, angry mobs surrounding a thief, negotiations with street cops over minor misdemeanours. If you live near a police station, you often see police in open pick-up trucks taking stony-faced, handcuffed people to court, and you casually wonder about their fate. Conversely, in Europe, we get moved from cell to court in closed cars and even blacked-out, armoured prison buses. In Uganda, everyday crime and punishment is all out in the open, with little concern or effort wasted to hide it. Name and shame; thieves stripped naked; mob justice. As we rattled along in our pick-up to the court, along suburban back-roads and through busy trading centres, faces looked up and commented in surprise to their neighbour: “See the mzungu (whitey) with the police” … “Eee-eh! What has he done, this one?” … “Must be one of those Bulgarians” … “Now he will see Luzira prison, this man” … “Uh-uh! Those whites have too much money, he can pay and go” … and so on. Rural kids will normally trail a white man passing through their village, shouting: “Mzungu! Mzunguuu! You give me my money!” Kids fear to shout at a police vehicle, however, so when I passed them this time, only their eyes and lips still went thru the motions: “Eh – see there: mzungu. They have a mzungu. Eh – you, mzungu.”
This label – mzungu – is very much a mixed blessing. I met a Dutch NGO worker when I first came to Uganda called Maria, who lived in Masaka, a smaller town. She used to walk to the town centre from her disabled school every day up a long hill. The kids whose parents ran businesses up the road-side would shout at her and approach her, begging for small change. That must have been annoying, but what really aggravated her western liberal sensibilities was the shouting. “Mzungu! Hey you! Mzungu!” She eventually went up to some of the parents and said: “Hello. I have been living here over a year and you have never asked my name. My name is Maria. I think it is very bad that you teach your children to call all white people ‘mzungu’ and beg from them. You should be ashamed. In my country we treat everyone the same, regardless of their skin colour.”
Fine, but you’re still a mzungu, whether they shout it or not. You can’t have it both ways. You get to the front of some queues quicker; you are treated with a bit more formal respect in restaurants. You are recognised and, in more situations than not, your presence is welcomed. More is done for you and more is expected of you. When they shout your name, it’s not a warning, but a greeting of sorts. A very public “Hello! A special person is here!” Occasionally, in rural areas of Uganda, I felt as I imagined an English squire would feel, as he rode in his carriage through an eighteenth century village. “Look!” the children would cry, “The squire is here! Isn’t his hat marvelous! See his richly-caparisoned horses! Sir! Sir! A shilling for a cake!” And I would wave in a suitably embarrassed, noble way, and doff my hat respectfully to the smiling elders. But when you are in trouble – when you are not a good mzungu – then you are getting what you deserve, what you thought you were too good to avoid, and the name takes on the ring of mockery. Mzungu. Take your things and go. Bye Bye Mzungu.
I asked Maria if her attempt to educate the villagers had any effect. “Well they don’t shout at me anymore. At least now they know I don’t like it.” So how do they greet you these days when you pass by? “They don’t say so much.” I was reminded of Oscar Wilde, on the politics of recognition: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about at all”.
Up until now, the local media had had little to say about our play – it was the international media who care about gay plays and such. Now, however, there were a couple of local TV crews and a handful of journalists from the daily papers with cameras waiting for us at Makindye Magistrate’s court. My girlfriend, Florence, was there too and it was all we could do to stop giggling as I was ordered to squat down with my fellow prisoners on the ground. (We had recently had a major row at home and she whispered: “You see? This is what you get.”) The squatting in public view seemed to be as much about our humiliation as it was about counting heads. A guard told me to give everything in my pockets to the lawyer, since I would be at the mercy of the other prisoners in the cell.
The press snapped away as I was led into the cell, a shipping container brutally plonked onto the pleasant lawns of the court’s gardens, with a fitted cage door and 2 small, barred windows cut into the sides. It was crowded and stinky, with around 40 men in there and a rain barrel in the rear corner for shitting, pissing and vomiting. The other 2 prisoners I was brought in with were immediately shoved against a wall and patted down by the self-appointed cell bosses (known as ‘resident police’); they had to turn out their pockets and remove their shoes, handing over all food, cigarettes, etc. to be ‘shared out’. My white skin spared me this further humiliation, as the mzungu did not fit neatly into their criminal cosmology. I moved forward to the cage door to talk to my lawyer and the press surged up asking for quotes. I declined, but gave them a thumbs-up to show that my British spirit was unquenched; they duly snapped away with their cameras. This image then became the icon of our case: a white gay rights activist with a grimly-set smile, giving a thumbs-up behind bars, surrounded by a crowd of stony-faced African thugs.
There was a mildly stressful atmosphere in the container. Hot, claustrophobic, hungry, airless, uncertain. Occasionally, small tussles would break out and voices would be raised, people shoved or threatened. Most people had come there from Luzira remand prison and were waiting for their cases to be called in court, if they were lucky. If you go to court from Luzira, you miss the one prison meal / day (served at 4pm) so the tussles for food in the cell were not just to pass the time. A young Tanzanian called Kito befriended me and paid another inmate for my cigarette. Being able to smoke in the container was perhaps the only solace. Kito was on remand for stealing a motorbike and he counted himself lucky that they let him keep a supply of anti-retrovirals in Luzira – he had got ‘slim’ (AIDS) a few years back. The medicine must have been working, for her had a merry, fat face, although with those tell-tale black rings around the eyes.
A tussle broke out over a ‘mandazi’ (cake) that started turning into a mini-riot and the shouts bought a senior ‘effendi’ (official) into the cell. We all had to squat down, squashing us uncomfortably close together, as the effendi berated us. “What kind of people are you” he asked “to brawl over mandazi?” Hungry, demoralized people, was the unspoken answer. One of the ‘resident police’ was squatting next to me, and rested his arm on my thigh. To my consternation, he gently caressed it in an absent-minded way. I ignored his caress, like a Japanese school girl on a crowded commuter train. If only I was gay, I thought, this could all be quite enjoyable.
When my case finally came up about 5 hours later, I was led into court with a few others. It was over very quickly. Since the prosecution needed more time to prepare, and since I had no passport with me (the police still had it back at the station), I was to go to Luzira Remand Prison. My lawyer suggested that the court call the police station to confirm they had my passport, which the magistrate sternly refused: “I need to see it in front of me.” A policeman’s word was evidently as reliable as his ability to resist cake. John Nagenda’s optimistic prediction, that Thursday hearings were better than Fridays, had been proved wrong. Bar a miracle, I’d be in Luzira at least till Monday. Onyango the lawyer gave me an apologetic grin: “The magistrate could have been a bit more sympathetic. Maybe this is part of the slap on the wrist. Don’t worry, I’ll have a word with the guards and make sure you’re treated OK.”
Back in the cell, my annoyance was countered by the other prisoners’ delight. “Eh! The mzungu is coming to Luzira! This is very good!” Advice started coming in from all sides: to get a bed I had to do this, for a blanket I must do that; I could only smoke here and here in the prison compound – no no no, my friend, do not deceive him, he cannot smoke anywhere; make sure I had some money, I must give it to one of the lads for safe-keeping or the guards will steal it; here, I will look after your tobacco, you will not get it past inspection; they must cut my hair, they would do it for me for a very good price; eh! this was very good indeed, we would be good friends now.
Details of prison life can be saved for another time. Suffice to say it was not as grim as all that, belying the mzungu fear of being locked up with loads of rabid, horny Africans. On my first morning, after a cup of sugarless porridge for breakfast, and a couple of slices of bread donated kindly by the ward boss, I was suddenly called from my repose. A plum-voiced and very concerned chap from the British High Commission, Chris Majugo, was here to see that I was OK. And that was it. No David Cameronian intervention, no whispered deals in the corridors of power. It was enough that I had not been beaten, for Uganda is a sovereign state and we cannot interfere with their justice system, unless you work in oil. Then my girlfriend Florence arrived with the morning papers and lots of bananas. There I was, in a full spread on page 3 of the Daily Monitor, waving grimly from my cage under the disastrous headline: “British producer arrested over play about gay man” (8). Florence was half-way between laughing and crying – “My poor darling! Your white arse will be shattered!” she shrieked. I went back inside to face the judgement of my all-too-new friends.
The reaction from my fellow inmates, who crowded over my shoulder to read the story, was surprisingly muted. ‘Selective interpretation’ of the nonsense in the mainstream media is even more pronounced in Uganda than it is in the UK. A man’s word spoken directly to you is more powerful than a thousand words of print. Like everyone else in Luzira Prison, I was a victim of an injustice. They knew me a bit now, and I was a nice guy. In a society that revels in corruption, infidelity, hustling and deliberate regulation-avoidance, it is better to “judge not, lest you be also judged”.
One prison ritual I did not look forward to was a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous confessional. Nearly every night, three or four people would stand up and explain why they were there. As with Ugandan church services, these confessionals were performed with the aid of a luganda-english translator (or vice versa in my case). I had sneakily avoided this painful display until the Sunday, when I was the only new prisoner who had not confessed, and the ward boss duly called me to the pulpit. With all eyes on me and a possible four more years with these people, I chose my words carefully.
I was, I asserted, a victim of this government’s increasing illiberalism. Though I myself could not explain or excuse the peculiar sins of the flesh perpetrated by homos, nonetheless they were human beings who find themselves persecuted as a minority. Did Jesus himself not say: ‘Love thy neighbour’? If a homo was found guilty of rape or defilement (sex with a minor), then let him be punished according to the laws of the land. But if we begin to set in place a system for persecuting another group for this or that practice, that hurts nobody else, but which we merely find distasteful, do we not open ourselves up to discrimination in the future? Even if (I continued, with mounting confidence) you do believe that homosexuality is an abomination that should be punished, should we not at least discuss this issue publicly? What is wrong with debates and arguments in newspapers, television, theatres, churches, streets and villages? What exactly is the government so afraid of, that I, a heterosexual man with an African wife and children, should be locked up merely for allowing a Ugandan theatre company to dramatise a public debate? Could there not be (I speculated with a conspiratorial glint in my eye) a more political dimension to my case?
The very mention of that familiar trope – that all significant African politicking takes place out of public view – was enough to bring knowing nods from the audience. I sat down to restrained applause, and my bed-fellow rubbed my back genially and told me of his plans to go into parliament.
On Monday morning, I was rolled into court and immediately granted bail of about $200. My passport was retained, but I was free to walk the streets and roam Facebook again. Not smoking or drinking for a whole weekend had left me feeling fighting fit and I launched myself back into the belly of Tilapia with renewed zeal. The next few months saw a veritable hive of activities on top of the public surge of interest in our hitherto insignificant cultural centre: a film festival, a host of new bands and a 9-day tour for 17-piece calypso band from Norway that I had rashly agreed to organise. It was back to business and although I had the case hanging over me, I was confident I would beat the rap and clear my name.
Congratulatory calls came in and in my few idle moments I allowed myself to drink in the narcotic brew of minor celebrity. Appearances and interviews in the international media were now commonplace, to the extent that a waggish friend in the UK remarked that he needn’t call to ask how I was anymore, he could just turn on the television. Perhaps an interview too far was with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). They had shown depth and balance in a previous interview, even cheekily implying that we were behaving like rash exhibitionists – qui moi? This was refreshing after gushy “you’re all terribly brave” pieces on CNN et alia. This time, they allowed me to listen to an indignant statement from Simon Lokodo, the Minister of Ethics & Integrity, before responding to his libellous allegations. With an evident lack of brief, but much histrionics, he stated that “this play was found to be extremely applauding, promoting and encouraging homosexuality, which I say is not lawful in Ugannn-dah!” (9) Notably, speaking after the Minister, gay rights activist Frank Mugisha (who had actually bothered to see the play, unlike Lokodo) said that the only thing missing from our drama was an appeal to show more tolerance for gays. You just can’t win sometimes!
Despite subsequent wise warnings from friends and enemies to keep my stupid head down, I went on to commit a completely accidental act of rash exhibitionism, that was fun but possibly fatal. Inadvertently, I ended up in a live debate with the arch-nemesis of Ugandan queers: Pastor Martin ‘Poopoo’ Ssempa. Poopoo was one of the most enthusiastic and early pioneers of pastoral homophobia. He had interviewed Scott ‘Pink Swastika’ Lively on TV before some of the other homophobes had even been frocked, and had very-publicly anointed MP David Bahati ahead of the parliamentary presentation of his toxic private member’s bill. Ssempa got his pungent nickname from a series of public seminars he held (often in church) in which he would display images of coprophiliac masochists doing their business and saying: “Is this what Obama means when he says we must defend human rights? He means we must eat the poopoo?! I say nooo!” Within Uganda, he is renowned for his mastery of rhetoric, which involves shouting “What is your clan?!” at gay enemies. (A crude appeal to African tradition). No-one in their right minds would ever enter in the same room as Ssempa, leave alone a live debate.
On January 2nd, my case was abruptly dismissed for lack of evidence, the prosecution having failed to find a single witness or piece of evidence in over three months, and the magistrate presumably having a considerable back-log that needed clearing. I was a free man, but now teetotal, so celebrated with a nice cup of chamomile tea. The next day, I received a message from one of my rastas in Tilapia. Apparently, ‘David Ssempa’, a journalist, wanted to interview me for a local paper. Since almost all of the coverage of my case had been international, here was a chance to state my judicially-proven innocence before the Ugandan public – so I agreed. (There are lots of Ssempas in Uganda, before you say anything.)
I called the number, was immediately called back and found myself listening to a lively man gabbling in luganda to someone else, while continually telling me to wait. I was obviously on radio, but that was perhaps even better than being in Google-able print. When he eventually got around to talking to me, his voice smoothed to butter and he congratulated me on my new-found innocence. Then came a series of statements and questions, which would have definitely provoked an activist, grounded in a kind of fervently religious, Afro-nationalist reactionary fudge. Because I was sober, calm and un-activist, I politely and diplomatically dismissed each of these as ‘valid, but misguided’ sentiments. I was not biting. He popped the question: “Given that you agree homosexuality is perceived as a menace by many Ugandans, what then is the way forward for us as a nation?” Simple, I replied. Look at us now, having a perfectly friendly chat. We are engaged in a reasonable dialogue, where we each say our piece and respond to the other in turn. This is the way forward. Let us all talk to each other. We are not, I added, by way of counter-example, like those extremists who twist the debate and deceive their ignorant flocks by showing gay pornography in churches! There was a brief pause and my Facebook beeped with a message from ‘Chanel’: “David darling, you do realise you’re talking to Poopoo himself?” Whoops!
A month later I found myself once again behind bars. Perhaps it was because I had pooh-poohed Lokodo, or perhaps it was because I had accidentally trod in the Poopoo, but most likely it was because of a factor beyond my control: a bureacracy so inefficient and obstinate that it took them several months to process a deportation order, which was then impossible to reverse. Five plain clothes officers from an un-named government department arrived at Tilapia on the morning of February 6th, and promptly arrested my 56-year-old friend Keith, under the mistaken impression that a mzungu at Tilapia must be me. When I came to sort out the fuss, I was escorted into a car and rushed off to the immigration offices, along with the hapless Keith and 6 naughty Indians.
A nail-biting day ensued. I had no breakfast and we could not leave the immigration offices to smoke. Proceeding on the initial assumption that this was a standard Work Permit ‘swoop’ (due to the presence of the offending Indians), I first called in my university’s lawyer to bring my papers, and some other people to stand surety for Keith. He was then free to go. Turning to my case, the officer in charge regretfully stated that it was much more serious. Their orders were to deport me at once, by Ministerial Decree. Absurd, I replied – where does it say this? With an uncertain little cough, he said he could not show me the relevant papers. I scoffed indignantly, insisting on ‘my rights’, etc. The officer grudgingly sniffed and pulled an A4 sheet from a manila envelope and held it in front of my face for literally 5 seconds. Headed paper, the Ministry of Internal Affairs; Subject – David Cecil, British, Immediate and indefinite deportation; Reason (one word, in a blank frame covering 80% of the sheet) – ‘Undesirable’; Signed, Minister of Internal Affairs, Hilary Onek. “You see”, said the officer “there’s not much for you to read.” How about the other papers in the envelope? “They are classified.” Right.
While the university lawyer tried to get access to the Minister’s office, I had a stream of colourful visitors clogging Immigration, making me feel like some kind of criminal celebrity punk mzungu. Which I basically was. Mo, the tall Dutch screenwriter with long blonde hair and a feather in his brimmed felt hat; Florence, strapping warrior princess with massive hair; Blo, outwardly straight, but known to the entire Ministry as a fixer. Mo, Flo, Blo – and they were just the first to arrive. An amusing exchange occurred when another concerned friend, who works in juvenile prisoner welfare, asked if I had been abused by the guards. He pointed to scratches and cuts on my face and hands. I had to explain that this was a different form of violence-in-incarceration – I had a particularly fruity marital discussion with Florence the night before.
One of the visitors actually knew what was going on. Jalobo, my rasta barman who has a Big Man cousin in the government, said “It’s not good. This goes all the way to the top. Minister of Ethics, to First Lady, back to Internal Affairs. It’s pretty serious, man.” The university lawyer came back looking unhappy and shaking his head: “There’s no-one I can talk to. This is way beyond Work Permits.” Even the omniscient Immigration fixer was uncharacteristically downbeat: “I’ve talked to everyone I know here. There’s nothing anyone can do.”
5pm approached and the offices were closing. I was led into a van, driven across the road and locked in Jinja Road police cells with a bunch of merry thugs. My determination to spend a miserable, angry night inside was swiftly eroded by the ability to smoke freely and even order gin in the cells.
The next day, Thursday, more of the same bureaucratic nonsense, this time reported to me by Chinese whispers and garbled messages from outside. Apparently some people were trying to talk to Immigration on my behalf, but there was nothing doing. The lawyer who had worked on my case before, Onyango, was in the US on a conference holiday, so we were just trying to make sense of what was going on through contacts in Immigration and the university’s lawyer. That afternoon, I tasted the prison beans and decided I could not hack much more of this. Florence, who was finally allowed to see me, called John Nagenda. I hate calling in favours, but my options seemed exhausted and so was I.
Within an hour I was called out of my cell by a very apologetic OC (Officer in Command). It was heartening to hear John’s well-spoken, gruff English accent, but his message was grim. He confirmed what Jalobo had said the day before: Minister of Ethics>First Lady>Minister of Internal Affairs. John had tried calling the latter, Hilary Onek, only to find out he had been incapacitated for some time by a heart attack. The Deputy Minister could not reverse a Ministerial Decree from his senior, so things looked bad. Interestingly, the Decree had been signed some time in 2012, meaning that my fate had been sealed long before the magistrate had banged her gavel and dismissed my case. As far back as September, someone had decided that I was to leave and never come back, regardless of what the courts would say. Perhaps they wisely mistrusted the wheels of justice to turn their way. I had little doubt that this was the Minister of Ethics, whose arrogant pronouncements on public morality reveal his regard for the liberal-democratic Constitution as an irritating obstacle on the path to righteousness. John said he would get me the best lawyer in Uganda and I handed the phone back to the OC, who simpered an oleaginous goodbye to Mr. Big, and politely escorted me back to my hotel room.
Again, the prison stories will have to wait for another time. Suffice to say that by Saturday night we were 43 in a space that could accommodate 16 at a squeeze. There was order and hierarchy to be enforced and by Sunday, bizarrely, I had become the ‘resident police’ or cell boss. My mood had drifted from fury to lethargic frustration. In the late afternoon of Monday 11th February, I was translating in the OC’s offices for a Congolese man who claimed to be a political refugee from the deposed government. The prisoner had decided to end his hunger strike, perhaps goaded by my argument to try and take matters in hand, rather than wait to be taken to a safe house somewhere and tortured. On my part, it was obviously more interesting than sitting on my arse in ‘Hotel Sheraton’, as we called it. We were just getting to the interesting and highly-questionable bits about how he had been released from Kinshasa jail, when a guard poked his head in and said: “Cecil! You are leaving!” Bingo. Finally – thank fuck – I was a free man again.
Each departure from these cells is a minor miracle. The prisoners slapped my hands and hugged me as I emptied my plastic bag and threw everything Florence had brought me at my new friends – bananas, cake, money, water, cigarettes, matches. Freedom! See you on the other side! In the reception of the police station, I saw Godwin Buwa, the human rights lawyer who had originally advised us on the legality of the play. “Godwin!” I said “You did it! Thanks! Great! What next?” He shrugged and looked bemused. The guard led me to a car outside, in which 2 suited guys and a uniformed soldier sat. A lady secretary I recognized from the immigration offices the previous Wednesday jumped in and I shouted back to Godwin: “We must be going to immigration – see you there!” He nodded and began crossing the road towards the Ministry. His evident lack of understanding was a bit odd, but the opacity of Ugandan bureaucracy is normal.
The lady secretary jumped out at the gate of the offices. We drove off again. I politely enquired where we were going, keeping the panic out of my voice. I was now used to being processed. “Entebbe.” The airport. I sank back in my seat and smiled. My mouth was now used to grim smiles. They rammed through the rush-hour traffic and picked up yet another plainclothes guy. Could I please make a phone call? Heads shook grimly. As we reached the roads leading to Entebbe highway, my panic levels began rising in tempo with the infuriating Euro-techno on their nice speaker system. I asked the pleasant young man next to me for his name. “Balham.” An inconsequential district of south London – could they be any more incongruous? Cecil in Wonderland with a really bad soundtrack. They were trying to drive me mad. I could not take the music anymore. If something did not give, I would brave the soldier with the AK and make a fucking run for it.
We hit the highway and the driver floored the accelerator. The Polish disco-pop pulsated, blocking out all rational thought. When we got held up at a jam a mile down the road, he switched on the hazards, held down the horn and blasted his way through. The car moved to the dead centre of the road and the soldier poked his AK out the window: this was official business. A cheesy arpeggio build-up pierced holes in my sense of reality. I fought waves of despair and blind panic. Barely keeping it together, I casually suggested through gritted teeth changing to 94.9 – Touch FM. The co-driver duly swiveled the dial and Marvin Gaye’s smooth tones came out the speakers to flip my script.
Lean back and enjoy the ride – it’s all cool. Balham smiled approvingly at me, jotted down ‘94.9’ in his notebook and we began talking about music. Goats, old ladies with potatoes on their heads, school kids in creased uniforms, rastas on bikes – all skipped from our hi-octane path like the proverbial Red Sea. With this new soundtrack, our ride was like one of those ‘fast-slow’ rave tracks, with the bass line operating at an eighth the speed of the breaks. As the red earth and green plantations whipped past my now-uncaring vision, I peaced out and looked forward – an in-flight movie, a stream of sympathetic Johnny Walker miniatures, a boastful chat with my incredulous neighbor: “Yeah you know I’m that guy who did the gay play? – yeah, you’re actually sitting next to a human rights legend.” Seeing my friends and parents – hang on… How the fuck would I even get from Heathrow to my Mum’s house? It was February and I had a gossamer-thin shirt on, no phone or money, just a couple of paperbacks to my name.
As we climbed out the car, I made an appeal to Balham to use his phone. I just wanted to let my girl know where I was. The Touch FM manouevre had done the trick and, looking left and right furtively, the driver handed me his celly. I got Florence and her scared voice nearly cracked my cool. I blurted it out: I was at Entebbe (yes, she knew, Godwin had worked that out); I was OK, but she needed to call the lawyer now-now, maybe there was still time to… The driver snatched the phone back with a frown and Balham led me in the terminal, shaking his head at my cheekiness. I asked if I was going to make the plane, a logical question considering the insane haste at which they had rushed me here. Balham glanced at a flexed wrist and said “You’re fine – another four or five hours, at least.” So… why had we driven as if the Minister of Ethics was at our heels? “Well, it’s our last job today, and we want to go home.” I’ll remember that next time I hear police sirens wailing.
With his back to me, Balham spoke in a low voice to the KLM check-in girl, who threw inquisitive glances at the naughty mzungu. He laughed at one of her questions: “Dangerous? No no, he won’t give you any trouble…” She then apologized to me: “You know, we get some people who are violent. They want to resist.” I opined, with smarmy charm, that this was unsurprising, given that her country is one of the most beautiful in the world. She giggled, gave in to curiosity and asked me what my crime was. I told her in a nutshell and her face immediately darkened. “I remember you – what you did was very bad. You cannot do such things in our country.”
On our way to the emigration desk, I opened a new charm offensive with the check-in girl. Did she believe everything she read in the papers? Did she believe in freedom of speech? Would she take the word of a Minister over that of a magistrate? Etc. Her smiles were easier to elicit than those of the fat bastard border cunt. He flicked through the folder proffered him by Balham. “You know” he mused, leafing the pages, “sometimes our government does wonderful things. See – they are paying for your ticket home, even after these disgraceful things you have done. They are truly wonderful.” He shook his head when I pointed out that Uganda was now my home. “I cannot accept that” he stated, pigheadedly. “These things do not belong here and nor do you.” Now my anger seethed over the rim, and I said I looked forward to the day when his beloved government cooked up some absurd allegations against him, and then he too could enjoy the sensation of being illegally incarcerated and forcibly separated from his children.
I bade farewell to mellow Balham and blew a kiss to the check-in girl, before being locked up in some tiny little holding cells all on my own. Boo hoo. I found, crumpled in my pocket, only one cigarette which I now needed badly, but I had rashly given away all my matches and everything of value to my fellow prisoners in the merriment of my sudden departure from the last prison.
No sleep, no nicotine, no space in my head to think or read – just nagging irritation, infuriant phrases looping in my head. Well, if I’m going to go – can I fucking go? Please! Please… Unfair unfair unfair…Arseholes! Fucking arseholes – how can they do this to me? I’m in Hell, this is shit, this is what Hell looks like. Don’t think about the Florence crying in the police station, saying she can’t take anymore of this. And the kids. Don’t think about your 1-year-old daughter and when the Hell you will see her next. Don’t think about the last time you saw your 2-year-old Solomon, for 30 bleak seconds in a grimy policeman’s office. Don’t think about the look of fear and confusion on his face. Don’t think about him squirming away from you in a panic, trying to run away because something was so obviously wrong…The door opened, finally, I don’t know how many hours later.
In the evening air on the landing strip, I was met by a mzungu lady, the chief hostess of KLM. She asked me earnestly: “Are you OK? Have you been well treated?” As always in situations of stress or loss, kind words from a stranger bring forth tears, which I now choked back with difficulty. To be honest, I gasped, I had been very badly treated, incarcerated for several days illegally, forcibly separated from my family and… She cut me off: “Yes, that is bad, but what I mean is – have you been well treated by the KLM staff?” The absurdity of the question caused the lump in my throat to vanish instantly. Oh yes, I asserted, the service has been impeccable. “That’s good” she smiled.
The final irony: in my search for a light-hearted movie to stop the evil thoughts in my brain, I thought I would give the new Mads Mikkelsen movie a try, called ‘The Hunt’. This ‘Scandinavian family drama’ turned out to be the story of a primary school teacher who is falsely accused of paedophilia. Despite his evident innocence, the paranoia and alienation of the village turns a simple, selfish accusation by a jealous girl into a horrifying witch hunt with devastating consequences for the misunderstood man and his helpless family. It was the perfectly wrong choice and very therapeutic.
The final insult: deportees are not allowed whiskey. I sat awake for most of the flight. Alone, returning to the wintry country I had fled from for so many years, the gates of Paradise closed hard behind me. I spoke to no-one on the plane and no-one spoke to me.
A more detached appraisal of the situation
The allegation, that our poor little theatrical production was part of a foreign, neo-colonial plot to sexually disorient the virile nation of Uganda, is as ironic as it is absurd. The politicisation of sexuality in Uganda was, from the very start, the result of an international campaign funded by US evangelists. Local understandings of homosexuality are prevalent in Africa, and alternative sexualities there are well-documented by early Arab explorers, so the argument that homosexuality is a novel, alien threat to ‘African tradition’ is historically incorrect (10). If anything, the high-handed reaction of the Ministers responsible for my deportation, and the political backlash against the ‘threat’ of gay identity, are themselves more revealing of the decline of traditional Ugandan society. The attempt to induce popular moral panic about homosexuality, and the subsequent consequences for freedom of expression, are indications of a wider malaise in Uganda. Homosexuality is not the cause of Africa’s woes; its appearance, as a social and political identity, is a symptom of rapid post-colonial transformation. Rather than trying to understand the emergence of this identity, certain powerful figures in Uganda have deliberately tried to misrepresent and exploit it, despite any attendant risks to the health of individuals or society as a whole.
The African Family in the Age of Modernical Reproduction
So why do some African religious and political leaders play so successfully on fears of ‘the gay’? What is at stake for Ugandan society here? Leaving alone for a second (if we can) the political instrumentalisation of the issue, there is a major concern about homosexuality that is often overlooked by human rights advocates. This is the perceived threat that homosexuality holds for a sacred social institution: ‘the African family’, that intra-national organic network of blood that secures continuity for communities, collective land ownership and home-grown welfare.
Whatever its faults, the African family is widely-regarded as the most valuable of all Ugandan social institutions, but one which is gravely threatened by ‘modernity’. Africa’s modern history is about as spotless and peaceful as Europe’s – i.e. it is a rupturous carnage of genocide, dictatorship, failed political experiments, and a general hacking down of just about every sacred oak that the reformists can get their hands on. However, the weakness of the state, and the flexibility and durability of family ties, has ensured the survival of the extended family, albeit in changed form. Though children may now marry and divorce with far more freedom, and polygamy is rapidly becoming abnormal, the extended family provides a means of securing communal land ownership against state pillage and a networked support system that many fall back on in times of trouble. In the absence of a public welfare system, sufficient employment, adequate housing, etc., what is left of this archaic social institution is arguably well worth saving as an anchor in the storm of rapid transformation.
In this context, and ignoring the critical factors of capitalism and urbanisation, religious leaders in the US and Uganda have blamed the decline of familial relations on things like abnormal sexual habits and drug abuse. As argued earlier, this is clearly a politicized and erroneous causal explanation: homosexuality (as a legal identity) is a product, not a cause, of much wider changes in Uganda – the state-criminalisation of ‘deviant’ sexuality, the emergence of legally-defined minority groups, the erosion of polygamy, the culture of consumerist choice (‘fashion’), and so on. But that is a relatively complex, academic and flaccid argument to make to a fevered congregation, compared to: “Behold the homosexual! It is they who now threaten to break the bloodline of your family, to prey on your children. They eat each others’ poopoo and now they want us to eat theirs. Is this the modernity that the Europeans promised us?!” (This is quoted almost verbatim from Pastor Martin Ssempa’s regular speeches on the subject.)
The audience is sensitised to such rhetoric, because civil society institutions have long been preaching to Ugandans about ‘reproductive health’. The notorious ‘ABC’ programme (Abstain, or Be faithful, or use a Condom), which was energetically promoted by the US mission in Africa, was designed to penetrate the very loins of Uganda. On a local level, its message was enthusiastically and remuneratively adopted by the born-again churches, for whom it chimed so well, with their Puritanical manipulations of the public morality. Though it made some kind of distant sense in the context of the AIDS epidemic, it is not for nothing that the epidemic started in Uganda; it is one of the most insanely promiscuous countries in the world. (And, before you say it, that is not the reason I moved there.) While the congregation screamed the words in church and mouthed them in their prayers, in practice only the ‘C’ made any sense. As the A & B were gradually dropped from public discourse as wishful thinking, an old, paranoid murmur began: Europeans want to stop us Africans reproducing, before we overwhelm them. Abstinence is just another ruse by the Europeans to undermine African fertility. Then, with the advent of the Anti-Gay Bill, a concurrent murmur began: The Europeans want us to be gay – and gays can’t have children! Ingeniously, all of these convolutions occurred with the consistent vocal connivance of the local evangelical community, who were happy to flow with any changes to their ideological diet, as long as the collection plates and donor funds were full, and they continued to exercise power over communities.
For, however ‘conservative’ its rhetoric may seem to western liberals, the spread of politicised Christianity is unmistakably part of the modernist revolution in sub-Saharan Africa and the concurrent destruction of ‘African values’. This revolution is both proudly proclaimed and insidiously sneaked in. In an interview with BBC World Service, following the Minister of Ethics’ tabling of a 2013 Anti-Pornography Bill, Minister Lokodo insisted that even traditional African clothing and dancing, that revealed naked thighs and breasts, would be outlawed – positive proof of Uganda’s modernisation (11). More stealthily, the 2009 Anti-Gay Bill’s ‘informer clause’ would force families to hand over their homosexual relatives to the state, or themselves face imprisonment (12). In practice, this intrusive legislation would further divide and weaken Ugandan families by removing their ability to deal with their own issues, instead handing parental responsibilities to the state. In their support for the Bill, these radical Christians are revealed to be just as jealous of the power of the family as the state is.
Anti/imperialist homophobia versus the monkey spirit
The sexually-charged claim that “Obama and Clinton … force homosexuality down our throats” taps into a useful pan-African vein of post-colonial discourse, when it comes to justifying homophobia (13). Many non-homophobic, considered thinkers in Uganda see the foreign intervention on the gay issue as a direct and intrusive affront to their embattled sovereignty; the hypocritical former slave-master lecturing his immature off-spring about the correct bedroom etiquette. Yet this anti-imperialist resentment is also used as a weapon by the pastors against their other significant ‘enemy within’: witchcraft, more politely referred to as ‘traditional religion’.
By claiming that homosexuality is a threat to the ‘African family’, the homophobic Christians present themselves as African protectors against unwanted European cultural imperialism. However, evangelical imperialism in Uganda has successfully subverted the traditional, inclusive ways of dealing with social deviance. Discussions of the issue with non-homophobic Ugandans reveal many examples of such local coping mechanisms. According to David Kato (the murdered activist), in his home village, a pair of same-sex partners living together were not feared or targeted, but were left alone to their own devices. Their condition was explained as a result of being possessed by ‘the monkey spirit’ that playfully alters its medium (14). Elsewhere, older people told me stories of how same-sex couples, who were usually widowed or unmarried, would live on the fringes of the village and be accepted as eccentric members of the community. This traditional way of dealing with social difference did not present the homosexual partners as ‘normal’, nor did it try to erase their ‘deviance’ through conversion or extermination.
Legal versus local solutions
With this monkey spirit in mind, it seems as ignorant of rights activists to frame their arguments in terms of ‘progress’, as it does for Ugandan pastors and politicians to claim homosexuality is ‘un-African’. In failing to appreciate that there are genuine concerns about the transformation of the African family in Uganda, gay rights activists risk alienating a vital constituency that has a traditional model for sexual toleration. Surely, the wise thing would be to find evidence of such pragmatic, local solutions to the presence of alternative sexualities, and support them. Instead, like good reformist liberals, activists focus their efforts on trying to lobby the most ungrounded, self-interested and unpopular agent of top-down change in Africa – the modern state. Furthermore, in doing so, they open themselves up to legitimate accusations of imperialism; the imposition of a European regime of legal discourse that willfully over-rides the sovereignty of African states and ignores even their potential allies on the ground if they do not follow their paradigm of sexual morality.
Most of the activists I have talked to stress the importance of legal reform; if you legalise or de-criminalise homosexuality in Uganda, they say, you will improve the lives of gay people. I would argue, conversely, that such a move may have several negative effects, while not healing the social damage wrought by the evangelists one bit. Firstly, the state-sanctioned legal culture of Uganda is mainly confined to the capital city (15). Therefore, the potentially positive impact of legalising homosexuality will be limited to the newspaper-reading bourgeoisie, while giving fuel to the arguments of the local pastors that the ruling class has betrayed God’s people, who must then themselves deal with ‘the foreign menace’ (cue lots of local lynchings). Secondly, the very language of international human rights discourse will confirm in many people’s minds that parliament is a thoroughly corrupted institution at the mercy of foreign paymasters in the EU and World Bank; this is exactly how the vetoing of the Gay Bill was presented in born-again churches in 2009-11. (Likewise, I was accused at a public debate in Uganda of being ‘pumped by the pink pound’; an admirably alliterative lump of libel, if ever I heard one). Thirdly, this whole argument is framed in entirely the wrong language for the average Ugandan: legalese. Since many Ugandans regard the law as deeply-corrupted and skewed in favour of the rich, it matters less whether or not homosexuality is affirmed as a legal identity, and far more urgently what people on the ground actually think about homosexuals. A communal understanding of homosexuality must be achieved, without political pressure or religious hysteria, before it can be legitimately sanctioned in the parliament and courts. The solution is primarily social, not legal.
The View from Above
A seasoned, elderly Ugandan statesman gave me his opinion on the president’s use of the Anti-Gay Bill. President Museveni, my friend said, was reserving the gay rights issue as a bargaining chip. If the EU/US make too much noise about corruption, for example, the Bill miraculously pops up again for parliamentary debate. Later, Uganda wants to re-invade Congo; Museveni has a word with Obama and the US ignores the theft of another diamond mine, while praising Uganda for shelving the Bill. The president (unlike his born-again wife) ultimately recognises that homosexuality is not a threat to Uganda, but sees its use as a contentious issue to dangle in front of ‘the international community’. This was, my friend pragmatically opined, as it should be in the world of politics – an achievement of long-term goals through short-term compromise.
As a sympathizer of the plight of gay Ugandans, this tolerant conservative saw the strident calls for gay rights legislation in Uganda as self-defeating and short-sighted. In their ideological fog, international rights activists were actually feeding the local activists a dangerous illusion: that you can change people’s perceptions over-night, through a change in the law. This will backfire, he said, unless we are patient and allow the liberal-democratic constitution to take root in the mind of the polity, then there may well be gay lynch mobs on the streets before too long. For now, he is content to see his preferred form of liberal evolution run its course and, to make sure it evolves properly, he and his colleagues will advise President Museveni to keep shelving the Bill.
Strong communities; weak individuals
I can affirm the elderly statesman’s faith in the actual tolerance of the Ugandan people. They do not actually run around hacking up homosexuals. For the most part, they are moderately conservative people, who are too busy trying to survive than to worry about ‘bum-shafters’. I worked peacefully and happily in my local area in the suburbs of Kampala, even though I openly discussed homosexuality with my regulars and hosted a couple of gay parties. The boys who sell chapattis on the road sometimes joked I was gay behind my back, but greeted me warmly when I returned from prison. One said: “Eehh Davideee! How was Luzira? You are now one of us!” They did not give a damn what the papers said I had done – as a local bar-owner and mukwo (in-law), they knew me better. I had eaten, drunk, fought, married and worked in their community and was seen as a decent man, if a little eccentric. Likewise, in prison, we were all primarily victims of an unjust system. They don’t care what you’ve done, as long as you abide, here and now, by the prison rules. Communities I saw in Uganda are strong and tight and they are not held together by state law. This way of life is literally alien to the European legalist mind-set, which often regards communities as primitive, darkly-conservative atavisms.
Activists and friends have ridiculed my conservative faith in the tolerance of local communities, as that of a naïve, nostalgic foreigner. So it is worth listening to the words of David Kato’s village neighbours, interviewed two years after his murder. The Daily Monitor journalist approached a motorbike taxi driver (commonly viewed as lower-class, thuggish and uneducated) and asked him what he thought of David Kato, the gay activist. The man replied: “I do not know how to say this but we lost a kind person. … He might have had his weaknesses but that did not mean he should have been killed. I do not support what he used to do but then he did not deserve such a death” (16).
Weakness. We all have our weaknesses. Far from accusing him of raping their kids or falling victim to a ‘foreign curse’, Kato’s own neighbours put his crimes on the same level as those of a naughty philanderer or an old man who likes young ladies.
Without a doubt, sexual minorities came under attack in Uganda and, without lobby groups pressuring foreign heads of state, it is possible that Anti-Gay legislation may have been passed. Hopefully, the Bill will be indefinitely shelved and the scandal will die down. With time and growing confidence, sexual minorities will attain recognition in Uganda, on their own terms. This will be far more powerful than if the ‘international community’ forces the government to legislate.
With that in mind, a final point is worth considering, lest we continue to wring our hands and debate the issue ad infinitum in Uganda and abroad. In the last few years there have been disturbing and radical developments that threaten to plunge the country into turmoil: the recently-discovered oil resources have sparked a vicious race for the feeding trough amongst Uganda’s political class and massively raised the stakes of the next general election; murders of dissident MPs and generals have occurred with alarming frequency within the last few years; a succession crisis to the monarchical presidency looms large, with no apparent resolution. In this context, a stolen election in 2016 may well result in a national bloodbath, worse even than Kenya 2007.
Why did homophobia in Uganda cause such a sustained international outcry when the right to assembly was removed this year, in the same country, with barely a whisper of protest abroad (17)? When the Anti-Pornography Bill (aka Miniskirt Bill) was proposed earlier this year, international liberal bloggers jumped onto Ugandan chat-rooms to hotly debate the issue. They were met with bored yawns from politically-aware Ugandans who now see these nonsensical Bills for what they are. Have the Minister of Ethics and his killer clowns in the Evangelist movement been used to distract us from what the regime regards as more serious issues? If so, let us not be as complicit as they are, in these hysterical moral debates, while far darker and deeper games are afoot in the country I once called home.
(2)The Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Anglican priest, has produced an excellent essay, from an African Christian perspective, investigating the role of Lively and other Evangelical extremists in Uganda. Globalizing the Culture Wars (Political Research Associates 2009). Available in full online: http://www.publiceye.org/publications/globalizing-the-culture-wars/pdf/africa-full-report.pdf
(3) Check the Ugandan parliament’s Hansard records for various discussions of the issue. Enter ‘homosexuality’ in their search engine here: http://www.parliament.go.ug/hansard/
(4) New Vision (government newspaper), 12th January 2010: http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/12/706894
(5) From personal correspondence with Jonathan Cooper, human rights lawyer and head of sexual minorities activist group, the Human Dignity Trust.
(6) For an interesting BBC interview with Beau Hopkins: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5-MCRrk7dE
(7) See, e.g., (UK) Daily Telegraph, 30th August 2012: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/9509314/Play-with-a-homosexual-theme-banned-by-regulators-in-Uganda.html
(8) Daily Monitor, 13th September 2012: http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/British-producer-arrested-over-play-about-gay-man/-/688334/1506468/-/825odx/-/index.html
(9) His odd pronunciation of this last word troubled me a while, until I realized that the American accent sometimes renders his country as ‘Ugarnda’, which ought to be an imprisonable offence. In the interview, to my delight, they did not pronounce Lokodo’s own name right once. Canada Broadcasting Corporation, 21st September 2012. Link to audio: http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2012/09/21/uganda-cracks-down-on-gay-play/
(10) See, e.g. The Lunatic Express by Charles Miller (Macmillan 1971), chapter 4: ‘Crescent, Cross & Kabaka’
(11) See, e.g. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2304913/Ugandan-women-wearing-miniskirts-face-arrest-new-anti-pornography-laws.html. The BBC interview is not archived.
(12) Read the full Anti-Homosexuality Bill here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7pFotabJnTmYzFiMWJmY2UtYWYxMi00MDY2LWI4NWYtYTVlOWU1OTEzMzk0/edit?pli=1&hl=en
(13) Opinion piece on The Independent (Uganda) website: http://www.independent.co.ug/reports/106-myblog/2493-obama-and-clinton-should-not-force-homosexuality-down-our-throats
(14) David Kato explains this idea clearly in an interview in the documentary The Sunny Side of Sex, shot in Uganda by Dutch ‘sexpert’ Sunny Bergman (VPRO NL, 2011).
(15) See Beyond the State in Rural Uganda, by Ben Jones (Edinburgh 2011)
(16) “Two years after David Kato’s death”, by Johnson Mayamba, Daily Monitor, 18th March 2013: http://www.monitor.co.ug/artsculture/Reviews/Two+years+after+David+Kato+s+death/-/691232/1723030/-/ye3rm8/-/index.html
(17) “Uganda public order bill is ‘blow to political debate’”, BBC Africa, 6th August 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23587166
- An evening with talks and music to mark the launch of issue 13 of Datacide, the international magazine for noise and politics. It will feature talks from Datacide contributors, including: - David Cecil (Uganda) - Confessions of an Accidental Activist – Sexual politics and homophobia in Uganda -David found himself…