Monday, May 31, 2010

Meddling Without Understanding in Africa

Last year, a group of American evangelists went to Uganda and convinced leaders there that homosexuals had a plot to change the laws and customs of their country to promote homosexual behavior and presumably turn heterosexuals into homosexuals. Such overblown fears don’t really take root in America, which is more tolerant of behavior many people feel is not in line with the majority’s views. We fulminate in letters to the editor, cable debates, protests and the like. Some go farther, but at heart, Americans don’t really believe in killing people whose sexual preferences differ from their own. Such is not necessarily the case in Africa.

Sexuality in Africa is not a subject that is usually publicly debated or discussed. Most traditional African societies do not accept homosexuality, but because African homosexuals haven’t historically tried to push their views into the open, little is usually done about it. I have seen homosexuals in African countries, and from what
I have witnessed, they are tolerated as people in the community who are different, but who don’t make an issue of their variance from the norm.

Unfortunately, there are two strains of activists in America and other industrial countries that make African homosexuality a phenomenon that will no longer be quietly tolerated. One strain is the conservative activists who oppose homosexuality anywhere and believe in a homosexual agenda that seeks to change society toward its image. The activist homosexual community in America may indeed be seeking to change the way our society views them. However, the clash of ideas here and in other Western countries remains mostly non-violent. If you take that confrontational view to Africa, though, the consequences can be much more dire.

The Ugandan parliament is considering legislation that would punish homosexual behavior with harsh punishment, up to and including the death penalty. It also would punish with jail time those who decline to report homosexual behavior. Ugandans, stirred by the thought of homosexuals taking over their society, reacted swiftly and harshly to the threat evangelists told them was before them. The Americans should have sought to better understand African society before rushing to the “rescue” of societies of which they had no working knowledge.

Subsequently, the Zimbabwe government, not known as a tolerant society under President Robert Mugabe, arrested two employees of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe. Police claimed to have seized pornographic material and posters insulting Mugabe.

In Malawi, two homosexual men were arrested, tried and sentenced to the maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment for “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” The pair had been arrested in December following a traditional engagement ceremony.

The nature of their arrest points to the other strain of Western activists – those who believe that homosexuals should be equal to heterosexuals in all things and feel they should assert their rights at every public opportunity. This view fails to take into consideration the fact that African beliefs opposing homosexuality are widespread and entrenched, and public actions contradicting these log-held traditions will not be met with the relative tolerance they are in America and other Western nations.

Pushing African homosexuals into the spotlight on the continent is setting them up for treatment foreigners don’t understand. The two men in Malawi have been held at a prison known for its deplorable conditions. Is it fair to subject others to such harsh treatment without understanding what their actions will subject them to? Wouldn’t there be a safer way to press for a change in the African view of homosexuality if that is one’s goal? Direct confrontation in the manner that is done here is more than a non-starter in Africa – it is dangerous for those who pursue that route.

When President Mugabe says he considered gay people as “lower than dogs,” one might find his words despicable, but it should alert anyone hoping to change such attitudes that it wouldn’t be easy to do so and that trying to provoke the regime carries danger.

Here in America, even those who oppose homosexual marriage and equality in all matters for gay people do not accept their mistreatment. When the Ugandan law surfaced, some of the country’s officials were surprised to learn that some of their evangelical and conservative allies in America reacted strongly against what they were considering. Such is not necessarily the case in Africa by and large.

Homosexuals who attempt to imitate confrontational tactics used in America find themselves on their own. Newspapers and television stations, often government-controlled, do not wage campaigns aimed at supporting their cause. Leaders otherwise known for their support for democratic principles, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, have public expressed their opposition to homosexuality. Given their views and those of many of their countrymen, which other African leaders do you suppose would speak out in favor of homosexual rights?

Pushing Africans in one direction or another on the sensitive issue of homosexuality requires a better understanding of the social environment in African countries. Otherwise, the consequences for those so influenced can be dangerous and counter-productive.

1 comment:

  1. Very good write, but I will beg to disagree with you on the use of the word "Traditional belief" as in regards to Homosexuality in Africa. While you have done a great job reflecting on the key issues the two movements from the west, and I mean the evangelicals and the gay rights movement have caused in Africa, you have done no justice by using the word traditional belief as being antagonistic of Homosexuality in Africa. The hatred towards LGBT people in Africa has not been by people that practice traditional beliefs system, but by people that have been converted from this beautiful movement to either Islam or Christianity. And by the British colonial laws that prohibits Homosexuality in Africa.

    As a traditionalist and a gay man, I believe that you have not done your home work very well in regards to traditional belief system and homosexuality in Africa.