Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote — as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com

 

Cultural Cold Wars: Where “traditional values” came from

"Communism destroys the family": Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

“Communism destroys the family”: Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.

A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War.  It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.

I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?)  But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well.  (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,

25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.

Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.

All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but  it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)

What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.

"This Godless Communism": Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

“This Godless Communism”: Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.

When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.

Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.

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Getting Mommy in the workforce isn’t the half of it, though.  Next come state-run nurseries, and “So ends the story of the American family.”

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We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.”  But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.

Canadair advertisement, 1955

Canadair advertisement, 1955

The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):

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Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.

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And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:

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It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.

This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.

US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Poster for António Salazar's dictatorship in Portugal: "Salazar's Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education"

Poster for António Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal: “Salazar’s Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education”

The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to

Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.

After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that

for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.

Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.

Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.

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This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”

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“Chile: Yesterday” –street violence — “Today” — family; 1975 propaganda

This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.

“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”

Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA

Top L: "Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!" Top R: "Vote Christian" -- while snakes labelled "Divorce" and "Free Love" hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: "Mamma and Papa are voting for me."

Top L: “Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!” Top R: “Vote Christian” — while snakes labelled “Divorce” and “Free Love” hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: “Mamma and Papa — Vote for me.”

More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.

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“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”

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“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.

CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:

The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.

The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.

We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?

The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters

200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …

Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.

During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:

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Leaflets distributed in government-controlled villages by white Rhodesian forces, 1970s

You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.

Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God!  And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”

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What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!

There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in  — so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals.  Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.

America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.

What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communist Crusade

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communism Crusade

Mugabe and the minorities: Backlash update

"Flushing": by Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko

On Thursday Zimbabwe’s government newspaper, the Herald, published a call for the nation to pray that “those who campaign for the evil such as gay rights be condemned in the name of God.”

Zimbabwe needs our prayers more than ever before, given the unprecedented violence and the myopic call for support of gay and lesbian rights.

The column waxed predictably fulsome in its praise of God’s choice for Zimbabwe’s leadership.

If one is to make a mutual consideration of the level of integrity, loyalty, honesty and transparency vested in our current President, Robert Mugabe, it is appropriate that his leadership qualities are related to his Christian upbringing … Even his current international stance on denouncing homosexuality is a clear indication that he is a God-fearing leader whose character and personality is modelled on biblical principles.

Since Mugabe, however endowed with virtues, is unlikely to add immortality to their number, the piece also evinced a prudent concern for the future. It urged praying for a “God-fearing leader to suceed” [sic] him, and for a “continued stance anti- homosexuality”: “We should not have a leader in Parliament or any structures of Government who supports such an immoral act, which even our ancestors did support.” (I rather imagine there is a word missing there.)

The column was signed by “Never Gasho,” and here Google, the stalker’s friend, volunteers its aid. It seems that Gasho, a sometime jazz musician, is also a prosperous farmer in the Karoi area. He appears in a quite unrelated Herald article from a couple of months before, busily spilling dirt on farmers in the area who are undoing the intent of the government’s land redistribution program by leasing expropriated land back to its former white owners. The Herald says: 

Gasho always has information on his finger tips and is one guy who identifies with the truth. … Gasho will not keep quiet when he knows the truth. He searches for it too.

From this I would infer that Gasho is an ambitious ZANU-PF apparatchik, and a local informer.  His snitching in Karoi gave the excuse for a Presidential intervention and an investigation; the Herald seems now to be testing out his disputative talents on a national scale.

In this case the target is Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition Prime Minister who some weeks back told the BBC that he would support including sexual orientation protections in the new Constitution to be drafted over the coming months. The ruling party has attacked him steadily on the issue ever since, with particular intensity since David Cameron’s ill-timed noise about linking development aid to LGBT rights issues. Last Monday, the Herald accused Tsvangirai of a “bid to smuggle homosexuality into the new constitution under the guise of protecting minority rights.”

Sources who attended a Select Committee meeting last week accused MDC-T’s Copac co-chairperson Mr Douglas Mwonzora and spokesperson Ms Jessie Majome of seeking to have gay rights included under the guise of minority rights. [MDC-T, Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai, is the Prime Minster’s party; Copac is the Constitution Select Committee.] The sources said there was heated debate over the issue.

“When they raised the issue, we asked them to define who should be covered by minority rights and they started mumbling and they said the Ndebeles and the Venda,” said a source.

“We then told them that these were people whose interests were covered under individual rights. Some MDC-T members in Copac had already tipped us that the agenda was to incorporate gay rights, so when it was raised we rejected it right away.”

"They beat us": by Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko

But this gives the game away. Mugabe’s real interest is in eliminating minority rights language altogether from the Constitution, and leaving only “individual rights” protections. He’s simply using gays as a classic wedge issue to discredit the whole discourse. And of course, he has reasons to want the Ndebele disempowered. Matabeleland is a longtime center of opposition to the regime. In the early 1980s, faced with mounting unrest there, Mugabe sent in his army’s North-Korean trained Fifth Brigade to massacre an estimated 7,000 Ndebele civilians. The Gukurahundi, as the killings are known in Shona, remains the great and devastating blight on Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. Mugabe has never acknowledged it.

Tsvangirai’s allies were shocked, shocked at this cynicism on the ruling party’s part.  Douglas Mwonzora said “he brought up the question of minority rights” at the committee meeting, “but the issue of gay rights was never discussed.”

“I and Jessie Majome (select committee spokesperson) raised the issue of minority rights – and minority groups in this country mean cultural minorities, ethnic minorities and religious minorities, and we even have political minorities,” Mwonzora said. “That’s all we meant. We are surprised that the ZANU-PF propaganda machinery wants to belittle the rights of the minority by trying to say these are gay rights.”

But the opportunities for demagoguery that Cameron opened up are still gaping, and the loony free-for-all goes rolling on. In this atmosphere, it’s easy for Mugabe to bash the whole concept of minority rights as a colonial perversion. This morning the Herald published a new column; written by two Bindura University professors, it claims that

the push for gay rights is yet another renewed camouflaging tendency of the foreign aid regime used by the Western powers to create governance structures that are conducive for the exploitation and external control of weak African states.  In the name of human rights Britain and its allies want to restore and consolidate what was once achieved through the strong political administration of colonialism.

Setting the gay stuff aside, the article actually offers a scathingly tendentious analysis, but an analysis indeed, of Western development assistance strategies. But how does one make such a critique relevant to Zimbabwe’s public today? The headline says it all: “Keep your gay England, we keep our Godly Zimbabwe.”

Note: The images above are by Owen Maseko, a Zimbabwean artist. In early 2010 he opened an exhibition called “Sibathontisele” (“Let’s Drip On Them”) at Bulawayo’s National Gallery, with works focused on representations of the Gukurahundi. The next day he was arrested and charged with undermining President Mugabe’s authority under the Public Order and Security Act. He could face 20 years in prison. He is free on bail but the case is still pending. 

Growing pains: More on British aid

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg with the Queen

Kirk Cameron, the former child star and British Prime Minister, has threatened developing countries with dire consequences if they do not eliminate the sodomy laws that his distant ancestor Alan Thicke brought in his hand baggage on Qantas. Trapped in a loveless civil union with coalition partner and former rapper Marky Mark, Cameron made the move to bolster falling poll ratings among key fans. Possible sanctions include plagues of boils, locusts, and frogs, conversion of first-born children to child stars, and massive increases in agricultural development aid that would reduce the entire population to starvation. “These countries don’t want to be left behind,” Cameron said, referring to the popular series in which twelve contestants from all walks of life, stranded on a remote island in an exotic location after the Rapture, compete in tests of skill to keep God from throwing them into eternal damnation. “British aid should have more strings attached, in terms of do you persecute people for their faith or their Christianity, or do you persecute people for their sexuality.”

No. No. This is all wrong. It’s late; my mind isn’t working. Former child star David Cameron is the current British Prime Minister. Kirk Cameron, current child star and former Prime Minister, lives in Moldova, where he eats children in his converted castle on the Transylvanian border.

The silliness and posturing over Cameron I’s proclamation that he will tie overseas aid to LGBT rights issues has started. It is risible indeed, but it’s no laughing matter to the people whose rights will be affected.  An advisor to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the BBC that Cameron had a “bullying mentality”:

“Uganda is, if you remember, a sovereign state and we are tired of being given these lectures by people … If they must take their money, so be it.  … But this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying: ‘You do this or I withdraw my aid’ will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children.”

The main political consequence? Repressive leaders and regressive initiatives now have a new excuse to couch themselves as anti-colonial assertions of independence. In Nigeria, where a new bill to restrict LGBT people’s rights is moving forward, a news source reports:

One of the backers of the same sex prohibition ban … told USAfricaonline.com that “Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron still think [sic] we are under his colonial rule. Let him keep his financial aid  and same sex agenda. Nonsense. He wants to run our country for us?”

And in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s supporters are wielding Cameron’s comments to undercut opposition leader (and Prime Minister) Morgan Tsvangirai, who recently voiced support for including sexual orientation protections in a new Constitution.

“It is possible that Morgan Tsvangirai could have been told by whites in the UK that part of their support to him would include him publicly supporting issues to do with gay rights in Zimbabwe. That could be the threat he was issued by the British and we all know that Tsvangirai has never been his own man,” said Mr Alexander Kanengoni [an author and former Mugabe propagandist who was allotted a farm in the violent land reforms ten years ago]. …

Zanu-PF spokesperson Cde Rugare Gumbo said it was clear that the British were pushing Mr Tsvangirai to support gay rights in Zimbabwe.  “There is a clear link between what Cameron said and what Tsvangirai is now advocating, and it is not surprising. They (MDC-T) [Tsvangirai’s party] are sponsored by the British and the West and they have to toe the line. Failure to do so would cost them British support,” he said.

It’s still not clear what Cameron’s initiative means in practice. When the UK cut back on aid to Malawi in July, after months of bluster about human rights, the reductions were limited to general budget support — a form of assistance that allows governments maximum flexibility in allocating the funds, “to deliver their own national strategies for poverty reduction against an agreed set of targets.”  Money shifted to other channels, and the overall donation figure didn’t change. But the scope of what will happen matters less than the publicity, which makes LGBT people’s human rights look like neocolonial meddling.  As a coalition of African activists wrote last week, their movements have

been working through a number of strategies to entrench LGBTI issues into broader  civil society issues, to shift the same-sex sexuality discourse from the morality debate to a human rights debate, and to build relationships with governments for greater protection of LGBTI people. These objectives cannot be met when donor countries threaten to withhold aid.

Meanwhile, Peter Tatchell has stormed into the fray, with a press release warning that

“The British government is wrong to threaten to cut aid to developing countries that abuse human rights. … Cuts in aid would penalise the poorest, most vulnerable people. Many are dependent on aid for basic needs like food, clean water, health care and education … Instead of cutting aid, Britain and other donor countries should divert their aid money from human rights abusing governments and redirect it to grassroots, community-based humanitarian projects that respect human rights and do not discriminate in their service provision.”

“I stand in solidarity” with the African activists’ statement, he proclaims. This is a welcome move. Tatchell, of course, has a long record of supporting aid conditionality. In a US speech in 2008, he said:

“We must urge the US State Department to make foreign aid and trade conditional on the recipient countries agreeing to respect human rights, including the human rights of LGBT people. Tyrannies should not be rewarded: No US aid for anti-gay regimes.”

And during the controversy in 2010 around a Malawi couple’s brutal imprisonment under a sodomy law (during which Tatchell’s self-publicizing made his white, British visage the possibly uncongenial face of homosexuality over a large swath of Africa), he urged cutting UK assistance: “If [diplomatic negotiation] fails the UK should reconsider its aid and trade agreements with Malawi. There can be no blank cheque for countries that violate human rights.”  But even mountains move: usually after an earthquake that brings down houses on their inhabitants.

However, redirecting aid “to grassroots, community-based humanitarian projects,” as Tatchell demands,  has its own problems. Such redirection is one of the strategies African activists urge on governments in their letter, but is hardly plausible for the full aid package. Some rights and needs — “food, clean water, health care and education” — are arguably the state’s proper business. To saddle NGOs with responsibility for the water supply is not much different from privatizing it: turning something that should be a general good over to particular, and perhaps partial, hands. And while civil society in some places has played important roles in providing health care and schooling the young, treaties and international law still make these core tasks of governing. There is no reason to think that NGOs, without the resources and experience of a state, can do an adequate job on their own. Redirection by itself echoes the neoliberal solutions of the 80s and 90s, practiced at home by Thatcher and Reagan and enforced abroad by the IMF and World Bank. Governments sloughed off responsibilities for their peoples’ welfare; civil society was told to pick up the slack. Advocates who had pushed for improved state action necessarily transformed themselves into exhausted, overburdened service providers. The poor, sick, uneducated and disenfranchised got more so.

Nor is it certain that rights-based and non-discriminatory service providers will be the ones to take advantage when aid to governments, and consequent state capacities, dwindle. It’s a truism that the growth of political Islamism in the post-70s Middle East came in the wake of lender-promoted government retrenchment. As welfare and services shrank, movements flush with Gulf oil money moved in to provide what the state once had, in older days. In the process, they built networks of gratitude, dependency, and political support.   In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, education is already as much the province of Christian churches as of the government. It would not much benefit LGBT people to promote policies to make it even more so.

All this means simply that the politics of aid are unsimple: complicated, full of unpredictable consequences, and fraught with both political and ethical concerns They are not susceptible to simplifying rhetoric. But rhetoric almost childlike in its simplicity is what the UK government is offering the domestic constituencies it strains to entice. Talk about growing pains! — but while British policy struggles to grow up, the pains will be felt in other, distant corners of the globe.

Zimbabwe: “True leadership remains steadfast”

In a statement, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) has responded to Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s tentative embrace of constitutional protections for sexual orientation. While welcoming the comments, they

note however that these statements contradict his views expressed in March 2010, when Mr Tsvangirai agreed with President Mugabe, saying, “Gay rights were not up for discussion in Zimbabwe.”

Gay rights are a controversial issue in Zimbabwe, where many people view homosexuality as “uncultural.” GALZ does not expect every individual Zimbabwean to embrace gay rights or the issue of homosexuality. But we do expect Zimbabweans – and our political leaders in particular – to understand and promote the fundamental, inalienable and indivisible nature of human rights, including non-discrimination on the basis of race, gender, tribe, culture, sexual orientation or political affiliation.

Zimbabwe’s new, democratic constitution must enshrine these human rights, which are inherent to every human being, and are not determined by majority opinion.

We encourage the Prime Minister to take positive action to support his most recent statement on the indivisibility of human rights.

Further, we urge him to have the courage to stand by his laudable respect for human rights in the face of the propaganda and unpopularity that will be generated by the Zimbabwean media around his position.

True leadership remains steadfast in the pursuit of justice and equality.

The propaganda has begun.  Today Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister, a staunch apparatchik of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, accused Tsvangirai of shifting to secure donor funds: 

“”We all know what people said about gay rights – it’s a total no; an almost 100% no … We can’t smuggle [into the constitution] the views of a prime minister who wants to please a certain audience basically, I suppose, to mobilise resources for his party.”

Change in Zimbabwe

Happily never after: Mugabe and Tsvangirai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader and prime minister under a tense power-sharing agreement, tells the BBC he supports including protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in a new Constitution:

“It’s a very controversial subject in my part of the world. My attitude is that I hope the constitution will come out with freedom of sexual orientation, for as long as it does not interfere with anybody, … To me, it’s a human right,” he said.

In March 2010, Mr Tsvangirai said gay rights was not up for discussion in Zimbabwe. “I totally agree with the president,” he said at the time.

A new constitution will be drafted over the coming year, and submitted to a referendum ahead of the 2012 elections, which most expect to be close and violent.

Tsvangirai once asked, “Women make up 52% of the population … there are more women than men, so why should men be proposing to men?” Today, his spokesman told the AFP that the prime minister

still believes that the issue of homosexuality is alien in Africa … However, he is a social democrat. What he was saying is that ordinary people’s rights must be respected as long as they do their things in private.

Tsvangirai’s change of heart, however qualified, sets up a test in next year’s vote: whether Mugabe’s tried and true exploitation of homophobia, which he’ll surely haul out yet again, still works in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai’s comments also mark a general shift in attitudes affecting many African countries. Zimbabwe’s Guardian newspaper notes,

Tsvangirai’s U-turn comes after Botswana’s former President Festus Mogae told the BBC last week that his country should decriminalise homosexuality and prostitution to prevent the spread of HIV. Mogae, who heads the Botswana government-backed Aids Council, said it was difficult to promote safe sex when the two practices were illegal.

Mugabe, sex, and money

an anti-Mugabe poster made of worthless bills, 2009

To simplify history: for humans in many millennia, and for plenty of people in the world even these days, getting food and water was the primary concern.   But once a certain level of civilization — consumer civilization — has arrived, sex and money take over.

Robert Mugabe is a civilized man. He has the chance this week to speak to one of God’s vicars on earth, the leader of the global Anglican communion.  Sex and money are on his mind.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is visiting Zimbabwe as part of a three-nation African tour.   The Zimbabwe Telegraph reports:

Williams may not be allowed into any Anglican facilities in Zimbabwe, after a breakaway bishop aligned with Mugabe seized all of the church’s property.  For weeks Williams has sought a meeting with Mugabe to discuss the split, which has degenerated into violence as supporters of excommunicated bishop Nolbert Kunonga chased Anglican faithful out of churches, schools and orphanages.

Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba did not say if the two men would meet, but told the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper that if they did speak, the 87-year-old president would challenge Williams about gays and sanctions.

“Fundamentally, he would want to know why the church of the British state, the Anglican Church, has remained so loudly silent while the people of Zimbabwe, and these people include Anglicans, are suffering from the illegal sanctions,” Charamba said.

Rowan Williams being told his tickets home are ready

“The second issue that the president wants this man of God to clarify is why his Anglican Church thinks homosexuality is good for us and why it should be prescribed for us.

“He thinks the Archbishop will be polite enough to point to him that portion of the Great Book (that) sanctions homosexuality and sanctions sanctions.”

God, as it happens, was rather fond of economic sanctions, many of which exceeded anything the EU has in its quiver:

But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:

Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep…

The LORD will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed.

Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, and thou shalt not eat thereof: thine ass shall be violently taken away from before thy face, and shall not be restored to thee: thy sheep shall be given unto thine enemies, and thou shalt have none to rescue them. (Deuteronomy 28)

The sanctions against Zimbabwe are less sweeping than the botch of Egypt and the scab and the itch, but they’re serious. They take two forms:

a) travel bans and asset freezes on 100 – 200 of the dictatorship’s high officials;

b) moves to restrict Zimbabwe’s access to international credit as well as aid.

The latter were predicated on the perception that neither aid nor credit reached most Zimbabweans without transparency or democracy. For a pro-Mugabe, and controversial, account of their impact, see Mahmood Mamdani’s tendentious article here. The ZANU-PF regime, however, tries mightilyl to conflate the two — those targeting the leadership and those aimed at the broader economy. And that deliberate confusion suggests that for Mugabe, the bans on foreign accounts and shopping trips are at least as onerous, and objectionable.   The hardships of ordering his outfits over the Internet must be considerable.

Sanctions politics are intricate. But the sex part is telling. A Catholic, Mugabe could care less about Rowan Williams’ opinions. However, the Anglican church in Zimbabwe was — before Nolbert Kunonga took it over — a source of vocal opposition to the dictatorship.

The schisms over homosexuality that have fissured the church from the US to Nigeria must have seemed to him a delightful opportunity.  Mugabe has always pioneered the opportunistic use of homosexuality to enlist religious or right-wing support in the country. This time, he is using it split religious opposition.  (In addition to driving Mugabe opponents from churches and orphanages, Kunonga allegedly had at least one dissenting parishioner murdered.)

Multiple interests converge around dividing the Anglican church. American conservatives have heavily funded African anti-homosexuality schismatics, like Nigeria’s ferocious Peter Akinola.  They don’t care about African church politics. They’ve wanted to use the defiant clerics to wrest control of the Anglican denomination in the US from its generally liberal leaders, and create a right-wing hegemony. Their eyes were on capturing the church’s reputation, influence, and prestige.

Mugabe is just following their lead. He now has himself a portfolio of church lands and buildings, a nice bump in his income, and a terrorized clergy unlikely to speak out. And all this profit came from raising the spectre of homosexuality.  The uses of gayness are manifold. And sex and money continue to go together.

Rogue bishop evicts nuns

Archbishop Nolbert Kunonga in full antichrist drag

Really, this is only for the sake of the headline.  Nolbert Kunonga, the onetime Anglican bishop of Harare in Zimbabwe, was excommunicated four years ago for sermons that incited violence on behalf of Robert Mugabe’s ruling party. Calling Mugabe a “prophet of God” helped him get the police on his side, and he seized the Harare cathedral and a good many church resources in the process.  And he managed to find a highfalutin excuse for the expropriation, attaching himself to the anti-homosexuality brigade in the Anglican church.   Thus he is not a thug and thief backed by a dictator’s power, in his own eyes and those of his adherents; he’s a persecuted crusader against perversion.

He now claims to be an archbishop, and therefore the peer of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The latter is visiting Zimbabwe next week. Since he is likely to express some animadversions against the Mugabe regime’s violence, Kunonga naturally objects: “He is coming to represent neo-colonialism. He is coming to lobby for homosexuality.”

The Anglican Church in Africa is of course in origin a colonial church, and as long as Kunonga wears some version of its robes he too can be called part of a neo-colonial system; people who live in glass cathedrals shouldn’t throw scones.  The homophobia he spews is equally a funded product of forces outside Africa, spawned by US right-wing donors promoting an Anglican schism.   The folks abroad who back Peter Akinola, Nigeria’s rabid prelate, have so far not openly embraced Kunonga, because his affiliations with a dictator are a little too toxic for their tastes.  But he’s the logical embodiment of their ambitions.

Meanwhile, Kunonga’s latest move has been to grab control of a church orphanage — undoubtedly a donor magnet — and kick out the nuns who ran it.

Sister Dorothy, one of the three nuns in charge of the care of orphans at the Shearly Cripps home near Murewa, [said that] local officials and followers of Kunonga told the orphanage staff they were under orders to leave because they “support homosexuality.” … Local officials in this longtime Mugabe party stronghold showed an unsigned court eviction order when the caregivers were bathing, feeding and giving medication to children last week, she said … Visitors to the orphanage have since reported that children appeared not to have received regular meals and it was not clear whether qualified replacement staff were at the historic Shearly Cripps home.

Come on; kids don’t need food, they need heterosexuality. And obviously those weren’t real nuns, just a bunch of pederastic drag queens. Having shut down the local branch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, what will Kunonga do next? Such a poster boy for traditional morality surely has some new defense of virtue up his capacious sleeve. Anglican schismatics everywhere will be breathlessly waiting.