Museveni: East Africa’s Longest-Serving Ruler

In Mbale, former Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi campaigned for Museveni's fourth term. Let's not forget that Museveni was one of the first presidents to congratulate Kibaki during the Kenyan 2008 elections.

Kenya’s excellent newspaper, the Daily Nation, ran a well-written, if depressing piece about Museveni that was initially published by their sister Ugandan paper, the Daily Monitor (where my colleague and Garden City bowling buddy Gerald Bareebe works).  I first came to Uganda in 2007, 21 years into Museveni’s regime, so I never really experienced the initial presidency that did so much for Uganda in the 1980s and 1990s.  Museveni’s regime turned 24 this year, and he surpassed former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi as East Africa’s longest-standing ruler.  But with oil profits on the horizon, and a penchant for overstaying, Museveni is currently running for his fourth term– and even Moi has been in Uganda this week, helping to campaign for Museveni.

When I first came to Uganda, newspapers affectionately referred to the country’s president as “M7.”  I can’t tell you how long it took me to realize what they were referring to– a fighter jet? A different version of LC1s and LC2s (local gov. officials)? Out of the blue, I finally realized that M7 was literally Museveni, and cracked up at myself for not realizing it sooner.

The Monitor piece describes the Museveni who first came into power, and I was practically gaping… anyone who has only known Museveni in the decade after 2000 would feel a similar sense of surprise.

“There was little to suggest that Mr Museveni had any ambitions beyond restoring security, establishing the rule of law, and breathing life into the economy. He openly mocked African leaders who flew to the United Nations in their private jets while their subjects walked around barefoot in stark poverty.

He chided previous regimes for importing expensive furniture and whiskies from European capitals and promised to buy his cutlery and furnish State House with cheap, locally-available goods. Having organised Resistance Councils in liberated areas, the left-wing revolutionary leader spoke of taking power and giving it back to the people to be exercised in a democratic fashion.

However, two decades later, President Museveni is still in power and planning to seek re-election in 2011 which would stretch his reign to 30 years. The revolutionary who argued, in ‘What is Africa’s Problem’, that one of the biggest challenges facing the continent was leaders who over-stayed in office, had the Constitution changed in 2005 to allow him stand for another term in office.

Many observers are now united in the reality that President Museveni has no intentions of handing over power on a silver platter, at least not in the near future. “He is a political survivor; he knows how to survive and is so determined such that if there is anything in his way he must get rid of it,” says Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University. “His ultimate goal has always been power and how to maintain it.”

Read on…

Check Out My Haiti Story…

My story ran today in Women’s eNews!

Haiti Quake Puts 63,000 Pregnant Women at Risk

The Haiti earthquake has increased the risks for an estimated 63,000 pregnant women in Port-au-Prince, as medical facilities and supplies have been destroyed. The UNFPA is distributing delivery and ‘dignity’ kits to help minimize the damage.

UNITED NATIONS, New York (WOMENSENEWS)–Rose Mirlande Veilard could no longer feel her baby’s kicks and became scared. The Port-au-Prince, Haiti, resident wondered if her baby had been killed during her struggle to leave her home near Champs de Mars, the presidential plaza, during the earthquake.

Since the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, the 22-year-old has slept in a car parked outside of a church. When Veilard was finally able to see a doctor at a hospital, she found out her baby was still alive, the U.N. Population Fund, or UNFPA, told Women’s eNews.

But other women in Haiti will not be so lucky.

When the earthquake hit, Haiti’s Ministry of Women was in a meeting with 20 development partners who work with the UNFPA. Almost everyone in the meeting was killed or injured.

“It’s very tragic,” said Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, chief of UNFPA’s humanitarian response team. “You lose the people who could respond and support these communities.”

Of the 3 million people affected by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti, and the aftershocks that continued as recently as Jan. 20, an estimated 63,000 are pregnant women. In the month ahead, 7,000 women are expected to deliver. Giving birth or seeking prenatal care in a city where even the presidential plaza is destroyed poses countless risks to women in Port-au-Prince and throughout the quake region. The New-York based UNFPA has spearheaded efforts to help minimize the risks these women face.

Logistics a Challenge

“The challenge for Haiti is logistics,” Mahmood said. “We do not want pregnant women, or women and girls overall, to fall off the radar screen.”

Even before the earthquake, giving birth in Haiti was no easy feat. The country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the Northern Hemisphere. For every 100,000 births, 670 mothers do not survive. Fifteen percent of all births before the earthquake had complications that required hospital care, such as hemorrhaging and high blood pressure in the mother, according to the UNFPA.

Continue reading

Latest Update on Anti-Gay Bill in Uganda

Before the holidays, I posted about the anti-gay bill that a Ugandan MP had introduced, and the American evangelical connections.  I was thrilled to get so many comments on the post, and to facilitate such a thoughtful discussion from people living in Uganda and the U.S. This bill was clearly huge — I saw the story (not always accurately!) everywhere, from the Guardian to the BBC, New York Times, various Ugandan publications, the Rachel Maddow Show, and many others.  I wanted to give you all the latest update on the bill, which proposed the death penalty for gay people living with HIV (a.k.a. “Aggravated homosexuality” ) and life in jail for gay people who are not HIV positive.  It looks like these parts of the bills may be scrapped, but we won’t know until Parliament begins debating the bill.

Gay activists demonstrating in Uganda. Uganda's anti-gay bill includes the death penalty for gay people living with HIV.

The international community. The reaction to this bill has been huge.  The international community has a lot of weight in Uganda– about a third of Uganda’s budget is donor-financed (European Union, individual European countries like Sweden, etc.) , and many Ugandans depend on the U.S. government for antiretroviral drugs through PEPFAR.  Museveni went to this year’s CHOGM and was criticized by Commonwealth leaders, a big deal if you remember all the money and time spent on promoting Uganda’s image at CHOGM in 2007, when the summit was held in Kampala.  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the U.N.’s top human rights official, and some prominent American senators coordinating support of the Ugandan military in fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army condemned Uganda.

Reaction to the bill within Uganda. Most Ugandans didn’t seem to realize that homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, and thought the bill would forbid the practice.  Some thought the bill was meant to protect children from pedophiles.  Very few seemed to realize the bill would execute gay people with HIV.  When the Swedish government said it would no longer finance Uganda’s budget if they began executing gay people living with HIV, most Ugandans thought the Swedes said they would withdraw support to Uganda if Ugandans did not support homosexuality.  Many Ugandans reacted as if the Western world were forcing Ugandans to be gay or support gay people, blackmailing them with foreign aid.  Many Ugandans reacted as if the western world was imposing a gay lifestyle on them, then threatening to withdraw support for the neediest Ugandans if they didn’t comply.  Pastor Martin Ssempa, a prominent anti-gay activist in Uganda who runs the Makerere Community Church, is planning a million-man march in Kampala to support the bill.  President Museveni has tried to assure donors quietly that the bill will not pass, but top Ugandan officials said Uganda can live without the foreign aid.  One American senator wanted to threaten Uganda’s AGOA trade status, a special status for Ugandan goods in the U.S that is supposed to make trader easier.

Pastor Ssempa said people attending the march could take a photo and send it as a postcard to Barack Obama.  He described the Western world as failed states for supporting homosexuality.  A few Ugandans have spoken out against the bill, such as prominent lawyer and academic Sylvia Tamale, who is writing a book on how homosexuality is conceptualized in African countries (Uganda? East Africa? other African countries as well? I’m not sure).  A muslim cleric called for special squads to hunt down gay people in Ugnda, adding his hateful voice to the mix.

And for the American evangelicals?

In the U.S., the American evangelicals who helped MP David Bahati draft the bill faced a considerable backlash, and were criticized for importing an American cultural war into East Africa.  Evangelicals like Scott Lively said they didn’t realize what was in the bill being drafted, and were just trying to protect Ugandan families.

Personally, I’m a bit exhausted of the story.  I hope the bill doesn’t pass, and wish Uganda was in the news for something other than anti-gay legislation.  The 2011 elections are next year, and I am concerned about the potential human rights abuse that could explode.  The underlying fear of course is that there could be violence a la Kenya, but Uganda has always been less ethnically divided in Kenya, despite the September riots (the Buganda kingdom’s clash with the central government).

There was a disturbing incident where opposition candidate Olara Otunnu’s car was run off the road by the presidential guard brigade, which has barely been covered in the local press, and not covered in the international press.  Hillary Clinton has said she will observe Uganda in the 2011 elections.  The opposition has largely united and plans to field a common candidate.  You can follow election coverage through Africa Connections here, which is updated daily with the latest bit of news about the elections.  50 female Ugandan political activists were arrested yesterday, for a demonstration calling for the Electoral Commission boss to step down.  You can read more about that here, on the Voice of America website.  The Daily Monitor and New Vision have also covered the story.

The First Decade: From Long Island to Kampala to Brooklyn

At the Source of the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda, where some of Gandhi's ashes are scattered.

Hey all, whether you are in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, Uganda, or Kenya, I really wish you a blessed new year in 2010!

This year was one of the most challenging of my life– but also the most rewarding.  Many times I felt as if I had slammed my head
or fell over my feet (both metaphorically and in the real sense!), and other times I prayed for a crystal ball that would let me go back in time.
Do things differently.

I can’t say this enough- Hindsight is 20/20.  Hindsight is 20/20.  But mistakes offer the most powerful lessons of all.  In many ways, I entered 2010 with
a gigantic blindfold over my eyes, and had to let reality be my teacher.  I realized I was scrappier than I ever imagined, but simultaneously blessed
in more ways than I could fathom.

I enjoyed writing at New Vision this year.

2009 was a year of writing for Women’s eNews, Saturday/New Vision, and the New York Post.  It was a year I began in Jackson Heights, Queens, shifted to Brooklyn, moved to Kampala, returned for respite in Long Island, and relocated back to Brooklyn.  It was my first year that I was not in school.  Where my interview subjects ranged from the president of the Kampala ghetto (with a cabinet, no less!) to Felix Kulayigye, Manhattan garage owners, NYPD officers, bicyclists, colon cleansing patients near the Old Taxi Park (I kid you not), and a woman who survived living with HIV, a white blood cell count of 0, poverty, and cancer– but now weighs 80 kilograms, runs a support group for discordant couples at Mulago Hospital’s Infectious Disease Unite, and has reunited with her husband.  Her name is Zam.

It was a year of launching the Ugandans Abroad website and social networking site, and making our first e-commerce store at our Africa Connections ebay website.  I used all sorts of proxy sites to access Facebook at New Vision, tweeted quite a bit, started this blog, and temped at Iconix.

I got horrific food poisoning at Shell Club, was cheated dramatically Abii Clinic in Wandegaya, and attacked by bugs in New York’s Central and Highbridge Park.  When I would cough in Uganda, people feared I had swine flu.  I began paying back my students loans in June.  I skyped a bit, but mainly used gmail chat
as my favorite form of communication.

My father gave me a red Blackberry Curve for Christmas, allowing me to file from the field.  It was definitely an upgrade from my kiboko phone.  Or is it a
kikumi phone? I can’t remember.

To go further back… I spent New Year’s 1998/9, ten years ago, in Sayville.  I was 13 years old, and went to an awful laser show with my then step-brothers.
I was in eight grade (S2 for my Ugandan readers!), and had glasses, stringy brown hair, and pants that were too short for my rapidly growing legs.  My favorite past times were chatting on AOL instant messenger, drinking Mountain Dew, playing Mario Kart and Sim City 2, as well as Grand Theft Auto.

In 2000, I moved back to Oyster Bay, where I enjoyed history lessons, diatribes about Hillary Clinton (haha well maybe not that part! My family and I are lifelong Democrats), and learning about ancient Greece & Rome from Mr. Levorchick.  During a world history moment on Africa (an afternoon’s worth of coverage in 4 years of high school), I nearly blew off the assignment, disinterested in ancient Mali.  I lived in Karen Court, and did spring track with Grace and Stephanie.  I was awful at the 200 meter, but at least I got in pretty good shape.  I took my first and only photography class with Mrs. Crowley, who was terrified of peanut butter but loved my photos and writing.  The key quote from her is- “Has anyone seen a lens cap?” It was when Mrs. DiMaggio was Mrs. Scudieri, and I tried to get through Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.

My city of ruin...

In 2001, there was 9-11.  My biology teacher, Mr. Billelo (spelling?) told us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and we turned on the radio.  I figured it was an awful accident, then saw my best friend Stephanie in the hall.  I told her, and she gave me a startled look.  Mr. Rose, our history teacher,

told us that two planes had hit the World Trade Center, and the White House was on fire, the Pentagon attacked.  We thought he was kidding.  Mark Mitchell burst into stunned laughter.  Classmates began calling their parents who worked in the New York City.  I came home to my teary father, who hugged me and paced around the living room, devastated.  We went with a friend of his he had been seeing to a temple the next day to grieve.  On September 12th, there was a terrible smell of decay.  Only a week before, my friends and I had attended a boat tour of the NYC skyline for my friend Lisa’s sweet 16– the last time we would ever see the city whole.  I was writing for my high school newspaper, and we debated what to put in the next issue.  What should be our focus? Our teachers refused to turn on the televisions to keep calm, but students went to computer labs that week to download images of the crumbled towers.

In 2002, I took the PSAT, AP exams, and had my first boyfriend (no comment, but tragically, he loved anime, a type of Japanese animation).  He fetishized East Asian women (I hate the idea of racial/ethnic fetishes- shudder!), and dumped me for a Korean girl, hoping she would be “submissive.”  Glad that relationship didn’t survive! I looked him up on facebook, and found him overweight with long, greasy brown hair to his waist, working in IT.

Joshing Around in College

In 2003, I proudly served as my school newspaper’s features editor, and applied to colleges, a mess of anxiety.  I was accepted early decision into Sarah Lawrence, and felt more dread than excitement about university life.  In 2004, I finished up my freshman year in a difficult semester, full of drama and disappointment.  I joined facebook– back when just a few universities could participate! That summer, I interned at the Anti-Violence Project, and was fired from IHOP for being a shitty waitress.  I handed out copies of my poetry chapbook to my office coworkers.

In 2005, I took economics, history, and had a difficult summer at home.  The following year, in 2006, I spent the summer interning at the U.N.  I lived in the Columbia dorms (hey- where Barack Obama went to college! yay), and hung out with my friends who lived nearby in International house.  In 2007, I traveled to Uganda and Rwanda for the first time for a study abroad program with Makerere University, living with Ugandan host families in Kampala (Kanyanya) and Busia.  My life has never been the same since then.

Studying Abroad in Uganda, 2007...

That fall, I began my master’s in journalism.  While I had been in Uganda, I debated whether to go into international relations, development studies or journalism after getting accepted into three different master’s programs.  My heart was in journalism, so for better or worse (I didn’t realize the extent of problems in the industry), I began my new, exciting life at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism– community board meetings in Queens, living at International House with Adeola, Nadia, and other amazing friends, and (not) doing ballroom dancing or salsa (I have two left feet, to put it mildly!).

24 and with a master's degree in journalism! Graduation- Me, Jeff Jarvis.

Through CUNY, I got a grant from the Knight Foundation to intern at New Vision, and ended up going back to the English daily to work after graduation.  I also got a grant from CUNY to start my Ugandans Abroad website and Africa Connections company, which launched at the end of November.

I have no idea what the next decade will bring.  Journalism? Marriage? East Africa? New York? Someplace entirely new? Children?

God, I am staying tuned… please love and protect me in these years ahead.
Surround me in your love, and help me to grow as a person, writer, journalist, daughter and friend.



Where I will be for my 25th birthday?

New Bills for Ugandan Women

My colleague Raymond Baguma wrote an amazing article for Women’s eNews that ran yesterday.  Check an excerpt below, then click to read the rest on the Women’s eNews website.

Uganda’s parliament recently passed bills on domestic violence and female genital mutilation. Now one female lawmaker hopes colleagues will approve in January long-awaited modernizations of marriage and divorce.

KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–After parliament’s recent passage of key laws to protect women here, Jane Alisemera Babiha, chair of the Uganda Women Parliamentarians Association, is hoping a bill to modernize laws on marriage and divorce will sail through in January.

“We are anxious to have this law passed by the beginning of next year,” Alisemera told Women’s eNews recently.

“It is only natural that as women, we should champion for the cause of our fellow women who we represent,” added parliamentarian Mary Karooro Okurut, representative of the Bushenyi district. “But in our campaign, we are also enlisting the support of men.”

The proposed law grants women the right to divorce spouses for cruelty and impotence. It also gives women the right to consent to marriage, often overlooked in African traditional weddings arranged by family and clan elders.

The bill also prohibits the customary practice of widow inheritance. In some Ugandan communities, widows are inherited by their brothers-in-law even when they do not consent to the marriage. The law gives widows the right to remarry people of their choice.

Sex without consent in marriage is prohibited by the bill, and there are incentives in the law to promote co-ownership of property between spouses. It also establishes a female-friendly protocol in the event of divorce: equal division of property and finances

Ugandan Gen. Admits the IDP Camps Were Part of UG Military Strategy: A Bombshell Dropped (Literally)

It was a Friday night in Brooklyn, in my apartment that’s a mix of memories from New York and East Africa.  Ugandan crafts, earrings, and scarves liven up my otherwise typical New York journo-bedroom: books, magazines, newspapers, too many cans of diet soda, a dirty gray, much-loved laptop, with the letters wearing off.  I was waiting for a friend to visit, decompressing after a week of excitement writing for Women’s eNews, the New York Post, and working on stuff for my diaspora news company, Africa Connections.  Out of habit, I quickly scanned the latest headlines on the Kampala-based Independent’s website, and scanned a story about Northern Uganda.  Then, what—–!

To my horror, I read an admission that a Ugandan general leaked in an interview with the Observer, a Kampala-based Ugandan weekly newspaper.  Without thinking, he blurted out that the IDP camps were part of deliberate military strategy, something the Ugandan government has been denying for decades.  (The war in Northern Uganda was actually the longest-running conflict on the African continent.)

What are IDP camps? Well, for those who haven’t had the experience of visiting NGO-City (in northern Uganda, the joke is that there is an NGO for every person living there), almost 2 million people lived in “internally displaced person camps” for decades, or camps for people who are refugees within their own country.

Some people still live in them, but most of the camps have closed down (forcing people, many of them disabled, to return to their former villages without transport or assistance, and causing deadly land disputes as people ofind their former homes occupied by new people), but in their heyday, 1.7 million people lived in these camps, where an estimated 1,500 people died weekly, a significant number children under five.  On average, three northern Ugandans would commit suicide daily in these camps, which were maintained largely by, well, NGO-City.  Women faced much more sexual and domestic violence in these camps than they would have ever endured in their villages.

Although people have known this for awhile (but don’t speak up, afraid of Uganda’s sedition laws or worse), the people who lived in the camps weren’t necessarily fleeing the LRA insurgency– many were actually fleeing the Ugandan army, the same military that receives a lot of aid and training from the U.S. government (the largest Africom exercise this year was in Northern Uganda).

To starve the rebels’ of youth (conscripted child soldiers), information, and stolen food, the military thought the best strategy would be to evacuate the ENTIRE region and put them into virtual-death camps.  I do not use that phrase lightly.  Before I read this article in the Independent, I never called the IDP camps that way, because I didn’t realize they were a direct part of the government’s military strategy.

Why did the government do this? Well, this way, the army could bomb and attack the LRA at will throughout Northern Uganda, at a time when the insurgency was being supported by the Khartoum-based Sudanese government (in response to Uganda backing Sudanese rebel groups).  Can you imagine destroying an entire region’s economy, homes, traditions, and social networks by forcing everyone to evacuate their residences, farms, etc. and live in IDP camps? The LRA was never stopped– they just moved their atrocities into the DR Congo and the Central African Republic.  Meanwhile, Uganda now has one of the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness in the world.

(I went to a conference in Lira, northern Uganda, over the summer, and one of the country’s psychologists–there are only twelve total in a country of 30 million- tried to defend Uganda’s mental health this way: ‘Well, Uganda is not that bad off.  Some countries are worse, like Sierra Leone.’  Yes, Sierra Leone was his reference point for defending the country’s mental health.  But the rate of mental illness in northern Uganda is off the charts, as well as in the urban refugee communities in Kampala, where Congolese refugees battle PTSD.  I visited the World Bank-funded mental hospital in Kampala to interview a Congolese teen girl whose family’s support from UNHCR had been stopped due to budget cuts.  She told me that she saw men with pangas, or machetes, everywhere– in her bedroom, in the marketplace, etc.  Her father and brothers had been killed in Bunia, DR Congo.  Her mother, who she lives with in Kampala, contracted HIV when she was raped by Congolese rebels.  When the girl Sarah first heard about her mother’s diagnosis, she went mute for months.)

I still cannot believe that this general finally admitted that the camps were not a by-product of LRA terror in Northern Uganda, but a deliberate strategy of the Ugandan government– which has always devalued the people of north and northeastern Uganda.  The Human Rights Watch even reported in the 1990s that the LRA were not the ones bombing northern Ugandan villages with mortars, but it was the Ugandan government bombing its own nationals.  Why? Aronda’s words now ring clear– the government, which has a long history of systemic violence against the region, bombed its own villages to encourage people to move to these IDP camps.  And anyone who left these camps to, say, cultivate their crops or visit their former homes, was treated as either a rebel or rebel collaborator.  Any independent political organizations that rose to challenge the treatment of northern Ugandans was also destroyed as a potential rebel-collaborating group.  All of this from a country and government that has been lauded for decades in the international community for its macroeconomic stability, its progressive policies towards women, successes in fighting HIV, and universal primary education programs.

My colleague Patrick Ogwang, who works for a Northern Ugandan newspaper called Rupiny. His aunt still works daily in the farm in Patrick's village, about 30 minutes from Lira town. I'm the woman in black on the right. Igor Kossov, an American journalist and former Sunday Vision writer, took this photo during our trip at a mental health conference. Northern Uganda has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the world.

In the camps, there was no economy, no farms for an agricultural people, no hygiene.  Reporting for the Washington Post in 2007, I interviewed northern Ugandans who had left the camps and were trying to rebuild their lives in Lira, a small agricultural town.  One young teen boy, at an NGO school for students with disabilities (disabilities are very common up north), showed me his leg, deformed by a bullet.  The government thought the LRA might have infiltrated the camp, and began shooting people, he said.  I remember I asked him who had shot him, and he whispered to me softly: “The UPDF.”  Moving along the classroom with crutches, he took lessons with another boy who accidentally broke his leg in the camp.  There was no medical infrastructure or way to go to a hospital.  He wasn’t treated, and his leg was left to fix itself on his own.

I interviewed Andrew about his experiences living in the camps, and his new life in Lira. The students were disabled because of both UPDF-inflicted injuries and the lack of health infrastructure in camps.

Northern Uganda is a much different place these days, as the camps have closed, and people have gone to traditional healers to try and treat madness, or mental illness.  Countless banks are in Lira and Gulu (another northern Ugandan town), and many new shops have sprung up.  Many of the NGOs, which kept the camps going, have left.  Life is going on.  Despite 2008’s floods, and a horrific drought this year, northern Ugandan farmers are trying hard to feed their families, make a living, and rebuild their communities.  Women are taking on traditional male tasks in rebuilding their homes, redefining gender roles.

But now that the Ugandan government has finally admitted to the military policy that guided it for decades, even during the ‘good’ years of the regime, I can’t help but wonder– what do we do with this information?

Before the government forced Northern Ugandans to live in camps, they had their own villages and towns, schools, a vibrant culture, and contributed to the country's economy as farmers and merchants. The camps took almost 2 million people and left them in a quagmire of NGO dependency, state and rebel violence.

This blog is a product of Africa Connections, which helps African immigrants connect with news from home.

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: I Actually Speak Up

LGBT Rights Activists

This is going to be a strange post from me, since I usually keep silent on LGBT issues in Uganda.  After reading about a 2002 campaign by Ugandan activists to deport American journalist Katherine Roubos during her internship with the Kampala-based Daily Monitor for her analytical coverage of a gay rights’ court case, I’ve never wanted to comment.  Although the articles were assigned to Roubos by her editor, who praised her “enterprising and reliable reporting,” and she did not take an editorial perspective, hundreds of Ugandans gathered that August in a rugby field to demand her deportation, calling her a “homo propagandist.”

Martin Ssempa, who I interviewed last summer for an unrelated story, spoke during the rally, and shared his google search of Roubos with the crowd.  Using the search engine, he saw that Roubos had been involved with Stanford University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center, and accused her of being a lesbian involved in spreading not journalism, but “criminal propaganda.”  For my Ugandan readers, such centers and programs are not uncommon in the U.S., especially at colleges.  Many hold events that celebrate diversity and support the campus’ LGBT students.

Despite my silence on these issues in the past, I have to speak up.  I can’t even begin to describe how disturbing I find the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is in a Ugandan parliamentary committee right now.  The bill is so severe it’s practically laughable; it would be satire if it wasn’t, well, real.

Homosexuality has always been illegal in Uganda, due to my favorite country’s (dated) colonial law, but this bill practically makes that draconian law look like a pride parade.  (The current law classifies homosexuality as a “crime against the order of nature.”)

Some low points:
-The bill would nullify any international treaties that don’t have an explicit anti-homosexuality sentiment.
-People engaging in homosexuality will face life imprisonment.  Those found spreading HIV through homosexual acts will be put to death, as will those who engage in homosexuality with minors and the disabled.
-Those with knowledge of homosexuals living in Uganda and don’t report the individual to the police within 24 hours can face three years in jail.
-Ugandans in the diaspora in gay relationships could be extradited back to Uganda and put in jail for life.

One big change in my life that happened as a result of living in Uganda was constantly interacting with people who misunderstand and hate gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  At first, I felt puzzled.  How could my kind, sensitive, intelligent and empathetic friends and coworkers really feel that way about gay people? I tried to keep my own background in perspective– after all, I am a child of two progressive parents who met at San Francisco State, liberal California transplants who now live in the suburbs of New York City.  I went to Sarah Lawrence College, where you can get a degree in LGBT studies.

This was very different from the background of my treasured coworkers and friends, needless to say.  I remember a professor from Sarah Lawrence, Joshua Muldavin (my don!),  who said our lives are full of many, many contradictions– and we need to hold those contradictions in our hands, and somehow draw strength from them.  This always confused me.  Don’t these contradictions weaken us, rather than strengthen us? My life in Uganda was full of many contradictions, exposing constant complexities I had never fully considered.  The twenty-year-old me would never grasp that I could have a friendship with someone who genuinely believes that gay people have to wear “Pampers” because of their anal sex lives.  But, this is what an incredibly kind coworker and neighbor told us at an editorial meeting at New Vison, and she genuinely believed it.

There is a ton of misinformation floating around in Uganda about gay people.  For instance, some coworkers at New Vision couldn’t tell the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia, perceiving homosexuality as something synonymous with, let’s say, a Ugandan male headmaster forcing his boy students into sexual acts (what that says about the education system, I don’t know!).

Homosexuality (as presented in the Ugandan media) seems inextricably linked to defilement, the English term for molestation.  My supervisor, trying to explain how homosexuality works to editors and reporters at an editorial meeting, said sympathetically that homosexuals are traumatized, formerly defiled children who repeat the cycle by defiling other boy students.  To me, homosexuality seems as linked to molestation as heterosexuality does– after all, the New Vision newspaper was full of stories of female students being molested by men in their communities, from teachers to relatives.  But to many of my colleagues, they couldn’t explain the difference between the two.

My SIT urban host mom also did not know what the term gay meant.  One time, in Kanyanya, she asked me if Michael Jackson was a “lesbian,” and did he really defile boy children in America? This made me laugh in surprise, and I told her that lesbians were women who had relationships with other women, and that adults who molest children in the U.S. are called “pedophiles.”
What we do know is that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill under review in a Ugandan Parliament committee is, well, insane.  Just the nullifying international treaties part alone is rather crazy.

At the CHOGM meeting last Friday in Trinidad and Tobago, Canada was openly hostile to Uganda, and the UK prime minister Gordon Brown tried to bring the issue up with President Museveni.  Activists there called for Uganda to be expelled from the Commonwealth if the bill passes.

What is even more fascinating is how American evangelicals have been involved in this bill.  Last March, three American evangelicals traveled to Uganda for a conference, hoping to “expose the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexuality agenda.”  The first is Scott Lively, president of Defend the Family International, and the second is Don Schmierer, an American author who works with, yes, homosexuality recovery groups.  The third is Caleb Lee Brundidge, who has made a career as a “sexuality reorientation coach.”  This would all be laughable in the sentiment of the film “But I’m a Cheerleader” (I love Natasha Lyonne in that film!), if it wasn’t all so dangerous.

Scott Lively is one of three American evangelists linked to lethal anti-gay bill in Uganda's Parliament

These American leaders have been working with Uganda’s Stephen Langa, an evangelist who runs the Kampala-based Family Life Network.  ‘As one parent told me,” said Langa, who accuses Uganda’s gay population of recruiting schoolchildren into homosexality.  “We would rather live in grass huts with our morality than in skyscrapers among homosexuals.”  Pastor Martin Ssempa, who I had great conversations with over the summer, has said Uganda no longer cares about Western donors, now that they have “oil money.”

Contradictions, contradictions.  Uganda has sold its oil fields to Canadian and now Italian investors, and a huge chunk of the country’s budget is also financed by Western governments.  But I guess on the issue of homosexuality (rather than on the issue of, I don’t know, national sovereignty?), Uganda is happy to break with the Western world.  Unless, of course, you are breaking bread with the sexual reorientation coaches of the world, but we’ll leave that to Langa to explain.