Monday, 8 October 2012

Gay in the Great Lakes of Africa

Of all the nations of Africa who gained independence 50 years ago only one celebrates during the UK’s celebration of Black History Month. Fifty years ago today Uganda gained it’s independence. Two other neighbouring countries also became independent in 1962, Burundi and Rwanda. All 3 nations form part of the Great Lakes region of central east Africa. They have slightly different encounters with European settlers than most of the rest of Africa in that the area held an air of special mystery as being the source of the Nile. As a result it was explorers and missionaries were the first to make the region known to Europeans, not military or economic colonists.

National flag of Rwanda
The region has recently seen many troubles, not least of which is the extermination of up to a million Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Without going into detail about the social make up of the Rwandan nation the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi are the same race so “genocide” is not the correct word. The Tutsi are descendants of the pre-colonial privileged social group – people with land and power – and they still have some of this status today. The Hutu were the equivalent of the working class who farmed the land of the Tutsi.

National flag of Burundi

Anthropologists say that homosexuality was widespread among young men in both the Tutsi and the Hutu of Rwanda and Burundi before the days of European occupation. The two social groups could have partners from the other. But what they did between themselves was always private and secret, so it is virtually impossible to know how many same-sex couples had physical relationships.

As in most other cultures, the homosexual practices in the courts of the ruling chiefs are more well documented – there was little secrecy there. Tutsi youths being trained to serve as page boys to their leaders are known to have engaged in same-sex activity. The leaders, or kings as the Europeans called them, may well have had a harem of young men as well as several wives.

In the neighbouring region of Buganda in present day Uganda, Mwanga II succeeded his father as Kabaka of “king” in 1884. He was 16. The Bugandans had similar cultural practices to the Tutsi and Hutu.

Mwanga opposed all attempts by Christian and Muslim missionaries to convert his people from their own beliefs. However, there were many converts by the time he came to power and Mwanga ordered them all to go back to their traditional beliefs or be killed. Several members of his own court had become Christian, including his “Master of the Page Boys” Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe.

As was customary in Mwanga’s culture he had many young page boys to serve his every wish at court. This included any sexual wish. Mwanaga was to go on and have 16 wives and 10 children, but in these his teenage years, new to the throne, he took advantage of his position and demanded his pages have sex with him. Most of these boys had been converted to Christianity and refused. In his fury Mwanga had 22 of them burnt alive or executed over a 2 year period, including Joseph, his Master of the Page Boys. These page boys became regarded as martyrs by the Catholic Church and were canonised in 1964.

National flag of Uganda
Given his defence of his cultural right to do whatever he wanted to do to his page boys in the face of Christian opposition, it is ironic that present day Buganda is part of a country that uses a Christian basis to justify imposing the death penalty for gay men.

Fortunately there are gay rights groups and activists within Uganda, though their fight for rights looks like it may be long one.

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