I will be the first to admit that my admiration for The New York Times’ Nairobi bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, borders on bromantic obsession. Nor am I alone. He is, in the words of Slate’s Jack Shafer, “the paper’s anti-Kristof.”
Instead of reducing Africa’s conflicts to hellzapoppin’ horror show or composing uplifting chords that put smileys on the faces of the suffering, Gettleman dons the big pants of the reliable narrator and puts the dead into deadpan.
His reporting is nuanced; often, he’ll take a story widely reported in the Western press and find a deeper current. (His work during Kenya’s post-election crisis, for example, was magnificent.)
In today’s Times he weighs in on Uganda’s proposed anti-gay legislation, which – in its most draconian form – would impose the death penalty on anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality.” The link between the legislation and its evangelical sponsors in the US has been addressed before. Zoe Alsop, writing in Time, notes how
Ugandan supporters of the bill appear to be particularly impressed by the ideas of Scott Lively, a California conservative preacher who has written a book, The Pink Swastika, about what he calls the links between Nazism and a gay agenda for world domination
(One might argue here that the only thing more laughable than a “gay agenda” is a “gay agenda for world domination.”)
In the Times, Gettleman looks more specifically at a Ugandan visit by American evangelicals earlier this year, which seems to have directly inspired the bill’s drafting.
Last March, three American evangelical Christians, whose teachings about “curing” homosexuals have been widely discredited in the United States, arrived here in Uganda’s capital to give a series of talks.
The theme of the event, according to Stephen Langa, its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda” — and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.
A month later, a largely unknown Ugandan politician – with links to the American evangelical community – put forth a proposal for the harsh new bill. You can connect the dots for yourself.
Since the BBC first picked up on the proposal in October, the story has gained some traction, especially in the Commonwealth press. It began to pick up steam in the US in December, as American lawmakers decided to weigh in.
The larger backdrop, though, is concisely summed up in today’s Times piece.
Uganda seems to have become a far-flung front line in the American culture wars, with American groups on both sides, the Christian right and gay activists, pouring in support and money as they get involved in the broader debate over homosexuality in Africa.
You could make the persuasive case that Americans have done enough meddling in African affairs through the years. Yet the battle for Uganda’s gays – which included a wonderfully moronic online debate at the BBC, “Should homosexuals face execution?” – is prompting a bit of American soul-searching. David Water’s “On Faith” blog reported last month how the Ugandan bill had prompted a crisis of faith among already-divided American church leaders. (The comments section alone makes the link worth reading.) And the three Americans who spoke at the Ugandan conference are now distancing themselves from the bill, claiming, in the words of one, that they were “duped.”
“Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people,” said Don Schmierer, of Exodus International, whose avowed mission is “mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality.”
Perhaps the man taking the biggest hit is Pastor Rick Warren – a man who works and ministers, well, religiously on behalf of his African pet projects, and whose Purpose-Driven Life is reportedly the best-selling hardcover in the English language. (A fascinating profile of the man appears here.)
Warren’s close personal ties to Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa – one of the bill’s biggest advocates – has tainted Warren with more than a slight whiff of guilt-by-association. (Ssempa: “I think it is important to understand what sodomy is. It is inherently unhealthy, a sexual lifestyle that involves unmentionable acts.”) Yet Warren,
whose church has extensive AIDS ministries in Uganda and other African nations, declined to condemn the legislation. A request for a broader reaction to the proposed Ugandan anti-homosexual laws generated this response: “The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.” On Meet the Press this morning, he reiterated this neutral stance in a different context: “As a pastor, my job is to encourage, to support. I never take sides.”
This is more than slightly disingenuous, as anyone who has heard Warren on abortion or gay marriage can attest. The purpose-driven pastor finally got around to denouncing the bill in mid-December. But by then, the story had already been snatched up by the mainstream media. I mean, it was on Meet the freakin’ Press! What came out of Warren’s mouth at that point seemed less like a principled stance than damage control.
You have to wonder, too, whether the issue at hand is really a question of morals or a question of Ugandan leaders trying to (pardon the metaphor) cover their asses.
The bill is clearly a diversion from the serious issues facing Uganda’s policy-makers today in the lead-up to the 2011 elections especially around livelihoods; poverty and the lack of jobs; electoral reforms; lasting solutions to the northern Uganda peace process; political conflict; ethnic tensions and the unresolved land question; high rates of violence against children and against women (perpetrated largely by heterosexual men); and the ongoing impact of HIV/AIDS.
Scapegoating, after all, is nothing new to Ugandan politics – especially if you remember the plight of Asians under Idi Amin. But as foreign donors threaten to hit Uganda where it hurts, legislators – however reluctantly – seem willing to oblige.
“There have been a lot of discussions in government … regarding the proposed law, but we now think a life sentence could be better because it gives room for offenders to be rehabilitated,” [Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo] said in an interview.
“Killing them might not be helpful.”
Ultimately, even a watered-down bill will only serve to “formalize the persecution [the Ugandan gay community] feels every day,” as Reuters reports.
“I have been arrested by police a number of times, often on flimsy charges just because of my homosexual lifestyle,” said David Kato, who lives as an openly gay man in Kampala.
“The prospect of living under this law is scary. Certainly all my life and plans will be ruined.”