Monthly Archives: November 2009

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.


Happy Thanksgiving

The olden days, a.k.a. last summer in Kla

Hey everyone, how are you doing? Well, the site I am doing with Emmanuel is almost ready to go up, though our hosting site is being a bit difficult. Thanks for all your encouragement and support as we transition to our new web presence. This project was definitely a labor of love… and it will be live next Monday at

There has been all sorts of interesting/disturbing/fascinating stuff going on in Uganda and her neighbors…

-The U.N. released a damning report to some media houses (still haven’t been able to access the real thing) that said two Rwandan rebel groups, including the FDLR (composed largely of the former Interahamwe, which commited the Rwandan genocide), were recruiting in two refugees camps in Uganda– one of which I even visited in 2007, Nakivale, when I was with SIT. It also said that Uganda and Burundi were smuggling $1.2 billion in gold out of the DR Congo, purchasing gold from FDLR-controlled mines, and reselling it in the United Arab Emirates.
As a reporter, as sick it is, my first impulse was– whoa, what a story! I could imagine eight or nine follow-up stories coming from this report, and stories that would come from the follow-up story. Immediately, I began imagining commodity chains (it’s the Joshua Muldavin in me!). And this report had one hell of a commodity chain, from Spanish NGOs giving funds to the FDLR to recruiting in the camps that are repatriating their Rwandan refugees as we speak (I got to cover this for Women’s eNews!).  If you somehow can find a copy of this report, please let me know– I am dying to see it, and I don’t get why the UN leaked it so many press organizations, then didn’t share it with the public.

In eastern Congo, the mineral trade fuels and funds war-- at the expense of millions of people.

Other things that I have been paying attention to…

-If you want a good story, there’s always the General James Kazini murder saga (and see, this actually is a nice segway from the UN report, since Kazini spent a great deal of time looting minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo).  This famous general, who has led troops against all sorts of insurgencies in the Great Lakes region, was allegedly bludgeoned to death by his lover in Namuwongo, in one of the strangest stories I’ve heard in awhile.  Andrew Mwenda had a great take on it. Whether Lydia Draru, his 28-year-old lover, really killed this top general, I have no idea…

Continue reading

Three cheers for new media projects in the Sunshine Continent

Does this mean I won't need a good novel when I am surfing in Kampala?

I’m really excited about all the African new media sites I keep stumbling upon, from projects to blogs to new tools, or combos of all three.  Everything from open street maps that map Kenyan slums to Google Earth workshops in Kampala.  As I get ready to launch my own site (it’s not up yet) on November 30th (12 days and counting) with Emmanuel, I can’t help but be inspired by the exciting things I keep finding on the web.  I thought I would share with you things that are related to Africa and new media that I enjoy on the web…

1) I really like White African, a site that has introduced me to a lot of exciting new stuff on the web.  It’s run by Erik Hersman, who grew up in Kenya and the Sudan, and lives in the U.S. now with three daughters.  He has a personal blog, White African, and AfriGadget, which is about micro-entrepreneurs and tech ingenuity on the continent.  He consults for Ushaidi, which crowdsources crisis information, and his site is full of interesting links and info, to everything from African iphone games to Appfrica and remitting money through cell phones.  He tweets here (I’m addicted to Twitter these days– trying to say interesting things out, without being a twit! but I still like facebook status updates better).  Whenever I need inspiration, I check out his blog, or see what Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis are writing about.

2) Stop Stock-outs.  This is a project from Ushaidi that I think is pretty neat, using online maps.  The maps show stock-outs of essential medicines in Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia collected via SMS during the pill check week. Use the zoom scroller on the left side of the map to have a closer look and move the map around by clicking and dragging. Selecting a red “hotspot” will show you more detail. Larger dots represent a greater number of stock-outs.

3) Whoa, now this site blows my mind! I love apps (applications for google, facebook, iphones, blackberries, etc.), so this site was a must-visit for me.  So yum- Appfrica Labs! (This is coming from a girl who salivates over whatever Google comes out with next, especially if it’s related to Gmail.)  Also, yay– the CEO of Appfrica Labs live in Kampala! Check out Appfrica’s state of infotech, which has some really great graphics.

Underseas cables around the continent

Appfrica is how I learned about OpenStreetMaps mapping slum neighborhoods in Kenya.  I am working on a story right now that has about 3-4 graphs on Kibera, so this is pretty exciting.

Twelve young residents of Kibera will first be trained on current mapping techniques during a two-day workshop. Individuals from the growing Nairobi technology scene will help train and network with the larger community. The group will then map all of Kibera over a two-week period in mid-November and share the results through OpenStreetMap, joining a growing global community of tech-savvy grassroots mapmakers. “The project will provide open-source data that will help illustrate the living conditions in Kibera. Without basic knowledge of the geography of Kibera it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents of Kibera,” said Mikel Maron.

Check out:

-Google Earth workshops that happened in Kampala and Nairobi

-Pricing web development services in an African market

-Google Trader

Must. Reboot. Me.

So many confusing and exciting things have been happening recently, as I settle back into New York, trying to get back into my groove.  Part of me misses Uganda tremendously, while the other part of me is a bit infatuated with her beloved city. Sometimes my two worlds seem so different that it feels like the two might rupture, while other times these two continents that make up my heart (Africa, North America) seem more connected than ever.  Going through documents from the Population Council today, I was struck by a photo of a stand in a slum in Kibera that looked just like the countless stands I visited in Kampala.  One silly memory I have is a late Thursday night when I went to the stand by New Vision to buy airtime or a snack, I can’t remember.  I managed to drop my wallet into a crevice in the stand, spilling my cash, local and foreign atm cards, work ID, everything.  I nearly burst into tears, and the ladies who ran the stand found a stick.  We kept trying to push my wallet out of the crevice inside the stand, but things just got worse- coins, paper bills, everything was getting more and wedged in.  The lady went inside and began hitting my wallet with the stick, and somehow managed to lift everything outside, except for a few coins that are probably still there.

Looking at this memo at my desk in New York, I saw the stand and smiled.  How many women in stands like the one pictured did I buy airtimes, bottles of mineral water, hardboiled eggs, mandazi, and chapatis from? On Sundays, the stand near New Vision would close, and I would walk to Hot Loaf for snacks instead, a bakery in Kampala.  But nearly everyday, I went to that stand to top up my phone, and fill my shrinking stomach (losing weight from stress).

When I hang out with my Ugandan friends in America, or when I would hang out with American friends in Kampala, it would initially cause me ‘cognitive dissonance’ as Igor and I called it, but then would begin to feel really good.  Sometimes I just long to pull everyone into my room in New York (granted it’s small) that’s been a part of my life in both parts of the world.. or just have them all to one wickedly diverse dinner party.  My relatives from California and Utah… my parents and stepmom from Long Island… my friends from Sarah Lawrence and the j-school… my homestay family, and all my friends from New Vision that got so deep into my heart and under my skin.

Things feel so uncertain (when will my reporting go well? will my business succeed? will I be okay?) that sometimes it works against me.  I need to be working harder than ever, but sometimes I feel too scared to get out of bed and make calls, create content for the site, report.  Eventually I take a deep breath and do it, but this fear inside me of failure sometimes feels so paralyzing.

My former professor Fred Kaufman told me to find a strong female journalist that I like and copy her graphs, line by line, in caps in a notebook.  Eventually, he said, the confidence and strength will come.

What kills me is that I meet people who I know i should be able to have a real conversation with, and I am sometimes too scared or shy to use the strengths I know I have.  At this event I was at tonight, I should have gone up to Nicholas Kristof and introduced myself (why not?) or asked him a question, but instead i felt overwhelmed with shyness, even though I know my experiences could add value to a conversation with him.  I feel similarly whenever I talk to people I admire, or people more powerful/experienced/in a higher position than me.  For instance, if I didn’t feel so nervous or tongue-tied, I am sure I could have amazing conversations with my editor-in-chief (an incredible, knowledgeable woman who has done so much for me and taught me a great deal) about so many subjects, but I feel so small and tiny that I can barely work up the nerve.    Or my other editors– again, I feel so shy that I can’t have the conversations I need to have, whether it be about gender or journalism or politics or all three.

Some mornings, I am just so afraid of messing up, that I do mess up!

I force myself to reboot, and think– well, maybe November 3rd wasn’t so great, but November 4th is another opportunity to try again.


Photo 86

Reboot your friend/journalist/daughter/roommate/colleague.