“This can only get better”: gay rights bloggers in East Africa

For a class this semester, I wrote an article on gay rights bloggers in (mostly East) Africa. Since so many of them are blogren or connected to the blogren, I thought I’d share it with you. If you know of other gay rights bloggers in the area (or if you happen to be one yourself), especially women, please let me know in the comments — I’m putting together a new Google Reader list.

Dr. James Nsaba Buturo

Uganda is the only country in the world whose cabinet includes a Minister of Ethics and Integrity. The position is currently held by Dr. James Nsaba Buturo, who has been charged with developing and coordinating the implementation of a national anti-corruption policy. Instead, Dr. Buturo has chosen to focus his political career on what he considers a much greater threat: homosexuality.

Dr. Buturo responded to a recent United Nations statement on sexual orientation and gender identity by accusing the UN, UNICEF, Amnesty International and a host of other international organizations of promoting an “abnormal, unhealthy, unnatural” lifestyle in Uganda. Sadly, he is not alone: in the last five years, a number of African governments have become more vocal against homosexuality, with many enacting harsher punishments for gays and lesbians. However, a group of Africans is fighting back.

Using nothing more than a computer and an Internet connection as their weapons, Africa’s gay and lesbian bloggers have begun to speak out against the discrimination they face. Spread throughout the continent and connecting online, they provide a safe, anonymous community for African homosexuals, as well as a forum for criticizing draconian government policies against homosexuality.

Gay Nairobi Man, a Kenyan who uses a pseudonym to avoid having his sexuality discovered by his family and employers, has been blogging about gay rights issues in Africa since March 2006. In that time his blog, Rants and Raves of a Gay Kenyan Man, has received over 30,000 visitors from 170 countries.

“I had a very tough time dealing with my sexuality and only came out to myself in my late twenties,” he writes in an e-mail. “I felt that I should demystify the Kenyan gay man and show another side of a gay person who loves life, is successful and is in a monogamous loving relationship. I also wanted to retain my anonymity, and blogging was the only way I could do that.”

The anonymity of the Internet is a major draw for African gay rights activists. Consensual homosexual conduct is punishable by up to 14 years in prison in Kenya; in Uganda, convicted gays and lesbians can spend life in prison. In other countries, punishments are even more harsh. Last May, the president of Gambia gave gays and lesbians 24 hours to leave the country or face “serious consequences.” And in the 12 states of Nigeria subject to Sharia law, homosexuality is punishable by death.

“I guard my anonymity. Very jealously,” says a Kampala-based blogger known as Gay Uganda. “My anonymity is the biggest and best shield protecting me in Uganda,” where last week two men were followed home and arrested after several people saw them kissing in a bar and reported them to the local police.

Gays and lesbians in much of Africa live in constant fear of being outed. Tamaku, who blogs at Diary of a Gay Kenyan, writes, “Kenya has a past of being a brutal police state…and due to corruption you don’t know who to trust.” In September 2007, the Red Pepper, a daily Ugandan newspaper, published a list of suspected homosexuals, along with their workplaces and home addresses. Many of those on the list suffered threats, discrimination and even physical attacks after the list was printed.

The source of such pervasive homophobia is difficult to pin down, but many Africans who are opposed to homosexuality claim that same-sex relationships are a Western invention. This idea is often supported by governments: multiple African leaders, including the former presidents of both Kenya and Namibia, have labeled homosexuality “against African tradition” and “alien to African culture.” Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, has gone so far as to call it a “white disease.”

While these views are often widely supported by the public, they are not necessarily accurate. Decades- and even centuries-old traditions involving same-sex relationships have been documented in multiple cultures and ethnic groups throughout the continent, including the Meru of Kenya, the Maale of Ethiopia and the Mossi of Burkina Faso.

“I went to school in Europe, and I have tried to explain to people that I always knew I was gay long before my sojourn into the west,” says Gay Nairobi Man. Still, he and other gay bloggers often receive e-mails or comments on their blogs accusing them of receiving funding from Western organizations in exchange for promoting a gay agenda in Africa.

Demonstrator at August 2007 anti-gay rally in Kampala. Photo by Rebekah Heacock.

While thousands of dollars are indeed pouring into Africa from Western organizations focused on homosexuality, the majority of this money is funding anti-gay rights activities. Earlier this year Uganda held a four day “anti-homosexuality seminar” sponsored by Defend the Family International, an American organization devoted to “gay recovery.” Representatives from Defend the Family spoke to over 10,000 people at school and churches in Kampala. They also visited Parliament, where they met with nearly 100 senior government officials.

In contrast, when Uganda’s largest gay rights organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), held a press conference in August 2007 demanding recognition from the government, participants wore masks. “I do wish we gay people had the money and the ability to organize like these guys have accused us of being. I mean, it would just be fair, you know!” writes Gay Uganda on his blog.

Supakoja, a gay man who blogs under a pseudonym at AfroGay, compares SMUG’s funding to the money Ugandan anti-homosexual activist Martin Ssempa receives from a conservative American organization: “While SMUG is a local Ugandan organization with only peripheral foreign support from gay individuals and organizations, Martin Ssempa’s entire anti-homosexual…campaign is funded from Denver, Colorado,” he writes.

Despite the inequities in funding, Africa’s gay bloggers are doing what they can to promote gay rights offline as well as through their writing. Tamaku regularly petitions European Union officials, asking them to work with Kenyan authorities to increase protections for Kenyan gays and lesbians, and Gay Nairobi Man has collaborated with several people he met through his blog to sponsor the education of two Kenyan boys who were abandoned by their families after coming out as gay.

This kind of action – a blend of online and offline activism – is what makes bloggers such a strong force for gay rights in Africa. The ability to express their thoughts freely on the Internet, where the threat of being outed is considerably less intense, is enabling gay Africans to be more vocal about the oppression they face and making it easier connect with like-minded individuals.

To be sure, the recent government crackdowns on the gay community are worrying. Still, African gay rights bloggers believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. “The very act of writing about how I feel makes me feel a bit of the freedom,” says Gay Uganda.

“We are seeing a strong generation of gay men in their teens and early twenties who are not afraid to come out and demand their rights to be recognized,” writes Gay Nairobi Man in a recent e-mail. “This can only get better.”

Sylvester & Abramz on BoingBoing

My favorite Ugandan hip hop/breakdancing duo made BoingBoing yesterday as part of a post on Diamonds in the Rough, a documentary about Uganda’s awesome socially and politically active hip hop scene.

The film has been out for a while, and its director, Brett Mazurek, was profiled in 2006 by UGPulse. The site also has an excellent introduction to East African hip hop (Uganda’s at the bottom) and an interview with Sylvester & Abramz, whose song Lemerako is featured in the film’s trailer.

Check it out:

In defense of the blogren

Glenna at Uganda’s Scarlett Lion posted yesterday, wondering why the majority of Ugandan bloggers write about things other than politics:

But where have all the political blogs gone? There’s this one, but that’s also a newspaper column, or this one, not updated frequently, or this one that’s not by a Ugandan, and some others that are more general to Africa and not specific to Uganda.

Or were polticial blogs never there in the first place? There’s plenty of thoughts on boda bodas, Big Brother Africa, the bad weather Kampala’s been having lately, being broke, and other aspects of life in Uganda that certainly aren’t apolitical, but they aren’t exactly government budgets and school fires either.

My experience in Uganda has been that expat bloggers are the ones writing about politics, while Ugandan bloggers write more about their daily lives. As Glenna pointed out, this isn’t always true — in addition to the bloggers she mentioned, Tumwijuke at Ugandan Insomniac often writes about current events. But for the most part, for every political post you find, there will be fifty more about romantic escapades or beautiful Sunday mornings in Kampala. Commenting on Glenna’s post, Antipop explains:

To be honest with you most of us come to blogger to escape from it all. The fires, the term limits, the land wrangles, GAVI funds, presidential jet, potholes, fuel prices, press freedom, FDC, NRM,…it is everywhere you turn. the papers, the radio, tv, in the bar, even the woman that sells cassava roots in the market will have something to say about how the soaring prices have everything to do with a MUNYANKOLE president. the last thing you wnat to do is come to blogger and find it. I guess we are just tired. There is only so much whinning we can do.

As an author for Global Voices, a site that aims to “aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online,” I admit to getting frustrated when something (like the ICC charges against Sudanese president al-Bashir) happens and Ugandans — who, as Glenna points out, are among the most affected, given that what happens in Sudan could have major repercussions for the case against Joseph Kony and his commanders — say nothing.

At the same time, the mission of GV isn’t to aggregate, curate and amplify just the political conversation online. As I understand it, GV is a bridge between the part of the world that’s constantly connected to BBC and CNN and the part of the world that’s not. If that bridge only includes politics, which often means stories of violence, corruption and election fraud, GV and its readers are missing out on a huge part of life in the countries we claim to represent.

One of the most important things to come of out last month’s
Global Voices Summit is that the political voices aren’t the only ones that need to be amplified. Cultural and social voices are equally important to an understanding of other places, and several recent posts attempt to present readers with a more nuanced view of countries that are only discussed internationally when a crisis brings them to our attention. I still get frustrated when something of political importance goes unnoticed by the blogren, but I think the bloggers who are using their blogs to write novellas or talk about public transportation play an valuable role in transmitting information about Uganda to the rest of the world.

GVO Uganda: (No longer) lost in translation

My next post is up at Global Voices Online:

A little over a year ago, Ugandan blogger Country Boyi wondered why Ugandans weren’t blogging in local languages. He wrote:

The power of indigenous languages to infiltrate the thinking of the local people cannot be underestimated.

[…]Do bloggers, like other writers, have a major stake in the development of writing and reading materials in the local languages, and what is in it for them considering the Ugandan society pays little attention to the written word?

The majority of Ugandan bloggers have yet to write in languages other than English, perhaps because four distinct language families, each with multiple languages, are represented in the country. Over the last year, however, several of Uganda’s blogren have forayed into the world of local-language blogging via Luglish, a blend of English and Luganda. Luganda is the local language most commonly spoken in central Uganda, including the capital city Kampala.

Read more»

Featured in this post are Dennis of Country Boyi, Tumwi of Ugandan Insomniac, Seamless, Fresh Apples, Buttercookie, Paige and Phil of AndersonBowen and Chris Mason of Caked in Red Clay.