By LEE MWITI
August 17, 2007 will probably be a date that will stick long in Ms Katherine Roubos’ memory.
Only 22 years then, the American cub reporter landed a three month internship with theDaily Monitor, the independent Ugandan daily. In her second month, she was assigned to cover a conference in the capital Kampala, in what should have been a routine job.
But this one was a first in the country: A gay and lesbian meeting attended mainly by a masked audience. But Roubos, having worked with such movements in her home country, duly filed the story and called it a day.
Uganda is a deeply conservative country, and is one of the few— some would say only—that has a minister for Ethics and Integrity. Yet nothing could have prepared her for the ensuing furore.
On August 22, a well coordinated and raucous demonstration organised by Ugandan religious activist Pastor Martin Ssempa hit full swing in downtown Kampala.
The marchers demanded Roubos’ immediate deportation for encouraging “immoral” tendencies. The fact that she was not the only journalist at the press conference seemed lost in translation.
“The day of the demonstration against me, I could not stop laughing. I laughed not to dismiss the severity of the situation, but rather in stunned reaction to the disconnect between my minority rights platform and the opinions expressed at the protest,” Roubos, who has been involved in gay activism, was to later blog.
The episode was an eye opener to the discomfiture that African countries view lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.
In late 2009, Uganda again hit the news over a private member’s bill that proposes the death sentence for “aggravated homosexuality”. This is homosexual sex with a person under the age of 18, a disabled person or in an instance when “the offender is a person living with HIV”.
But not even the draft law’s mover, Ndorwa West MP David Bahati, could have foreseen the fallout that the bill has generated. Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, under pressure from donors, had to distance himself from the bill, saying it was a foreign policy issue and a private motion.
The pressure has been unrelenting. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called President Museveni to voice her opposition. UK Premier Gordon Brown and Canadian counterpart Steve Harper have also opposed it. And Sweden has threatened to withdraw budgetary support to Uganda.
Yet Bahati remains unmoved, despite allegations by gay campaigners that he is funded by US conservatives. Recently, he has been travelling widely to sell the bill. “In my heart, I believe we are doing the right thing,” he said.
The charismatic Ssempa, an ardent supporter of the bill, is now planning a February 17 Million Man March to “show how strong support is for the bill”.
“Yes, it is definitely on. We are planning to give Ugandan people a chance to show how strongly opposed they are to homosexuality,” Pastor Ssempa told the Africa Review in a telephone interview.
He said that they have however asked Uganda’s parliament to tone down some of the more punitive provisions in the bill.
“We are also pushing for rehabilitation of those who will be found to need help, “said Pastor Ssempa, accusing the foreign media of misrepresenting the bill. “ They are now calling it the Kill-the-Gays Bill.”
The polarised view is common on the continent. Homosexuality is illegal in some 38 African countries, with a lot of public opprobrium surrounding confirmed gay cases.
Debate in the southern African nation of Malawi has been avid following the public wedding of 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, 26.
The two are currently in jail on “gross indecency” charges. The trial magistrate declined to release them, saying they were “safer” in there. Information minister Leckford Thotho has said the Malawi Government would not interfere with the “independence of the courts”.
Religious groups in the eastern African nation of Kenya recently threatened to throw out a draft constitution being prepared over fears that it planned to legalise same sex marriages.
The October 17, 2009 wedding in London of two Kenyans, Daniel Chege and Charles Ngengi was headline news in the conservative country for days. In Kenya, homosexual conduct is punishable by up to 14 years.
Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 24 years until 2002, once declared: "Kenya has no room or time for homosexuals and lesbians. It is against African norms and traditions and is a great sin."
In May 2008, Gambian President Yaya Jammeh gave gays and lesbians 24 hours to leave the country or face “serious consequences.
And in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe is said to have once branded gays "worse than pigs and dogs".
Punishable by death
Scott Long, Human Rights Watch's director for gay rights issues, has been quoted as saying this broadside by Mugabe was the catalyst for anti-gay sentiment on much of the continent.
"It was very successful in bringing together different groups," Mr Long recently told theTelegraph, a UK daily, adding that this trend had spread across the continent to countries such as Nigeria, where the issue has proved a rare unifier among the Muslim north and Christian south.
For the 12 states of Nigeria subject to Sharia, homosexuality is punishable by death.
The west African nation of Senegal has also seen marked unrest over gays. In February 2008 there were riots in the capital Dakar after a magazine published photographs of an alleged wedding between two men. Reports of several men being arrested on suspicion of homosexuality inundated that country’s media for several days.
In Sierra Leone last year, sexual minorities activist FannyAnn Eddy was found murdered outside the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association she founded.
In contrast, South Africa has the most permissive gay rights legislation in the whole world, and also regularly hosts several successful Gay Pride marches. It recently legislated for same-sex unions, though observers say homophobic feeling is still widespread.
As Uganda’s bill comes for air, the continent will be keenly watching.