uganda: a final analysis, pt. 1
by Robert Coleman (JD, 2012)
There are many in America who when confronted with Ugandan attitudes about race and sex might exhale a yielding sigh, subtly masking their enlightened disdain: "Are these people in the Middle Ages?"
For instance, it is not uncommon to be referred to as "Mzungu," meaning, essentially "white person" (of course, the term is generally applied to all non-Black Africans, including Asians and Middle Easterners). Mzungu is not a derogatory term. Indeed, political correctness is simply lost on Ugandans who call people and situations as they see them. While this might easily offend the racially-sensitive Westerner, it seems to me that Uganda has an attitude about race that is, in some respects, much healthier than America's.
My skin is white. It doesn't offend me at all to be referred to as such. Put on a welcoming smile and keep a cordial attitude at the sound of "Mzungu" and some Ugandans may even engage you in well-intended racial banter – one woman even said to me at a beach on Lake Victoria that I had ruined my skin with all these freckles.
While Ugandans do not share the same racial history of the States, it would be wholly inaccurate to describe Ugandans as historically unaffected by racial tension. Still, racial discourse – even lightheartedness about the topic – is not taboo.
A few weeks ago, just as we were becoming habituated to living beyond political correctness, we sat down with some law students at Makereke University. Expecting a tour of the campus and perhaps a 'meet and greet,' I along with Nicole, Marie, Ali, Rachel and Mike gathered in a meeting room with about eight law students. But, just as we thought our time was coming to a close, a question was casually lobbed in our direction from the president of the law student body: "What do you think about the elections in Iran."
After a brief and searching pause, we began to engage. Suddenly, a debate had set off at full speed and geopolitics was not to be the only stop.
"Do the Jews have a lot of influence in America?"
"What do you think about gay marriage?"
"Do you think homosexuality should be legal?"
One gentleman voiced concern that if homosexuality were made legal in Uganda, the nation would experience a decline in population.
Others talked about cultural practices (though not defending all of them) including an antidote about a tribal custom in one student's native Kenya where homosexuals were burned to death for their crime.
But what may shock the Western conscious most was my lack of shock – to be sure, my lack of disdain. Oh, but pardon me – and I make no bones about it – I am not a multi-culturalist who thinks all cultural ideas are ¬good or even morally equivalent. A society which burns a person for simply being a homosexual is morally wrong every time and in every case. Discussion ended, and offense to those who think otherwise, intended.
Yet I did not hear these views with some undeserved sense of Western superiority. And while burning persons alive may be barbaric, I did not consider these students' attitudes about homosexuality anymore primitive than American attitude about race. Homosexuality is taboo in Uganda. It's not talked about – and it'll go away if it's left alone. Are we so different on the topic of race?
Here, I submit no moral thesis on the topic of homosexual relations or even a solution to the marriage debate. And while I share much in common with the Christian values of my fellow law students from Uganda, I submitted no moral thesis before them either.
Still, as a Christian, I had come to Africa with great enthusiasm for the great awakening that has gone on throughout this continent over the last century – Christianity has exploded here. Mass at Christ the King has been rejuvenating as the choir raises their voices among the angels and the chapel overflows for ever Sunday Mass. (There has even been chatter of an African Pope to succeed Benedict XVI).
Thus, with this sentiment in mind I presented a simple question: While I heard much about the immorality and unnaturalness of homosexuality, I wondered what my Ugandan friends thought of polygamy.
Even in this nation of 80%+ Christian, polygamy is a common part of life. It is referred to as 'traditional' or 'traditional African' marriage. The institution also stands a source of great heartache and conflict. Several cases have come to the Court of Appeals have involved infighting among polygamous relationships; some having tragic consequences for the children of these marriages.
But polygamy is even the Bible! One student declared. Not in the New Testament I replied. Indeed, the same can be said of slavery and prostitution – thus, lets remember where the Old ends and the New begins.
The ultimate point was how are these attitudes reconciled from a Christian perspective? Christian teaching indeed has a lot to say about marital and sexual relations – but if law is to conform to all of these teachings there is no room for polygamous relationships either. Thus, we were getting to the roots of our ideas: it was not merely Christianity that shaped these ideas; cultural tradition played a part as well.
What then would be the secular definition of marriage: is it just any loving relationship between any two people? Ought it allow for polygamous relationships as well? Ought it be removed from legal controversy altogether and left to the individual's own religious and cultural determination?
Most importantly, is it so shocking from our enlightened eyes in the West that many in America – indeed throughout the world consider the idea of same-sex marriage a radical change in, not only the law, but in cultural norms?
It should not be – and cannot be if we are to have open conversation on such topics.
But our topic was not simply whether same-sex marriage can be allowed: it was whether homosexuality should even be legal. In Uganda, as in much of African, homosexuality is not legal.
Setting aside the marriage debate, I presented my opinion thus: as Thomas Aquinas put it, not all vices can be made illegal.
"Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like."
Makereke was truly an exercise in open dialogue and the sharing of ideas; albeit a dialogue of controversial ideas peppered with some disagreement. We learned a lot from the students at Makereke. And I'll take the experience with me throughout my days.
In addition to all this intellectual sparring, we did eventually tour the campus and got to learn some of its history. It was easy and relaxed, shaded by sweeping trees planted by the Colonialists in the ninety-twenties. The campus felt like any in America, buzzing with young people nourishing their young minds with knowledge.
I walked with Simon, the president of the law student body, and the one who had began our impromptu debate. He took me to the Catholic chapel and showed us the old-brick laid dormitories – again built in the early twenties by the Colonialists. To Simon I remarked, cheekily, that we in America were a bit smarter than these Ugandans: we got rid of the English way before they did.
Simon also told me that the University itself is now more than 60% female. Indeed, Affirmative Action has been vastly institutionalized in Uganda. Oh, I didn't mean this blog had left controversy aside, completely.
Simon informed us that Affirmative Action had been put in place to make sure women had a fair chance to enter the University. Yet, it was his opinion that the institution had outgrown its role now that the University was more than half women; and that men were simply being left out on the basis of racial quotas.
Previously, a clerk I had met at the Court of Appeals informed me that the Ugandan Parliament (which we shall have the pleasure of touring tomorrow) also has Affirmative Action in place – I believe, obliging each district to send at least one woman to Parliament.
Last week, we had the privilege of meeting the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (whom Nicole has been interning for). There, I asked whether Affirmative Action would continue as a permanent institution. Although avoiding a direct response to this question, the Chief Justice did grant us a thorough position on Ugandan's commitment to gender equality and egalitarianism.
With just over a week left here in Uganda, I'm coming to my final analysis. And in a place where homosexuality is still illegal, yet Affirmative Action is institutionalized in Parliament, and yet again race relations appear free of any strict politically correct etiquette, I'm left with one question: Who is really in the Middle-Ages? Them or us?