The Africanists

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Leaders in Africa disappointed me- Jan Pronk

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

The time has come for Johannes Pieter Pronk’s memoirs. After surviving a major heart attack last year, the former Dutch development minister, born in 1940, feels as if every new day is a bonus for him. At his home in The Hague he whips through reports of his many diplomatic encounters and does that with with the same strict discipline as he showed as minister. Some of these meetings took place in presidential palaces but many were with guerrilla fighters along the Nile or desperate Rwandans deep in the Congolese jungle. His first volume is called “Battle of the Great Lakes”, and it focusses on the crises in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the nineties.

Pronk was always helpful towards journalists during his working visits. I often travelled with him, but one never really got to know him. Pronk always came across as an intellectual, not an emotional person. The latter only very occasionally, very briefly. We were once flying to Northern Kenya when suddenly the windows were covered with thick black slurry. The pilot warned us he might have to crash-land. After a successful emergency landing, unloading ourselves while peeing side by side on the runway, I heard some emotion in Pronk’s voice. “Life is certainly worth living,” he sighed. But a few minutes later, when the pilot had screwed the cap on the oil tank, he sounded distant again: “Luckily I’m am still in time for the parliamentary debate tomorrow.”

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Read further:

-How Kofi Annan let Pronk down

-How Pronk in vain asked Kagame not to hurt a dissident minister

-How Meles Zenawi wanted to do his masters with Pronk on the subject of human rights 

All pictures of Jan Pronk and Kofi Annan by Petterik Wiggers  {read more…}

Gay Africa: casualty of a different power struggle

Uganda’s war over homosexuality threatens to spread to other African countries and has further damaged the increasingly strained relationship between Africa and Western donors. For the donors it is a matter of human rights for minorities – a corner stone of democracy. For Africa it is part of the push back against the Western donors and the assertion of an African agenda. In Africa’s very religious – Christian or Muslim – societies, it is a matter of morality. At best it is a battle between Western human rights and African morality but both suspect the other – quite rightly – of more cynical agendas.

How did we get here? In the mid 1980s when Aids became front page news it was at first an American story from San Francisco dubbed “The Gay Plague”. Then there were the reports from Southern Uganda – the area I had lived in more than a decade earlier. A particular hard-nosed news editor asked me: “So are they all bumming each other in Africa?” My reply was that in all the time I had been working in Africa I had never come across homosexuality. That was true. Nobody talked about it.

In the United States Aids had begun to spread through the gay community while in Africa it was spread through heterosexual relationships, but my assertion that there was no gay sex in Africa was absurd. In fact teaching in a Catholic school in Buganda it was staring me in the face. The Uganda Martyrs, 22 young men executed by the Kabaka, the Baganda king, Mutesa II in 1886 and canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1964, were burned to death because they refused to have sex with him. But in the school, this was played down. We taught that they were executed because they converted to Christianity. Homosexuality was not talked about in Africa.

If it came up in conversation Ugandans and many other Africans would tell you that homosexuality is not African. They say it was introduced to Africa by the Arabs or the Europeans who forced Africans to do it – all part of the imperial takeover of Africa. It is true that African cultures tend to be very patriarchal and often macho. Part of that culture is the refusal to accept that some people, male and female, are gay and that they are just made that way.

Of course the mainstream religions (Christianity and Islam) which have traditionally denounced homosexuality were mostly introduced to Africa by Europeans and Arabs. Their new well-funded fundamentalist counterparts – Wahabi Islam from Saudi Arabia and born again Christianity funded by theologically primitive churches in America – are killing off Africa’s traditional tolerance of otherness. There is much evidence that historically many African societies tolerated homosexuality and found ways of accommodating gay people.

If anything it was the Christian churches and Islamic preachers who suppressed it. Many years after I left Uganda I heard that the head boy of the school I taught in had committed suicide. He was a very sensible, mild mannered boy who worked hard and never did anything wrong. The girls loved him because he handsome and never hit on them – or hit them – as other boys did. I learned that he had become a well-respected priest but one day he had gone to the forest and hanged himself. I am now sure he was gay and had become a priest in the belief that God would give him the strength to resist these heinous feelings.

There was the bizarre case in 1997 of the first president of Zimbabwe, the Reverend Canaan Sodindo Banana. His male bodyguard accused him of forcing him to have sex. At first his denials were believed but the case came to court and other victims came forward as witnesses. Banana was convicted and served a prison sentence. When he died in 2003 he was not given a state funeral but Robert Mugabe called him “a rare gift to the nation.”

Since then there have been other reports of gay groups throughout Africa including at senior levels of the Nigerian army but until recently not many Africans have admitted they are gay. It can be a death sentence in some societies. I fear for Binyavanga Wainaina, the gay Kenyan writer who movingly came out in public earlier this year. Since the new law in Uganda bans the promotion of gay literature, presumably his books are banned there now.

But wait a moment. There is another side to this apparently simple story of backward primitive Africa confronting progressive Western morality. I grew up in a world which was very similar to where Uganda is at the moment. In the Catholic boarding school I went to homosexuality was the worst crime in the book and boys were beaten for it. It was not just a matter of school discipline. We were told we would definitely go to hell for it too.

And that was pretty much the view of society too. Homosexuality was illegal and gay people discriminated against in the UK until a series of laws began to be passed in 1967. Even then it was tolerated as long as it didn’t “frighten the horses” – cause a public problem. So people like Oscar Wilde were destroyed by those laws and, in my lifetime, Alun Turing, the man who broke the German enigma code in World II, committed suicide after being convicted of homosexual acts. He was also forced to have chemical hormone treatment to “cure” him. Until recently a prominent psychiatrist I know believed it was a “disorder”.

The fact is that in Britain it has only been 30 years since being gay has been OK thanks to a concentrated campaign to change the public attitude. Africa may not have been exposed to that debate and even then we must not assume its people will simply follow what Western governments tell them to do. Why should we expect African countries to automatically follow suit and change their minds and their laws, just because we tell them to? That does sound like neo-imperialism to me. With China and other countries now engaged in Africa, African people and their rulers are becoming more self-confident and are able to push back against the western agenda – including western liberal values.

It is tragic that this new self-confidence and ability to assert African values has started with the issue of gay rights but we should be neither surprised, nor smug about it.

A book on and by gays in Kenya

A fresh breeze is blowing through the gay community in Kenya since the beginning of this year. First, the famous Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina came out of the closet. And now a book is published with stories, letters and poetry by and about gay people in the country. Homosexuality is not illegal in Kenya, but there is a prison sentence of up to 14 years for sex between two men or two women.

Kevin Mwachiro is author of Invisible: stories from Kenya’s queer community.  He hopes to combat with his book ignorance about homosexuality, and especially show gay people that they are not alone. “It’s a very lonely time before you dare to come out of the closet. I certainly experienced it like that. But after all the stories I’ve heard over the past two years, I realize how smooth it actually was for me”, says the 40 -year-old gay activist and journalist.

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Alarming rate of suicides in peaceful Northern Uganda

“We later learnt that they went from house to house in Katikati as
well, taking all boys and girls around your age with them. They
said that the rebels would train the children to fight. Train them
to lure other children. Join the big war to save the Acholi. Oust
the government. Overthrow Museveni’s government. We didn’t
know what that meant. We didn’t want to ask anyone. What we
knew was that we didn’t want our children to get involved in that



Thousands of families in northern Uganda recognize themselves in the words of writer Beatrice Lamwaka. The region, which had for some twenty years been terrorized by the Lord’s Resistance Army, is now afflicted in peacetime by an unusually high number of suicides. Silence is a national character trait of the northern residents. It proved not to be a solution for trauma.

Lamwaka describes in Butterfly Dreams the return of a teen, abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which had kidnapped more than 20,000 children and transformed them into killing machines. The short story is based on the abduction and return of her 13 year-old brother. He never talked about his experiences. His family did not ask. They also did not tell him that his Tipu, his soul, had been buried according to tradition.  Everyone assumed he was dead. This was to happen two years later when he died of pneumonia.

“We, Acholi, do not talk about what others know. Nobody wants to talk about a child who had been kidnapped. Such a child was a killer.” says the 35 year old writer about her people which form the majority tribe in northern Uganda.

The LRA left Uganda some five years ago in a significantly reduced number, and moved to the Central African Republic and Congo. The people left the displaced camps in which they had gathered for protection and tried to resume their lives. But that proves not to be easy.

In 2012 more than fifty people took their lives in and around the town of Gulu, a region of 400.000 inhabitants. “We fear that the number is twice as high. Families prefer to keep it secret because suicide is a taboo in our culture,” said Francisco Watdok Awori, a local councillor who helped with research into the suicides. “Last year it was more or less the same number, usually people aged between 25 and 40 years.” Research shows that trauma, poverty and alcohol abuse are the main reasons for suicides or attempts.

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