A three-day international conference on family planning took place in the Ugandan capital of Kampala last month. More than 1,000 health workers from 59 countries applauded a US$12 million grant from the Americans for launching a family planning drive in Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and Kenya, as well as Indonesia and Pakistan. Everyone was relieved that President Obama had rescinded George Bush’s Mexico City policy which had banned funding agencies which provided abortion services or counselling.
However, all the contraceptive yadda-yadda passed unnoticed by the average Ugandan. The birth rate here is 6.7 children per woman, one of the highest rates in the world.
And that’s the way Ugandans like it. In a recent talk show on a popular Kampala radio station, a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of spacing births quickly turned into a heated debate over population control. One caller asked: “How can a Ugandan man ‘stop at two’? Have we become like the mzungus (white people)?”
Another was proud to say that his grandfather had had 65 children, although 35 of them had died. If he’d had only 30 none would be alive now. A third caller said “Western countries are paying their women to give birth. They are telling us to stop having children so that they can come and take over our land.” Another also saw population as a security issue: “The Kikuyu in Kenya and the South Africans were able to fight for their land because they are many. We need more people to defend our land.”
There are arguments to shoot down each of these points, but they give you an idea of where most Ugandans stand on family planning.
So perhaps that puts into context the latest news from Kampala – a private member’s bill in the national Parliament which proposes the death penalty for gay sex when a person is HIV-positive. The other drastic sanctions set down in the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 include life imprisonment for non-infected gay sex; up to seven years for defending the rights of gays and lesbians; and three years for failing to report evidence of homosexuality to the police within 24 hours.
This has caused some consternation, to put it mildly, in North America and Europe. Stephen Lewis, a former UN envoy on Aids in Africa, said bitterly. “Nothing is as stark, punitive and redolent of hate as the Bill in Uganda.” Canada, the UK, the US and France have all denounced the proposed legislation, along with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has not explicitly backed the bill but he is no fan of gay rights. Recently he warned youths in Kampala that he had heard that “European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa”, and that homosexual relationships were against God’s will. He told the Guardian, “We used to say Mr and Mrs, but now it is Mr and Mr. What is that now?”
Alarmingly, the minister of state for ethics and integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, also told the Guardian that the government was determined to pass the legislation, ideally before the end of the year. And it would press ahead even if this meant withdrawing from international treaties and conventions such as the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and foregoing donor funding.
“We are talking about anal sex. Not even animals do that,” Butoro told the Guardian, adding that he was personally caring for six “former homosexuals” who had been traumatised by the experience. “We believe there are limits to human rights.”
No doubt to the 1,000 health care workers chattering in air-conditioned hotels in the family planning conference and to readers of the Guardian and the New York Times, all this is not just objectionable, but stark, raving mad. But the average Ugandan’s priorities are utterly different. Both men and women here believe that anyone who wants only two, one or even zero children is to be pitied.
Uganda is becoming a battleground for different family and life ideologies, but the war is being waged from outside. The country has one of the highest birth-rates in the world, and there are reasons for this. The whole country was the scene of bitter conflict between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s. A rebellion in the north started after this and continued for a further 20 years. Ugandans have seen too much death; they now want to see life.
The land is fertile and under-populated. Extra hands could develop the country and raise living standards. Fertility is seen as a divine gift. Anything that stunts it, whether it be homosexual unions or contraceptive devices, is regarded as an abuse of this sacred gift. Like drought, floods or a locust attack, infertility is seen as a punishment. This belief is deeply rooted in all Africans, not only Ugandans, whether animist, Christian or Moslem.
Of course, there is not complete unanimity on this. There is a gay lobby to which the media is often sympathetic. Wealthy young people have studied and travelled overseas and have imported Western ideas. But most of the country supports a bigger population and traditional values and it is unlikely that this will change soon. One parent summed it up for the Guardian: “We would rather live in grass huts with our morality than in skyscrapers among homosexuals.”
Children mean security in old age; they bring with them the brains and hands needed to raise living standards; they provide laughter and enjoyment as well as headaches; they bring each other up and learn to socialize easily and naturally, and pass on the family name and family values. This is the way it is, and few will be convinced otherwise, at least while the continent remains so undeveloped.
Africa has been spared violent social, as opposed to political, revolutions. This is said to be largely due to the extended family and explains why, despite the poverty and social upheaval, everyone somehow has somewhere to go at night to eat and sleep. Africans fear that if they have fewer children they will fall into worse poverty, and die unattended and unmourned, a terrible fate. Besides, they have no guarantee their children will live longer if they have fewer of them, nor that their living standards will automatically improve, because of the precariousness of life here.
Admittedly, Ugandan attitudes towards homosexuals are disproportionate and harsh. But the only way that the international community will succeed in changing them is by changing their own attitudes towards its exuberant fertility.
Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala.