‘When Helping Hurts’: Understanding Uganda

Guest writer  Camille J. Hallstrom provides a rarely reported glimpse of Ugandan Christian leaders as they have attempted to “inject charity into lawmakers’ understanding” of the issues leading to that country’s recent legislation passed regarding homosexual behavior.  She examines pivotal events in Ugandan history  that greatly inform the culture on this issue, and presents insight into the effects of the involvement of Western rights activists.  

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If Western rights activists wish to actually help conditions in Uganda to improve and not worsen, they must develop cultural sensitivity and humility, seeking dialogue with those on the ground who have a proven track record in pursuing mercy and charity with lawmakers. – CH

As is not uncommon, when the West deals with a different society, it can be culturally insensitive and consequently heavy handed.  Those who deplore the current Ugandan anti-homosexuality legislation must realize that the West’s behavior and tactics have helped to push the law into existence.  Furthermore, those who deplore the legislation should be careful of whom they call enemies, since they may be attacking the very persons who have worked to keep draconian laws from being put on the books.

The third of June is a Ugandan National holiday. Martyrs Day commemorates the deaths in 1885-1887, mostly by burning alive, of 45 young pages who refused the homosexual advances of Mwanga II, King of Buganda.

Thus both a history of oppression by Western imperial overlords and oppression by a homosexual overlord are deeply ingrained components of the Ugandan experience.

Nevertheless, even given this painful history the National Church of Uganda (Anglican), though believing with the majority of Ugandans that homosexual behavior is morally wrong, has actively worked to keep draconian legislation from being passed.

Originally, as readers may recall, the bill under consideration provided the death penalty for those who engage in homosexual acts as well as a legal requirement that people must turn in any homosexual they know.  The church successfully worked against that version of the law, and has worked against heavy-handed provisions of the current legislation.  When Western pro-gay activists, in an imprecise blanket condemnation, blame “evangelical Christians” for anti-homosexual legislation, they must understand that the very Church of Uganda, which has fought against legislative abuses, is for all intents and purposes “evangelical” in its theological and social views.

I work annually in Uganda and personally know churchmen who have petitioned and dialogued with parliamentarians in an attempt to inject charity into lawmakers’ understanding of the issues.  They do not want to see people locked up and the key thrown away.  But neither do they understand the West’s odd cherry-picking of which societal issues it will and will not engage.  Why, for example, is the West not equally vocal in its outrage about (hetero- and homo-) sexual human-trafficking in Uganda, an illicit trade which exists in large measure to supply the demand of Western sex tourists?

In this context perhaps it becomes clearer why Ugandans bristle at current Western threats of financial sanctions or aid reduction, seeing them to be, as it were,  the “same-old, same-old” – an imperialist strong-arm tactic to enforce (a few, hand-picked) Western values in a cultural context it has not bothered to learn anything about.

If Western rights activists wish to actually help conditions in Uganda to improve and not worsen, they must develop cultural sensitivity and humility, seeking dialogue with those on the ground who have a proven track record in pursuing mercy and charity with lawmakers. Western tactics may work in Western contexts, but East African people are growing increasingly less patient with being told what to do by rich, powerful outsiders; push them too hard, and they will, as we have seen, feel they have no recourse but to protect their culture by an effort to legislate Western culture away.

Hallstrom_Camille_HeadshotCamille J. Hallstrom travels to East Africa annually to encourage and aid indigenous leaders with the Anglican Church, teaching Bible, theology and peacemaking. She holds and Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Pittsburgh, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary, a Certificate in Acting Shakespeare from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and is Professor of Theatre at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA.

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