About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I was on a train at New York’s Grand Central Station on March 5 when a friend from my days at Stanford University entered. I was overjoyed yet embarrassed; one part of me wanted to hug her, the other to hide. She is a successful lawyer in New York married to a celebrated female journalist.

Given the proposed homosexual bill in Uganda, I was wondering how to explain myself to her; that my country would kill her and her partner if they visited me. I did not have much time to decide; she walked over to me with a big smile as soon as she saw me. I jumped from my seat and gave her a warm hug.

As expected, after exchanging pleasantries, she asked me what the “hell” was going on in Uganda. How do I explain the craziness of Martin Ssempa and his gay porn videos at public rallies; the deeply held prejudices against gays and the ignorance that informs the debate? Since I arrived in America, I have been confronted with persistent questions about Uganda’s kill-the-gays bill at media interviews and public lectures I give.

Most Ugandans possibly don’t understand that cultural prejudices can be used against any group arbitrarily. For example, sections of white society today still believe that black people are animals like donkeys; that inter racial sex is akin to bestiality. It was an act of considerable courage that Barack Obama’s mother married a black man in 1960; equally a difficult choice for her white parents to accept it.

In Dreams from my Father, Obama says white kids used to laugh at his mother for this choice. When his grandfather complained to their parents, they would answer: “Well, you ought to tell your daughter how to behave herself. White people here don’t marry niggers.” I have learnt from the prejudice against homosexuals in Uganda not to be hostile to racists because they are also victims of culture.

It is in this context that I have been trying to frame my answers to this vexing question. People here see David Bahati and Ssempa as Adolf Hitler; a man who stoked anti Semitic, anti gay and anti black hatred. I always find myself in the difficult position of explaining how good people genuinely convinced that they are trying to protect Ugandan (or Christian) culture from adulteration by the West can promote extreme injustice.

They are like the senator, the president, the congressman etc in America who for many years rejected inter racial marriage on grounds that “it is against our culture”; the male chauvinist in Togo still refusing his daughters to go to school in the name of tradition; the parent in Pakistan who marries off his 12-year-old daughter to a 50-year-old man in the name of culture; the religious cleric in Saudi Arabia who, in the name of religion, orders the stoning to death of a girl for premarital sex; the old woman in Kenya who mutilates the genitals of a young girl in the name of custom.

It seems most evil is not always promoted by evil people. A close reading of the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis shows that actually they were following an established European tradition. People of European descent had committed genocides against native populations in America and Africa. Religion (or culture) and science were always at hand to provide justification for mass slaughter.

Sven Lindquist’s book, Exterminate all the Brutes, is a refreshing and insightful account of the role of religion, tradition and science in promoting European genocides. Many Ugandans choose to bury their heads in the sand of cultural bigotry, Stone Age customs and archaic religious dogmas to persecute gays. Unfortunately, reality and science tell a different story; being gay is as normal as being a heterosexual.

Yet what is intriguing is the similarity of the basis of argument by either side in the gay debate in Uganda. The anti gay campaigners argue that homosexuality is an alien lifestyle to our country; that it is being promoted by people from the West using money. The pro gay campaigners here in the USA argue that the anti gay movement in Uganda is promoted and financed by right wing religious groups in America.

One side denies the domestic origins of homosexuality; the other, the local basis of hostility towards it. This is one way Africa is always denied initiative; events in our continent are seen as instigated from elsewhere as if we are a passive and idle people suffering from too much inertia; initiative in Africa is a sign of forces from outside.

Gays in Uganda – like everywhere else in the world – grow up only to realise that they are sexually attracted to people of the same sex. They do not need any money or propaganda from the West to have those feelings. Equally, anti homosexual feelings are born of ignorance and prejudice that is entirely local. Anti gay Ugandans do not need right wing money or propaganda to be hostile to homosexuality. If external influences play a role at all, it is insignificant and secondary.

Most debates everywhere tend to fall into this false and misleading pitfall; rather than debate the objective content of the argument, people focus on the subjective motivations of the participants. And it is not new; when King Philip of Macedon threatened to forcibly unite all Greek city states against Persia in 550 BC, Athens was polarised.

Demosthenes, the leading orator of antiquity argued vehemently against it; his rival Aeschines, argued in favour. Demosthenes was accused of being on the payroll of Persia; Aeschines of Macedon. Debate sunk into these accusations and counter accusations until Philip pounced. It happened to Nelson Mandela when he sought negotiations with apartheid; he was accused of having been bought off by whites.

Many enlightened Ugandans are afraid to openly challenge Ssempa’s bigotry and Nazi-like campaign against homosexuals for fear of being misunderstood as either being gay or having been bribed by rich gays in the West. Yet those who are unwilling to risk anything in the name of principle never get anything serious done for the cause of the advancement of mankind.



AfroGay said...

I agree entirely. Some of us gay people need to put our money where our mouths are.

On a separate note: your entire biography is listed on your blog. What's up with that Andrew? Getting narcissistic, are we? Or is it pride in one's accomplishments?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on your point point about "Africa being denied any iniative". However I disagree that the influence of the US right wing evangelical movement is insignificant. The Bill itself was drawn up after a series of highly provocative and hate filled workshops held by representatives from these churches who used a language they would find difficult in the US. [see here but this is just one eg: http://ow.ly/1obt5]. This does not imply lack of initiative or agency - the fastest growing industry on the continent is religion which feeds on poverty underdevelopment and so on and makes huge amounts of money for it's leaders.

Wamala Ssonzi said...

For the first time you have disappointed me Mr.Mwenda.Why do we have to base our decisions on the reactions of the western world?Westernization has been the major cause of the death of African virtues.

sights and sighs said...

That there are huge human rights concerns about the bill is not in doubt. However it is still a Bill- but to crown it a "kill-gays-bill" is to overlook the other issues it tries to address-the human rights protagonists need to be clear headed on this. Secondly, I still think there is a place for culture, religion and tradition which should be maintained, upheld and respected. The clamour to do away with those three is to actually introduce yet another culture, tradition and religion in their stead....we should not deceive ourselves about that. We have seen this happening in many aspects of life and we are paying the price already. I invite you all to read Pr0f. Mahmood Mamdani article written exactly one year ago entitled "Beware Human Rights Fundamentalism!"
on http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-03-20-beware-human-rights-fundamentalism

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the argument of being born gay (being genetically homosexual) is open to people who have a strong and arguably uncontrollable sexual inclination to beasts (like dogs, sheep, goats & c) or incestuous sexual relations.

johan in progress said...

@ssonzi: I think you're missing the point here which is that Western involvement, both in terms of promoting homosexuality and promoting homophobia, has been excessively focused on in these debates.

@Passions...: Supporting gay rights and supporting culture and religion are not opposites. Indeed, support of many African cultures in the 19th century would have meant the continued acceptance of homosexuality in the face of the Western imposition of homophobia upon populations that had previously accepted or been apathetic to homosexuality.

sights and sighs said...

Yohawnne, i think you should read my comment in context of what Andrew writes. If i understood him correctly he seems to advocate for one culture over another. In my view that is wrong.However i would be grateful if you kindly send me some links to the literature you refer to that informs your comment on 19th century african cultures and i do hope you read the Mamdani article?

johan in progress said...

@Passions...: By juxtaposing one culture against another I think your fundamentally misunderstanding the post. The intrinsic capacity for cultures to change does not depend on other cultures influence, culture is a dynamic, shifting entity. For instance, the United States did not choose an external culture when it began to accept interracial marriage, the American culture (specifically white American culture) merely evolved. Similarly, Uganda's acceptance of homosexuality would not be the embrace of another culture but a shift in Ugandan culture. Its not a binary, its an internal dynamic.

sights and sighs said...

@Yoehawnee, I beg to disagree ... there are always forces which push cultures to 'evolve' if i might borrow your words. Even if we look at the darwinian example of evolution which may or maynot be applicable here, forces do push against each other. There is no change that happens smoothly. The butterfly metermophosis needs both external heat as well as internal pressure. The white america culture you talk about did not simply 'evolve' into accepting interracial marriage - there was a srong push internal and external for that. Similarly the end of slavery had similar features. That is why i have insisted that Mwendais advocating for a replacement of one culture for another without paying heed to the various factors that be. For him to discredit african culture and uphold other cultures in my vew misses the point. Therefore a 'shift' of our culture as you call it is not a mere shift- we embrace other values otherwise what are we shifting from and to what? and where is that 'what'? is it a completely new phenomenon or can it be found in other cultures? I will still be gratful to look at those sources on african culture

Cannon said...

Andrew, i am glad you did not dare mention the word 'natural' in this text. You attribute this dirty vice to 'science and reality'. Assuming people come up and start having sexual relations via the mouth, do we just sit back because we fear embarrassment on a train in some remote place? Why then is bestiality a crime, if I grew up to find that am sexually attracted towards goats?
I say, homosexuality is learned and NOT born, its at best, unnatural.

Those parts are naturally meant for their excretory purposes and the medical consequences of using them for sexual intercourse are detestable and severe – this is proven.

I wish you could come out as strongly to speak against worse oppressive practices like stopping people from practicing their religion (minarets were banned in Switzerland because they are ‘against their culture’ and the Islamic hijab has been declared officially ‘unwelcome’ in France by the president himself because it dilutes French culture!).

If culture is so important as to cause the imposition of a tax on people who put on a certain type of clothes, why shouldn’t it justify the mere abolition of that dirty unnatural vice? I agree with Ssozi, indeed, for the first time you have grossly disappointed me.

Unknown said...

passions, if there is a tradition of bigotry, prejudice, and persecution of a minority whose behaviour does not harm others and cannot be proven to be harmful to others is that a tradition to be respected?

For example should a tradition of stoning women and raping them be respected, maintained, and upheld? one man's tradition is another man's persection.I can't believe the phrase "human rights fundementalism" is being used in this discussion. Human rights are fundemental, who can argue that a person who has done no one any harm shouldn't have the right, the freedom, not to be killed by the state because people don't really like who they love. The comparison between homosexuality and bestiality is an old one and a failed one, in one there are two consenting human adults and in the other is a human and a non consenting animal.

However, it is good that people are talking about this issue, maybe the publicity the bill has attracted might start a public conversation.

question. have any gay people been imprisoned as a result of this?

sights and sighs said...

John, its been a while since we last commented on this particular blog and therefore some of the arguments have long since been superceded by events or other opinions.

I guess you have concluded the argument when you state that ''one man's tradition is another man's persecution.''

The challenge is which yardstick shall we use in determining what is or is not a proper 'tradition'? The Western Model? Eastern Model ? African Model? Why should one model supercede the others? In any case how do we determine which model is best for the world yet our traditions, cultures, languages and laws are different?

Aren't we going to opt for other forms of means to 'force' people to accpet one view instead of the other? Isnt that similar to Mmdani's human rights fundametalism?

That was my argument as far as i can recall it

In response to your last question, no one has been arrested with respect to this particular bill. It is still that - a bill and not yet law-