Caitlyn Jenner Is No Hero In Uganda
I am currently interning at lovely Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) in Uganda for the summer. The office where I work is situated in a mall that looks like the ones you’d find in the Chinatown of every major city in Canada. It is nice by Ugandan standards, and would satisfy the average Canadian standards. Aside from the janitors, I presume everyone working there is making something above the average Ugandan income level (about $11.5 USD a week). In Canada, they would be your typical nine to five-rs driving modest Honda Civics and packing their lunches most days to save a few bucks.
The people I work with are a gregarious, talkative, bunch that laugh at even my worst jokes. They are altruistic, well-educated, and frequently mention how grateful they are to have jobs where they help Uganda’s most impoverished population.
So two funny things happened at my work today, and I’m not really sure what the connection between them was, other then the fact that I undoubtedly wouldn’t have experienced them in my home country of Canada. One of them doesn’t portray Ugandans in the best light, so I was going to write about it separately; but I figured that would be cherry-picking my way through the “African” experience. So here they are:
It was National Hero Day in Uganda, so at our team meeting everyone shared who their heroes were and why. I strung together an impromptu speech on Terry Fox, in hopes of receiving an awe-inspired response that would let me bask in Canadian pride. But the responses were surprisingly underwhelming. My coworkers acknowledged it as an inspirational story, but seemed emotionally immune to the legacy of our 2nd greatest Canadian[i]. Whatever… I probably just didn’t explain it right.
Thinking I’d be a tough act to follow, my fellow coworker JP went next and named his Mom as his hero… haaaaa real original dude. Why? Because she baked you cookies when your first girlfriend dumped you? Or because she stuck by your side “through thick and thin” and always gave you a “warm smile and a hug” when you got home? Or maybe, because she saved your damn life or something? Oh… uh… yeah that’s exactly the reason he gave. I thought I knew this guy pretty well, but I guess the “highly deadly diseases we had as children” topic never came up between chatting about African rap music and how weird the power outlets were here. JP explained how his mother recognized a bone disease he had when it was in its early stages, and ultimately saved his life. My other coworkers asked enough questions that you could tell they were hearing the story for the first time, but instead of jaw-dropping looks of dismay, they seemed considerably unsurprised by the whole thing. I mean sure there were a few condoling comments, but no one seemed very shocked. One of my coworkers even casually said he had a friend that died from the same disease—within two days of discovering it.
What was wrong with these people? Had all of their frontal lobes been anesthetized so they were cognitively incapable of empathy? Or were they just 6 heartless people that found themselves working for an NGO by fluke? Or had they just been surrounded by utterly gut-wrenching circumstances their whole lives that there was really nothing capable of surprising them? Sadly, the latter seemed the most likely.
Following JP was Sareefa, who cited her sister as her hero. Why? Well it sounded like her sister acted as a mother figure for most of her childhood. “Most” only because her sister suffered a crippling acid burn in her late teens[ii]. She is now in the U.S. getting treatment. “Is she good now? Has the treatment worked?” I asked, “We’re not sure yet… hopefully it will” came the reply.
Sympathy was ubiquitously flowing from the group, but shock was an expression reserved only for the privileged, white, Canadian boy. In a way I felt foolish… shouldn’t I have predicted this? If those UNICEF commercials had taught me anything, it was that horrible, life-altering events were the everyday norm in Africa (and for only a dollar a week I could eradicate them all!). But the observations I had made during my first few weeks in Uganda’s capital told otherwise. Sure there were slums that lacked running water and sufficient roofs, but there was also some spoiled-rich-people-from-the-1st-world shit. There were nice malls with unnecessarily large fountains in them, and movie theatres with over-priced popcorn, smart phones, and KFC… yeah, even the Colonel made it to Africa. At first glance there appeared to be a rigid, dichotomy of African lifestyle. There was the “typical” severely impoverished Africa, where every Church group ever wants to go to build schools; and then there was a budding class that seemed to be getting by alright. These people wore nice looking dress shirts to work, could impress you with a few facts about Canada and all had phones— sometimes even Smartphones. Both classes were abundant, but seemed separate. Seemed… they seemed separate, but I was slowly learning they weren’t. In many cases it seemed that the same people wearing classy business attire to work, were the ones returning home to slums.
The last of my coworkers—I think jokingly—said Caitlyn (Bruce) Jenner was her hero. The joke didn’t stand long before another one of my coworkers brought in a serious tone; claiming that Caitlyn Jenner was horrible example for children. Everyone else in the group either agreed or cracked jokes about how “weird” the situation was. This… this I resented, but expected. It takes no more than 5 minutes on Google to figure out that Uganda is arguably the most homophobic country on Earth and is in the midst of trying to outlaw homosexuality[iii]. So yeah, it made sense that a few of my coworkers thought a transgender woman was a little weird. But I saw a chance here to give Ugandans what they are so often deprived of: a more progressive view on homosexuality. So I incisively proclaimed that— all jokes a side— Caitlyn Jenner is a hero. I told them how in Canada, there are numerous kids every year that are bullied to death because they are ashamed of their sexuality. They choose to KILL themselves because they feel so unaccepted for something they cannot control. I stressed the word ‘kill’. Caitlyn Jenner has chosen to be a public face for these kids. She is showing the whole world that you can be a transgender person and also be publicly proud of who you are. How could they think this is wrong? In an indirect way, Caitlyn Jenner is saving lives. And even better… she is hurting absolutely NO ONE in the process. I tried to make it as simple as I could for my coworkers.
“True, but we have a different culture here” was the collective response. They told me how some Ugandans will rape lesbians in hopes of turning them straight. They didn’t seem ashamed of this heinous norm. But they also didn’t agree with it. They laughed about how flawed the logic was of raping someone into heterosexuality. But they failed to mention how devastating—slash totally messed up—it was. It was kind of like “yeah we don’t like it, but it’s just what happens here”.
SO HOW DID THEY RELATE?
So I have been thinking about this for a while and I have managed to draw up a tentative theory. I use to think that the widespread homophobia in Uganda was solely due to strong religious ties. And it mostly is[iv], but I don’t think all. Rampant homophobia was not running through the minds of my coworkers. None of them seemed to harbour any hatred towards homosexuals. Hatred no, but apathy… yes. No one agreed with the idea of lesbians getting raped, but no one seemed the least bit inclined to do anything about it. Or at the very least, to talk passionately about how wrong it was. Or at the very very least, to mention the possibly of voting for a different party in the upcoming Ugandan election— one that doesn’t condone Anti-Gay bills.
But why don’t they care? Because they have no reason—and frankly no energy— to care. Who has time to care about a few nameless gay kids getting bullied when your sister just endured a horrific acid burn? Who cares if a party wants to pass an Anti-Gay bill, if they also promise to improve the dysfunctional hospitals that were unable to save your friend’s life? Who has time to start a gay rights group on campus when you can barely pay the tuition fees to stay on campus?
Not a lot of Ugandans. Any effort to change one’s environment is spent on the pressing issues that are directly affecting one’s self or one’s family. So unless someone close to you is gay, then why would you bother?
I imagine what little support there is for LGBT movements here, comes from three groups. Those that are LGBT. Those that have loved ones who are LGBT. And finally, those that have been fortunate enough in dealing with their own traumatic life events, that they have the time and effort to deal with someone else’s. Perhaps the ‘developed’ aspect of 1st world countries is why they are— for the most part— majorly ahead on the path to LGBT equality. Maybe it centers on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once we have taken care of food, water, shelter etc. we can then take care of marginalized minorities.
Hmmm… just a thought though.
[i] For those that do not worship the CBC (as all good Canadians should), they ran a show called the Greatest Canadian in 2004. It was pretty subjective but Terry came in 2nd while 1st spot honours went to Tommy Douglas, also known as “the guy we all should know but don’t”. Now be a good Canadian and give him a Google!
[ii] I found out later in the week that the Sareefa’s sister’s ex-husband was responsible for her acid burn. Apparently it is quite common here to pour acid on people as a vindictive measure. The police caught him, but he paid them off and walked.
[iii] In 2014, Ugandan federal parliament unanimously passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which made homosexual acts punishable by death. It was revoked due to a technicality, but they are currently drafting another bill.
[iv] If the ever-daunting “gay” word gets brought up in conversation with a Ugandan, they will usually justify their opinion with religion. 85% of the population is Christian, 12% is Muslim.
One Comment Add yours
This is an interesting article regarding cultural and religious differences, and I think it would have benefited from focusing more on your lack of preparation in regards to these differences. Perhaps it is in a bit of a flawed mentality that you think a “privileged, white, Canadian boy” should be applauded for bringing a ‘progressive’ view that Ugandans are so often deprived of. While I absolutely agree that the rampant homophobia in Uganda is problematic, I don’t think it’s correct to assume that they are so impoverished they can’t be bothered to consider LGBT equality, or that you are the voice of reason. That’s quite a ‘west is best’ attitude.
I do, however, think this post is a really great example of how in development work, there will be times where you are working in a community in which you do not agree with some of their cultural or traditional practices. It is hard to accept, but it is never your job to ‘fix’ or bring ‘progress’ to another culture.