Last edited: November 08, 2003

Homophobia Strikes Uganda

Rumours of a gay marriage have ruined a hairdresser's business in Uganda, where homosexuality is not just taboo, it's illegal

Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, October 26, 1999
Braamfontein 2017, Johannesburg, South Africa
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Anna Borzello reports

Widower Celestine Walusimbi, now suspected of homosexuality, dedicated the best part of the last decade to building up a hairdressing salon, steadily attracting a clientele that included senior government figures.

His business is now falling apart and his customers are staying away in droves because he has been labelled, without substantiation, as a homosexual.

To be gay is not just taboo in Uganda; it is also illegal.

The rumours began with articles published in local newspapers last month. These alleged that Walusumbi, a short, now sad-looking man with a pot belly and ripped sandals, had married another man.

The report sparked off a torrent of homophobia, with anti-gay letters appearing in the press and a vigilante group offering to hunt down homosexuals and public expose them.

Responding to a reporter's question arising specifically out of this case, President Yoweri Museveni joined in the fray, ordering the arrest of all homosexuals, a well-publicised move that incurred outrage among donor nations such as Sweden.

The allegations against the owner of Sanyu Men's Salon in Kampala's Wandegaya district are rooted in a September 10 graduation party for his niece.

The police appeared at the party to check on rumours that the function was really a celebration of Walusimbi's marriage to another man. The officers left when they discovered the story was baseless.

Lack of evidence did not deter the semi-official New Vision newspaper from carrying the rumour.

"I was very offended when I read the story. I thought it must be a move to spoil me because I could not stand in public with that allegation about me," a defeated-looking Walusimbi told AFP, as he sat in a small bar across the road from his salon.

The story was particularly hurtful as Kanyengenya, the name of his alleged male spouse, was actually the name of his late wife, who died last year of malaria, leaving Walusimbi to raise their 10-year-old son single-handed.

After the story appeared in the paper, clients immediately began deserting the Sanyu Salon.

"My business is now completely dead and I have no job now. I spend all day waiting for customers who don't come. Some of my customers were senior government officials and now they don't want to associate with me," Walusimbi said.

The situation worsened after President Museveni made his anti-homosexual sentiments clearly known.

"When I heard the president's remarks my fears increased because he said people should be arrested and prosecuted. I began to fear for my life. I even contemplated moving away and I had to move my child closer to my village," he told AFP.

The police decided to investigate the gay marriage allegations once more. According to police spokesman Eric Naigambi, they found no evidence to substantiate the rumours. The matter was dropped but the scandal stuck.

Walusimbi believes the homosexual rumours were started by jealous rival salon owners in Wandegaya.

"I would like to take the person who started the rumour to court but I don't have the money," a dejected Walusimbi said.

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