Last edited: February 27, 2005

Help Africa’s Gay Men; You’ll Save Their Women Too

The Monitor, December 3, 2003
Kampala, Uganda

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 deaths.

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 practices.

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 progress.

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, who knows?

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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