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Dominic Mhiripiri '12: Understanding the odd story of gay rights in Africa

The gay rights movement, for all its endless challenges inside America and other Western nations, faces an even bleaker future in Africa. Pitted against the social aftermath of a continent that wallowed in colonial establishments for almost a century, and a stubbornly conservative culture spanning virtually every single country from South Africa to Egypt, Senegal to Ethiopia — the prospects do not look good for the countless Africans who seek to enter into same-sex relationships and marriages.

Even in a place affectionately known to its natives as the "continent of dreams" and the "rhythm of our existence" — Africa is no refuge for the LGBTQ community, a fact epitomized by developments in one small country sitting at the very heart of the continent.

No Brown student has a legitimate excuse not to be interested in knowing about this.
Uganda is a beautiful country — carpeted with a central African equatorial savanna landscape and full of nature's generous endowments of flora and fauna, a warm people whose charisma and sense of humor are never lost when they leave for faraway lands (if you meet one at Brown, you will understand) and an epic, storied history of a torturous political journey through colonialism and post-independence eras. The country's former military dictator, the infamous Idi Amin who reigned between 1971 and 1979, inspired the Hollywood blockbuster thriller, "The Last King of Scotland."

But today, Uganda stands at the crossroads of a continent's defining moment for the gay rights movement. A law proposed to the Ugandan parliament last year by tough-talking legislator David Bahati — now a subject of intense debate across the world — seeks to make some homosexual acts punishable by death. The Anti-Homosexual Bill of 2009 goes a step further than current laws that ban gays and lesbians by including capital punishment. The legislation has strong support from the country's evangelical Christian groups and within the government itself, in a country where 95 percent of the general population is reportedly opposed to legalizing homosexuality.

However, the West has predictably been shaken by the legislator's move. World leaders, international organizations and general people alike have roundly criticized Bahati and his "accomplices," with President Obama recently condemning the bill as "odious." I have personally talked to many people at Brown and RISD about Uganda's story, and even by standards of the huge liberal inclinations on College Hill, I have obtained extremely one-sided takes on this controversial issue. From mild surprise at the nature of the bill, to teeth-gnashing, table-banging reactions to the impending legislation, I have listened to countless varieties of discontent.

And this is exactly where my problem with all these "open-minded" people lies.
Those at Brown and in the U.S., who without any sort of understanding seek to batter and insult those opposed to them across the cultural divide, definitely need a little sense drilled into their heads. First, however misplaced Uganda's intentions may be, they are very understandable. African culture is traditionally ultra-conservative, South Africa notwithstanding.

The reality of Africa lies in its wise old men and women, the generation of their children (my parents), and the established culture that defines their history. They sit at the apex of Africa's social hierarchy and tell their children that marriage is for a man and a woman, that anything outside of this is taboo and unacceptable. They hold homosexuality as an appendage of Western or imperialistic influence on their continent, and no one can question the basic logic of such convictions. Respecting these men and women means respecting their beliefs and culture.

America itself, as a powerful example, has been on a winding road with issues of race for centuries, and that process is far from over — a post-racial America is not yet here. Meanwhile, a more contemporary issue — homosexuality and gay rights — has joined that road as a challenge that requires a very long process full of great divisions across the country and immense struggles on the minority group fighting for their particular cause. The sensational defeat of the gay rights agenda in all 31 American states where the issue was put to vote signifies that even this country is not yet united in opening the doors for marriage equality.

Brown students, and the Western world that they mirror, must realize that only by understanding first, without patronizing those who differ, will open the doors of understanding and dialogue. I'm sure Africa will not welcome any lecturers on how to make its own decisions — and the "where-have-you-been-slash-we-know-it-all" attitudes I have seen and heard will not solve any problems. Especially from people who do not have their own house in order on the very same issue.

I obviously do not support the "barbaric" elements in Uganda's proposed legislation. Killing people for who they want to be is unconscionable and not acceptable. Yet I want those who differ to do so with understanding — without patronizing or hastening Africa to force all notions of Western culture down its reluctant, conservative throat. Change towards more tolerance in Uganda is good for humanity, and therefore imperative and inevitable. Yet that change should only be gradual and respected by all.

Dominic Mhiripiri '12 is from an even more beautiful country than Uganda. He can be reached at
dominic_mhiripiri at


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