By Ogova Ondego
Published September 22, 2008
Same gender sex is currently raising moral and legal hairs in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Coupled with often confusing notions like human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy, homosexuality is becoming a thorny issue in this part of the African continent where largely conservative cultures are clashing with sexual liberalism in a world galloping headlong towards westernisation.
When ArtMatters.Info reviewed Same Gender Unions: A Critical Analysis, a new book on homosexuality in Africa published by UZIMA Press of Nairobi, Nick Redding, one of our subscribers, wrote in to caution ArtMatters.Info: “It is disappointing that the premier arts internet service in Kenya should be promoting a book with such an obviously bigoted and prejudiced attitude to same sex union. Many of the greatest artists of all time have been gay–Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, to name but three–and it is certain that many artists in this country are also gay. The arts worldwide have made a point of inclusiveness, celebrating diversity and individuality. ArtMatters.Info should take note.
Stan Barua, another Kenyan subscriber living in Canada, sent in his response that contradicted Redding’s: “The unfortunate response by Nick Redding to the book review on homosexuality in Kenya not only contains comments that are quite speculative (on “greatest artists of all time”, on Michelangelo, and da Vinci), untrue (on the arts worldwide), misrepresentation (on celebrating diversity and individuality), but are themselves bigoted in their demands that ArtMatters.Info paint an untrue picture of prevailing African sentiment on homosexuality just to fit the writer’s position.”
This came at a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury, the titular head of the Anglican Church in the world, was cautioning the Anglican community against using ‘harsh terms’ to describe homosexuals.
And so the raging debate has forced ArtMatters.Info to find out why there are mixed feelings on gay lifestyle in Africa with a focus on East Africa.
Traditional rural values in most parts of Africa hardly ever leave any room for homosexuality that is viewed as anti-social behaviour by the largely religious Africans who hold beliefs, traditions, and norms zealously.
Lawyer Jennifer Wanjiku Miano argues that the Judeo-Christian morality that most Kenyans live by is against homosexuality and this makes Kenyans to frown on homosexuality although the Kenyan constitution forbids discrimination of any kind.
Miano says that the local media are unlikely to cover any views that may be viewed as going against the social norm. An exclusive interview on homosexuality she did with a leading television network, she says, was not aired. The contention in an African country like Kenya, she adds, is that homosexual ‘rights’ may not be a priority since there are so many unsatisfied basic needs competing for attention.
Asked whether homosexuals have any rights, Miano says, “At one time gay rights could be treated as human rights.”
“Since they are a minority, homosexuals may require protection and therefore gay and lesbian rights could soon be considered human rights,” says Miano, the Kenya Human Rights Commission executive director.
But Stephen Maina, an Anglican Church priest, says homosexuals may have rights only as far as they are citizens and not as homosexuals.
“Mutual consent among consenting adults does not make homosexuality right while the right to privacy is not a right to immorality,” he says.
Miano nevertheless admits, “Cultural relativity is important in determining human rights.”
Reminded that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Human Rights do not recognise the ‘rights’ of homosexuals, Miano says behaviour is accepted as part of a culture through practice. She says Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights only recognises sexual unions between men and women. Even then, the KHRC boss says rights are universal and that everyone has a right to enjoy them. Everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of fundamental rights regardless of one’s sexual preference, as one is human first before being anything else.
The Rev John Gichinga of Nairobi Baptist Church suggests that sex change could do for people who feel they are trapped in the wrong body as happened with a man who underwent a sex change at Kenyatta National Hospital in the 1980s and became known as Mueni.
Basing their argument on the United Nations’ definition of human rights as “those rights which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot live as human beings,” anti-gay activists argue say homosexuality cannot be said to be a right as no one is known to have died for not participating in gay behaviour.
Awake! magazine quotes a lawyer arguing that the UN uses the term ‘Rights’ instead of ‘Needs’ to protect humans against deprivation.
Rights, as opposed to Needs, elevate the satisfying of human needs to something every human being is morally and legally entitled to.
Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 56 years old and does not address emerging and un-addressed issues like homosexuality, should it be re-written? UN Secretary-General, Ghanaian Kofi Annan, is quoted as responding: “Just as there is no need to rewrite the Bible or the Koran, there is no need to adjust the Declaration. What needs to be adjusted is not the text of the Universal Declaration, but the behaviour of its disciples.”
In most African countries, where homosexuality is both a crime and taboo, it is almost impossible to find any one who will readily and openly admit to being gay. And few people with ‘human rights’ credentials are willing to stick out their necks by putting homosexuality on their agenda as they draw a line between morality and law.
Although protesting the discrimination of single women in Kenya, Alice Ndegwa, coordinator of the Forum for Single Women’s Rights, says her lobby group cannot champion homosexuality.
Lesbian and gay relationships, she says, are against nature and God’s teachings and that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
“Homosexuality is awful and I wouldn’t want any one to participate in it. Homosexuality is bad behaviour and not part of human rights,” she says.
It is foolhardy, she stresses, for a person to excuse immoral behaviour by simply saying one’s genes demand that one steals, molests children, or commits suicide, for example.
Describing homosexuality interchangeably as “perversity” and “a deficiency of one’s moral sense” in BBC Focus on Africa magazine, the Rev Christopher Mtikila of Tanzania contends perversity should not be confused with human rights.
The Rev Maina argues that the gay lifestyle is contrary to what he terms “essential” and “sociological” nature as the Rev Gichinga adds that homosexuality is as evil as bestiality.
Dr Sylvia Tamale, a lecturer of law at Makerere University in Uganda argues in BBC Focus on Africa magazine that the non-acceptance of homosexuality is as bad as racism and apartheid. However, her detractors contend that the call for “human rights” does not mean one is free to undermine society, morality, or social values.
Homosexuality, to Dr Tamale, “represents the last bastion of legally backed and state-sanctioned oppression and intolerance on the African continent.”
But what is homosexuality and how does it develop?
Homosexuality, according to experts, is a sociological deviation from the normal heterosexual behaviour between males and females that may develop in a person at puberty through the influence of peers, curiosity, experimentation, abuse, or mass media.
Michael Moloney, a family counselor and author of Teenagers, Sex and Love, speculates that environment is a possible cause of homosexuality.
“A number of young people may go through a homosexual phase in early adolescence and then move on to establish a firm heterosexual identity,” he says.
Although many pre-adolescents are likely to get attracted sexually to members of their own sex, this desire usually disappears as one gets into adulthood. But feelings alone do not make one a homosexual.
Academic Taban Lo Liyong argues that keeping boys and girls away from each other may encourage sexual deviance. To avoid this, he suggests that boys and girls, and men and women, should live together and interact freely so that any deviance may be displayed and checked before it entrenches itself in one’s life. Indeed Prof ABC Ocholla-Ayayo of the University of Nairobi concurs that gay and lesbian practice is taking root in single sex boarding schools in Kenya as adolescent students experiment with sex or sexually abuse one another as a form of bullying.
The pampering of a child by a parent may stifle the child’s instincts for the opposite sex and lead to gay or lesbian sexual orientation, behavioural scientists say.
A negligent, absent, or abusive father who fails to give his son acknowledgement, love and approval or a possessive mother may drive the son into homosexuality.
Sometimes a mother who wanted a daughter but got a boy may gratify her inner wishes by treating the boy like a daughter to the extent that the former may be infected by the mother’s affection and become what experts call “a girl at heart”. His girlish tendencies may make him succumb to temptations from homosexuals and end up becoming gay.
Similarly a father who wanted a son very much but got a daughter instead, may prepare the daughter into a man. The girl may never realise this until later when she loses interest in men or is outrightly rejected by men and only women find her sexually attractive.
While there may be no consensus on the real causes of homosexuality, researchers argue that causation does not excuse behaviour and that homosexuality cannot be understood from only one perspective.
Interviews we conducted among people from across Africa(Kenya, Tanzania mainland, Zanzibar, Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mauritania, South Africa, Botswana, Morocco, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Egypt) indicate that homosexuality is a taboo.
Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have declared homosexuality a crime. Zanzibari parliamentarians passed a law on April 13, 2004 that will see convicted gay couples locked away for 25 years and their lesbian counterparts imprisoned for seven years.
Sociologist Ken Ouko of the University of Nairobi writes in The Big Issue (a weekly pullout in The Standard newspaper) that homosexuality is not only spiritually nauseating but also “negates the designation of particular organs in the male and the female for ‘coital congruence’.”
Ouko adds that homosexuality remains morally unacceptable by traditional standards although homosexuals attribute their orientation to an increasingly assertive female population that has little time for men but career and who relentlessly pursue feminist ideals of independence.
“Whether by typology and causality,” Ouko stresses,” homosexuality remains socially digressive.”
Ouko further argues that far from evening out the power play in sex, homosexuality is a preserve of the well to do who use it to de-humanise and humiliate the poor, perpetuating the gap between the rich and the poor.
But why is homosexuality frowned upon in Africa?
Homosexuality, according to Peter Akinola, the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, is a sin, rebellion against God, rejection of God’s order and will, and violence to nature.
Like bestiality, homosexuality is a form of slavery, Akinola writes in Church Times.
Moloney argues, “African tradition generally has not accepted homosexuality because of the strong link in African culture between sexuality and the giving of new life through procreation.”
Besides being a perversion, homosexuality is opposed on the ground of its promiscuity, lack of serious commitment among couples, disease, and sadomasochism (the joy of degrading and being degraded).
People “caught in homosexual behaviour should be hanged immediately,” suggests anthropologist Prof Ocholla-Ayayo. “Human beings learn more quickly when punitive measures against wrongs are instant and non-discriminating.”