LGBTI refugees and Western saviors: Ugandans facing violence in Kenya, and how you can (and can’t) help

Housing in "community areas" of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

Housing in “community areas” of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

My friend Victor Mukasa, a distinguished Ugandan human rights activist, helped to found Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) many years ago. Now he’s leading a Kuchu Diaspora Alliance for Ugandan LGBTI people abroad; yesterday the group posted its first videos on YouTube. They describe violence beleaguering Ugandan queers who fled the country and now subsist in a refugee camp in Kenya. They’re based on Victor’s phone interviews with the victims.  I urge you to watch:

… the sequels are here, here, here, and here. This is my summary:

In Kakuma camp, there are 58 known LGBT Ugandan refugees. 23 who came earlier — before the Anti-Homosexual Bill was passed — have moved into the camp’s more permanent sections, which have small, dirt-floor huts. 35 more recent arrivals are in the camp’s “reception” area, where housing consists of tents.  

Other residents have steadily harassed the Ugandans. On Friday afternoon (June 27) a group ganged up on a Ugandan in the reception area and beat him badly, saying “This camp is for refugees, it is not for wild animals.” When he ran, they chased him and started beating other Ugandan LGBT people. Some of the victims went to the camp “security organ” to complain, and were reprimanded: “Why do you show that you are gay?”

All 35 Ugandans decided to march in protest to a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office near the camp.to demand protection against the ongoing violence. It took two hours. The head of security at the office opened the gates, let them enter, and gave them mats to sleep on in an area that also had toilets and working water taps — scarce commodities in the camp itself. The next morning, though, “UNHCR officials” told them to leave, and turned off the water. When they insisted on remaining for a peaceful sit-in, the officials called in Kenyan government representatives: someone “in charge of refugee affairs,” and the “regional police commander” for the area. These ordered them back to the camp, threatening to use force. One refugee watched the regional police commander make a call to someone, saying “come in and take control of this area.”  At 5 PM, some 70 “military” (it’s not clear to me whether these were police or soldiers) arrived.

After discussions, the refugees decided to go back,; UNHCR officials told them a “safe place” had been prepared. When six got in the truck, the soldiers started beating the rest, throwing them inside and insulting them: “This is Kenya, you shouldn’t have come here! We should apply Kenyan law on you.”

Back in Kakuma, they found their tents in the reception area had been reallocated to others, and the harassment continued. Eventually they were relocated to an area on the margins of the camp, with little water, in a “desert.” They’re still terrified, and they report that the ringleader of the Friday attack — who at first was taken into police custody — has been released. 

Already this year, there’s been huge publicity about LGBTI people fleeing “Africa” (it’s always treated as a single country) to the friendly West to escape persecution. “Will the next decade see Wall Street’s millions build an underground railroad from Lagos to New York, whisking Africa’s LGBT youth to safety and freedom?” a writer asked in a US gay magazine. No. As this story shows, it’s not so easy. I’ve accumulated some experience in asylum and refugee issues over the last 20 years, and in 2009 I worked with regional groups in a successful project to help LGBT Iraqis targeted by death squads leave the country.  Here are my reflections on this disturbing story: what’s the background, and what well-meaning Westerners can and can’t do to help.

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the "reception areas" are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the “reception areas” are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

1) What is Kakuma camp?

Kakuma (its name supposedly derives from a Swahili word for “nowhere”) is an enormous refugee camp in the remote northwest of Kenya. It’s hellish. An online zine on refugee life published within the camp says stoically, “The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.” The region is semi-desert — earlier this year, “huge sandstorms … swept through the settlement, which was believed to be the root cause of fire outbreak of which more than ten incidents were reported.” But it can become a swamp: “The camp is near a dry river bed that is prone to flash flooding after heavy rains,” making it a malarial breeding ground.

The site was picked for its remoteness: Kenya wanted to shunt refugees as far from Nairobi as possible. Some 125,000 lived there at the beginning of this year, according to UNHCR. Now it also hosts almost 40,000 South Sudanese who have fled their disintegrating country and reach the dusty mud flat at the rate of nearly 500 a week; by June, the swollen population neared 170,000.

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Kenya held some 540,000 refugees as of December 2013; with the torrent of South Sudanese, the figure is now closer to 600,000. Almost half a million come from Somalia. Its camps are gorged to overflow; Dadaab, a concentrationary complex in eastern Kenya, is, with over 400,000 inmates, the largest refugee camp in the world.

Till a few months ago, the camps weren’t the only option. Refugees who could support themselves, or who needed special medical care or other attention, could settle in Kenya’s cities. In March, though, Kenya’s government abruptly ordered all refugees to the camps — and began raiding homes and rounding them up. Authorities suspected Somalis in urban areas of aiding Al-Shabaab, the feared terrorist group, in retaliation for Kenya’s military incursions in Somalia. (In this sense, the refugees were victims of indirect blowback against US imperialism in Africa; Obama has prodded US allies into a proxy war against Somali Islamists.) A few refugees, including some LGBT Ugandans, hang on in Nairobi, evading constant police crackdowns in search of illegals. But most are now locked behind camp walls.

The  camps are bad news for women, LGBT people, and others vulnerable to violence. Hugely overcrowded (all the more so since the dual influx of onetime urban residents and South Sudanese), they offer little privacy; security forces patrol the fences, but are inadequate to control what’s inside. An extensive study of sexual and gender-based violence against refugees in Kenya found 530 cases in Kakuma in 2011 (469 against women, 61 against men). While the researchers interviewed LGBT refugees in urban areas, they apparently couldn’t find similar communities in camp environments. Thus nobody has tabulated incidents of homophobic violence so far, but the absence of evidence is mainly evidence of people in hiding. Those who are gender-nonconforming or suspected of being LGBT are targets for punishment. The study did conclude that many available care options for survivors of sexual violence in the camps were easy potential targets themselves, and “were not able to handle serious security issues.”

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

2) What does it mean to be a refugee in Kenya?

Both for Western readers and for Ugandans who read this, it may be helpful to explain how the refugee process works.

A refugee is different from an asylum-seeker. To oversimplify, an asylum-seeker goes directly from danger to a safe country, and appeals to its government to stay there. A refugee usually flees to a country that isn’t safe, or will not accept her, because it’s the only accessible place to go; then she appeals to be resettled in another country. Until she is moved from the “second country” to the safer “third country,” she’s trapped in limbo.

Much of the distinction between “second” and “third” countries has to do with wealth. Built into the system is the assumption that poorer countries cannot be burdened with permanently absorbing large refugee populations — it’s an obligation the rich developed world should shoulder. The poorer countries agree to be waiting rooms. Unfortunately, because rich countries admit vastly fewer refugees than our violent world produces, the waiting rooms turn slowly into makeshift homes.

You get refugee status, mostly, through the UN. It’s all about waiting. A Ugandan fleeing to Nairobi would go the UNHCR office to register as a refugee applicant. She would be given a date for a face-to-face interview, the main basis for deciding whether her claim is valid. So she waits for the interview. After the interview, she waits for the UNHCR’s decision — Refugee Status Determination (RSD).  If the answer’s yes, she is eligible for resettlement, but she has to wait while UNHCR shops her file around from embassy to embassy, looking for a country that’s willing to take her. Times vary from one UNHCR office to another, but each stage of the process can take months, even years.

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: "I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers]." Man: "I can't return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it's to die I will die here."

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: “I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers].” Man: “I can’t return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it’s to die I will die here.”

Egypt, where I am now, has massive numbers of refugees (from Sudan, South Sudan, elsewhere in Africa, and Syria). With so many people to process, it has one of the slowest UNHCR offices anywhere. I know of Syrian migrants newly arrived in Cairo whom the UN assigned an interview date three years away. Some Sudanese have been in Egypt waiting for resettlement since the last century.

Kenya is not that slow. In 2010, though, the wait between arrival and RSD averaged over two years; it’s probably longer now. That doesn’t include the wait to get resettled after you get a positive RSD. After the claimant is recognized as a refugee, she gets official papers that are supposed to give her legal status in Kenya and protect her against being deported. (There’s still bureaucratic confusion about whether these papers should come from UNHCR or the Kenyan government, however.) She’s also eligible for limited material support from UNHCR. Migrants who haven’t been given refugee status yet are largely unprotected, get very little financial assistance, and mostly depend on the charity of NGOs working in the country.

UNHCR is a sluggish bureaucracy which I’m loth to defend, but it has a serious responsibility to protect migrants and refugees. In recent years, it’s become more sensitive to the needs of LGBT migrants, and has dedicated staff in Geneva to address the issue. But its powers are limited. It can’t override the laws and sovereignty of the host country. Kenya’s decision to “warehouse” refugees, confining them to camps, violates human rights law — freedom of movement is protected in Article 26 of the Refugee Convention and other international treaties —  but UNHCR can’t change it. Mainly, they can complain to the host country’s authorities, and I wish they’d complain more loudly; but it’s up to those authorities whether they pay attention. In Turkey, I found that the government regularly put LGBT Iranians (along with other Iranian refugees) in small towns in the conservative eastern part of the country, where they were harassed constantly. Some of them begged us to advocate for camps, because at least they would be isolated from the local Turkish public. UNHCR was sympathetic, but powerless to change the Turkish government’s policy.

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From Kanere.org

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From kanere.org

From Victor’s account, though, there are some serious problems with how UNHCR dealt with this situation in Kakuma. Calling the Kenyan police to evict refugees staging a peaceful sit-in is dangerous and excessive. You may not be able to change how Kenya’s authorities treat LGBT people, but you don’t need to give them opportunities for abuse, either. (UNHCR should have learned its lesson. In 2005, Sudanese migrants staged a sit-in outside the UNHCR’s Cairo office to protest slow resettlement and the constant violence they confronted. UNHCR eventually summoned the police to break up the demonstration — and they killed at least 27 protesters.)

Aside from not calling in the cops, there are at least two things UNHCR needs to do to protect LGBT refugees in Kakuma.

a) While UNHCR’s powers are limited, they still formally administer the camp. Security is difficult, but with a small, cohesive (and conspicuous) LGBT population, solutions should be available: more available (unfortunately) than for the much larger population of women vulnerable to sexual assault. Segregating LGBT claimants in a protected area may be one answer, though since I don’t know the topography or specific conditions of the camp I can’t say this for certain.

b) In 2009-2010, we persuaded UNHCR to offer accelerated resettlement for LGBT Iraqis stranded in Lebanon and Syria, because the “second country” environment was also homophobic and unsafe. This meant prioritizing RSD decisions for those applicants. It only worked, however, because some “safe” countries were also willing to speed up their own approval procedures and accept them — mainly Norway, Sweden, and the US. The LGBT Ugandans in Kenya are a small enough population that UNHCR could attempt this. But it will require commitments from other states too.

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, from kanere.org

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, by Elias Lemma, from kanere.org

3) What can you do? Start with this: Don’t give to amateur Kickstarter fundraising efforts for African refugees. So far, these are just part of the problem.

I know of at least three crowdfunding projects on the Internet to raise money for LGBT Ugandans to leave their country. All radiate good intentions and a sincere desire to help. Best-known by far is the “Rescue Fund to Help LGBT People Escape Africa” started by Melanie Nathan, a San Francisco blogger; it got her named a Grand Marshal of the city’s Pride parade last weekend, giving the effort further publicity. Several people in the Kakuma camp, and some in Nairobi, seem to have got there through Nathan’s assistance. Melanie dislikes me (I have an e-mail folder full of long messages expressing this fact), so any criticism I make will undoubtedly stand accused of partiality. I’m not the only critic, though. South African activist Melanie Judge wrote:

Dislocated from Africa-based struggles for social justice these feel-good interventions offer no long-term solution to the systemic issues that drive homophobia. At best they are palliative and patronising, at worst they reinforce the victimhood of Africans and the saviour status of westerners.

There’s a lot of saviorism in these projects; the biggest donors to Nathan’s fund were offered a token “Ultimate Savior” title (though she later changed this to “Total Escape”). A political critique of the initiatives would note how they depict all “LGBT Africans” as desperate not for change but for visas, and that they idealize the US and Europe as Edens of acceptance. I’m more interested in the simple fact that when she launched this project, Nathan seems to have known nothing about the refugee process, and did nothing to prepare her beneficiaries for it.

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan's first Indiegogo appeal

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal

The breakdown of expenses in Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal from March says:

100% of the funds raised will be used for fees for passports, visas, transport out of the countries, and safe shelter and food, pending, in some instances, escape:
$100 pays for passport
$200 pays for a visa
$350 provides food and shelter for a month in Africa pending escape
$800 – $1,600 buys an air ticket 

kakuma sign

Road to nowhere

Nathan seems to have thought that Nairobi would be a quick waystation for LGBT Ugandans in a refugee process that would be short, sweet, and easy: a month “pending escape,” then a ticket out of there. (In fact, UNHCR pays air tickets for refugees it resettles.)  I can’t imagine where she got this idea. Internet research could have told her that the waiting time for RSD alone in Kenya was at least two years. From what I understand — and I’m still reaching out to Ugandans now in Kenya — some people got to Nairobi and found the funds were in no way sufficient for the long wait ahead. With the money cut off, they were stranded. I have reports, not verified, that some resorted to sex work, and were arrested. Some are still hanging on in Nairobi; others were sent to Kakuma.

Two weeks ago, Nathan did an about-face and announced on her blog that Ugandans in Kenya were not spending “a month in Africa pending escape,” but were trapped in Kakuma camp for the long run. She still didn’t realize that driving refugees into camps was now Kenyan government policy –and that she should have told people about this if they sought her aid after March. Instead she wrote, “Some have been forced into the camps, due to their particular circumstances and inability to survive outside the camps.” Nathan added, with obvious surprise: “It seems that the resettlement process can take up to 2 years.” She should have known this, and warned applicants, from the start.

Nathan’s well-meaning fund is drawing people to places like Nairobi, then leaving them in the lurch. There are three deep problems with all these projects:

a) You can’t undertake something like this if you don’t know something about refugee law and the refugee process. Nathan is not even taking counsel from experienced organizations who have done this work. Without that, you can’t give informed advice, evaluate situations and people’s prospects, or make informed decisions about who to support and how. Failing to explain to migrants what they will face in a place like Kenya is unethical and irresponsible.

b) The project is ad-hoc and almost guaranteed to fail to meet migrants’ long-term needs. Nathan promises support without having resources on hand; then goes out and tries to raise money for a first tranche of immediate needs; then, when new needs arise and the money’s exhausted, is left trying to play catch-up with a new funding appeal. For instance, a first round of support goes to get person X from Kampala to Nairobi; but then X is left helpless in Nairobi once the funds run out, and has to wait for a new Kickstarter to kick in. Such skin-of-the-teeth strategies only compound the desperate uncertainties that destroy refugees’ lives. Anyone experienced in refugee work  will tell you that you don’t make promises to refugees unless you know you can follow through; unless you can give them a clear idea of what the future holds depending on their choices; and unless you have ways to assess needs and urgency objectively. These projects have none of that.

c) Nathan et. al. do all this from a distance. You can’t work with refugees without a physical presence in the place where they’re going. The Internet is no substitute for on-the-ground wisdom.

I dwell on these projects, so magnanimous and good, because they reflect an unsettling (literally) side of international activism today: call it the Konyfication of everything. Like the Kony 2012 campaign, humanitarian entrepreneurs drum up viral urgency with emotional appeals, discount cooperation or coalition or local agency or specialized skill, and insist that because something needs to be done, anyone can do it. The world of refugees, by contrast, is intricate and dangerous as the minefields some must cross to reach imperfect haven. You can’t work if you don’t know what you’re doing. The notion that Tom Sawyeresque idealists can step in, rescue, rinse, repeat may satisfy populist American fantasies about knacks and know-how. But it’s wrong.

"Come on boy, it's now time for your rescue." Cartoon (against "warehousing refugees" from Osire refugee camp, from kanare.org.

“Come on boy, it’s now time for your rescue.” Cartoon (against “warehousing” refugees)  from Osire refugee camp in Namibia, from kanare.org.

The harshness of Uganda’s homophobic crackdowns has driven hundreds of people into exile. The numbers are not as overwhelming as the rhetoric of “underground railroads” would suggest. 58 refugees in a camp of 170,000 are the signs of a crisis but not a flood. The US publication The Advocate interviewed activists in Nairobi who counted 102 Ugandan LGBTI refugees there; that number’s certainly an underestimation (among other things, many Ugandans are likely in hiding, or have not registered with UNHCR to avoid the camps) but it still doesn’t unveil a whole population in flight. The fact that relatively few have fled Uganda despite the draconian law (and the promises of money from Western saviors) confirms what I’ve always said: exile is such a devastating experience for most people, such a loss of meaning and value and belonging, that few would undertake it except in the last extremity of need. These refugees deserve to be treated with dignity, not the abuse they face at Kakuma. Their numbers, limited so far, mean that if UNHCR and refugee organizations take their needs seriously, solutions should not be impossible to find.

If you want to help, here are some suggestions:

a) Support established refugee assistance organizations with records of working both in East Africa and on LGBTI issues. The American Jewish World Service and HIAS have both, and you can start by reaching out to them to make sure they understand the urgency of what’s happening in Kakuma, and to find out what they can do.

b) Press the UNHCR to come up with effective answers for LGBTI refugee protection in Kenya, including accelerated resettlement. You can do this by talking to your own government about how they can strengthen UNHCR’s work. Or you can contact UNHCR directly here.

c) If you come from North America or Europe, pressure your government to offer accelerated acceptance for LGBT refugees in East Africa — as well as for other vulnerable groups, such as women who face sexual violence.

 

"Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write": Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

“Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write”: Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

More thoughts on aid conditionality: And an apology to Paul Canning, III

My masculinity, sprouting

Blogger Paul Canning calls me a “b*tch,” undoubtedly meaning “butch,” and all too sadly that is true. Thirty years of wearing this macho mustache, half Marlboro Man and half John Bolton, have made my inner fem dwindle to a shrunken Munchkin, curtseying to Dorothy over the witch’s corpse while pathetically throwing myself at the he-men in the Lollipop Guild.

My femininity, what’s left of it

Still, I’m not nearly as much of a he-man as Paul is. In fact, Paul’s affirmations of his own manhood have gone over the top lately – judging from his comments here,  on my own little blog.   I take a holiday vacation from things, and what do I find when I return?  Paul positively daring me to test-drive my testes, and prove I’m not “chicken”:

Am hard noting your ignoring Gay Kenya’s statement and use of *150*, say it agin,*150* activists as a battering ram. Let’s see you fisk the Kenyan statement. Or are you chicken? I think we can guess.

I’ll try to explain what Paul means in a little bit, but just note how noting things makes him hard.  Also, observe the elegant phallic metaphor – the “battering ram”! Apparently it takes 150 activists to make one phallus. Then there’s this gem, a few days later:

But I wonder why you have not responded to my chicken call to respond to the Kenyan activist David Kuria on aid conditionality? I search in vain for such a response. Is it here? No! Is it there? No! Where could it be? Could it be, perchance, be that, for once, an African activist has shut you the fuck up? Has the wisdom fount dried up? It CANNOT BE!?!

And again:

Not publishing my comment on my previous mention eh Scott? Why would that be I wonder. Legal reasons? Defamation? Something else?

One of the things you notice about the guys in the Peter Tatchell crowd, who have been cheerfully harassing me for years, is not just that they’re all guys, but they’re terribly, terribly macho.   Of course, as you would expect from such a diverse crew of highly white people, their testosterone infestations take different forms. For Tatchell himself, a Dickens character if there ever was one, the display of male authority means a transit from his usual Uriah Heep sanctimony – notifying you over and over again ‘ow ‘umble he is, truly ‘umble, very ‘umble– to a loud, Mr. Chadband style of oratory undoubtedly influenced by his Evangelical origins, a booming and all-silencing sermonizing that tells you he is about to tell the Terewth.  (The Terewth, alas, never gets told.)  For Doug Ireland, the literate one of the crew, it takes the shape of a terrible onslaught of intimidating adjectives whenever  his competence is  called into question, on the apparent assumption that mere feminine types like his opponents, however deep their throats, cannot possibly wrap their mouths around the assemblage of misused polysyllables at his disposal.   For Michael Petrelis, Tatchell intimate and convicted stalker, it takes the form of yelling, which he can do as well on e-mail as in person.   (I once compared Petrelis’ communication style to Divine starring in La Voix Humaine, and he took umbrage, thinking this a reference to his weight. However, I meant vocal, not physical, volume.) But ¿Quien es mas macho?  Surely Canning outdoes the whole gang. I haven’t been faced by anyone calling me “chicken” since the fourth grade. Arguing with Paul brings one back in memory to those halcyon days of boys comparing organ length in the school bathroom, innocently ignorant of what puberty had in store for those peculiar appendages, or what exactly, besides urination, they were meant to do. Paul is similarly unaware what the notions he hawks will lead to, or what causes they further in the real world. But he knows they’re bigger than mine, and that’s all that counts.

Ascending scale of manhood: Peter Tatchell, Michael Petrelis, Paul Canning

So you’re wondering, what the hell is this all about?  Well, if you’ll remember, back in October David Cameron, boy prime minister of Britain, created a furor by declaring the UK would tie overseas aid to LGBT rights.  This made aid conditionality a subject of vigorous debate. 86 African social justice activists  and 53 organizations (hence the figure 150 in Paul’s battering ram, above) signed an open letter opposing aid conditionality.  It struck me that Paul’s slanted all-embracing blog, which claims to give you all the international queer news you need to know, overlooked the letter completely.  And I realized speculated that Paul’s own opinions were again might  possibly be affecting his definition of news. Paul indeed ignored the letter — but he doesn’t ignore me.   While I spent my December prone under Neil Patrick Harris in a drugged, drunken stupor, Paul busily honed his demand that I deal with what he obviously regarded as a conclusive refutation: statements on aid confidentiality by Gay Kenya and my friend the Kenyan activist and politician David Kuria.

Believe me, I would shave my mustache before I let anyone call me “chicken” three times! More to the point: I have no problem with arguments that run counter to my own, especially when they come from activists  who are on the front lines.  My issue with Paul himself has never been that he thinks aid conditionality is a Good Idea, which is perfectly legitimate.  It’s that, running a news source with a fairly wide readership in the US and UK, he treats the opposing opinions of a whole phallus phalanx of African activists as unworthily irrelevant to his own agenda.

So let me address a few key points in David Kuria’s column.

First: Kuria points out that there’s no unanimity among Africans on the subject of conditioning aid.   He’s right, obviously. A recent Canadian news article interviewed Malawian LGBT leaders who favor such ties (as well as a Jamaican who’s generally against them). I do disagree with the way David frames the divisions:

On the one hand, an elite group of African activists feel insulted by the presumed neo-colonial undertones of Western powers using aid to set priorities for the African movement without as much as consulting the activists. These activists are vocal, well connected or have lived in Western countries. Their animus may as much be about the desire to show they are in are in charge as it may also be about a genuine fear of backlash.

On the other hand are the ordinary gay or lesbian on the street – for some reason gay/lesbian on the street does not translate well from “man on the street.” For him or her, a threat of aid withdrawal was received with great jubilation – finally the ray of hope they had for so long waited!  These are unsophisticated, have either been victims of homophobic violence or live with an ever present threat of attack, and the only thing keeping them alive are the ever thinning walls of their closets.

Looking at the signatories to the African activists’ statement, I’m not persuaded that they’re more “elite” or cosmopolitan than those who didn’t sign.   Nor do I think that the fear of backlash can be reduced completely to a strategy of control.   The fact is that, since the early 1990s, almost every first glint of public visibility for LGBT people, or for sexual orientation and gender identity issues, in any country between the Limpopo and the Atlas Mountains has produced an intense and menacing public backlash. In Zimbabwe, a gay and lesbian group rents a stall at a book fair; the President condemns them, and years of political incitements to homophobic violence ensue. In Zambia, one gay man, tired of the closet, walks into the country’s largest newspaper and offers an interview; after the article appears, all of public life from university professors to the President is consumed by a wildfire of condemnation, and for the next three months hardly a Zambian can talk of anything else.   In Nigeria, a few men stage an LGBT-rights protest at an international AIDS conference; two months later, the President’s office cites the affront in justifying a draconian bill to silence virtually any mention of homosexuality. One could go on and on, but the point is that a generation of African politicians, starting in the crisis years of structural adjustment,have learned very clearly how to link popular anxieties around sexuality to other, more immediate or salient fears — xenophobia among them — and drum up support in the process. You can argue about whether, or how, such a backlash could be avoided — and Kuria proceeds to do that. But the record of its recurrences makes considering it not only inevitable but, I should think, necessary in debating decriminalization strategies and the uses of aid.

Second, David observes:

Instead of assuming that we can have a “pan-africanist” approach, we should instead query what challenges and opportunities it presents to us as a country. Gay Kenya’s statement on aid, noted that each country has had a different aid narrative, and could thus not talk of an “African” but a contextualized Kenyan response. In Kenya’s case aid conditionality had proved effective in compelling reforms to an unwilling government. …

I see a group of villagers who once visited my dad, a Central banker asking him if [authoritarian former President Daniel Arap] Moi’s government would collapse at the back of donor conditions compelling political reform. As I recall it, they were very disappointed, and even thought of my dad as a Moi sympathiser when he told them government collects billions in taxes, and the only people who would be affected would be the poor.

The aim of withdrawing aid was to make the masses so angry that they would force Moi out of power he told them. It took time, but change did finally come, and the poor sung for Moi “yote yawezekana bila Moi” [Everything is possible without Moi] at Uhuru Park as a parting shot.

With the bulk of what David says here, I altogether agree. Any approach that elides national borders and differences in political history and culture is going to cause disaster. The more African activists speak up to assert the divergent narratives that demand disparate strategies, the better — the less likely some foreign government will take the whole continent as the convenient product of a cookie-cutter, and start to incinerate it accordingly. A history of aid conditionality producing democratic change may well make a population more disposed to suffer it in the name of something they can regard as progress. The one distinction I would point out is that back in the 90’s, when (some) Western governments were pushing for democratization in Africa, privations attending aid cuts could be justified as promoting a general good, something everybody — or nearly everybody –wanted. Joy Mdivo, in a recent blog post, remembers:

it is difficult to miss the happiness, the euphoria, the joy at common folk finally bringing down the Tyrant and winning Freedom.  We had our own “jubilation” in 2003 when Kibaki came into power and we saw the back of Moi.  People were literally drunk with happiness and giddy with anticipation of a better Kenya without Moi.

The queers may dance in the streets if Kenya’s sodomy law goes, but I doubt the general population will gather round the disco ball.   Instead, if the aid conditions — or cuts — have aimed at broad development initiatives, people are likely to feel the public welfare has been risked or sacrificed to get a particular group its rights. Or, as the churches are likely to say, its perverted privileges.

Now, this kind of antinomization of rights protections — their rights, not ours — is made possible by the minoritization of sexuality: the prevailing idea that homosexual desire is the property of a small minority, not the potential of a larger number, and that only that bounded group will be affected by its liberation or persecution. Such thinking clearly is one import from the West that the present structure of “assistance” to ensure rights promotes and confirms. It dominates the help promised by foreign governments (Clinton’s and Cameron’s bruited initiatives exclusively talk the language of LGBT, not that of sexual rights for all), as well as the intrusions of NGOs (from Human Rights Watch on down, all the major human rights players have “LGBT Rights Programs,” and “sexual rights” is only mentioned in a whisper).

Gay Kenya has recently developed a “business case” to consolidate economically as well as politically based arguments for scrapping the old sodomy law. This document, Breaking the Wall of Criminalization — which I think deserves wide study — seems partly meant to counteract the minoritizing discourse.  The essence is that getting rid of the repressive law will benefit broad strata of the population; the specific case revolves around how outreach and openness help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.   My guess is that arguments like this are the best if not only route to abrogating the laws across much of Africa. If so, everyone has a stake in extending them beyond economics and health to contend that decriminalization is a benefit to democracy itself. And that case would require engaging with a lot of existing critical thought about nation-building, the African state, patriarchy, and the politics of development. Some of this is already moving forward in the work of thinkers like Sylvia Tamale; the Kenyan document can contribute. The “business case” is noncommittal on the question of aid conditionality, though — precisely, I suspect, because the idea that (what are still seen as) “special rights” can have a general benefit hasn’t begun to catch on.

The politics of donor funding and sanctioning to induce the desired political response, especially in the area of human rights, is often characterised by a complex matrix of competing interests. … [S]hould aid be conditional to removal of structural barriers that we know lead to inefficient use of resources and negatively impact efforts to reduce HIV infections? This is not an easy question to resolve, partly because African leadership can engage in dangerous brinkmanship over HIV funding …

The “brinksmanship” is enabled — despite the years everybody spent ritually affirming the mainly heterosexual epidemiology of African AIDS — by the persisting belief that the pandemic primarily affects the marginalized, and that these inhabit the margin because they are immoral.  Governments don’t think they’re playing va banque with public health in general when they put their AIDS budgets in the poker pot. In their piggybank heart of hearts, they still consider this a concern of homosexuals, drug addicts, and prostitutes, and of course women, who aren’t really part of the general public either. In this light, the “business case” makes  an obvious point, but one still worth making. The less any aid cut affects the general population, the more closely it is targeted toward the issues engaged by conditionality, the more the same people you are trying to help will be hurt. It’s the marginal who will pay:

In the case of HIV … [w]ere aid to be withdrawn, it is the vulnerable, especially those on treatment, who would suffer the most and that would not only be punitive but also unethical.

Third, David observes that the aid conditionality question should have been argued yesterday, or last week. And in this he may be right. He writes:

I have bad news both for the elite African activists and the gay/lesbian on the street. To the Elite, quit whining, the genie has already left the bottle. When the U.K. statement on conditioning aid to gay rights, became public we should have known scapegoating and blame-shifting was to follow. … You can take this to the bank, any misunderstanding between an African state and any Western power on anything under the sun will from now on be blamed on gays.

It’s true, Cameron’s inept initiative, and Clinton’s more thought-through one, burst into daylight without any particular consultation with the people who would be, for worse or better, most affected. And what David and Hillary said and did will inflect all the backlashes to come.

Treatment Action Campaign T-shirt, South Africa

Still, it’s not hard to hear in this some of the despair of a continent that is used to having not just its resources colonized but its voices ventriloquized, its needs spoken for and its aspirations represented and decided by others outside. For the queers confronting their impeccable and indifferent benefactors, this is as ineluctable a fact as for any other Africans.   Yet I can’t believe it’s either universal or permanent.   In the realm of HIV, treatment activists, many of them in countries across Africa, have shaped and redirected the global discourse about who’s responsible for the pandemic and what to do about it. They’ve accomplished this with an uncompromisingly confrontational assault on the received verities of globalization, one grounded equally in history and politics.   Now that debate has begun in the UK and the US about what exactly these new, ill-formed initiatives mean, there’s no reason LGBT activists in Africa — either country by country, or finding commonalities across regions or the continent — can’t try to do the same.

I have no dog in this fight, no vested interest in either side of the question, though I have a fairly visceral distrust of whether aid conditionality will accomplish what it sets out to to do.  What I can do is pose  questions about how the manipulation of aid –or, for that matter, other kinds of foreign support for LGBT people’s rights — would work. Some questions are:

a)     How can you prevent backlash; how, in particular, to avoid the appearance of elevating queers as somehow superior to other citizens, subjects, and “victims”?

b)    What’s the history that will shape how Western influence will be regarded, and answered? Rahul Rao lays out persuasive reasons why British interventions in the Commonwealth are especially problematic:

 [T]o call on Britain to play an advocacy role in the struggle against these laws invites a contemporary rerun of the civilising mission: the spectre of the erstwhile imperial power and its white dominions berating the black and brown Commonwealth for its backwardness is not one that is likely to engender the sort of change that its proponents wish for. Moreover, the demand for an apology for the sodomy law, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, late Victorian holocausts, dependency, slavery or all of the other phenomena typically grouped under the sign of ‘colonialism’ (except when Niall Ferguson is telling the story), seems tantamount to charging a rapist with minor misdemeanours.

In addition to history, there’s also the ally’s present stance, including its funding on other issues. The new US embrace of LGBT rights has not altered one whit its Puritanism where other kinds of sex are concerned.    It still enforces, for instance, a gag order banning money for any NGO abroad that won’t sign an oath to support criminal penalties for prostitution.  It’s easy to imagine this situation:  the US threatens to cut aid to a government that endorses criminalizing homosexual conduct — while defunding an advocacy group in the same country that endorses decriminalizing prostitution.  How can activists negotiate these thickets of contradiction? How can they oppose a supportive government’s other, offensive policies?

c)   Who will be affected by any conditions on or cuts in aid? Will women (who tend to be the targets of many aid programs, if not necessarily the recipients of actual aid) suffer in order to secure gay men’s rights?

d) Development is notoroiously a depoliticizing business; it turns rights claimants into supplicants. Drawing LGBT communities deeper into development discourse risks turning advocacy for political change into lobbying for resource allocation, and replacing rights campaigns with service provision.  Indian feminist scholar Nivedita Menon describes how

The Indian population recognizes itself quite easily as the target of development policies of the state … The depoliticization (and feminization) of development discourse into ‘devel- opment altruism’ is noted by a study from Kerala …. Their interviews with women presidents of panchayats (village councils) show that these women identify as ‘development agents’ rather than as ‘politicians’. This is consistent with the discourse of the Left Front government’s Peoples’ Planning Campaign (1995–6), in which … ‘the panchayat was consistently projected as a space of ‘‘development’’ beyond divisive politics’. This allows the panchayat ‘to be projected as a non-political space, the space of development altruism.’

Assuming this space “beyond divisive politics” is recognized as fake, and its effects as deleterious, how can the pitfalls of “developmentizing” LGBT issues be circumvented?

e)    Finally, where do the core problems, and the main target for change, lie? Are they in law and policy, or in hearts and minds?  An obstreperous and oppressive law regularly enforced, or the promise of new and repressive provisions, would be one kind of threat. A pervasive atmosphere of prejudice, tending to eruptions of moral panic and collective rage, is another. It’s not that they don’t intertwine often and reinforce one another. It’s not, moreover, as though changing a law can’t be one road to changing people’s attitudes. But there are plenty of situations where a loudly foreign-enabled campaign against a particular law can make prejudice worse, and perhaps provide the spark that sets a full-scale popular panic going. My own pragmatic guess is that any threats involving aid would work best — indeed, may only work  — where a specific law or a specific case is the clear target, or where, as in Uganda or Nigeria, a new law proposal requires urgent opposing action.  If the goal is, instead, to alter attitudes and prejudices, even if as a precondition for law reform, aid conditionality (and many other kinds of overt foreign pressure) risks reinforcing hate and making reform impossible.

Soekarno said, in his famous speech at the Bandung conference in 1955, one of the early high points of tiers-mondialisme: “What harm is in diversity, when there is unity in desire?” The trajectory of the Third World since, as of the other two, has tended to reinforce not only the impossibility of the latter, but the importance of thinking of the former, so far as feasible, not as potential harm but as actual strength. But a conversation about desire — and especially, now, about what is wanted and what unwanted about Western support — can still help LGBT activists in Africa and elsewhere to shape what their allies do, and decide what can and can’t be done.

Me, in future

I feel I have failed Paul. He expected fireworks and battering rams, and he has got something less loud and conspicuous. So again, as so often before, I am constrained to offer him an apology. I can do nothing to redeem my masculinity but to grow my mustache. As of today, I break my razor as Prospero did his staff; and I shall not reapply it until my manhood stands proud on my upper lip like 150 activists, or a grove of Sequoias. Meanwhile, among African activists, the conversation should carry on.  I hope folks like Paul will start to report it.

p.s. CORRECTION. We are sticklers for accuracy here at A Paper Bird. I just uploaded December’s photographs to my hard, hard drive from my tiny, feminine camera. On examining them closely, I don’t think that was Neil Patrick Harris at all.

Friends Forever

Please do check out this excellent blog from Kenya. It deals with language, music, poetry, politics, post- (are we ever “post”? — which is the point) -colonialism, and a whole range of other things; I’m always delighted to find a spirit whose interests are more eclectic than my own. Here’s the post that drew me to it, reprinted by the author’s permission. (The Fanon picture, one of my favorites, is my fault.) Just read it.

Friends Forever

November 26th, 2011

I am well aware that I could not do justice to the subject without offending those “professional friends of the African” who are prepared to maintain their friendship for eternity as a sacred duty, provided only that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so that they can monopolise the office of interpreting his mind and speaking for him. To such people, an African who writes [or thinks] is encroaching on their preserves. He is a rabbit turned poacher.—Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (1938)

I want you to understand, sir, I am one of the best friends the Negro has in Lyon—Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)

Africans have many friends.

I am often amazed by how many friends we have. Friends who multiply, especially when they learn about the multiple oppressions we face. Friends who launch campaigns, write letters, donate things we really need, including underwear and textbooks written in the 1940s, because every little bit helps.

Every little bit helps.

Our friends like to smooth our way. Aware that Africans are bashful, they write our documents for us, write and edit our speeches, adopt and present our petitions to those in power, and facilitate all the little transactions we cannot, because we are bashful.

We blush in gratitude.

And because they really care, they are willing to handle all those things we cannot, including financial things. Africans are intuitive and love music and cannot handle math or money. Haven’t you heard about the African farmer who planted coins and waited for a tree to sprout?

Yes, our friends are very helpful. We could not exist without our friends.

Even Fanon says so: “Willy-nilly, the Negro has to wear the livery that the white man has sewed for him” (Black Skin). Because our friends are kind and generous, the livery will be sewn to accommodate all those African extras—the buttocks, the genitals, the breasts, you know. Space enough for the African to breath.

But then Fanon is not very generous. He does not appreciate the friendliness of those who are friendly: “We shall have no mercy for the former governors, the former missionaries. To us, the man who adores the Negro is as ‘sick’ as the man who abominates him” (Black Skins). I am not as ungenerous as Fanon. I appreciate our friends. We appreciate our friends.

In fact, we appreciate our friends so much that when we hold meetings and forums, we are excited when they monopolize these spaces with their ideas and visions and expertise. And we don’t even mind fetching water when they get thirsty. And we are even more grateful when they bring along their friends who monopolize question time. We are so grateful to learn from them.

What would we do without our friends?

Friends are friends forever!

We are happy that our friends want to save us. We are delighted that they translate our statements so that others can understand them. Regrettably, we have not yet learned to write or speak in ways that make sense to anyone else: our translators are our very best friends. We are very grateful.

And because our friends want only what is best for us, we should have no problems assenting to their plans. After all, they have been doing this for a very long time and we are still underdeveloped. If we want to be like them, we should listen to them, or so they say.

As Fanon says, “The black man wants to be like the white man. For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white” (Black Skins). Fanon is too harsh, I think. Surely our friends do not think like this. They want us to be developed, like them, not white! Simply free and developed. In fact, one day we will be so developed, our gay people will be free to wear leather chaps bare-assed in the middle of Moi Avenue. On that day, we will know we are truly free.

Until the day we can be as developed and free as our friends, we will never be truly free. Or so our friends keep telling us. Until then, our friends will continue to fight for us, to talk for us, to write for us, to use our stories, to show pictures of our faces, to create scholarships and awards in our names, to create petitions for us, to translate our lives for important people.

Our friends will never abandon us.

We are in this together.

For good.

Bend over

 

Mr. Dithers staring across the Red Sea

An unpleasantly vivid cartoon from the Kenya Star, about the Cameron aid conditionality fiasco, indicates how the discourse is going.

The face of Africa, when tilted on its side like this, looks remarkably like Mr. Dithers from the old Dagwood and Blondie comics. It’s perhaps appropriate that the scream is coming from the area of Egypt.