On Thursday 7th March, the Centre for Religion and Public Life and theTRS Student Society of the University of Leeds hosted a screening of the recently premiered film God Loves Uganda, followed by a panel discussion with Dr Kapya Kaoma, Rev. Amos Kasibante and Dr Kevin Ward. In this post I introduce and discuss the film and the central issue that it explores, the controversy surrounding the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill that currently is pending in the Ugandan parliament has sparked international outcry. Although Uganda, like many other African countries that once were British colonies, already has legislation that criminalises same-sex relationships, the new bill strengthens and broadens the criminalisation of homosexuality. The proposed legislation, submitted by Member of Parliament David Bahati in October 2009, even introduces the death penalty for people who are “serial offenders” or are suspected of “aggravated homosexuality”. Furthermore, the bill requires anyone who knows a homosexual or an individual or organisation promoting homosexuality to report this to the police.
In the Western media and among the general public, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda and similar legislation in some other African countries is often considered as an illustration of a deeply rooted African homophobia. Several researchers have questioned this idea, on the one hand by showing that same-sex relationships existed and were tolerated or accepted in many pre-colonial African societies including in Uganda, and on the other hand by showing that the current waves of homophobia and anti-homosexual legislation is inspired and incited by American evangelical Christian organisations. In his 2009 report Globalizing the Culture Wars: US Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia, Dr Kapya Kaoma from the Political Research Associates shows how conservative evangelicals and conservatives in the mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are exporting the “war against homosexuality” – which they are losing at home – to Africa, linking their conservative form of Christianity with supposed “African” values. A special motion to introduce the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed in the Ugandan parliament only a month after a conference in Kampala where three American conservative evangelicals warned against the “gay agenda” threatening African families.
The film God Loves Uganda can be considered as a popularised version of the argument in Kaoma’s report about the link between the American Christian Right and the controversy about homosexuality in Uganda. The documentary explores the involvement of one American evangelical organisation, the International House of Prayer (IHOP), with Africa in general, because this continent is “the fireplace of spiritual renewal and revival”, and with Uganda in particular. The tourist slogan promoting Uganda as the pearl of Africa is considered in this organisation as “a prophetic name” because Uganda is a pearl in God’s eyes. Therefore the organisation has set its mind on winning Uganda’s young population for Christ. “Send revival to Uganda” is the chorus of a song through which IHOP mobilises young American Christians to become part of God’s army and do missionary work in the country. Mission here does not only mean spreading the gospel to desperate people, in particular among the Muslim minority in Uganda. It also entails the imposition of the Christian Right’s values without any sensitivity to local cultural and social concerns, leading to the banning of condom use among a population heavily hit by HIV, and the demonisation of homosexuality. The documentary follows a team of young American missionaries who may be very well meaning but are stunningly naive. The documentary also portrays IHOP leaders who explicitly support the Ugandan anti-homosexuality legislation with a vague and highly problematic reference to democracy (“This is what the people in Uganda want”) and suggest that Uganda is responding to “God’s call for righteousness” in its resistance of the “gay agenda” that would be promoted by NGO’s, the UN and Unicef. Furthermore, the film features some leaders of evangelical churches in Uganda who are actively supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and who in front of the camera admit that this is quite rewarding: “When we started to say no to homosexuality, donations from American churches have doubled with three.” Just when I, watching the film, was about to say that if all this is Christianity I will not call myself a Christian any longer, the film has a shot of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo – excommunicated by his own church, the Church of Uganda, because of his acceptance of LGBT’s – preaching a message of hope, love and justice at the funeral of the murdered gay rights activist David Kato. In my opinion Bishop Senyonjo is the only true missionary, that is, a witness of God’s inclusive love, portrayed in this film. Excommunicated and despised by his church, I’m delighted that at least secular institutions have honoured him: last year Senyonjo received the Clinton Global Citizen Award for Support of human rights.
God Loves Uganda is a very well made film with scenes that are alternatively shocking, hilarious, beautiful and moving. The film offers a compelling portrait of a volatile situation in which African LGBT lives are seriously threatened because of American evangelical interference in the politics of an African country. The political agenda of the film is clear and hopefully God Loves Uganda will indeed be a powerful instrument to initiate discussion among evangelical Christians and organisations about this type of “mission”.
The critical focus on the American Christian Right’s role in the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the wider opposition against homosexuality in Africa is certainly the strength of the film but at the same time its weakness. Its depiction of American evangelical mission in Africa tends to be rather stereotypical – at least, I hope it is. Its depiction of the situation in Uganda itself is also one-sided: the film does not explore the debates within Uganda about the bill and about homosexuality and human rights more generally, nor does it show how the bill actually has strengthened and made public the political struggle of the LGBT community in Uganda and their (inter)national allies for human rights of sexual minorities (for the latter you should see another recent film, Call Me Kuchu). For the bill, the American Christian Right’s moral and financial support may be a key factor inspiring and motivating the forces behind the anti-homosexuality legislation, but it should be acknowledged that the dynamics of which the bill is part are much more complex. The local religious support of the bill can only be understood in relation to the rapid growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches in Uganda and the resulting highly competitive religious field in which the mainline Catholic and Protestant Churches can hardly take a more nuanced position and will rather keep quiet or adopt the anti-homosexual rhetoric. Furthermore, the film does not pay attention to the internal political purposes served by the bill which, it seems, has to detract people’s attention from the government’s poor socio-economic performance. Lastly, the film does only partially contextualise the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the wider controversy surrounding homosexuality in the socio-cultural situation Uganda, like other postcolonial African societies, finds itself in – a situation characterised by the dynamics of modernity and globalisation and the resulting processes of socio-cultural change with all the tensions, ambiguities and fears this entails. One of the aspects not mentioned in the film is that not only conservative American evangelicals export an anti-gay agenda to Uganda, but that some progressive organisations also promote certain Western perceptions of sexual identity and sexual rights in Africa in a way that is not always culturally sensitive and in fact may be counterproductive. LGBT lives in contemporary Africa are highly precarious and the struggle for human rights of sexual minorities in Africa is therefore both urgent and complex – much more complex than one film can cover and this blog post can explore.
The above comments are not intended as a criticism of God Loves Uganda. I realise that this film is not about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda as such, but about the American Christian Right’s missionary involvement with Africa and how this is part of a globalisation of American culture wars and the export of conservative-evangelical values. God Loves Uganda provides critical insight in this dynamic and is a powerful tool to initiate a broad discussion about this both in the United States and in Africa as well as globally.