Gay Rights in Uganda

27 10 2010

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me, and I looked to see who would speak for me
but by that time no one was left.

A silent voice is a voice for the oppressors.  I have not written about the homosexuality issue in Uganda – partly because I have too much to say and partly because I find it so unbelievable, that I keep expecting to blink my eyes and find that none of it happened.  But the recent publication of a list of “Top Homosexuals” in Uganda printed along with a banner saying “hang them” compels me to use my voice and not continue to support the oppressors through my silence.

Homosexuality has long been illegal in Uganda, but the issue has been ramped up in the last year after the arrival of some loud-mouthed American missionaries led to the introduction of a Bill that would provide the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”  After a huge international outcry, the Bill has been quietly set aside, but the issue still rankles and it seems that many Ugandans would be very happy if it had been put into force.

Ugandans say that homosexuality just “isn’t part of the culture” here –  that it was “imported” by Europeans and doesn’t have a place in Ugandan society.  Besides the fact that it isn’t true, it is denying the possibility that a culture can evolve and grow.

Gay Rights are Civil Rights

What if all societies were allowed to just stagnate and remain stuck in old belief systems?  In the United States for much of the time leading up to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, it was illegal to marry or have sexual relations with someone of another race (miscegenation).  There were still anti-miscegenation laws in 16 states when the Supreme Court finally determined them unconstitutional in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia.  What if people in the United States had decided that equality for black people just “wasn’t part of the culture?”  What if slavery was allowed to continue because it was so deeply rooted in the culture of the southern states?

I would imagine that many of the same Ugandans who want homosexuals to be killed would be furious if they were told that they were not allowed to marry someone they loved who was of another race/tribe/religion.  Why is it so difficult to see the fact that homophobia is no different from racism in this way?  It is a form of oppressing a group of people for who they are.

No, Gay People are NOT “Recruiting” Kids to Become Gay

The big scare tactic here is saying that gays are going into the schools and “recruiting” kids.  It is truly amazing to me that intelligent people can actually believe that.  I don’t even know what that notion is based on, and have never seen any mention of this actually happening in the schools.  It is a smoke screen, pure and simple.  If you want to get people worked up about an issue anywhere in the world, tell them that their kids are threatened.  If anything, people here should be concerned about all of the 40-year-old men who pick up young girls at the boarding schools.  You can’t “recruit” someone to be gay, anymore than you can take a gay person and make them “ungay.”

It’s Not Easy Being Gay Anywhere

This is not an issue only in Uganda.  Gay people are still fighting for their rights throughout the world.  Even in the U.S., where we have made great strides towards equal rights for homosexuals, there is still a lot of resistance.  I was inspired to write this post partly because of an e-mail that my mother forwarded to me.  She had received a virulently homophobic message from an old friend of hers, and she took the courageous step of responding with this message:

“I wonder how many of the people you sent this to are gay or have a child or brother or sister or close friend who is gay.  How would you like to live in a world in which it would be illegal to be heterosexual, let alone get married?  How would you like the government coming into your bedroom and telling you how you can and cannot have sexual relations?  What kind of spiritual love, or the religion that has come to you since your healing, encompasses and encourages this kind of reactionary response to others who are trying to express love in the only way that feels right to them?  Gays aren’t trying to tell us to stop heterosexual love, why is it right for us to tell them they can’t express their love?  Perhaps you think it is a choice to be homosexual.  I don’t.  I also don’t think it is productive to try to make people hate themselves for what they are, unless they are doing something to hurt others.  I don’t see gays trying to do anything to hurt others, but rather just trying to live their lives in peace.  Live and let live.  Life is too short and too precious to feel hate.  For your own sake, please try to recognize that you can disagree without the negative emotions.  Those hurt you as well as others.  This world needs more love, not less.”

How often do we just “let it slide” when a friend of ours says something that offends us?  I think it is often more difficult to confront someone that we care about than to respond to anonymous “others.”  The person who had written the original message wrote back to her saying she had “lost her Midwest values.”  Well, if hate is a Midwest value, then good for her!

I also don’t understand why the anti-gay movement gets so much support by Christian churches.  What happened to “thou shalt not judge?”  Is there an 11th commandment that says “Thou shalt hate others for who they are?”  I don’t understand how spreading hate is a Christian value.  As my mother wrote in her message, “This world needs more love, not less.”

Homosexuals WILL Win Their Rights

The world is inexorably marching towards civil rights and equality for more people.  There are occasional steps backwards, like the case of the rights of homosexuals here in Uganda, but overall progress is being made.  Ugandans are intelligent people, and there will come a time when they say “I can’t believe there was a time when it was illegal to be gay,” just like it is hard to believe it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person in parts of the United States a mere 40 years ago.

In the meantime, though, homosexuals are being attacked, beaten and threatened here as they struggle for their right to live.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


Florida Church Promotes “Burn a Koran Day”

7 09 2010
Dove World Outreach Center

Image from Dove World Outreach Center

There is an evangelical Christian church in Florida that is planning to burn copies of the Koran to commemorate 9-11.  How stupid can you get?

I suppose they are trying to make a statement.  They are trying to let the world know that “hey, we are a bunch of bigoted, closed-minded buttheads, and we really want to escalate the amount of hatred and violence in the world.”

I am happy to see that the National Association of Evangelicals has spoken out against the planned demonstration, and even General Patraeus has asked the Dove World Outreach Center not to do it, as it is already making things harder for our troops in Afghanistan.

Come on, people, what do you really think you will gain from this action?  Is this going to lessen the possibility of future terrorist attacks?  Is it going to fix the damaged relationship between Islam and Christianity or between the Muslim world and the Western world?  Is it going to bring more people into the Christian fold?

The minister, Terry Jones, says of Islam “to me it looks like a religion of the devil.”  There is absolutely nothing positive that could ever come out of an action like burning the holy book of any religion.  And if you are not trying to do positive things in the world then maybe…just maybe…you are doing the Devil’s work yourself.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Why Do Ugandans Hate Trees?

5 08 2010
Cutting down trees

Tree outside my driveway

The buzz of chainsaws is ringing in my ears as I write this.  I live in Kampala, next door to a large lot that was a school up until about a month ago, lush with big trees and flowering bushes.  The trees are frequent hosts to numerous falcons, weavers, turacos, gonaleks and many other birds, in addition to countless butterflies and lizards.  I have always envied the green shadiness of those school grounds when I compare it to the sparse compound in which I live.

But recently the mzungus who ran the school moved out, and within just a few weeks, the chainsaws have decimated most of what once lived on those beautiful grounds.

I just assumed that everyone living in my compound would feel the same distress I was feeling.  How could you not mourn the loss of life as you gaze at the piles of branches and stumps and stare at the ugly, bare chain-link fence that was once mercifully covered in bougainviller flowers?

But most of the people in my compound are Ugandans, and as I started to ask them how they felt about this, over and over I heard “Oh, finally it looks nice there!”  “Those mzungus didn’t know how to keep a compound!”  “It’s good that they are finally improving that place.”

This is happening all over Kampala.  When I was living here in ’04-’05, right behind my house was

Where once there was forest...

a small but lush½-acre forest backing up onto a papyrus marsh.  I used to walk there every morning, and recorded over 70 bird species on that small piece of land.  It was also a safe haven for side-striped jackals who were remarkably still surviving in the city.  When I returned for a visit in 2007, nearly every tree was gone.  To add insult to injury, the forest was cleared to make way for something that will be ironically named “Forest Village Botanical Garden” if they ever finish it.  If you want to market yourself based on the idea of a forest, why not just leave the forest there in the first place?

And this isn’t an issue of poor people cutting trees to have firewood so they can eat.  The man who owns the compound next to me right now seems to own half the neighborhood.

Beyond my own selfish desire to have more trees around me, this is a city that needs trees and their ability to filter pollution out of the air, reduce flooding and moderate the heat that sometimes makes it unbearable to walk around Kampala.  Paul Theroux, in his book Dark Star Safari, writes about Kampala in the 1960s when it was famous for its streets lined with flowering trees.  Those trees all seem to be long gone.

Uganda is losing most of its natural forest cover.  A lot of money is being spent in the rural areas to replant native trees, plant mono-culture woodlots for firewood, and improve regulation and enforcement to reduce illegal logging.  But what about in the urban areas?  We need trees here, too, but I am not aware of any efforts to plant trees in the cities or even to protect the ones that already exist.  There are, remarkably, some very large, old trees remaining in Kampala.  We need laws to protect those trees, and we need education to let people know why trees are important in cities.

Kampala is still a relatively green city, but how long will that last?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

What if it was my son?

21 06 2010

I haven’t written here in a while because I have had too much to say…and no idea how to say it.  Two weeks ago I was in Gulu in northern Uganda visiting ex-child-soldiers in a World Vision center.  These are young men who escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army in the last few months and made their way back to Uganda from Congo.

Hearing their stories was heartbreaking.  I have heard and read many similar stories, but it was different hearing it directly from the boys who were involved.  Seeing their scars made it all the more real.  One young man, who had been in captivity for almost 15 years, showed where he had been shot through the back when he was 9 years old.  The scar on his belly from the exit wound was massive.  Nine years old.

One thought has been running through my head ever since.  What if it was my son?

Of course my son, at only 4 years old, would not have been useful to the rebels.  He would have been killed on the spot when the LRA came to raid the village.

I believe that many of us in the West put an emotional distance between ourselves and conflicts like this around the world.  We read statistics about child deaths and read about child soldiers in remote places, but we try to make it seem not so bad.  “They are used to it ‘over there.’”  “They have a lot of children because some of them will likely die, so parents ‘over there’ don’t get as attached to their kids.”  It isn’t that we believe these things, it’s just that we can’t allow ourselves to enter the pain.

Ever since meeting these boys in Gulu, I’ve been forcing myself to imagine it.  To explore the question of “what if it was my son?”  I hate every minute of it, and I can only do it for a few minutes at a time before I have to stop.  I try to imagine those last few minutes of seeing him taken away from me with nothing I can do about it – my ultimate responsibility of protecting my son taken out of my reach.  Then the terrible time of knowing he is out there, somewhere, experiencing all the things I have heard about but never wanted to imagine.  Young, scared, and alone.

Tens of thousands of children around the world are taken from their parents every year, whether to be used as soldiers, sex slaves or worse, and the grief those parents feel must be excruciating.  Because we are all parents, because we are all human, I feel like I owe it to them to feel the pain, even if only for a few minutes at a time and even if it is only a shadow of what they feel.  I know how lucky I am.  When I come back from the depths, I get to hold my son and feel the relief wash over me.  They don’t.

There is a lot we can do to fight against this problem.  We can encourage our government to stop supporting regimes like the one in Somalia that uses child soldiers.  We can research the sources of our clothes and other products to make sure they aren’t the products of child slavery.  We can stop visiting the red-light districts in Thailand or Cambodia “just out of curiosity.”  We can inform others that this issue is real, and that child slavery is happening in nearly every country around the world (yes, even in the United States thousands of adults and children are sold into slavery every year).

At the very least, when we hear or read about these issues, we can stop and take a moment to really feel deeply how terrible this crime is for everybody involved.   It is nice to be insulated from the horrors happening in the world, but sometimes it is more important to try to feel what the real people behind the news reports are living through.  Because if we deeply feel it, we are more likely to do something about it.

Learn more:

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

A Thought for Beauty

19 05 2010

Kidepo Valley Morning

“We should do our utmost to encourage the Beautiful, for the Useful encourages itself.”
–  Goethe

It seems callous to talk about the value of beauty in a country where so many are struggling just to survive.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs rules out appreciation of beauty until a person’s more basic needs (food, water, shelter) are satisfied.  However, how long can you wait to focus on preserving beauty until it is all gone?

Writing in the 1970’s, Freeman Tilden, the “father” of National Park interpretation in the United States, could have been sending a warning to the Uganda of today.  He saw the natural beauty of the country in decline.  In an essay titled Vistas of Beauty, he pointed out that “we know what ugliness is, and the processes that create it.  In the haste to gain material welfare we have forgotten, or chosen to forget; and the bill has now come due.”

Uganda is proud of its natural beauty.  Catch phrases like “Pearl of Africa” and “Gifted by Nature” give voice to this pride.  But is Uganda forgetting its natural heritage in its “haste to gain material welfare?”  Allowing oil development in the National Parks is in direct contradiction to the whole purpose of having a national park.  The visions of wealth are blurring the visions of beauty.  Both inside and outside the park boundaries, the face of Uganda is about to change dramatically, and I wonder if people are thinking about the deeper psychological results those changes will bring.

Oil is useful.  Therefore, if Goethe is correct, it will “encourage itself” and doesn’t need outspoken advocates.  Beauty, however, needs voices speaking loud and clear from the rooftops to remind people that it has value, too, and that it is under assault.

“…our preserved places of natural beauty and memorials of the historic past [can’t] prosper and remain inspirational if they become islands in an environment of sanctioned ugliness.”

The proponents of oil development in Uganda’s national parks argue that the potential benefits of the oil revenues outweigh any negative impacts on wildlife, tourism, or the communities in the areas where the drilling is happening.  The concept of loss of beauty never even makes it into the conversation.  Should it?  Does beauty have value in this equation?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

An Eye for an Eye, A Head for a Pig

17 05 2010

The website UGPulse just ran this headline:

Uganda People News: Residents Behead Pig Thief in Kayunga

I wasn’t shocked by the headline.  That’s disturbing in itself.  A headline like this should always be a shock.

My home in the U.S. is a small island in Washington State near Seattle.  It feels a bit like a village.  If the Bainbridge Review ran a headline “Islander Beheaded by Crowd after Allegedly Stealing Neighbor’s Pig,” it would have sent a chill down my spine and changed my view of the island forever.  But my reaction to the article in UGPulse was “Huh.  Here we go again.”

Vigilante justice is a big thing here in Uganda.  There are frequent reports about thieves on the streets of Kampala being killed by a crowd, and it is recommended that if you hit a pedestrian with your car you should keep driving to the nearest police station to report the incident, as the bystanders might attack you if you stop.  I have seen crowds chasing someone down the street with a sinking feeling in my gut, just hoping they will make it to a police station to turn themselves in before the mob gets them.

There are any number of problems with vigilante justice.  The response, as in this case of the pilfered pig, is often outlandishly disproportional.  It bypasses any type of “due process.”  I could potentially point to a random person in a crowd and yell “THIEF!” and the crowd could pounce.  It also perpetuates the notion that violence is the best, or at least an acceptable, solution to conflicts between people.

Beyond these issues, what I often wonder when I read reports about vigilante justice, is why. Why can a group of people so quickly turn into a mob?  Why are people who have no personal stake in a situation so ready to kill someone for an offence that may or may not have even happened?

I can think of a few possible answers to the question of why:

1.  People have no faith in the legal system here.  This is understandable.  There are many criminals walking free who had enough money to pay off the arresting officer or the judge, or who had some useful family connections.  I believe this causes a deep-rooted frustration on the part of honest people who feel like justice will not be done through proper channels, so they take it upon themselves to deliver the punishment.  When we feel powerless, we look for ways to have control again.

2.  There is a deep-seated societal anger looking for an outlet.  This could come from a number of sources; poverty, trauma, violence in one’s own past, etc.  When there is no socially acceptable way to process this anger (therapists are not terribly widespread here), I think (in my thoroughly untrained opinion) it can become generalized and cause people to lash out at any opportunity.  Uganda has certainly had its share of violence in the past 40 years, and there has been a general policy of not opening up old wounds (for more on this, read The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget).

3.  Actually, I can’t think of a #3.  If there is a #3, I have a feeling it is just a variation on #2.  Referring to the post-election violence in Kenya in ’07-’08, I have heard many Africans saying they weren’t surprised.  Even though Kenya was perceived as a bastion of stability in East Africa, people knew there was a seething division between tribes that was going to come out eventually.  The elections opened the pressure-valve.

When I dive into the meaning of mob justice in Uganda, it is like thinking about a family member with split-personality disorder.  I love Uganda, and have never been to a country with warmer, friendlier people than Ugandans.  I feel safer in Kampala than in almost any city in the U.S.  And then you hear about villagers beheading somebody for maybe stealing a pig.

If it was just this one incident, I could write it off.  Messed-up stuff happens everywhere, and Uganda is certainly not the only place where mob justice is commonplace.  But this is where I live, so this is the place I think about, and it happens often enough here that it feels like part of an outlook on the world.

I would be interested to hear other thoughts on why this happens, particularly from any Ugandans reading this.  I also have a healthy dose of cynicism about human nature, and would be interested to hear thoughts on why it doesn’t happen more often, either here or elsewhere in the world.  Would vigilante justice be more prevalent in the U.S. if people weren’t afraid of getting caught and punished for taking matters into their own hands?  If violence is part of our nature, what keeps it in check, and what are the triggers that release it?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder

9 03 2010

Last night I dreamed that I was put into prison for a crime I didn’t commit.  I was filled with sadness not just for the life I was leaving, but the life that I would never get to live.

In the developed world, in addition to our material luxuries, we are blessed with stability and predictability.  Our governments do not change through coups, we generally don’t have rebel groups operating within our borders, and our children usually make it to adulthood.  Much of the world does not live with such a sense of security.

I woke up thinking about Uganda, and everything the people here have been through.  The older people can remember colonial rule, two reigns of Milton Obote, Idi Amin’s terror and the horrific activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army.  On top of that, how many children and grandchildren have they lost to malaria or other illnesses?  And it is not just in the past.  In the last ten years, how many have lost homes, lives or livelihoods to one or another rebel group, political regime or natural disaster like the mudslides in Mbale last week?

What does it do to one’s psyche to live in a perpetual state of insecurity?  To feel like you can’t count on having any future, much less one of your own designing?  The phrase that came into my head this morning was “pre-traumatic stress disorder.”  This term gained some traction last year in relation to Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who went on a shooting rampage after receiving orders to deploy to Afghanistan.

I have no doubt that I would be a little freaked out, too, if I knew I had 30 days before I would be sent into a death trap like Afghanistan.  Who knows what I might do?  But at least I would have a specific date and event to process.  What about people who have to live day to day with the idea that something might happen?  Or, more accurately, people who have little reason to think that something won’t happen because so many things already have?

I am not saying that the unexpected doesn’t happen everywhere.  Sadly, and ironically, in the middle of writing this entry, I received an e-mail telling me that a friend just died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.  In gang-ridden cities throughout the United States, mothers send their kids off to school and pray to see them again at the end of the day.  It can happen anywhere.  However, most of us living in the developed world can make plans for our futures, and can envision the adulthood our kids will grow into, without worrying that we are putting too much hope into something that might never come to be.  How might we live differently, and how might we be differently, if that wasn’t the case?  How can we live more compassionately towards those who aren’t so lucky?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala