By Jan Puhl in Kampala, Uganda
Michael Kawuba is sitting in his church office reflecting on tumescence. “We Ugandans get an erection when we see a beautiful woman,” he says. “Anything else is unnatural.”
During the day, Kawuba works as a financial advisor, but once he is finished, he rejoins the battle against homosexuality. A friendly man of 31, Kawuba is married and has three children — and he is not one to rant. But every second Sunday, he preaches to the Kakumba congregation. “The Bible forbade homosexuality. God rained down fire onto Sodom and Gomorrah” — he continues in this vein for hours at a time, standing behind a wooden pulpit. The sanctuary is spacious with a roof made of palm fronds. A band including guitar, bass and drums players pumps out gospel music while worshippers sing along, sway to the rhythm and stretch their arms heavenward as they call out “praise the Lord!”
On Feb. 24, God would seem to have finally heard their entreaties. That was the day that President Yoweri Museveni signed a law making “aggravated homosexuality” punishable with sentences of up to life in prison. A first draft of the law had even called for the death penalty. Michael Kawuba invited friends over for the event and they watched their head of state sign the new statute. “We cheered like we were watching football,” Kawuba says.
According to one survey, 96 percent of all Ugandans find homosexuality unacceptable and many are in favor of locking away gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Uganda has long been a model country in Africa: Though the regime is authoritarian, the country is stable and economically successful. Now, it has one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the continent, trailing only Nigeria’s Muslim north, Mauretania, Somalia and Sudan. Now, homosexuality is a punishable offense in 36 of Africa’s 54 countries.
Afraid of Attacks
The international community was horrified: The United States slashed development aid to Uganda, the Europe Union threatened to impose sanctions and the United Nations warned the country to uphold human rights. But the reactions have done little to help the gays and lesbians in Uganda: Many have gone into hiding or fled the country. They believe that a wave of arrests is pending. Most of all, though, they are afraid of attacks from anti-gay activists.
There are thousands of congregations like that of lay-preacher Michael Kawuba. They tend to be small, but are often radical. Many of them, including Kakumba Church, maintain close contacts with evangelicals in the US whose self-proclaimed mission is that of bashing homosexuals. In 2009, for example, the ultra-right-wing activist Scott Lively traveled to Uganda claiming, among other things, that gays are to be blamed for the Holocaust.
The new law, following years of debate, has led to an increase in hate in the country. Though homosexuality has long been forbidden in Uganda, and gays and lesbians were often the target of abuse, nobody was locked away for it. There were even bars and clubs where they could go undisturbed. But that has now changed.
‘No Chance Against a Mob’
Attacks against gays and lesbians now occur on an almost daily basis, with human rights activists counting more than 70 cases since the law was signed. Dennis Wamala’s boyfriend, an actor, decided to stay in France following a theater trip to the country — out of fear. “We aren’t so much afraid of the police,” Wamala says. “When you get arrested, you can get yourself a lawyer. But you don’t have a chance against a mob. Many in Uganda would prefer to see us dead.” He says that the new legislation is a green light for people to take the law into their own hands.
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