The anti-gay bill passed in Uganda is gratuitous in its cruelty. It criminalises the human body, speech, thought, intent, literature, music and language. In short it criminalises culture itself while claiming to be protecting African culture.
I therefore feel I cannot honor my invitation to visit Makerere University to give a lecture this August at the Mashariki Conference. There are things we simply cannot allow, and outlawing humanity should be at the top of the list. How does just being who are you become illegal? Should we not be protecting and celebrating our sexual diversity?
This is not an easy decision to make. Makerere University is very personal to me, both as a writer and a scholar. My father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o went to school there. The seminal 1962 conference, African Writers of English Expression, was held there. The decolonising intellectuals that shaped Africa with mixed results to be sure went there. Nothing would give me more intellectual and imaginative pleasure than to speak at Makerere. To my estimation, Makerere is the most important university in African history.
And I am aware of dissent within Makerere University and the Ugandan society over the law. And I can see the argument that by refusing to attend the conference, I am depriving the students at Makerere and myself an opportunity to interact and learn from each other.
But I keep asking myself the same question – would I have visited the University of Pretoria at the height of apartheid?
We have to draw a line somewhere and blatant telegraphed hate is as a good place as any. When it comes to human rights, we simply cannot have hierarchies.
We should all agree as a starting point – homosexuality is as African as Africa itself. And denying so is denying our very own humanity. And more than that we are making space for every kind of discrimination and exploitation. Women’s rights? It is not African culture for women to be free. Worker rights? It is not natural to have equality? Child labor laws? It is the African way that children work for their parents.
The road Yoweri Museveni has put Uganda on is so anti-decolonisation that it is as much reactionary as it is asinine. Museveni and his acolytes clearly are the problem!
Who died and made Museveni the lord of African culture? Or Christianity? Or DeSantis and Trump in the US the lords of a pure white American culture? They are all actively creating a climate of hate and they want to make it universal.
Culture wars are a sign of economic distress. Hyper capitalism has cast our societies in the stone camps of the rich and the poor and there is no release unless we really re-think how we have organised our societies. The release valve for African and Western politicians alike has been to give people stones so they may cast them at their relatives and neighbours. This is as true in Uganda as it is in Florida where being gay, or black, or an immigrant or woke is an anathema.
I have no illusions; I am a writer and academic and I doubt I am anywhere close to Museveni’s radar. But I can choose not to be part of a dangerous lie. People will die, are dying because it is easier to start a culture war than to change economic corruption, unequal trade relationships with the west, or to think about what is best for Uganda and the continent.
But the main thing for me as a writer is this, does that mean I cannot talk about some of my characters who are sexually fluid? I cannot read say my poem in support of LGBTQ Africans while in Uganda? What artistic honesty and integrity would I have then? For whom do we write? Or even better, whom do we listen to when we write?
What should solidarity look like? Why would I agree to censorship even before I set foot in Kampala?
I cannot imagine anything more unAfrican than this bill – it goes against the very spirit of Umntu Ngumntu Ngabantu We are because of others. I will not endorse or participate in this cruelty
Source: Brittle Paper
The writer, Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Unbury Our Dead With Song (Cassava Republic Press, 2020) and an associate professor of Literatures in English at Cornell University.