Home is where you don't have to change or hide: 24-year-old Biba (left) has been living in the shared accommodation for two months. © Felix Lill
Very few people risk being openly gay in Uganda. Also, out of fear of the police. Ironically, a Christian church offers those affected a place of refuge.
Kampala – We tell people that we are here for rehabilitation," says Biba, grinning as she leads us through her new home. For two months, the 24-year-old has been living in a room in a simply furnished house hidden behind a wall. On a sandy road in a suburb of Kampala, Biba and her roommates want to attract as little attention as possible. The neighbourhood should not know that everyone who lives here is homosexual or bisexual and defines themselves as trans people.
"I had photos and porn of lesbian women on my phone," explains the woman in a fake FC Barcelona jersey, looking embarrassed at the courtyard. "My father looked through my phone and discovered it. I was out to my family." At first, Biba stayed at home, but she was no longer treated well, she says. "At some point I understood that it was better if I left. I was no longer wanted at home."
In truth, this home does not offer rehabilitation therapy. Like her five roommates, Biba is here so that she doesn't have to change but can be who she is. Biba is not attracted to men, but to women. Just as the others here are not interested in women, as is socially expected of them, but in men. This question, which is actually private for Biba, can ruin lives in her home country Uganda.
Homosexuality is a criminal offence in the East African country of 46 million. In 2013, the national parliament even decided that she should be punished with the death penalty before the law was declared invalid on technical grounds. As early as 2021, the representatives of the people followed suit: A new law, which, among other things, makes rape and paedophilia a special punishable offence, also declares that homosexual acts are punishable by up to five years in prison.
Evicted from home, threatened by police: Homosexual people live in fear in Uganda
In hardly any other country in the world is politics more homophobic than here. The residents of the hidden shelter on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital Kampala know this very well. Here, however, they feel safe for the time being. In one of the rooms sits 20-year-old Mosha, who has been living here for a year. The muscular young man with short hair and a mesh shirt became a victim of the corona lockdown.
"You had to be at home all the time. The family then paid too much attention to you. Everything was watched, even when you were on the phone," says Mosha, looking at his phone, which he holds tightly in his hand all the time. "Then they learned more about me. They locked me up at home and took away my phone, put me down and tortured me. And eventually kicked out." Before the pandemic, he had been able to hide "this side". "In Uganda, I seem to be illegal."
Mosha has lived in this facility with bare walls and only a few pieces of furniture, without televisions, shelves, or tables since he came into contact with a church community. He had heard about it through a friend. "At that time, I still lived with my parents. But I once went to a church service. I immediately felt comfortable and welcome." And as soon as his parents knew about his homosexuality, Mosha told his new community that he was looking for another home. "Then they offered me a place here."
That people like Biba and Mosha find shelter at a church of all places would not be expected in most countries of the world – especially not in Uganda. 80 percent of the people here are Christians, and the powerful churches contribute significantly to the exclusion of queer people. They like to declare homosexuality to be a Western ideology that violates "African values".
Uganda: Oppression and persecution of homosexual people
The fact that Christianity is a set of values that came to Africa from the West is generously overlooked. President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled for more than 35 years, has not called Christianity, but the LGBTQ civil rights movement "social imperialism." In 2016, when asked if he had anything against homosexuals, he told CNN: "Of course! They are disgusting. What kind of people are they? I don't know, I never knew what they were doing. But I was told it recently. And that's terrible! Disgusting!"
Museveni's contrite expression revealed how disgusted he was. And so, in principle, the head of government rejected the idea that people should not be discriminated against because of their sexuality. He demanded of the American reporter: "Respect African societies and their values. Just like we don't interfere with yours." Those who do not agree should simply be quiet. "And if we're wrong, we'll find out for ourselves."
Day against homophobia
On 17 May, the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) aims to draw attention to discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity.
Homosexuality is currently punishable by death in six countries worldwide: Brunei, Iran, Yemen, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. As the organization Ilga World reports, the death penalty for homosexual acts is a legal option in five other countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates).
Only twelve countries have enshrined a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity in their constitutions: Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Kosovo, Malta, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Austria, Portugal, Sweden, and South Africa. This is not yet the case in Germany.
Not everyone shares this opinion, and not even every church. Ten minutes away by car, behind an even bumpier and sandier road than the one leading to the property, behind an even higher wall, Ramathan Kaggwa sits in an office with air conditioning. "The church has this image of itself that everyone is welcome, even 5 thieves and murderers," says the 25-year-old pastor right at the beginning of the conversation. "But I don't know of any other church in all of Africa that opens its arms to LGBT people and says: Yes, come to us!"
Ramathan Kaggwa, a slender guy with a dark jacket and a rainbow-colored bracelet, has been doing this for four years when he founded the Adonai Christian Ministries Church. Previously, he had confided in the pastor of his home church in Kampala and asked what he could do since he was gay. "He quoted the passages on Sodom and Gomorrah and said homosexuality is a sin. Then he gave me tasks."
The then 17-year-old Ramathan was supposed to fast for 40 days, sleep outside one night a week and pray a lot. "In church, they said gay was a ghost, a demon that could be cast out." Ramathan felt hurt by the announcements the pastor made to the whole congregation about homosexuals, but still tried to be a good Christian. "But the more I prayed, the gayer I became. At some point I thought about suicide."
IDAHOBIT 2022: A Church Offers Refuge to the LGBTQ Community
Ramathan Kaggwa was still a minor when he was finally cast out by his community. Nevertheless, he made it to university and studied laboratory technology. But at his first job, he was outed and left the job again. Since then, Kaggwa has been running a hairdressing and hygiene salon for women and men. With his income and donations, he finances the Adonai Church. But this is not only permanently accompanied by financial worries: "We constantly have the question of how we can ensure the survival of the church and the accommodation for the marginalized."
Kaggwa has had to spontaneously change the premises of his church seven times after the police found it. "We are simply expelled. The rent paid is then also gone. We just recently moved into this house." The fact that Kaggwa has already provided a roof over the heads of over 35 homeless people is not highly credited to 6 him. "Police officers have already pointed guns at us. We are criminals!"
A short compilation without claim to completeness: In November 2019, the police arrested 120 people in a queer-friendly bar, officially for consuming illegal drugs – with those affected increasingly denying having taken drugs. A month earlier, there had been arrests in another place where the LGBTQ scene was.
In April 2020, just as the coronavirus was spreading, police broke into a shelter for marginalized homosexuals and arrested 20 of them. The accusation: violation of the distance and hygiene rules. A little over a year later, the police learned of an unofficial wedding ceremony of a gay couple. 44 people were arrested. A video of the event was posted online shortly thereafter.
Homophobia in Uganda: A church preaches "radical inclusion"
Among the guests of the celebration were also some who now live in a homeless shelter of the Adonai Church – for whose shelter you do not have to be a Christian, nor convert: "All the other churches do not believe that Christ died for homosexual people," says Ramathan Kaggwa and smiles. "But my message is: We are one, we belong together. Here we live radical inclusion."
Gospel music enters the office of the church founder through the window. Sunday services begin at Adonai Church. In a tent behind the protective wall, an altar is set up at the front, in the back a keyboard with amplifiers is played so loud that the whole neighbourhood can hear it. Terms such as LGBTQ or similar treacherous will not be used in the whole sermon. The community comes together: it consists of Biba, who is actually Muslim and wants to keep her faith, but also Mosha, now dressed in a wig and an elegant blue dress.
At the front begins the sermon of a pastor who has trained Ramathan Kaggwa over the last few months. It is even streamed live to the world via social media. "We feel blessed," she says, rocking to the soulful music, turning towards the mobile phone camera, which is set up on a waist-high stand in front of her: "Thank you for visiting Adonai Church from home. Jesus Christ died on the cross for us and rose again. He saved us. Hallelujah!"
There will be an emotional party all Sunday. Young people who are no longer allowed to be part of society form their own here, in a gated community on the outskirts of Kampala. They can be as they are. At least as long as the police don't know where they are. (Felix Lill)