28 January 2011

David Kato & the Legacy of Colonialism

David Kato

The Ugandan gay rights leader David Kato has been beaten to death in his home, in what police are describing as a likely robbery but others insist is a hate crime. Like many African nations, Uganda has institutionalized homophobia and seems determined to crack down even harder: its parliament is currently considering legislation that would lead to the execution of homosexuals. This comes on the heels of a visit in 2009 by American evangelicals who, speaking to receptive crowds, may have given freer rein than usual to their anti-gay rhetoric, turning up the heat on an already raging fire. While the Americans disavow responsibility for an upturn in repression and violence, many Ugandan legislators are quick to give them credit.

These Americans are only the latest Westerners to fuel homophobia in Africa, and indeed the list is long of those who should bear responsibility, though many of the worst culprits are long dead. Black Africans are able to convince themselves that homosexuality is something forced upon them by Europeans — because, during the colonial period, it very often was.

The 19th century especially saw Africa carved up by European nations who imposed European values on and generally exploited African peoples. The resentment is still felt today, and it helps to explain Robert Mugabe’s durability in Zimbabwe: he blames almost everything on the British, and much of the time, he’s gotten away with this strategy.

European exploitation wasn’t merely economic and political; it was also sexual. Generations of fortune-seeking, empire-building European bachelors went to Africa and found themselves dusky mistresses, as the novels of the time confirm again and again: Africa was a place to do what a man couldn’t in Europe. Keeping a mistress in London, Brussels, or Paris was an expensive proposition, but in the colonies an ambitious young man of limited means could afford a small harem — or simply rape a woman when the fancy struck him.

Blame this guy: Cecil Rhodes

But if a man’s taste tended to buggery, Africa must have beckoned all the more strongly. Colonial society already dictated submission, and an African youth wouldn’t be able to blackmail or to press charges against the man who approached or abused him. (Who would believe a black boy’s word against that of a white man?) Mores being what they are, these stories aren’t often told, still less frequently recorded: if in 1894, homosexual love “dare[d] not speak its name” in Britain, then homosexual rape kept even more silent. But the resentment persists today, and it can be seen throughout the continent — even among leaders of comparatively tolerant South Africa.

Buggery became then a kind of symbol for the exploitation and abuse of the colonial period. It seemed the worst kind of rape, because it was perceived as subjugating and feminizing men. And it has been easy for Africans to believe that the sexuality, like the act itself, was unnatural, imported, imposed, and white.

Much the same could be said of Christianity, but many Africans in post-colonial times have been able to hold to their faith in a white God who promises to reward their suffering (later) and whose Bible takes a dim (albeit debatable) view of homosexuality. It’s because of this background especially that American evangelicals bear an extra responsibility for what they say and do in Africa, whatever their intentions may be.*

David Kato tried to make a difference in this poisonous atmosphere — in a very real sense, he wanted to move Uganda farther than ever from its colonial past, toward a more enlightened, open, and egalitarian future. It’s possible that the Ugandan police are correct, and that despite the threats Kato faced, from individuals and institutions high and low, his murder had nothing to do with his civil rights campaign or with his sexuality. But it will be hard to prove, and harder still to guarantee that no more Ugandan advocates for gay rights become martyrs instead.

The Independent Imperialist, Léopold II of Belgium:
African colonies were his property as a private citizen.
Léopold’s brutal regime horrified Mark Twain, who pointed to Belgium as a cautionary model: if the U.S. acquired foreign territory, Twain feared, Americans would be no better than the Belgians.

*NOTE: That the evangelicals in question still aren’t thinking before they speak can be understood from a statement made by Don Schmierer, as reported in the New York Times. While decrying Kato’s death, he also depicted himself as a victim, saying he felt he’d been “bludgeoned” by critics. Considering that Kato was killed with a hammer to the head, Schmierer’s word choice is regrettable at best.


Roberts said...

Funny how the spreaders of hate speech always portray themselves as the victims. Sarah Palin and Arizona, anyone?

William V. Madison said...

It does seem that, if one perceives oneself as a victim, one feels one has license to say all manner of things, with little care for the feelings of others. I've seen it from genuine victims, as well as from self-appointed ones -- but there's no record of Jesus' behaving this way, is there?

Anonymous said...

1) "The spreaders of hate speech always portray themselves as victims." "If one perceives oneself as a victim, one feels one has license to say all manner of things . . . "

Excellent points, gentlemen! Many examples come to mind. One thinks of Winnie Mandela's famous on-camera remark: "With our necklaces we will liberate this country." Ms. Mandela felt that, because she and other South African blacks had suffered oppression, she had a right to advocate publicly a practice that involves placing a gasoline-soaked tire around the neck of an alleged "collaborator" and then setting that person on fire. Ms. Mandela's rabid supporters heeded her words and did just that to countless "collaborators," both black and white.

2) The cultural influence of European colonization on Africa, and the social and cultural direction of Africa since colonialism, is a huge and unwieldy subject befitting a multivolume series of books. I won't take it up here. But I will say that I am somewhat baffled that you seem to think that Europeans imposed ideas antithetical to equality, and that it has been the task of Africans in the post-colonial era to move Africa "farther than ever from its colonial past, toward a more enlightened, open, and egalitarian future." To the extent that Africans abandon colonial dogmas and re-discover indigenous ones, they embrace egalitarianism?

I hasten to point out that ideas like democracy and civil rights and (especially) the notion of full civil and political rights for women are not concepts indigenous to African soil, but Western constructs imposed on Africans. To take one of many examples, if you study Ibo culture, and read the novels of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, you will be aware of how Ibos viewed the encroachments of white missionaries with increasing mistrust and horror precisely because the whites were introducing all kinds of bizarre foreign concepts about ending the subjugation of women and encouraging their participation in political and economic life. In the context of traditional Ibo society, prowess in war was a supreme virtue, and to suggest that a man had weak or feminine qualities was as bad an insult as one could hurl. (To take one of innumerable examples.)

I realize that your essay focuses on the status of gays in sub-Saharan Africa. It is hard not to wonder whether expressing disapproval at the attitudes of black Africans about this or any other subject (as Hillary Clinton has repeatedly taken the liberty to do, both in recent years, and before she was Secretary of State) does not itself represent a form of neo-colonialism?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Rick -- Some useful points here, and I'm especially grateful to you for suggesting further reading -- since yes, I only scratched the surface of a vast topic.

It's true that the European colonizers left behind democratic institutions, but surely you don't believe the Belgians (for example) were interested in equality for indigenous Africans. In any case, I don't mean to suggest that Africa's future well-being lies in a return to pre-colonial conditions.

I'd always understood that at least a few African tribes were matriarchal. Still, what you say here about attitudes towards women does corroborate my point: when women are held in low esteem, then buggery will seem especially wrong, because it's perceived as feminizing men.

Chiding foreign governments is never an easy job, it's seldom terribly effective, and yes, it does often smack of cultural condescension or worse. But what are the alternatives? If Hillary Clinton reminds you of a colonial missionary, do remember: she was brought up Methodist. (Full disclosure: so was I.)

As for Winnie Mandela -- well, she's a complex personality, isn't she? And yet there's abundant documented proof that she actually did suffer under Apartheid, in ways that make Palin's or Schmierer's predicament (understandably upsetting though each circumstance must be) seem paltry by comparison. Winnie Mandela didn't merely see herself as a victim, she was one. (Though not always an innocent one.) Surely this experience affected her behavior, her words -- and her judgment.

That's not a justification, but it's quite a bit more than Palin or Schmierer has to offer, so far as I know.

Thanks again.