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Time for Africa to talk Sex and Sexuality

Sex has always been a taboo word in Africa—and most of us were raised in families where sex and sexuality was a self taught subject. It has been stated that you can only take a horse to the river; you cannot force it to drink. In this case many of us were told the river never existed and once we stumbled on it, we hardly knew how to drink like a Tiger.  HIV/AIDS was a reality check—simply put, it was similar to the American Indians being wiped out by infectious diseases after contact with Europeans. There immune system was not equipped with the antibodies to stem off the foreign pathogens and neither was African society equipped with the straight talk needed to create awareness and impede the spread of HIV/AIDS. The list of shame includes leaders such as Mbeki who denied the existence of AIDS and his fellow country man Jacob Zuma– while being tried on charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend mentioned in his testimony that he took a shower after sex to lower the risk of AIDS.

Four years ago, I wrote an article about the need for Africans to tackle our last Taboo—of openly talking about sex. This was following events in which the Uganda Media Council banned a women’s group from featuring the Play entitled ‘Vagina Monologues’—  on grounds that  the play promoted illegal, unnatural sexual acts, homosexuality and prostitution. Once again Uganda is in the news for the wrong reasons and drawing worldwide criticism for proposed legislation to impose a death penalty for gay Ugandans—and up to seven years in jail for family and friends for failing to report individuals who display gay-like behavior. As an African, I feel concerned about the state of human rights and the incompetence of the leadership hierarchy. However, it is not a surprise because whenever you see the symptoms, there is likely a disease. Uganda’s President Museveni has targeted the gay community with tough rhetoric over the years. In some of his speeches, he continues to urge youth to reject advances from Europe, suggesting that ‘European homosexuals’ had launched a recruitment drive in Africa. With the crusade of politicians and church clergy openly critical of homosexuality, it was only a matter of time before the rhetoric turned into legislation.

Is this a Ugandan problem, an African problem or even a global problem? It is no secret that other corners of Africa have had their own clashes with the gay community. Male-male sex is already a criminal offense in over 31 Sub-Saharan countries. In Senegal nine gay members of an HIV awareness group received a nine year sentence for indecent conduct and unnatural acts earlier this year—a sentence which was later over-turned. In Botswana gay activities are punishable up to 7 years, in Kenya sex between men is punishable by up to 14 years.  The debate has centered on the notion that the ‘African family’ is under threat and also the idea that God created man and woman for a purpose or as President Museveni argues against homosexuality—‘it was clear that is not how God arranged things to be.’ Some scholars have suggested that there is another force behind this quagmire. The United States evangelical Christian right has been accused of exporting the sexuality battles to Africa—notably Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.  Africa is viewed as ideologically a favorable ground by the Christian right as well as the benefit of having financial ties to these ministries and political access to the leadership hierarchy.

As Africans we have to overcome some of the traditional loopholes that continue to hold us tightly in the shackles– slowing down our progress as a civil society. It is true that homophobia is on large scale in Africa. In fact daring to introduce a same sex partner to one’s family in Africa is a recipe for disaster– one would be considered either crazy or an outcast. Growing up in such a society guaranteed most of us a rude awakening –the day we trudged onto western soil. It would be foolhardy to suggest that western society openly embraces gay people. In fact in every election cycle in America there is a battle—not to the extent of a death penalty but with a similar course of argument. Gay right activists in America continue to challenge bans on same sex marriage—and though public opinion is gradually changing in support of gay rights, the legislative battles are still too steep to overcome. It is disheartening to hear Africa’s leaders spearhead hate speech. This turn of events is unacceptable and a gross infringement of human rights. As a society we need to seek out of our cultures and religion the values that propel our society to prosperity and not the norms that oppress the rights of the minority. Society in the past centuries openly oppressed women and blacks– and the lessons learnt from such evil times should be used to avoid repeating the same historical sins of man.

Progress in Africa has for a long time been hampered by the failure of our politicians to break free from religious and cultural dogma. It is quintessential that we separate church and cultural taboos from our politics. The current popular religions are foreign to our lands and have in fact accounted for significant bloodshed and turmoil following the independence of African states. Religion is not necessarily a bad thing—but leadership should not impose or use their religious beliefs as grounds for excluding and oppressing minorities. Similarly, our traditional beliefs and cultural practices continue to face the test of time—and practices such as female circumcision in some ethnic groups have been abolished when it became clear that they were harmful. We cannot continue to live in the past. Society continues to change rapidly and our culture has to adapt to new challenges. African leadership should be the force guiding our politics out of cultural and religious captivity. Legislation against gays in Uganda and similar policies around the continent of Africa is another case of denial that the river indeed does not exist. HIV/AIDS caught us by surprise—and has over the last decade ravaged families and claimed millions of lives.  Openly talking about sex and sexuality and developing a framework to create harmony between our religious and traditional values–from the grassroots of African families all the way to the leadership hierarchy is not only choice we have to make but a necessity.

© Kawuma

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