One gay man's adventures in Uganda
A trip to Africa comes with untold hurdles, mostly in the few months leading up to departure. It seems everyone who's ever watched an early morning infomercial spotlighting plights of the continent has tales to share of cousins gone blind, spontaneous death and every disease dreamt of by hypochondriacs. News and travel guides paint pictures of idyllic beauty fraught with dangers — an Eden where snakes run wild.
A friend of mine was in Uganda to teach and the offer to visit was left open, though I knew little of what to expect. Attempts at research turned up tomes on the life of military dictator Idi Amin or religious fanaticism in a tiny region of the north. Travel guides panned the cheaper joys of Uganda, highlighting instead more expensive experiences in Kenya or Tanzania. I absorbed all I could, discovering the best glimpse of how the country looks today within scenic shots of The Last King of Scotland, though it couldn't fully prepare me for the experiences to come.
Uganda is a country of rolling hills and endless green. Landlocked, it sits as part of the so-called cradle of life, boasting of our origins and legendary links to the fountain of youth. Once there it's not hard to see why; the vegetation overpowers, making eyes water with a flood of fresh smells, the wind sweet with grass. Thick clouds of diesel pollution are quickly dissipated by nature. Endless hills hide the eternal beauty of the country, sights waiting to overwhelm, springing out at unwary travellers with something new at each apex. No picture in National Geographic could ever properly paint it.
Roads twist through villages and farms. The rules of the road are an archaic system of trial and error, a life experience with Grand Theft Auto reflexes. Kampala, Uganda's capital, highlights the insanity with police on foot, scattered traffic lights and complex roundabouts that leave little margin for error. With its endless rises and falls — like San Francisco to the extreme — the city opens around you, leaving everything offered up for inspection.
Instead of tear-jerking postcards of paupers, I saw slums where villagers worked with smiles to match the gardens of any richer house perched higher up the hill. All the people, regardless of class, dressed their best, regardless of what tasks awaited them. In Uganda men wear slacks (shorts are apparently seen as a sign of unruliness, tolerated only on foreigners), long-sleeved shirts and are all cleanly shaven. The women, in styled hair and fancy smocks, walk with the pride of queens, smiles completely majestic.
The famed consumerism of western cultures that saturates places like Dubai hasn't firmly taken root in Uganda yet. Locals seemed to consider extreme luxury items like electric washers and dryers as unimportant, almost silly, while rapidly experimenting with cell phones and fancier dress. Sights of someone in a fresh Prada suit emerging from a slum were not uncommon. Almost everyone has a cell; everywhere you see people rapidly typing with their thumbs to utilize the cheaper texting service. Coming from North America, where we are trained to feel pity for anyone not living the ideal middle-class life, the friends I made in Uganda showed me a renewed satisfaction with simply walking, leisurely going forward, not letting any worries trouble them, just living.
Clutching the back of the motorbike seat as my boda-boda driver glided down sloping alleys, weaving between slower, cumbersome taxi-buses that putter everywhere, my knees locked on his waist until the zen in chaos washed over me. Zipping through the city I am amazed at the number of people and the variety of jobs they're doing, from eagle-eyed parking attendants guarding roadside spots to phone booths (in truth just tents containing young women with cell phones), to gas stations where every aspect of the visit is handled by a separate employee.
Everyone greets each other with a smile, an exchange of hellos and "How are you?" A question always answered with "Fine" and another smile, no matter how dour the day. Over time more familiar relationships breach personal ground, though I found it much easier to pry into the lives of Ugandans than to answer questions tossed my way.
"Girls must like you," observes Joseph, my boda-boda driver after I quizzed him about his family. "I guess. Never noticed," I respond absently, nervous about where he was heading with the inquiry.
Sure enough next came questions about my age and lack of marriage in my future. I answer quickly, "Too much on the go, no time for women," a response that was accepted with wide grins and knowing laughs.
Though I never feared for my safety as a gay man in Uganda the fact remains that, politically, homosexuals are not welcome.
A country touched by missionaries in every corner, Uganda is surprisingly warm and loving, but quick to shun what religion tells them is wrong. In 2004 Uganda was the first country in the world to adjust its constitution to declare marriage something strictly between man and woman. The laws don't mention homosexuality as such, but sodomy — either doing, trying to do or trying to find — is criminalized and remains heavily penalized, sometimes up to seven years in prison. The political theatre of the country has seen current president Yoweri Museveni denounce homosexuality as something introduced to the country by foreigners. Some religious and political fanatics have championed instituting a life sentence for openly practicing homosexuality, yet no one has been charged or prosecuted for being "gay" per se.
Oddly enough Uganda's people seem generally too concerned with work and football to put much heed in political ravings. It is acknowledged that there are same-sex encounters happening in the widespread boarding schools, but it seems that it's only when one adds the words "gay" or "homosexual" that it is considered something outside of the natural.
The internet speaks of an underground gay movement in Uganda but it seems to exist only online. There are some — often married straight couples — who talk of championing gay causes, but the few gay men I met seemed resigned to the lack of gay rights crusades, content to live Victorian existences, closeted but with a clever air over others, in on a private joke. But this is the foreigners' point-of-view — local homosexuals remain completely without rights, despite the fact that gay organizations claim to have more 160 different members in Kampala.
Gay identity as we understand it just doesn't exist in Uganda. Men and women mainly keep to themselves, presenting different faces among their peers than they do in mixed company. Male friends hold hands while walking, sharing triumphs and pains in relationships seemingly void of sexual tension, but full of genuine concern and interest. Over the few weeks I was there I discovered friendships with men that were more rewarding than any relationship I'd encountered before.
In Kampala the most shocking thing about me was that I am white, still a rarity in those areas. It seemed that nothing I could do would make someone challenge me as a fag, short of straddling someone with my cock out (and perhaps then they'd only think I was drunk). Effeminate behaviour seemed to be completely acceptable to the men of Uganda.
Men in Uganda present a wide range of feminine and masculine traits, having elaborate hissy fits over small matters one moment and posturing toughly the next. There are vast variations in men's behaviour — some more feminine, some more masculine — presenting the perfect cover for any gay behaviour. That said many gay men living in Uganda avoid trouble by using a woman as a "beard" both to avoid awkward questions from Ugandan friends and any possible violently homophobic encounters, which word of mouth threatens is a real occurrence (though I certainly didn't witness any during my visit).
This sense of camouflage lends itself greatly to examining the wide range of beautiful men; you can take a gander without being suspected of sizing someone up, as long as you offer a smile. More dangerous is cruising fellow muzungus — the local term for foreigners — who stick out as much for their choice of fashion as their skin colour. Among muzungus, where gay is a more understood term, eyes lingering on some backpacker are more likely to be noticed the way they would in the West, with unpredictable consequences. Many foreigners come to Uganda for its unquestioning loyalty to religion, and any of the extremes expected within.
Ronald Grover, my Canadian host, says he appreciates the solitude he's found in Uganda as well as new bonds discovered among men and a complete absence of the pressure to look a certain way when walking Church St.
"There's so much less posturing, no need to show off and preen. You can finally be at peace with yourself and really believe it," says Grover, smiling over pizza at New York Kitchen (NYK), a popular destination for almost every muzungu in the capital.
"Granted it can get lonely," he adds, "but if you're really desperate South Africa or Europe are a hop away."
"Bollocks, why bother," disagrees Terrance Johnz, a familiar muzungu at NYK who comes by way of Germany, but whose accent is purely British.
"You ask me, all the white guys here play ball," says Johnz, pausing to grin devilishly at a shyly staring tourist, before dictating a list of cruising spots including NYK.
Then again what might seem like cruising could simply be startled excitement at seeing others from abroad, curiosity about why you are there and what news you might bring. While in Uganda I erred on the side of caution. It was most definitely a vacation for looking, not touching.
Toward the end of my trip I was exposed to more conventional cruising grounds — a local club called Rock Bar — where the stakes were raised, boundaries blurred with delicate interpretation of physical postures under the influence of booze and other delicacies found in clubs, which in Uganda cost pennies. My host and I were accompanied by Grover's unofficial wife Karen and her visiting friend named Shy, who played the part of my lover. In exchange for acting as my beard I was expected to protect her honour from any random Ugandans, who would ask politely before trying to take her home with them.
Inside, glamorous prostitutes danced daintily, cruising muzungus wherever they could be cornered, while the local men danced wildly to a mix of modern African reggae and calypso with early '90s western pop and rap. A few couples peppered the scene but the majority were groups of men out for kicks and clusters of women observing them at different angles than they would be able to in church.
For the most part muzungus barely moved but did drink, chat or give in to prostitutes for cheap dances and expensive photo-ops. It was a rare muzungu who will go in for the full deed, so prostitutes are left to secure their funds elsewhere. The vibe was free and unthreatening, despite a small fight that fizzled to the edges of the dancefloor before dying altogether, others dancing all the while. I could not fathom why none of the other muzungus attempted to kick it with the locals. For me dancing in a club in Africa was monumental.
I was an instant spectacle. (Bear in mind that there are many in Uganda who have never seen a muzungu, and then add the shock of one dancing energetically.) We were overtaken by observers taking pictures on cells, groups of women danced pressed against me, with glossy lips excitedly celebrating me. Shy was overcome by the number of women she needed to deflect, forcefully declaring our imaginary coupledom.
While Shy was distracted I discovered a whole new curiosity. A group of young men had joined the dance around me — to share in the free attention of the women, I thought — but as the prostitutes faded away, the men did not leave with them. Some attempted to continue dancing with me and one even provoked Shy to enact the same protocols of intervention previously aimed at the women. But the men were much harder to chase away.
An American dollar goes far in Uganda and even a budgeted muzungu has more money to throw around than most locals. Our new friends sent out a wild twist of signals that Grover and I were desperate to interpret as we bought them drinks and cigarettes. One second it seemed plain that they were milking us for money. The next they were after "our women," but soon we were convinced we'd found the only out men in Uganda, so strong their grabs became as we danced. Completely unable to flirt back I was endlessly spun by the idea I was getting the wrong impression. We let them steer us to new venues while we kept up our facades, revelling in the excitement before sneaking off into the night.
My eventual departure from Uganda would prove more difficult than expected and the culture shock upon my return was completely disturbing. Like Grover I experienced a feeling of peace and felt more relaxed and secure in myself than ever before in a country that should, by all outward accounts, make me feel closeted and sad.
Grover was ending his first year in glee, eager to return for another. Johnz claims he'll never leave. All the lurid expectations painted on the Discovery Channel fade away like old photos in the sun. Uganda is a place I will want to return to, every time I close my eyes.