A groundbreaking new play debuted in a number of little-known theatres in the Ugandan capital of Kampala this month. The River and the Mountain paints a tragic portrait of a gay business man living in the impoverished east African nation, examining the motivations behind the country’s notorious anti-gay lobby and its continued persecution of LBGT communities.
In testament to the issues raised by the production, the Ugandan authorities responded by arresting its British producer, David Cecil, on a charge of “disobeying legal orders” when the play was staged earlier this month without authorisation. Released on bail Monday afternoon, the 34-year-old vowed to press ahead with a regional tour of the play. If convicted however, he could be sentenced to two years imprisonment.
“This latest incident is another example of the government’s efforts to close down the space for ideas and divergent opinions,” said Maria Burnett, the Uganda researcher for Human Rights Watch.
This latest incident is another example of the government’s efforts to close down the space for ideas and divergent opinions
Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda: as the law currently stands, anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts for the second time, or engaging in gay sex where one partner has HIV, can be sentenced to death. And that’s only if the violent mobs don’t get you first. In October 2010, short-lived Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone (no relation) published a front-page splash, “100 pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos leak”, that listed names, addresses and photographs of 100 gay Ugandans alongside a yellow banner that read “Hang Them”.
Three members of activist organisation Sexual Minorities Uganda (whose faces were on the list) petitioned successfully to get the newspaper closed down. However, in January 2010, one of the three, David Kato, was killed in his home by a male assailant. Others on the list are missing and believed to have been murdered.
The Ugandan government is not alone; cases of government sanctioned and gang-led homophobic violence and persecution are rife throughout Africa. In Cameroon, Jean-Claude Roger Mbede recently finished a year-long stretch for texting another man an SMS that read, “I’m very much in love w/u”. An appeal hearing is scheduled for Monday; failure to overturn the decision would result in a further two years behind bars.
I found myself in handcuffs being treated like an animal. I spent a week after I was arrested being tortured and insulted every day. Now my family says I’m dangerous and they cannot live with a homosexual
“I found myself in handcuffs being treated like an animal,” Mbede says. “I spent a week after I was arrested being tortured and insulted every day. Now my family says I’m dangerous and they cannot live with a homosexual. Cameroonians know who I am. I don’t know how I will even be able to go back to school and get a job.”
This year alone has seen over 20 Cameroonians arrested on suspicions that they are either gay or lesbian. The country’s penal code states: “Whoever has sexual relations with a person of the same sex shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to five years and with a fine ranging from 20,000 francs CFA to 200,000 francs CFA (£27–£270).”
"It's getting worse," said Alice Nkom, a Cameroonian gay rights lawyer during a visit to London, "People are targeted because they wear makeup or look effeminate...It's a very corrupt environment and people get paid for informing on others." No one knows the true numbers locked away for their apparent sexuality. The countries main jail in the capital, Yaounde, was built for 600 but now holds over 4,000 inmates.
In spite of the danger of fighting for gay rights in Africa there is a growing protest movement for greater equality. In August, human rights leaders from eight African nations, including Cameroon and Uganda, signed a petition calling for Cameroonian president Paul Biya to end the anti-gay crackdown and to legalise homosexuality.
Earlier in August hacktivist group Anonymous hacked into two of the Ugandan government’s websites and left this message for the authorities: “You should be PROUD of your LGBT citizens… Real Ugandan Pride is demonstrated in standing up to oppression despite fearing the abuse, torture and murder inflicted on LGBT (people) at the hands of the corrupt government.”
A petition to free Roger Mbede can be found here - www.allout.org/Roger