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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Kampala News

Back to the bustle of the city after two days' drive through flooding Kenya, where drought has been drenched in too-much rain.  The newspapers, the talk, is of corruption, scandals, arresting negligent parents and thieves, mob justice, new districts, political rallies or the lack thereof, Kingdoms, border disputes, property rights, road construction, police conduct, donor-dependence, and football.  Nary a word about the anti-gay bill that is all the REST of the world is focused on about Uganda.  That topic flared and fizzled locally.  The degree of interest abroad is completely disproportionate to the degree of concern here.

Since we read both sides of the story, we've been trying to understand the deeper cultural currents that drive such different responses.  One comes to mind quickly: individual rights versus community integrity.  In the West we are appalled at any attempt to limit individual rights and freedom, for Americans in particular the right to sexual self-expression has few limits, the pursuit of happiness few detractors.  And that goal is realized in an immediate, personal way.  Here, and possibly in many parts of Africa, however, the cohesion of the community trumps any individual's needs or desires.  Lasting good comes in the creation of descendants, who will honor the ancestors, keep the values, strengthen the tribe, hold their place in the world.  Historically, anything perceived as a threat to this was quickly pruned by ostracism, or worse punishment.  Africans treat gay-rights-activists the way Americans treat far-right tele-evangelists, with suspicion and scorn and assurance that their views are marginal and harmful to the society as a whole.  Another issue:  the shifting locus of control.  In the last century cultural power was eroded by the creation of nations and states, and so now it seems the government tries to legislate what used to happen on a clan or tribal level.  So, for instance, the prohibition on exploitation of young girls becomes a law and violators are handed to the court rather than the elders; or parents are liable to be arrested for neglect if their child is malnourished.  Since the western assumptions about what is private and what is public do not always translate, the state becomes the arbitrator of the non-compartmentalized African life.  And a third observation:  after decades and decades of having western values imposed by rulers and then insinuated by the power and money that seeps in and undermines, Africans are wary of yet another attempt to tell them what is right and wrong, what they should think and do.  When the British football premier league coaches complained yesterday that the Africa Cup of Nations should not interrupt their season by calling back African players in January, the papers here today railed against their neo-colonialist imperialistic hubris. And when European countries threaten to cut aid because of a harsh and misguided new law, a substantial portion of the population reacts by saying take-your-money-then-and-leave-us-to-our-values.  I do admire their boldness to be so politically "incorrect".

So a casual view from the ground would be that there are major rifts in cultural understanding here, as international opinion condemns Uganda, and Uganda seems mostly to have moved on to more pressing concerns like whether there will be enough food to eat, and whether districts will embezzle money for health, and whether elections will be free and fair.  And that leaves a vacuum for religious leaders to fill, to  come to grips with an African Christian view which refuses to condone extramarital sexual arrangements, while loving, welcoming, and forgiving the humans who are involved in them.  Perhaps only God can fully do that.

1 comment:

Greenbrier Escape said...

Great post Jennifer... that issue is so suffocating over here.. they really are going for cultural renovation in the US/Europe. But today I saw where one gay rights group is demanding an apology from Dave Letterman because of a joke he told at the gays expense.... they want to be a privileged class but cannot bear the treatment that being in the mainstream involves.