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Uganda’s trans community turn to wine production and farming in bid to escape poverty

Uganda’s trans community turn to wine production and farming in bid to escape poverty

Uganda Pride Rainbow Mirrors

An LGBTI group in Uganda has turned to a surprising way to raise money; wine production and farming.

Rainbow Mirrors, which operates in central Uganda, was launched in summer 2015. The group’s executive director, Abdul Jamal, aka hajjati, says that most in the group identify as transgender. It also seeks to help people with HIV – a significant problem in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Besides acting as a support network, Rainbow Mirrors organized a performance event for members last December. A second performance, Slaved Up, is already in production for this December.

Art is not the only way it has sought ways to support its members. It is now exploring ways that members can make money.

‘The hardship is more than you can imagine’

Uganda has harsh discriminatory laws for gay people. Same-sex sexual activity is punishable with life imprisonment. An attempt was made in 2013 to introduce the death penalty for gay people and to make it a crime to not report any gay people to the authorities.

That legislation failed, but was instead replaced by life imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.

Earlier this year, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) released a report that documented 264 incidents of LGBT persecution in little over a year. These included violent attacks, torture, arrest, blackmail, press intrusion, termination of employment, harassment, eviction and so-called mob justice.

Recent attempts to hold a Pride parade had to be cancelled after police acted to break up a Mr and Mrs Pride pageant that took place on the evening preceding the main parade.

Arrests were made and one man suffered serious injuries after throwing himself from a fourth floor window to escape arrest.

In a phone call to GSN, Abdul said that the situation for transgender people is ‘complicated’ due to a lack of legal recognition. Many transgender people face discrimination when it comes to employment and wider societal acceptance.

She said that as many gay people choose to live their lives in the closet, transgender people are often the visible face of the LGBT community, making them all the more vulnerable to bigotry. Earning a sustainable living is difficult. Many are forced to turn to sex work.

LGBTI activist and pastor Jide Macaulay is based in London but visited Kampala recently to participate in the Pride events. He saw first-hand how hard life is for local transgender communities.

‘The hardship is more than you can imagine,’ he told GSN. ‘As a community visible not just by choice, it makes violence towards them real.

‘I witnessed police brutality of trans people in the week I was in Uganda. They are treated worst than criminals. On the night of the raid on the night club, the police specifically targeted all trans people. If you don’t look heteronormative you were arrested.’

‘They protect one another, they share everything: from the mattresses lying on the floor to the little food they can afford.’

Writing in this month’s Washington Post, photographer Tomaso Clavarino, who has spent time in Kampala photographing some of its transgender community, painted a vivid picture of the ‘harsh reality’ they face.

‘They live hidden in small, dark, tin huts in the slums in the outskirts of Kampala. They protect one another, they share everything: from the mattresses lying on the floor to the little food they can afford.

‘Kicked out by their families and from school, rejected by their friends and fired from their jobs. They live in fear, beaten, robbed, and raped.’

It’s these people that Rainbow Mirrors exists to help. The group has recently been training some of its members in wine production. It unveiled its first bottles of wine in June.

One of the first bottles of Rainbow Mirrors wine
One of the first bottles of Rainbow Mirrors wine

At the moment, it remains a small-scale project. Abdul says they’ve produced just over 50 bottles, sold at LGBT events around Kampala. She had had hoped to sell bottles at the recent Uganda Pride march, but that plan fell through when the event was cancelled

The group has also taken charge of a small plot of farming land.

‘The farm has six acres of land and we are growing grapes for wine production, and we also have agricultural projects – such as coffee – to try and generate income. We have around 25 members who work on the farm at the moment on weekends. The land was acquired by me from my family, who understand about my gender and identity.’

She says that work on the farm is limited at the moment due to the region’s dryness. The group is trying to raise funds for a bore hole and proper irrigation scheme to get the farm project fully up and running.

‘Radio stations are always calling for community vigilance, to look out for “homos”’

Attempting to farm an arid patch of land some distance from Kampala (Abdul doesn’t wish to say the exact location for security reasons) sounds like an almost impossible and daunting way to find empowerment, but the farm’s existence demonstrates a community united in the face oppression.

As the recent police raid on the Ugandan Pride party demonstrated, that oppression shows no signs of lessening any time soon.

Kamugisha Enock is a campaigner for LGBTI rights and educator in the field of HIV-AIDS prevention in Kampala. He says that around 95% of LGBTI people in Uganda live life in the closet, but this can be harder for trans people, ‘since they can be easily spotted.’

He says that the recent trouble at Uganda Pride has proved a set back.

‘The situation had started to improve after the nullified law which called for the death penalty. But then the recent raid on the pride beauty and cultural events pushed the whole situation back again.

‘Everyone is back in the closet. Activists are heartbroken. The media, the church and state are suggesting to resurrect the law. FM radio stations are always calling for community vigilance, to look out for “homos”.’

‘Everyone is scared again.’

Rev. Jide Macaulay of the House of Rainbow
Rev. Jide Macaulay of the House of Rainbow

Jide Macaulay agrees that the police raid on Pride proved a set back for gay and trans people in the country.

‘I saw a set of happy people one day and I saw a different set of people after the raid. I witnessed the abuses and I was broken by what I witnessed. But LGBTIQ Ugandans are fighters and will continue to campaign for their rights.

‘We must find ways as a global community to support them.’