Africa needs a sober debate on homosexuality
Tradition does not excuse injustice and hatred.
(Kevin Odit, Nation Media Group)
A Kenyan court recently upheld the use of a degrading and humiliating anal test which purports to diagnose homosexuality. The decision was made in a case brought before the court in the coastal city of Mombasa by two men accused of sodomy. The case is the latest in a string of spurious prosecutions under Kenya’s anti-homosexuality law.
Kenya’s penal code assigns a punishment of up to 14 years in jail for persons convicted of being the subjects of consensual “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” Though no conviction has been made under the law yet, is has been the pretext for many violations of the dignity of persons suspected to harbour homosexual tendencies.
The decision of the Mombasa court, of course, has been taken up by the LGBT lobby to protest against Kenya’s, and by extension Africa’s, rank homophobia. I never imagined I would say this, but I’m with them this time round.
Well, up to a certain point, of course. Here’s why: the African view of homosexuality, while healthy and correct in most cases, tends from time to time to be tainted by extremism. When reason collapses it gives way to irrational and unjust hatred.
To say that homosexuality is un-African is true to some extent, in as much as it is contrary to age-old African values. However, Africans touting this as a pretext for discriminating against gays need to remember that the first Sub-Saharan African Christian martyrs were actually the victims of an African king overtaken by homosexual lust.
In the late 19th century, the young Kabaka Mwanga II of the Baganda Kingdom (in present-day Uganda) was a little too fond of his pages. Some of the pages and their chief, Charles Lwanga, were among the first Christian converts in the kingdom.
They opposed the king’s tendencies and refused to give in to his unnatural demands. The enraged king had them subjected to the worst kinds of torture and put to death. The Catholics among them have since being canonised by the Catholic Church.
It is true that, in recent years, the gay rights campaign has been promoted mainly by Western lobby groups and governments. But to say that the problem is a Western phenomenon is akin to the proverbial monkey that laughs at the backside of its mates, blissfully ignorant of the fact that its own looks similar.
The topic is still uncomfortable for many in Africa. For most, the mere possibility that a man can be sexually attracted to another man is anathema. It’s not a matter for debate or mature intellectual discourse. Here one gets the sense that homosexuals are a verminous threat to African purity and need to be ruthlessly squashed, by whichever means, to keep this purity intact.
Policemen, who are supposed to be the custodians of the law, but are also members of one of the most corrupt and inept institutions in Kenya, routinely take advantage of this situation. They offer protection from the law to those who can pay for it, and drag before the courts those who cannot, rendering the law unfair and ultimately useless. No wonder the law has achieved so little in terms of convictions.
The boundary between inclination and offence has been blurred, and verdicts are pronounced long before trial. Not only is this unfair, it violates all legal protocol. To be inclined to commit a crime is not a crime. And where wrong-doing cannot be proven, resorting to degrading means to obtain evidence is inexcusable. The victims of any lopsided system of justice are, more often than not, innocent people without the means to defend themselves.
Africa needs a sober and healthy debate on this issue. One can hide things under the carpet for only so long. Time, or some particularly spectacular event, will always peel away the carpet and lay bare what is hidden. Luckily though, for all its failures, the West holds many invaluable lessons for Africa in this regard.
Subjecting men to humiliating anal tests cannot dissuade people with homosexual tendencies from giving way to those tendencies. Either they will just find more clandestine ways to do so or, as they have done with incredible success in other places, they will go public, protest for their rights and “rights,” and normalize their inclinations, rending the society’s moral fabric and giving rise to even more and worse injustices.
The African spirit to which every African alludes when repudiating the normalization of homosexuality, the spirit rooted in love, hospitality and respect for human dignity, needs to prevail in Africa’s confrontation with the novel prominence of the gay lobby.
Ordinary fairness and rationality ought not be discarded in navigating the seemingly tricky balance between respecting the dignity of individuals and correcting anti-social behaviour. Where legislation has no place, it ought not go. Holier-than-thou opposition to sin is no excuse for oppressing the sinner.
So far, apart from South Africa, homosexuality (and sexuality as a whole) is a taboo topic for most Africans. This is a phenomenon that needs to be taken into consideration in any attempt to change African minds. However, respect for tradition cannot excuse failing to call out injustice and hatred. This is not a defence of homosexual activity. Rather, it is a defence of civility in the ongoing debate around the issue.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi.
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