Same-sex relations in Africa and the debate on homosexuality in East African Anglicanism
The 1998 Lambeth Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion was dominated by the issue of homosexuality. A feature of the debate, which took many British and Americans participants by surprise, was the lively contribution made by African bishops. Those who looked for a definitive Anglican statement against homosexuality were heartened by the vigorous condemnation of homosexual practice made by the East and West African bishops. Their clear and unambiguous position was unfavourably compared with the divisions and ambiguities of the churches in the North, not least among the leadership. Conversely, those who were looking for more tolerant and welcoming attitudes to homosexuals were dismayed at the intervention of the African bishops, feeling either that they did not understand the dimensions of the debate as it has emerged in secular, industrialised societies, or that the Africans had been co-opted by the financial clout of conservative American groups. This argument could easily assume an offensively patronising tone. African bishops naturally resented any notion that they were acting as puppets of western lobbies. One Ugandan bishop has spoken1 of bullying tactics during the Conference by liberal American groups. It certainly appears that aggressive lobbying from both sides at the Conference made rational debate and mature conclusions extremely difficult to achieve.
In the period since Lambeth 1998, East African bishops have continued to contribute to the debate. They have demonstrated their determination that the Lambeth resolutions on the incompatibility of homosexual practice with biblical teaching and Christian discipleship be strictly interpreted and adhered to. Three East African primates (Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, Donald Mtetemela of Tanzania and David Gitari of Kenya) were signatories of a letter to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America expressing alarm that the Church in America might be willing to countenance actions “at variance with what was resolved at Lambeth” and of the impairment of communion which would result.2 In January 2000, two Rwandan bishops, Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini and the Bishop of Shyira, John Rucahana, had joined with Archbishop Moses Tay in Singapore in the consecration of two conservative American Episcopalians as bishops to serve those American congregations disaffected with the -liberal” establishment of their Church, particularly on issues of sexuality.3 In June 2000 two retired Ugandan bishops, Howell Davies (formerly Bishop of Karamoja) and Eustace Kamanyire (recently retired as Bishop of Ruwenzori), intervened in a dispute in the Worcester diocese in England by accepting the invitation to confirm a number of candidates presented by the minister of a church in Kidderminster. The Revd Charles Raven had broken off relations with his diocesan bishop (Peter Selby of Worcester) because, he alleged, the bishop refused to endorse the Lambeth declaration on the incompatibility of homosexual practices and Christian morality.4 On 24 June 2001 the Rwandan bishops participated in the consecration, in Denver, Colorado, of four Bishops for the Anglican Mission in America.5 All these incidents serve to reinforce the perception that the issue of homosexuality is non-negotiable in many parts of Africa.
This essay will explore African attitudes to male homosexuality.6 It aims both to present something of the diversity and complexity of the phenomenon in Africa and of Christian responses to it, and to urge African churches to initiate and/or continue theological debate in ways which transcend the partisan and polarised positions adopted at the Lambeth Conference, which so seriously vitiated the moral authority of its conclusions. I hope that the article may further serve to increase understanding among Christians from western societies concerning the dimensions of the debate in a non-western cultural milieu. The focus of the article will be on East Africa (particularly Uganda), but with reference to contrasting developments in Southern Africa.7
The Background to the East African Contribution to Lambeth 1998
African bishops had not wanted homosexuality to dominate the Lambeth Conference: issues such as economic injustice and debt remission were of much greater immediate concern to the continent.8 These issues were indeed discussed at Lambeth, but as there was a consensus about the need for debt remission, it was hardly a controversial topic, nor did it generate heated debate. But, if homosexuality came low on their agenda, East African bishops were well aware that it was a controversial issue in the churches of Britain, America and Australasia, and that it was to be featured at Lambeth 1998. For a year or so before the conference, preparatory meetings of bishops were held in various parts of the world, with the intention of providing background material on the major themes of the conference. The organisers of some of these meetings were anxious to mobilise support for conservative positions on the sexuality issue, to ensure that conservatives would not find themselves hopelessly outmanoeuvred by what some feared would be an outspoken and intellectually assertive liberal minority at the Conference. There was a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1997 of Anglicans from provinces outside Britain and North America, which issued a forthright condemnation of homosexual practice. The Archbishop of Uganda had been speaking on the evils of homosexuality in American society on visits to the United States. In the Ugandan diocese of Muhabura the diocesan synod of January 1998, addressing the Lambeth agenda, urged “the World Bank and Western countries to relieve the third world countries of the debt burden before coming to the beginning of the third millennium,” and went on to state that “the Diocese, basing on the culture and Biblical principles, does not support the idea of homosexuality to be recognised by the Christian Church as a divine gift.”9
A few months later, just before the Lambeth Conference itself, in June 1998, a Great Lakes Pre-Lambeth Regional Conference was hosted by the Church of Uganda, with representatives from the Churches in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi. This meeting also addressed the question of international debt, asking for cancellation by year 2000, and urging that those disadvantaged by debt cancellation should be involved in a process of “reconciliation and forgiveness.” The meeting further resolved:
* That the Holy Scriptures are clear in teaching that all sexual deviation and promiscuity is sin. Convinced that this includes homosexual practice as well as heterosexual relationships outside marriage, it is therefore the responsibility of the Church to lead to repentance all those who deviate from the teaching of the Scriptures and live in sin.
* That those people who practice such things, as well as those bishops who ordain them or encourage these practices have automatically cut themselves from the Anglican Communion when they fail to repent.
* However, as the Church, we have a pastoral responsibility to them, loving and counselling them to follow the traditional Biblical teaching on sexual ethics.to
A Connection between Evangelicalism and
Many western liberals are concerned by what they see as a rather facile biblicist stance on the homosexual issue evidenced by the African Church. Margaret Duggan, in an article for The Church Times in connection with the bicentenary of the Church Mission Society (the major Anglican body which evangelised East Africa) wrote:
It was noticed that the harshest attitudes towards homosexuality came from those bishops who represented the traditional CMS countries like Nigeria and Uganda, while the bishops of southern Africa generally spoke with more liberal generosity. “In fact, the debate was not so much about human sexuality as about the use of the Bible,” said one theologian who observed some of the debates: he saw it as involving a fundamentalism that drew on texts out of context. It was, he said, as if the CMS had never passed on an appreciation of the complexity of Anglicanism.11
Michael Nazir-Ali (former General Secretary of CMS and now Bishop of Rochester in England) answered the charge of theological narrowness, noting that some of the most creative and significant theologians of modern Anglicanism have been missionaries of the CMS.12 He did not, however, take up the particular issue of homosexuality, though in other places he has written with some sensitivity about the complexity of the issues.13
Although, in the British context, it is possible to see connections between Church tradition and a hard or soft line towards homosexuality (with Anglo-Catholics likely to be more tolerant and sympathetic than evangelicals) it would be unwise too easily to translate those differences to the Anglican churches of Africa. Certainly, African Anglicanism is much more polarised between broadly catholic and broadly evangelical provinces. Yet, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) and The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), the main Anglican missions which worked in southern Africa, could be just as conservative on matters of Christian doctrine, ethics or the Bible as the CMS tradition of East and West Africa; on marriage issues sometimes more conservative. The difference in response seems much more to do with the different histories of colonialism in these areas, and different contemporary social and political situations. For post-apartheid South Africa, human sexuality is interpreted in the light of the struggle for basic human rights and justice. For the Anglicans of Eastern Africa, where the dominating influence has been that of the Balokole Revival movement,14 the most important issue is often presented as the call for Christians to separate themselves from “the things of the world” (eby’ensi in Luganda) and to lead a transparent life of integrity before one’s creator: “to walk in the light” before God and the Brethren (in Luganda Ab’oluganda-fellow brothers and sisters of the redeemed community). Sexual morality is characterised by a high degree of confusion and instability. Polygamy is not the main issue, but rather casual sexual experimentation by teenagers and transient cohabitation patterns among young adults. In this situation, the call for sexual discipline and abstinence is seen as of paramount importance, not least in the face of AIDS. The HIV/AIDS issue has been a major concern in East Africa since the early 1980s, but it has only just begun to make its impact in Southern Africa. These are as much Roman Catholic as evangelical concerns. The Ugandan Catholic magazine Leadership15 aims for a popular educated readership, particularly targeted towards high school and university students. It has carried articles on Catholic teaching on homosexuality, stressing that such activity is “intrinsically disordered.” Catholic teaching is at one with many evangelical youth networks, such as the Christian Unions. In Uganda their members are strongly Anglican (though many are also members of charismatic or pentecostal groups). 16
Homosexuality and Christianity in Africa:
Some Historical Perspectives
Despite recent attention, homosexuality has not generally been seen as a major issue for Christian churches or society leaders anywhere in Africa. When it is discussed, a range of popular attitudes are forthcoming, symptomatic of an issue about which there is, as yet, no clearly established norm. Sometimes it is described as a non-issue, unknown in traditional Africa, and alien to the deepest instincts of Africa’s life. In the early years of the twentieth century, Arabs were often blamed for introducing homosexual practice into an Africa where it did not exist, since everyone, without exception, was expected to marry and produce children. These views are often presented as generally accepted wisdom, which hardly need substantiation. More recently homosexuality has been stigmatised as a western plague, most notably by President Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But his campaign against gays and lesbians seems to bear more the trademark of western homophobia than of African tradition.17 Significantly, public expressions of affection and tactile contact between members of the same sex are tolerated and esteemed in much of Africa, whereas they would be likely to come under suspicion of homoeroticism in western societies.
In fact, same-sex relations have always been present and, to a limited extent, acknowledged in African societies. Words for homosexual and homosexual activity do exist in African languages,18 But the ohenomenon has not been seen as a distinct and alternative form of sexual being. Same-sex relations exist in a wide variety of contexts and situations, with varying degrees of approbation or disapprobation, but without the essentialising of sexual identity which has been a characteristic of western constructions of homosdexuality in the last hundred years. David Greenburg, in his taxonomy of sexual identity, attempts to characterise homosexual relations in “kinship structured societies” such as Africa, as falling into three broad categories: “transgenerational,” where there is a difference in age between the partners, and the younger adopts a passive role: “transgenderal,” where one of the partners “relinquishes the gender [sexual identity] ordinarily associated wirh his or her anatomical sex” and adopts the roles or dress or habits of the opposite ses; and “egalitarian,” in which partners may be of similar age and gender identity and in which sexual relations have a more reciprocal character.19 This classificatory system has a certain utility for preliminary analysis of the diversity of homosexual practice, but it may not always fit the complexities of the specific empirical reality. The serious study of homosexuality in Africa has been neglected until recently. Older accounts can often be seen as anachronistic ethnographical reports, sometimes with a prurient interest-another instance of the violation of Africa by the colonial gaze. There has been a paucity of “insider” accounts in which Africans speak for themselves.20
Two examples of well-documented homosexual practice from Uganda (in the late nineteenth century) and South Africa (in the early twentieth century) can serve to introduce an understanding of Christian attitudes.
The Uganda Martyrs. Christian missionaries first arrived in precolonial Buganda in 1877. Homosexual practice was part of the culture of the court of the Kabaka (the king). Adolescents were sent in substantial numbers to court by each of the clans of Buganda, as part of the training of future leaders in society. The young men were known as bagalagala (pages).21 On occasion they might be required to participate in homosexual practice; the phenomenon fits into Greenberg’s “transgenerational” category. It was part of a repertoire of power and a culture of deference. Young girls were similarly recruited to be servants and “wives” of the Kabaka and the chiefs. Their exploitation was in fact more severe and more permanent than that of the boys. Enterprising bagalagala graduated to positions of political leadership, and all who reached adulthood would become independent and marry. In 1886 there occurred a massacre of some of the pages who had become Christian converts in the Anglican (“Protestant”) and Catholic missions. The trigger for this purge was the refusal, at the urging of older Christian pages, by one of the youngest boys (aged about 13) to submit to the sexual demands of Kabaka Mwanga, himself a young man of 20. The subsequent holocaust at the execution site of Namugongo became one of the defining events in the early history of Christianity in Uganda. Twenty-two Catholic martyrs were canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1964. A similar number of Protestant martyrs are also held in high esteem by the Church of Uganda.22 But the killings must not be reduced to the single issue of anger at the refusal of a boy to satisfy the homosexual desires of his master. This was, in fact, only one of a whole series of clashes between the Kabaka and the incipient Ugandan Christian communities. Fears that Baganda Christian converts were disloyal and were acting as spies, and that Europeans were poised to undermine the state, were much more important. These were real fears-only four years later, in 1890, the British did in fact inaugurate a series of events which resulted in the liquidation of Buganda’s independence and the establishment of a British protectorate in Uganda. Similar and equally well-founded fears, in this case of Egyptian imperialism, had led to the massacre of Muslim young men some ten years earlier in 1876. In that case the trigger had been the refusal of the young courtiers to eat the Kabaka’s food, because they insisted on following Islamic dietary regulations. The suspicion of disloyalty was the same. Moreover, it should not be thought that the majority of the martyrs, many of whom were adults and some in their 50s, had any connection with homosexual practice, either as reluctant or willing participants before their conversion or heroic refusers afterwards.
In the communal memory of the churches, the homosexual issue has rarely presented itself as the fundamental issue. In this regard I would question the contention of Peter Drucker and John Mburu about “how central anti-gay attitudes have been to East African Protestantism over the past century.”23 More recently, as an open debate on homosexuality has begun to take shape in East Africa, the homosexual element in the story of the martyrs may have become prominent, but this would not be true of any period before the 1990s. A recent popular pamphlet on the Uganda martyrs which I came across not long ago in the Westminster Cathedral bookshop in London spent some time in explaining why Pope Paul VI had not deemed it important to mention this fact in his citation at the canonisation of the Catholic martyrs in 1964.24 Naturally, the silence, in Rome as in Uganda, may have been due to a deep reticence about discussing such an embarrassing topic of human sexuality. It is always difficult convincingly to interpret such arguments from silence. What is clear is that Ugandans have not focused on the homosexual issue in the ways they have recalled and appropriated the story of the martyrs for the life of the Christian community. Rather, political questions of power and the limits of obedience have been fundamental: whether one’s first loyalty is to an earthly, possibly despotic, ruler, or to God, the King of the Universe. During many periods of Uganda’s history (not least during the Amin regime), the martyrs have been applauded for their fearless confrontation with earthly powers. On the other hand, at the time of Uganda’s independence in the early 1960s, Kabaka Mwanga was invoked as a great African patriot who was eventually overthrown by the might of the British Empire, a tragic figure. In contrast, the young Christian converts were castigated for their “unpatriotic” behaviour. 25 At the Anglican college where I worked in the 1970s and 80s, one of the favourite topics for the student sermon on Martyrs’ Day on 3 June was to explore the political questions of conflicting loyalties-faith or nation? There was no lack of ordinands who were willing to express sympathy for Kabaka Mwanga and criticise the young Christians as tools of foreign geo-politics. The homosexual issue was simply not a factor in these debates.26 In 1986 President Yoweri Museveni (an Anglican by upbringing), who had recently assumed power, addressed the assembled crowd at the Anglican shrine at Namugongo. Not only was this the place where the Christian martyrs had been killed a century before, but only a few years before, during the civil war of the 1980s, more killings had occurred.27 Museveni’s theme was that all rulers are responsible to God for their use or abuse of power, and that the martyrs powerfully remind us of that accountability.28 In none of this discourse has homosexuality been seen as the defining issue. In Uganda there have been recent debates in parliament and in the press on “defilement,” the abuse of children, often within a family context. In this context, the martyrdoms have less to do with the rightness or otherwise of homosexual acts between freely consenting adults, as with the problem of abusive relationship by those in power. Nevertheless, the example of the Uganda martyrs has been invoked as a reason for opposing the equalisation of the age of consent at sixteen in Britain.29
The South African Mines. In South Africa a different pattern of same-sex encounter emerged in the diamond and gold mines of the early twentieth century. Migrant workers on short (typically sixmonth) contracts were housed in all-male compounds. A system grew up in which older and more experienced miners took younger recruits as “wives.”30 These younger men performed domestic duties-cooking, washing, cleaning.They also provided sexual favours for the senior partner. In return they would receive protection, food and clothing, friendship and affection. The relations were not coercive as such, though young migrant workers may have been faced with little choice but to fit into the system, whatever their inclinations. The gifts and money accrued in the relationship would often go towards providing for the bridewealth necessary for marriage back home. And yet, it would be wrong to see the relationships so established as having simply a contractual, mercenary nature. In a hostile and deeply discriminatory world, it did provide genuine warmth of human relations. It seemed preferable and less dangerous than visiting a prostitute. It was a missionary, Henri Junod (working in Mozambique in an area from which migrant labour was extensively recruited), who brought the practice to public attention in the early years of the twentieth century. He wanted the South African government to legislate against what he saw as a corruption of his people, who came from a rural environment uncontaminated by the urban maelstrom. Missionaries were right to be critical of the economic situation which created all-male hostels, discouraged family life, and fostered the spread of sexually transmitted disease. But, on the specific issue of same-sex practice, they would seem to have been more negative than either those involved or the societies from which they came. The evidence would suggest that, while these relations were not something to boast about, neither were they regarded with the horror accorded them by the missionaries. A study of accusations of sexual harassment in similar situations in Zimbabwe in the early years of the century would also tend to the conclusion that there was little strong homophobic feeling among the African communities involved.31 With the gradual elimination of the compound system in southern Africa, this particular form of sexual relationship declined. It can be seen as inherently exploitative, as a bitter example of the corruption of human society by racism and apartheid; it can also be seen as a way in which human beings create and sustain human reciprocity in the harshest of conditions.
These two very different institutional forms of same-sex relationships, from Uganda and Southern Africa, were the product of particular, highly distinctive, social conditions. In both cases, the same-sex relations occurred over a more or less clearly defined period in a person’s life. They involved people who might otherwise not have sought out nor been attracted to same-sex relationships, and who would not see themselves as “homosexual” in a modern, essentialist sense. They were the product of very specific, “peculiar institutions,” and the people involved did not see their sexuality as (permanently) different from the norm. There are examples of more permanent homosexual sub-cultures in Africa, too: for example, the “moffies” among the Coloured communities of Cape Town,32 or the “mashoga” of the Swahili coast of East Africa,33 where cross-dressing and the adoption of cross-gender identities occurred, rather than simply the adoption of feminine roles.
Traditional and Modern African Values
It is difficult to make definitive general statements about common attitudes to sexual relations between people of the same gender, or how such relations have been construed in the past. The “silence” of traditional Africa on the subject can be seen as indicative of the complete absence of same-sex practice. On this analysis homosexuality is “unAfrican” because it is foreign; its modern intrusion is a betrayal of African identity.34 Or it can indicate a deep antipathy and revulsion, a “taboo” subject deeply feared precisely because it was recognised as an awful temptation for all people. Those advocating a tolerant attitude to gay and lesbian people can use the “silence” to indicate an apparently relaxed attitude in traditional African rural society. On this reading, fertility and reproduction is an economic and social imperative, essential for survival in a harsh climate. It has had a profound impact on every aspect of male-female relations, and on understandings of polygamy and divorce. Reproduction within stable marriage relations is paramount. Reproduction outside marriage is discouraged and is fraught with dangers, both material and spiritual. On the other hand, sexual encounters outside marriage, especially where steps are taken to prevent conception, may not be regarded as serious matters (for males at least). Male-male encounters can be ignored altogether or regarded with indulgence because there is even less likelihood of serious complications: juvenile games perhaps, but essentially trivial, as long as they do not ultimately interfere with the duty incumbent on all young men: to get married and produce heirs. Access to marriage was often a highly contested affair, depending on material accumulation (cattle and stock, later money). This often favoured older, more prosperous, men over the young. The enforced delay in marriage meant that a certain amount of sexual freedom might be tacitly allowed and expected.
Christian teaching in Africa has overwhelmingly been critical of such instrumentalist views of sexuality and reproduction, and has tried to institute far-reaching reforms of attitudes. It has emphasised premarital sexual abstinence, and privileged the quality of relationships within marriage over the production of children. Ironically, Christianity, with its emphasis on education, has tended to reinforce the many factors in modern society favouring later marriage. The result has been to delay marriage well into adulthood. It is widely acknowledged that this makes premarital abstinence more difficult and increases the likelihood of a culture of promiscuity.
In urban settings, more recognisably modern forms of homosexuality have begun to emerge. In Kenya, Kamau, a twenty-five-year-old Kikuyu, describes his first sexual experimentation at boarding school, his introduction to an urban gay counter-culture in Nairobi as a college student, and his ongoing relationship with a married man. His account contains interesting reference to the interplay between religion and sexual identity:
He [Kamau’s male lover] and his wife were very close. Leaving his wife was out of the question. It’s just that he felt tied in this marriage because he still has to act straight. He was a born-again Christian. The funny thing about the gay people in Africa is they are all so religious. He was a born-again Christian and he was the choirmaster in his church and that is considered to be very, very important in Kenya: if you’re a choirmaster you’re a respectable person in the community. So, me doing these things with him and seeing what he’s doing is really giving me a different view of life in the city, and I felt that everybody in the city, that most of the men in the city are promiscuous and they are all hiding; they’re hiding in these big jobs and beautiful lands and different respects of life-most of them are hiding behind marriages. It’s a pity. 35
Kamau resolved some of the tensions in his own life by moving to London as a student, and, since the interview was given in Los Angeles, possibly he had moved on yet again to California. But, despite his pity for Kenyan homosexuals living a double life, and his own exile, he still spoke of eventually getting married, and thus satisfying his family obligations.
“Modern” constructions of sexuality-those which emphasise the priority of “being” and “nature” over activity-have been fostered by Church teaching, which has emphasised affection and reciprocity in relations, rather than instrumental (productive and reproductive) concerns. It is in this climate that Greenberg’s third model-the egalitarian type of same sex relations-is more likely to emerge and flourish. So far in East Africa the emergence of a self-consciously gay community of people is in its infancy. In South Africa, the debates over a non-racist constitution, and the inclusion of a clause in the 1994 Constitution guaranteeing rights for people of whatever sexual orientation, have served to accelerate these changes. This does not, of course, mean that South African society is necessarily any more tolerant of sexual nonconformity than other parts of Africa.36 Indeed, the increased visibility and self-assertion of gay people means that homophobic views tend to be more stridently expressed, and the older tolerant attitudes become rarer. South Africa’s greater exposure to capitalist forms of production, greater urbanisation, the significant white presence, as well as the arguably greater penetration of traditional Christian attitudes, may all have combined to produce a more recognisably western debate, an assertive gay presence, and a clearer homophobic reaction. Yet, because of the new constitution, homophobia is now on the defensive, indeed illegal, along with other forms of racial and gender discrimination. An increasing popular acceptance of gay lifestyles and homosexuality as a human rights issue has been greatly assisted by the strong support of prominent Church leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In a foreword to Aliens in the Household of God, a book on homosexuality and Christian faith in South Africa, Tutu says:
I come from a section of society that has been deprived, discriminated against, oppressed and marginalised. What I found most attractive about Jesus Christ was just how he identified with those who belonged to such a group of persons. It was heart-warming that he actually sat at table with those whom society of the time considered scum, those whom it despised and vilified-the prostitutes, the sinners and tax-collectors. What Jesus did was to say they belonged, they were insiders too, not strangers, not aliens. My sexuality is a very important and essential part of who I am. Our church has rightly taught that making love, giving expression to my sexuality in all kinds of different ways, not only is for procreation but helps me and my spouse to become more and more like what God intends us to be, to be more considerate of each other, more gentle, more compassionate, more ready to engage in self-giving, and so to become more and more like God. If this is true of heterosexual love expressed physically, how can we in all conscience want to exclude a whole segment of humankind from this life-enhancing experience and still claim to be reflecting the mind of Christ? 37
Needless to say, such remarks cannot be taken as indicative of a positive attitude by all Church leaders, as many of the other contributions to Aliens in the Household of God make clear. But Tutu’s successor, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, has continued to give strong support.
The Debate in Uganda in 1999
Like South Africa, Uganda has a history of oppression and intolerance, persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, and the suppression of political and cultural dissent. President Museveni came to power in 1986 with an agenda of “fundamental change,” a democratisation of society at the grass roots and an end to sectarianism and discrimination. The stability which his regime has brought to substantial parts of the country has led to a flowering of civil society, the presence of a vigorous and free press, and a new concern that the voices of women, youth and the disabled be heard.38 Visible expressions of urban gay culture and lifestyles are beginning to appear in Kampala as in Nairobi, despite the fact that the old British penal code (abandoned in Britain itself in 1967) is still on the statute book. The law may not have been used by the Uganda police in quite the oppressive way which John Mburu has noted for Kenya, at least until it became an issue of public debate in 1999.39 But Mark Gevisser has noted that when the Uganda penal code was revised in the early 1990s, the penalties for “unnatural” carnality were increased from fourteen years to life imprisonment.40 In September 1999 New Vision contained a feature article entitled “Homosexuals increasing in Uganda. Who’s responsible?” The article noted the increased visibility of “women-men” in Kampala, wearing distinctively feminine clothes and perfume. Some time later, there was a report of a “gay wedding” in Kampala. When questioned about these accounts in an international forum of parliamentarians from Eastern and Southern Africa, President Museveni condemned this “un-African” practice, and hinted that he would order police to look for such deviants and lock them up. He later toned down these remarks by stating that homosexuals would not be harassed as long as they indulged their practices in private.41
A few months earlier, there had been an incident at the President’s old school, Ntare High School, in Mbarara in western Uganda. The school had been established in the 1950s as a non-denominational government school with a self-consciously liberal and humanitarian tradition which contrasted with the more authoritarian styles of the mission schools.42 In July 1999 some students had taken the law into their own hands by beating up two students whom they accused of homosexual activities. Accusations proliferated and more students became targets. When the school authorities realised what was happening they suspended the troublemakers. A riot threatened and the police were called in. The suspended students (those who had been punishing the “homosexuals”) then claimed over the local radio that they were being victimised. They gained a good deal of popular support. Some of the victims had also been sent home, for their own safety. Investigations did uncover some evidence of a protection racket in which so-called “guardian angels” befriended younger boys from rich homes in return for favours. Most of the students who had been suspended were readmitted after a period. But the school authorities resisted the demand to readmit the ring-leaders, many of whom had poor attendance records and a history of disruptive behaviour. The response of the school seems, in fact, to have been judicious. They honourably refused to succumb to a homophobic outburst in which innocent people were victimised. In the aftermath of the crisis, a member of staff made enquiries in the local Ankole community about traditional attitudes to “homosexuality as a form of sexual orientation among Ugandans”:
One of my respondents who is a senior citizen informed me that people with homosexual tendencies have always been there in Ankole but it was always one or two in the whole village and such a person would be looked at as a social misfit. He said that they used to refer to them as “ekitingwa,”a derogatory term for misfit.43
In the same week as the President’s statement to the parliamentarians, a survey in the government-supporting daily newspaper New Vision reported that 84% of Kampala residents were “disgusted with homosexuality” and did not want it legalised. This was based on a sample survey of 505 males and females in the capital conducted by a professional statistician. A degree of scientific objectivity was intended. The survey’s conclusions were that more men (17% of those interviewed) than women (10%) were tolerant of homosexuality, and that educated “O” level leavers were more sympathetic than those with less education (21% to 13%). Interestingly enough the percentage dropped for “A” level leavers, only 14% of whom expressed tolerance of homosexuals. One possible explanation for this may be the much greater awareness of the transmission of sexual disease, the risk of AIDS, etc., among people with higher education. Moreover, this is precisely the group of literate English speakers whom Roman Catholic and evangelical youth magazines tend to target. Issues of sexual hygiene, moral purity and the promotion of family values feature prominently in these magazines.
The survey may give an accurate indication of general urban attitudes in Kampala. But one feature of the survey does lead one to be suspicious that, by putting homosexuality in an overwhelmingly negative context, it was designed to elicit negative responses. The survey was publicised as an enquiry into attitudes to sexual deviance. The questions about homosexuality were asked alongside questions about child abuse (whether “defilers” should face the death penalty), and prostitution (with 64% of respondents not wanting prostitution legalised). The lumping together of homosexuality with antisocial behaviour clearly encourages the presumption that homosexuality is simply another brand of antisocial activity. Lydia Balemezi, the MP for Mukono, made this link when she called for more protection for boys who were victims of adult male predators.44 Interestingly, 23% of the respondents claimed to know at least one homosexual personally, and it would have been good to have an indication of the level of acceptance and tolerance of such known individuals (friends, colleagues, family members), to compare to attitudes to “homosexuality” in the abstract.45 Predictably such a high-profile airing of the homosexual issue in the press encouraged outspoken attitudes to be expressed, such as that from Robert Kabushenga, a “lawyer and political commentator,” whose long article in New Vision on 3 October 1999 was notable for its prurient descriptions of medically dangerous “homosexual” practice:
Homosexuals? Don’t waste energy. Nature will deal with them. This whole sense of perversion may affect one’s intellectual disposition and creativity and arrest your personal development. Some of them even miss the procreation bus and therefore the opportunity to perpetuate human life…. It is not surprising that the state should want to step in with statutory measures that criminalize the act of homosexuality. But there is an element of dishonesty and selfishness when the state relies on morality as the reason for doing so. Homosexuality threatens the family institutions whose main purpose is procreation and therefore perpetuation of humanity. Let us make Uganda extremely unsociable for these people to live in. This way they will leave us alone and find a place where people routinely disobey nature.46
More temperate opinion has not been lacking. In an article on 10 October, under the headline “Stop gay-bashing already!” the correspondent of The Monitor (an independent newspaper which tends to take a line critical of the government) took up the issue as one of human rights: “The point is that homosexuality is NOT a Western, African or Asian practice. It is a human sexual preference practised by all races and peoples across time and space.”47
Critics of the regime concluded that the issue had been seized upon for populist reasons, in an attempt to draw attention away from the unpopular military involvement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with all the problems this was creating for Uganda’s prosperity and stability.
Since its exposure in September and October 1999, the issue has died down somewhat in the press. The opinions articulated at that time were not necessarily typical. Indeed, on the homosexuality issue, the press has in the previous ten years often been a force for moderation and calm discussion. The “problem pages” and advice columns of the dailies, not least New Vision, have openly discussed issues of sexuality, including homosexual practice, in a matter-of-fact, unprurient and unmoralistic fashion.48
Church Attitudes within Uganda: Bringing to Bear the
Theological and Ethical Resources of Church Tradition
Until the issue came into ecclesiastical prominence in the preparation for Lambeth 1988, homosexuality had not been an issue to which the Church of Uganda had given much attention. It was certainly not seen as a major threat to the morals of young people; overwhelmingly that has been seen as a consequence of the loosening of sexual constraints, a lack of discipline and the consequence for not promoting strongly enough a stable family life. These had been highlighted over the last decade as a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In contrast to the West, the pandemic has not been associated, either in medical research or in the public mind, with homosexual practice: it is overwhelmingly presented as related to heterosexual transmission. Church teaching has been directed towards the encouragement of restraint before, and fidelity within, marriage-“zero grazing” as it has been jokingly described (using a metaphor about the tending of “exotic” cows, which have to be kept in paddocks and fed with cut grass to avoid tic infection). In the 1980s there were fears among Church leaders that government campaigns to promote the use of condoms would encourage sexual experimentation among young people. But increasingly (and this has been easier for Anglicans than for Roman Catholics) a wholly negative attitude to condoms has been replaced by guarded toleration. Condom use may not be ideal, but it’s a better alternative than unsafe sex: “If you must have sex, use a condom.” The attitude of the late Bishop Misaeri Kauma, the bishop of Namirembe, noticeably softened from a moral rigorism to a much more sympathetic position when, after retirement, he was asked to head the government commission on AIDS, at a time when his own son was diagnosed as HIV+ and subsequently died. The government’s commendably open and honest attitude to AIDS has been an important influence for tolerance in society as a whole, and this has had an impact in the churches too.
Moreover the Church has always in practice had to have a flexible attitude on sexual and marriage issues. Although from its earliest days the Church in Uganda has advocated a strict marriage discipline, this has never become the norm for its members. Surveys like those made in the 1970s by Adrian Hastings,49 and the recently reissued collaborative report, African Christian Marriage,50 note the gradual but relentless decline in the rates of church marriage, even as larger proportions of the population became Christian. The churches have failed to convince most of their members that the ideal of Christian marriage as a life-long monogamous union is either practical or paramount. Interestingly enough an earlier Lambeth Conference, that of 1888, had decided against the admission of polygamists to baptism and to full communicant membership in the Church. The one African bishop at that time, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, had approved of this stance. But, as Hastings says:
In reality the mission Churches have proved a good deal more accommodating than the Lambeth pronouncement might sugBest. In Nigeria in particular, while polygamy was condemned in theory, a blind eye was often turned in practice so long as no more than one wife and family were baptized in the same Church, but to some clergy this was unacceptable.51
Bishop Crowther himself had a strong pastoral awareness of the difficulties of meeting the standard in this regard, and it was used against him by the young hard-line missionaries who so loudly criticised affairs in his diocese in the infamous Niger crisis of 1889-1891.52 The 1988 Lambeth Conference revisited the issue of polygamy at the request of some African bishops who felt that the time had come for a more pastorally sensitive understanding of its complexities and difficulties.53
The unsatisfactory situation, which results from promulgating an ideal Christian Marriage law which does not take into account the social and cultural landscape, and from enforcing a punitive discipline against the large numbers who cannot or who do not conform, has been noted again and again in the Ugandan experience.54 Quite apart from the scandal of large sections in a congregation being permanently barred from Holy Communion, it produces numerous anomalies. One of these is the fact that young people are sometimes the only ones who take the sacrament. They are eligible to partake because they have been confirmed (perhaps in their last year at primary school). Yet many are engaging in sexual activity before marriage. In contrast, older people living in stable marriages are prevented from taking communion simply because their union has not been blessed in church. Their exclusion may result from a formal Church decision, or because of the weight of community disapproval, or their own internal sense of discomfort.ss In all other respects they may be regarded as honourable moral members of the community. There is a high degree of acceptance by most members of a congregation that there are many barriers and impediments to satisfactory marriage. Few feel that people should be penalised too much for failing to live up to ideals which often seem impossible to attain: life is too difficult and unpredictable as it is, without adding to the burden. Yet, this is combined with a general acceptance of the long tradition that admission to communion be reserved for a special elite.
There are two powerful pressure groups within the Anglican Church in Uganda which do not share this general tolerance. One is the Mothers’ Union, which stands squarely for the fostering of Christian marriage and monogamy. MU has campaigned for many years for Christian forms of marriage to be safeguarded by government legislation, and to penalise male attempts to avoid or subvert the onerous responsibilities of monogamous marriage.56 The other group is the Balokole-the East African Revival fellowship-which has been the defining influence on Anglican spirituality. While only a minority of Church people actually belong to this fellowship, the Balokole movement has tended to provide the criteria by which all Ugandan Anglicans judge themselves as faithful Christians.57 Balokole are noted for their opposition to any compromise where moral standards are concerned and scathing of clergy and Christians whose lives are dishonest and hypocritical. They encourage regular confession of sin within the fellowship. This has been the group within the Church of Uganda most associated with promoting Christian monogamy. Their emphasis is first of all on honesty with yourself, before God and before neighbour (represented first of all by the Brethren, but also as a witness in the community at large). A saved person will be expected to be fearless in admitting wrong-doing, even of a shameful and intimate kind, to his/her neighbour, whether Christian or not, and to offer to redress particular wrongs against that person. Such moral scrupulousness and lack of compromise is regarded as an essential fruit of salvation. It is the spiritual tradition of the majority of Ugandan bishops, and certainly informed their uncompromising assertion of “traditional” or “biblical” moral values at Lambeth.
The Balokole movement has been significant in the life of the Church since the 1930s and inevitably tensions have developed within its ranks. One tendency has been to react against legalism, emphasising that honesty before God can better be served by not mixing it with punitive sanctions and a pharisaical spirit. In the 1970s Bishop Eustace Ruhindi (now retired and therefore not present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference) embarked on a diocesan policy to encourage all confirmed members of the Church to come to Holy Communion. With a theology of the Church as “hospital for sinners” he made a plea for people to “Return” (Garuka),58 to “Come as you are” (Mwije Mwena),59 to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. This policy has not gone without criticism, not only from the more robust Balokole, but from ordinary church members, many of whom want the “standards” to be maintained, and are perfectly willing to accept the consequences, even if they recognise that they themselves are unable to fulfil those standards. The Mothers’ Union also has criticised the Garuka campaign as inimical to women’s rights: it encourages rich polygamists to claim all the benefits of full membership in the Church without its attendant disciplines.60 A rigorous branch of the Balokole movement, the Bazukufu (the Reawakened), has since the 1970s been particularly associated with opposition to any lowering of standards. More recently this group has become attractive to young people, especially school girls. The strict morality, signalled by a sober dress-code and closely shaved hair style, offers security and protection against unwelcome sexual advances from male students and teachers.61
Homosexuality has not loomed large in the moral warnings of the Balokole movement. The leaders have been much more conscious of the very real dangers of teenage pregnancies, illegal abortions and AIDS. But the tremendous emphasis on honesty and openness before God has meant that confessions of homosexual practice have been a feature of Balokole testimonies from the early days of the movement. Testimonies of sexual temptation have sometimes been accompanied by what brethren have felt to be inappropriate detail, bordering on the pornographic, and particularly inappropriate where children and adolescents might be present.62 Such testimonies no longer (if they ever did) represent the norm. Modern testimonies in fellowship meetings tend to deal with more routine matters, and avoid explicit sexual reference. Some regret the lack of complete honesty which this reticence imposes. One can expect that, as homosexuality becomes more visible in society, so Balokole will be increasingly outspoken in expressing their disapproval. This is already the case in schools. Chaplains have noted homosexual practice in boarding schools, sometimes linking it to forms of dominance or protection rackets (as the Ntare School incident showed).63 Christian Unions and their leaders are beginning to see this as an issue which must be openly talked about. A Christian leader who has worked among college students in Kampala has observed that he has given pastoral counselling to a growing number of young people who are willing to speak about their homosexual feelings and who want advice, or who seek advice on how to cope with the sexual attention of a friend of the same sex. Christian evangelical youth organisations are inevitably influenced by evangelical American debates on these issues. The Ugandan youth leader was concerned to stress that homosexuality is to do with “nurture” rather than “nature.” For him it was important that people should not be regarded as “irredeemably” homosexual, but should be encouraged towards a heterosexual lifestyle, though he did not underestimate the difficulties. Ideas of “deliverance,” of being able to “change” homosexuals, are among the most criticised aspects of American and European evangelical approaches to sexuality, and they are equally problematic in an African culture. Homosexuality is becoming an important theme in “deliverance” ministries in Africa. For example, in Ghana, a pentecostal pastor with a strong counselling ministry asks his clients to fill in a questionnaire, which includes questions on homosexual feelings or experiences. These are seen as indicators of “demonic influence” from which deliverance is sought.64 A focus on homosexuality as a radical disorder goes against older, more relaxed, ways of approaching homoerotic feelings in cultures which emphasise universal marriage and the production of children. It resonates with the Balokole demand for total honesty and integrity. It emphasises the need for therapy and radical sexual reorientation. But, evangelical groups, and, indeed, the Church of Uganda itself, will at some stage need to respond to those who are unwilling and/or unable to effect that kind of reorientation. There will always be a tension between two conflicting emphases which are of equal importance to the Balokole fellowship: peer pressure to conform, and the duty of absolute honesty-to oneself, to God and to the brethren.
To summarise the Church’s attitudes at the moment: there is a lack of overt homophobic sentiment among Church people generally. Uganda’s societies are not ones which have traditionally inculcated fears and obsessions about homosexual activity. It could be marginalised as irrelevant to the overwhelming importance of reproduction and the institutions of marriage which made that possible. Homosexuality certainly did not have a place in that scheme of things, but neither was it seen as a great danger. Even today, it is unlikely that most people see homosexual practice as a major threat to marriage and family life, in comparison with the greater problems of promiscuity and infidelity in marriage. Ugandan Christians mostly understand the Bible and Christian tradition as teaching that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the only acceptable standard. But the Church at large has realised the intractable practical difficulties of implementing such an idealised Christian view of marriage and sexuality. Many, perhaps most, Ugandan Christians find themselves bound in a whole variety of less than ideal marital or sexual situations. Such people remain part of the Christian community. The disjunction between theory and practice is seen as a necessary part of life, though often a tragic one. Only for the Balokole is it intolerable, and even they have to accept that their own children may fail to model the exemplary life.
There is the possibility that in a situation where homosexuals are increasingly visible, this kind of acceptance and tolerance will be accorded to gay people also. This will not be easily acceptable to Balokole and other evangelical groups, nor indeed to official Anglican and Roman Catholic teaching. But increasingly, simple condemnation is likely to be mitigated by real concern for the welfare of the brother or sister who is unable to effect the desired change, yet who cannot simply be dismissed as a stubborn reprobate. The Balokole have a good history of bearing up their members in love and fellowship, and, even when fellowship is sundered, of continuing a dialogue of intellectual disagreement within a continuing concern for the welfare of the other. In a related ethical field, Gideon Byamugisha is the first Church of Uganda priest publicly to testify to his HIV status and to work towards tolerant and humane attitudes towards those living with HIV His honesty and dignity have been exemplary. His witness made a powerful impact at the Anglican Primates’ meeting at Kanuga in the USA in May 2001.65 Is it impossible to imagine a gay or lesbian Ugandan Christian performing a similar role as advocate for humane Christian tolerance?
What is evident is that in East Africa (in contrast to Southern Africa) an organised gay Christian expression is still in its infancy. Until Christian leaders are able and willing to dialogue with actual Ugandan gays and lesbians, they are unlikely to develop more sophisticated responses which go beyond their present pronouncements about the general immorality of homosexuality in the abstract. But this is not likely to be very useful to people struggling to understand their own sexuality, or to come to terms with that of members of their family. The Church in East Africa needs to be able to disentangle the questions of homosexual orientation from other issues of sexual deviance and abuse. Even for those Christians who strongly want to endorse the Lambeth Statement that homosexual activity is incompatible with Scripture, distinctions much be made between different situations and sexual identities.
Fostering theological engagement of this kind is not going to be easy. This has been made clear by the response to the inauguration of a lesbian and gay organisation called Integrity-Uganda, in 2000. The response of the hierarchy of the Church of Uganda has been that this is an unwelcome foreign intrusion, nothing more than a branch of an organisation of the American Episcopal Church: “We categorically condemn the practice of Homosexuality… We, therefore, strongly advise our public or citizens not to let this kind of unbiblical and inhuman movement to be established in our country.”66
Mr Abbey Kamoga, chairman of Integrity-Uganda, and Bishop Christopher Senjonjo, retired bishop of West Buganda, have insisted that the organisation is local in origin, membership, and ethos. The acrimony generated67 by the dispute precludes for the moment any willingness on the part of the church hierarchy positively to engage in dialogue. One interesting sideline is the fact that another retired Ugandan bishop has been drawn into the contested debate within worldwide Anglicanism, on the opposite side from bishops Kamanyire and Davis: one of the reasons for the ferocity of the response may be a dismay that the previous unity of the bishops has been eroded. Bishop Senyono already had a reputation in Uganda as a radical bishop. In 1979 he argued that the Church should look again at its prohibition of polygamy, as a response to the urgent need to provide for widows in the aftermath of the tragedy of the Amin years.68 The fact that he also advocated for more positive understandings of Kiganda69 traditional religion, in which the old gods, the Balubaale, might be viewed as “angels,” did not endear him to more conservative Church leaders.70 After his retirement in 1999, Senyonjo set up a clinic and counselling centre in the Bukoto district of Kampala, with a particular ministry to HIV/AIDS sufferers. Whatever the outcome of the particular controversy over Bishop Senyonjo’s role, the presence of a Ugandan lesbian and gay Christian movement, if it is able to survive and to develop its own distinctively Ugandan articulation of its position, is likely significantly to change the nature of the debate within Uganda.71
From the point of view of East Africa, it was unfortunate that the issue should have emerged in the way it did. The Lambeth debate in 1998 forced the bishops to make judgements which were only tangentially related to the situation in their areas. Questions of ordination or same-sex marriage are not issues. Nor is there a strong homophobic tradition in the Church. In many ways the Church in Africa has a long experience of living with difference and ambiguity in ways which the Churches of America and Britain have not faced. For example, a majority of its members do not have officially recognised (Church) marriages; a significant proportion live in polygamous relations, or in forms of cohabitation which do not accord with Church marriage standards. In recent years, the Church in East Africa has had to come to terms with the fact that a significant proportion of its members, especially young people, are living with AIDS. It has not yet been required fully to face the fact that there have always been people of a homosexual orientation in their fellowship, and that increasingly this group will become visible. The Church needs to evolve strategies for exploring the particular needs and problems of such people. A pastoral concern for gay people has been articulated on a number of occasions. But it is still conceived primarily as a duty of warning and a call to conversion. If the Churches in East Africa have long had to deal with the stubborn fact of the diversity of the human condition and the tremendous struggle required to conform to Christian precepts and ideals, they have not yet developed fully satisfactory ways, pastorally and theologically, of handling the ambiguity of moral discourse, and the possibility that there are some moral issues which are not amenable to final or definitive answers, whether from the Bible or Christian tradition.
Since 1986 the women’s movement has become an important and articulate force in Uganda’s society. More than ever before, all Ugandans have been engaged in constitution-malting and discussions about human rights. Ugandans are much more aware of the need to provide structures in society which will prevent discrimination and abuse of minorities. Safeguarding the rights of homosexuals may seem to most Ugandans a fairly minor issue in comparison, for example, with the security of people in the war-torn parts of northern Uganda. But an awareness of the rights of homosexuals should reinforce rather than detract from those concerns. The Church can play a major role in the process of understanding the difference between abuse and sexual orientation and its appropriate expression. The fact that the Church has long experience of the hazards of developing a satisfactory ethic for heterosexual relations and marriage ought to make it particularly sensitive to the need for caution about its pronouncements about the new area of homosexual relations.
The presence of an increasingly self-conscious gay community and sub-culture needs to be addressed by the Churches. Many Ugandan homosexuals will undoubtedly feel, as John Mburu powerfully expresses in regard to Kenya,72 that the Churches are irredeemably homophobic, and thus they will seek to develop their own secular lifestyles, more or less in opposition to what they see as religious intolerance. On the other hand, as Kamau also noted,73 there are a large number of “born again” gay people. Ironically, evangelical Christianity may indeed be seen to have provided a major impetus for the dawning consciousness of a distinctive homosexual identity, by emphasising less instrumental and more affective understandings of human sexuality. It would be unfortunate if hard-line policies in the Churches simply alienated the people who have been encouraged to reflect seriously on the nature and purpose of human life. The Revival tradition, with the emphasis it places on frank and honest testimony and the personal appropriation of the Gospel, needs to hear the voices and the pain of gay people, without foreclosing the issue by insisting on a wrong kind of repentance (as if gay people were more guilty at the core of their being than the rest of humanity). Both the rigorous and the more open traditions within the Church and the revival movement have contributions which need to be heard. How the Bible is used as a moral guide and authority is a question of great importance and complexity. Both traditions are well aware that there is often an unbearable tension between what is desired and what can actually be attained, and that it is necessary to live with that tension. Moreover, the East African Church has had to learn the bitter reality that the attempt to make definitive pronouncements on sexual ethics and human relationships cannot foreclose the continuing struggle to establish and foster appropriate human relationships and the institutions which sustain them.
Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Winter 2002
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