How Activists Are Using Coalitions to Promote LGBTI Rights in Uganda

-Mark Canavera, RPCV, Burkina Faso

Editor’s Note: Peace Corps has had a significant presence in Uganda for many years. The 150 or so Volunteers in Uganda are currently engaged in HIV/AIDS programs as primary or secondary projects. Volunteers work with local organizations and agencies planning and implementing counseling, testing and other services related to HIV/AIDS, particularly addressing prevention and awareness aimed at families and communities affected by the disease. The information in this article will highlight some of the challenges facing current and future volunteers in Uganda, particularly those interested in focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention and education for Ugandan men and women who have sexual relations with members of their own sex.

The kuchu movement is abuzz in Uganda. Kuchu is a word (plural: kuchus), apparently of Swahili origin, that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) Ugandans have minted to describe their identities. “We do not use the word ‘queer,'” explains Frank Mugisha, chairman of Sexual Minorities Uganda, an umbrella entity that brings together LGBTI organizations for advocacy purposes. “We’ve got our own word that encompasses the whole idea: kuchu.”

Despite a penal code that criminalizes homosexual acts with penalties of upwards of 10 years of imprisonment, Uganda has witnessed an astounding flowering of kuchu organizations in recent years. Each cluster is structured differently: some exist primarily as online discussion forums while others run legal aid clinics or provide health services to sexual minorities. Some meet in bars and members’ living rooms while others maintain offices with laptop computers and Wi-Fi internet connections. Taken together, they represent a richly diverse community and a potent symbol of how far Uganda’s LGBTI movement has come in a short time period. “We are out talking,” says Kasha Jacqueline, the executive director of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), an association dedicated to empowering lesbian women. Some activists note that one reason that kuchus are able to speak out is that Ugandan law allows only for the arrest of homosexual acts, not for LGBTI identities. “We want to talk about these things. It’s our resilience that is making all of this happen.”

Uganda’s embryonic LGBTI movement could hardly have been prepared, however, for the onslaught of activity that would result from the introduction of an Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Ugandan Parliament last year. “The last six months have been chaotic,” writes Val Kalende, the manager of programs and communications for FARUG, in an e-mail, further explaining that most organizations were forced to slow down their other day-to-day activities to focus on fighting the bill. The proposed bill calls for the death penalty for cases of the newly concocted crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” criminalizes advocacy on behalf of gay people, and would require third parties (including family members) to report known homosexuals within twenty-hour hours.

The bill has garnered significant media attention in the West both for its connections to the American religious right (the subject of at least two documentaries) and the threat of donor governments to withdraw their aid to Uganda if the bill were to pass. Most American evangelical churches have distanced themselves from a bill that the Swedish government called “appalling” and President Obama deemed “odious,” but others like Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Nevada remain steadfast supporters of those who promote the bill.

Whatever else it did, the bill provided the nebulous LGBTI movement in Uganda with a common enemy, and the myriad organizations that were just beginning to take shape recognized the need to come together to kill the bill. “When the bill was introduced, there was a need to reach out to other human rights groups, not to take a back seat” says Mugisha. Kalende explains that, “Everyone got on the telephone and called the head of an organization they knew asking them to join the coalition and sign our first press statement condemning the bill. In just a week, we had registered 21 organizations, including those we thought would never support LGBT rights.” Thus was born the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, or simply, “the Coalition.” In addition to fighting the bill, the Coalition aims to strengthen the capacity of LGBTI organizations throughout the country.

Today, the Coalition boasts 32 confirmed members, says Coalition coordinator Adrian Jjuuko. Member organizations of the Coalition run the gamut, including HIV/AIDS-focused organizations, labor associations, women’s rights non-profits, and refugee and prisoner rights groups. Some women’s rights groups turned a cold shoulder to the invitation to join the Coalition, but Kasha stresses the importance of continuing to extend a welcoming hand. “We should continue building links even if we are not very welcome there,” says Jacqueline. “We are women, and we should not only talk about issues that concern only lesbians but also other women. They need to know that we feel the pain.” Mugisha notes that two years ago, no other civil society organizations were willing to join hands with the LGBTI movement, so he sees the creation of this Coalition as a major achievement in and of itself.

Swarming together as a Coalition has clear advantages, say activists. “Working with these networks has given us a lot more power as a movement,” says Mugisha. “We speak out as one, but we are able to advocate in a number of ways. We can pursue quiet advocacy to with a number of different policymakers and organizations through a variety of channels.” Jjuuko explains that the Coalition has also helped to broaden the base of support for the LGBTI movement. He explains, “Since other organizations have joined forces with this movement, others do not say, ‘Oh it is just the LGBTI organizations making noise again.'” Jacqueline adds that working in a coalition gives the movement “a bigger space for our struggle.”

But of course, this network-based approach contains inherent challenges. “As in many young coalitions elsewhere,” says one respondent, “the struggle for power is still at hand. Everyone wants to be at the top, and we forget Rome was not built in one day.” Beyond what seem to be relatively minor leadership tussles, however, larger challenges loom. The security situation for kuchu people – who by their own accounts are regularly subjected to blackmail by police officers, public harassment and assault, and imprisonment — represents a daunting context in which to seek to expand membership. Some organizations of the Coalition have already been visited by “infiltrators” from the anti-LGBTI movement. “It’s hard for us,” says Jacqueline. “You can’t really do a triage. We have had security training for our members, but otherwise, it is a risk that we have to accept to live with.” Finally, the large-scale visibility that the Coalition has been able to mobilize around the bill has brought with it increased visibility for the services available for the LGBTI community, which are too meager to cope with the demand. “Positive and negative media campaigns have wooed many LGBTI members who were in the closet to come and seek our services,” says Moses Mulindwa, public relations officer for Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, a health and HIV/AIDS-focused service organization, “[but] we have limited capacity to handle [these new cases].”

There is little indication what will happen next. A cabinet committee tasked with reviewing the proposed bill recently recommended that the law be scrapped, suggesting that most of the law’s provisions were already adequately covered by the country’s draconian penal code. Whether or not the bill will rear its head again, Uganda’s legal and public opinion environment will still prove extremely challenging to the kuchu community there, and retaining cohesion will surely be a challenge, says Jjuuko. Be that as it may, Uganda’s kuchus have proven that they can coalesce with astonishing speed and power to protect their collective wellbeing and advance their goals. “If we put the movement first before ourselves,” writes Kalende, “we will achieve much more.”

This article, originally published on the Huffington Post is the second in a series profiling organizations and individuals in sub-Sahara Africa promoting the rights of sexual minorities. The slightly different version which appeared in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-canavera/the-kuchu-beehive_b_666033.html includes links to many of the information sources for this article. This article is the second in a series profiling organizations and individuals in sub-Saharan Africa promoting the rights of sexual minorities. The next article will cover a West African setting.
Mark Canavera can be contacted at mark.canavera@gmail.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/canavera

 

Being Gay in Uganda

- Will McCall, RPCV Uganda 2004-2006

I recently completed my COS (Close of Service) as a PCV in Uganda. Uganda is part of eastern Africa and sits on top of Lake Victoria right on the equator. Although it is a former British colony, and English is the official language, it boasts some 25 other languages and tribes with over 50 dialects. Most people know Uganda by the names of its former dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote who murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the name of their oppressive regimes. Presently there is war in the north of Uganda sponsored by the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) in which hundreds of children have been forcibly recruited to take up arms and fight in a war for which nobody understands the purpose. The current government makes ongoing claims of reconciliation but these statements have been repeated for the last 20 years with little change.

In my opinion when a country is oppressed it is oppressed all around. Of course as a Peace Corps Volunteer I constantly attempted to train myself to be both optimistic and objective. However there were some things in Uganda that warranted an opinion and when human rights are at stake, I believe those opinions should be heard. I remember when I arrived at my home-stay/host family for training that the women in my host family knelt to greet me and sat in a separate room on the floor to eat. This seriously took some getting used to and in the beginning I had to hold my tongue so that I didn’t offend anyone about what I found offensive. Women have just recently been granted the right to own land, but the practice of a “bride-price” is still very accepted and common in all of Uganda. I know this is part of the culture. I know that I don’t really have the right to judge it, yet I do. I equate it with the same values that hold homosexuality as a sin in many parts of the western world. I think that the same energy that has homosexuality punishable by 17 years of imprisonment in Uganda is the same energy that keeps women on the floor. After I got to my work site I tried to practice something that one of my American trainers described to us new trainees that first day we arrived in-country. She said, “Try to think of things here as different, not good or bad, just different. Life will be a lot easier for you if you do.” It was a lot easier keeping this in mind. However when those differences begin to encroach upon my freedom, the lines of good and bad become more distinct for me.

What struck me when I arrived in Uganda was the open display of affection between men. I was immediately curious and surprised when I saw men holding hands while walking down the street. Men in general seemed to be quite effeminate as well. How could this be? Had I been misinformed? Yet this was certainly antithetical to everything I had known in mainstream America and anywhere in the west except for those openly gay areas where a level of acceptance was already known. Consequently I soon discovered that this public display is simply an expression of friendship and homosexuality is definitely not part of the picture. Homosexuality is thought to have been “brought in” by the Bazungus (whites or foreigners) and “does not exist in Uganda aside from that.” On the other hand the holding of hands and male femininity broke some of the stereotypes that I myself had about being gay. I was grateful for this.

Before I accepted my invitation to Uganda I had to seriously consider whether or not I wanted to be in an environment where I was not able to be open about a very important aspect of who I am. I came straight from San Francisco – where obviously being gay was not an issue for me – to a place where you dare not mention the words lest you run the risk of literally being killed. I believe this is where the colonialist religion influence has made its indelible mark. If you ask people nonchalantly about boys and girls having same-sex experiences in boarding school (because they do in Uganda), they say that is normal. Yet when you throw the word “gay” into it, then it becomes a conversation of hell and damnation. For the most part I chose to keep quiet about my being gay through my entire service. I did come out to three Ugandans and received reactions of surprise and confusion on all three occasions. It was very difficult to explain myself since people just don’t think that it exists there. I had visions in the beginning of “educating” my counterpart or the director of my NGO in my last weeks of service so that I could offer myself a safety net if need be. But after a while I grew tired of trying to fight the customs and the beliefs of the people of Uganda. The old me would have felt it my obligation to enlighten the rest of the world of its ignorance, but something became peaceful for me when I was in Uganda. I acquiesced to the notion of “live and let live” and realized that I wasn’t there to change the world.

There is a very hidden underground community of gay people in Uganda now; mostly in the capital. I have even heard of many young men engaging in sex (even when they are not gay) because they heard that there is money to be made there. So the lines continue to be blurry. I can only wish the best for the few gay people I met there. It is such a sad situation because there are not a lot of places where they can go for support. I had heard before I left that one of the female members of parliament was openly challenging others to accept differences and realize that gay people should have rights too. This could be a start. It’s befitting for the culture because they like to say, “mpola mpola” which means “slowly by slowly” we get things done.


Will McCall is now traveling before he returns home. He can be reached at willmccall_2000@yahoo.com.

 

Uganda with Former Child Soldiers

-Mark Canavera, RPCV, Burkina Faso (1999 – 2002)

Since my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, I have been mostly in graduate school, first Notre Dame, and now the Kennedy School at Harvard. For the last two summers I have returned to Africa, this time Uganda in East Africa to work with an Italian organization, AVSI. Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale is a Milan-based Catholic humanitarian relief agency. They have been working in northern Uganda for 19 years, ever since the beginning of the terrible conflict there. Most of my time has been spent in the town of Kitgum and nearby internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, which are populated by Ugandans who are refugees in their own country.

Kitgum is located in Uganda’s far north, just shy of the Sudanese border. Flying from southern Kampala (the capital) to northern Kitgum, one watches Uganda transform. Cruising over the southern portion of the country, one sees roads, houses, and farming patterns – stripes, rows, rectangles, and diamonds of alternating crops. When the plane crosses north of the Nile, however, the views of houses and crop patterns stop abruptly. The vista of the north is seemingly bare of human activity, punctuated every 20 kilometers or so by vast “camps” of the internal refugees of Northern Uganda. The huts which comprise the IDP camps are incredibly dense, congested and compacted, one hut running up against the next. From a plane window, the camps look like a rash on the otherwise unblemished skin of the land, each hut raised like a pimple.
This land is far from unblemished. Years of guerrilla warfare led by the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have fostered the development of these IDP camps. Seeking to avoid rebel ambushes in the less populated areas, “the bush,” the people of northern Uganda have moved from their far-flung and unprotected home villages to towns and larger villages, areas of higher population density. Eventually, the Ugandan government army created a consolidation policy and ordered citizens to relocate to officially sanctioned camps. Although the army nominally protects these camps from the LRA, sometimes (or perhaps often) their protection seems more like predation. Estimates for the number of northern Ugandans living in IDP camps range from 700,000 to over one million people.

The war in northern Uganda is most famous to the international community because of the child night commuters, who have become famous in the international press. The child night commuters are children from the villages outlying Kitgum Town (as well as Gulu, a larger town about 100km southwest of here) who, from 2003 – 2004, walked into town every evening to sleep in protected areas – churches, hospitals, UNICEF tents, NGO buildings, and schools – to avoid abduction by the LRA. In the morning, after a night of sleep on the ground, where they huddled by the hundreds, the children walked back to their villages to work in the fields for the day. A nightly trek of one to ten kilometers was doubled by the return walk at sunrise. Each evening, the roads into town were lined by children and their mothers, carrying tiny bundles on their heads of clothes and other necessities. In June 2004, an estimated 20 to 25,000 child night commuters came to Kitgum Town each night.

In the summer of 2004, I worked in AVSI’s Psycho-Social Support Programme which provides long-term services that are geared towards vulnerable children and families. The AVSI offices are small but frenetic, filled with a few Italians, a staff of 30 or so Ugandans, and a seemingly endless stream of clients in need of support and assistance. During this first tour I worked as an intern assessing the Programme’s data collection methods, everything from how staff members identify vulnerable children to how they perform follow up visits to children whom they are supporing. This last summer (2005) I acted as an internal consultant on improving AVSI’s outreach to the outlying IDP camps, where 90 percent of northern Uganda’s people now live.

The Psycho-Social Programme targets several groups of vulnerable children and families. Most of the organization’s clients are formerly abducted children (sometimes called former child soldiers), to whom AVSI provides numerous services, including counseling, group therapy, medical assistance, funding for formal and vocational education, school supplies, and start-up capital and training for income-generating activities. The sheer numbers of formerly abducted children they support is impressive. Since 2000, AVSI alone has provided some form of assistance to over 1,700 formerly abducted children. Other target groups for the Psycho-Social Support Programme are orphans and HIV positive mothers.

My activities outside of data analysis and consulting have been varied. On Friday afternoons, I would tag along on home-based care visits to AIDS patients with Chiara, a cherubic Italian doctor, two other AVSI staff members, and a team of volunteers from a local HIV/AIDS support organization called Meeting Point. The reality of living with HIV/AIDS in Kitgum district can be grim, for anti-retroviral treatment has only recently become available to a handful of people. Some of our visits were mournful: to buy some more anaesthetizing local brew, for example, one patient sold the antibiotics that Meeting Point had provided him. But the pervasive atmosphere of most visits is celebratory and hopeful. One women who could not walk a week earlier proudly displayed the few steps she could take, laughing louder with each step. The bed wounds that once immobilized one man slowly healed, and he began to sit up and eventually stand. Afternoons with Meeting Point remind me of the therapeutic power of human concern.

During the summer of this year, I spent much of my time in IDP camps meeting with various community members. In Acholibur, south of Kitgum Town, for example, I and a colleague worked with the representatives of numerous small development groups. These groups include youth groups that perform theatre skits for local kids about HIV/AIDS transmission, women’s cooperatives that sells small dried fish in the market as an income-generating activity, and support groups for disabled community members. Days in the camps were always full of new heroes for me.

Despite the desperation of life there, working in northern Uganda has always provided me with reason for hope. After 19 years of warfare and destruction, the people there continue to cling, tenaciously, to the possibility of a better future. Of course, the war’s roots are deep, and the current political situation may remain non-conducive to ending the violence. But the region’s prospects for peace, embodied in the resilience of the people, will never be extinguished.


You can contact Mark Canavera at mark.canvera@gmail.com.

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