Help Africa’s Gay Men; You’ll Save Their Women Too
Monitor, December 3, 2003
By Charles Onyango-Obbo
KAMPALA—Terrible, the news that came out this week as
we marked World Aids Day. Things are very bad in Africa, and the poorer parts
of the world.
Some folks even declared that Africa, where about 70 per
cent of the 36 million people worldwide infected with HIV/Aids live, is losing
the war against the disease. Aids killed a record number of people in the
third world and Eastern Europe this year, but Sub-Saharan Africa remains the
worst affected region with about 3.2 million new infections and 2.3 million
When one thinks of it, there is nothing new in those grim
numbers. Nearly everything has been tried to deal with Aids in Africa, but it
seems not to have the dramatic effect it should in order to reverse the
carnage. And the reasons for the failure are, again, not new—bad and corrupt
government, wars, lousy infrastructure, illiteracy, and retrogressive cultural
It seems that until we rise above concentrating on the
conventional causes for the massive destruction by Aids in Africa, people will
continue to drop off like flies. One place to begin is a study done by the
global organisation, the Population Council. It has not been talked about much
because it is about a taboo subject in Africa—homosexuality.
Ask the liberal don, Dr Sylvia Tamale of the Makerere
University Faculty of Law. She has many ruffled feathers flying in the air
presently after she argued, sensibly, that prostitution should be
decriminalised. But the present storm she has caused with advocating a more
enlightened attitude toward sex workers is nothing compared to what happened
early this year when she said it was wrong to treat homosexuals like
criminals. The priests, sheikhs, politicians, and other “guardians of the
people” threw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Dr Tamale.
That in itself was not surprising. The disturbing thing
was that when the anti-gay camp really went into high and shrill gear, even
many champions of freedom of expression were too scared to publicly defend Dr
Tamale’s right to hold her opinions—even if they disagreed with them.
Against that background, it is easy to appreciate why,
perhaps, the Population Council study was not given attention around Africa.
The study found that Senegal, while being the only country in Africa that has
had better success than Uganda rolling back the march of Aids, has no
meaningful programmes to deal with gays.
In Uganda too, there has never been a single Aids
awareness message targeted at gay people. This is because most people consider
it an “ungodly” sexual orientation.
The Population Council study sought to find out the
effect of this. It discovered that there are far more men in Senegal who are
gay than was publicly acknowledged. However, the killer finding was that very
many men who are gay are otherwise “happily” married to women.
Because gay men meet discreetly, their wives would not
know it and are therefore content that they are “safe”—because we are
conditioned to detect a man who is cheating with a woman, or a woman with man,
not a man who is cheating on his wife with another man.
Now, because gay men are a particularly high HIV-risk
group, and they are totally ignored by Aids education campaigns, if we imagine
that there are many such African men, then the infections which we are blind
to and doing nothing to prevent are wiping out the gains made in the
heterosexual sector. The point here is that if African societies and their
governments were bolder and more open-minded about homosexuality, and invested
resources in dealing with Aids among gays, then we would have made more
I share the view that, at the end of the day, in sexual
behaviour, just like in other social activity like drinking and eating, Africa
is not much different than the West. So while we are hysterically hostile to
gay people, the only thing that has achieved is to drive them underground. In
reality, we could have nearly as many gay people in Africa, as in the West,
As someone who is familiar with the Senegal study of gays
and Aids told me: “The people who will benefit most from having Aids
awareness for gay men in Africa, could well be their wives and girlfriends”.
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