Today is an important celebration in Uganda – the day Christians remember the Uganda Martyrs. And people from around the world are flocking to the shrine in Namugongo.
The town in southern Uganda is where thirty-two young men, pages of the court of King Mwanga II of Buganda, were burned to death on 3 June 1886 for their refusal to renounce Christianity.
But what fewer people know is the pages had turned down King Mwanga’s homosexual advances on them. (Learn more about Africa and Uganda’s LGBTI history here.)
Anyone in their right mind would totally condemn Mwanga for murdering those who opposed his views and refused his sexual approaches. At the same time, everyone should reject the Biblical adage of ‘an eye for an eye’. So those claiming to be God’s representatives on earth should condemn any act of aggression towards LGBTI people in Uganda.
Today’s message as we remember the Uganda Martyrs should be love and equality for all, not hatred. Because today also marks the anniversary of the introduction of homophobia in Uganda, and a condemnation of a traditional African way of life.
Homosexuality was widely practiced and accepted in Uganda prior to the arrival of the religious missionaries and long before the reign of King Mwanga. Indeed homosexuality can be traced back to mankind’s earliest history.
The 1880s saw an influx of religious missionaries to Uganda. They brought not just a message of their god’s love, but a condemnation of many traditional African practices and norms as they tried to impose their authority – including homosexuality.
Not everything they did was negative. They improved education and health care and they provided for the poor among other things. Religion certainly brought hope but it also inspired extreme hatred.
Their years of teaching hate to LGBTI people made indigenous Africans believe gays are some sort of aliens from a foreign land and deserve to be eliminated from our communities.
The missionaries also laid foundation for the colonialists and imperialists, in this case the United Kingdom. It is British law which first criminalized homosexuality in Uganda.
Ugandans believe so much in the preservation of their cultures and traditional values. They have been made to believe homosexuality is un-African. That is a lie. In fact, Africa’s cultural leaders should be leading the charge against anti-LGBTI hatred, rather than be in the vanguard of promoting that hate.
Homophobia in Uganda will exist as long as people believe what the religious leaders preach to them. In Uganda today there are more churches than libraries, more rich pastors than teachers. Homophobia is on the rise. There are many things the extreme religious leaders claim to be condemned by the Bible, like adultery and abuse of women – but it is well documented most of them do not practice what they preach.
The arrival of the likes of Scot Lively and other extreme evangelicals to Uganda from America has renewed and energized homophobia in Uganda. Without the Western missionaries, both old and new, it is quite possible the present Anti Homosexuality Act would never have been even imagined.
And it doesn’t seem to matter which religion is promoted – somehow the extremists always get the upper hand. So it is the duty of the educated, enlightened religious moderates and liberals – of which there are many around the world, including at the very top of religious establishments – to hold the extremists back. Sadly their influence appears to be short lived.
It is well clear religion influences the way politicians and the general public behaves in Uganda and at the same time inspires the laws of the land, notably that Anti Homosexuality Act. In our society, politicians can be questioned but religious leaders are not.
The government knows that people believe so much in their religious leaders that as long as they side with them, they have impunity. They can then use their religious credentials to influence people to vote for them.
Add to this that the new wave of evangelical preachers in Uganda have amassed great wealth, meaning many people yearn to be evangelical preachers.
Religion has evolved to permeate more of Ugandan society. Previously preaching was confined to churches and schools. Today street preachers are louder than musicians – many putting their fight against homosexuality at the top of their agenda.
If the same effort was put in to eliminating poverty by religious leaders, I can’t help feeling Uganda would be a rich and prosperous nation. It is sad they focus on hate rather than improving people’s lives.
The Ugandans in the diaspora can do a lot to influence the fight against homophobia in Uganda. But in some countries, including the UK, they are also being influenced by evangelical missionaries, including the same American churches pushing the ongoing homophobia in Uganda. Homophobia is crossing borders.
So we need religious leaders to show moral leadership – to stand up for LGBTI people. The fight for LGBTI rights in Uganda should start with religion.
Edwin Sesange is Ugandan and director of the Africa Out and Proud LGBTI Diamond Group. Photo of the Namugongo shrine by Isabelle Prondzynski.