As I stood in the morning heat out outside one of Kampala’s district court houses waiting for the British producer David Cecil, who was about to attend a hearing, I could see example of the penalty which lay in store should he be found guilty. A blue goods container with its doors replaced by a cage stood in the corner of the sandy compound. In it, around eighty prisoners awaiting trial fought their way to the front of the blackness, desperate for air and light. Both the laws and justice are severe in Uganda.
David had been arrested for staging the play, The River and the Mountain, which had gay themes. And the government is using his case to prove that their hostile view of homosexuality is real, and one they will enforce. When I asked him if jail was a real possibility, and not just bluster designed to scare foreigners and their press corps, he replied determined: “of course it’s a possibility; this is what they are pushing for. The crime carries an automatic sentence of two years, not up to two years.”
He seemed genuinely shaken, and knew that there would be no immunity for his case. He has lived in Uganda for five years, and knows its tactics well, “they seem to be dragging things out, and indefinitely postponing things.” David isn’t gay, and seemed to me to be an accidental activist, but when I asked him if he regretted staging the play, his familiar determination once again made an appearance: “no not at all. The only regret I have is that it was limited to a very small audience.”
What his play has done, albeit unintentionally, is bring wider international attention to the draconian laws concerning sexuality, laws which are set to become tougher in the coming weeks, and laws which he feels do not reflect the public mood, “I doubt whether the politicians really care about public opinion on this, and for me that is the biggest tragedy.”
The new bill which has been whirring around Parliament since 2009 threatens to bring in the death penalty, forced reporting of homosexuals, and hefty prison sentences for the promotion of homosexuality. The law would set new standards for state-sponsored civil rights abuse. But already, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in Uganda means a life conducted mostly in the shadows, and without the peace that comes from knowing that law will protect you. Fear is a constant companion, and sanctuary is rarely found. I did, however, find one such sanctuary.
It was a ‘safe compound’ called Ice Breakers. Set up by the leading activist Frank Mugisha, it aims to provide a secure space from which LGBT people can get learning advice, health advice from the on-site clinic, but most importantly: safety. As the car waited at the giant metal gates, I wondered what I would find once they creaked open. The gentle gardens and low rise buildings within the high brick walls were an instant comfort. People wandered around and there was a palpable sense of ease. The centre is kept alive by money from international donors, including from the British organisation, The David Cairns foundation.
Its money goes mainly into the health clinic, which is one of the few places in Kampala gay people feel comfortable to seek advice about HIV. Gay men in Uganda are four times more likely to contract HIV, mainly because they feel unable to ask about the disease, and how best to prevent it. The dark clinic with shallow medicine cabinets is very much on the front line of fighting the disease among this marginalised and persecuted community.
Mary, the stout head nurse was sat in her chair as I entered. She had the look of a woman who is impossible to shock. I asked her why people come to see her. Her answer was simple: “because here they feel free.” Conversation quickly turns to the bill, which would make it technically illegal for her not to report her gay patients. She shrugs of the suggestion, “there is no way the bill will stop us treating them.” I smile: this is not the ‘hostile public’ I was warned about back in England. I asked her if she felt that the activists can fight the bill alone, she looked at me, incredulously, “how can they fight the bill when they are sick in their beds?”
Inside the centre’s lounge, sat on a plump sofa watching the Ugandan version of X Factor, I found Aliyo. I asked him what the centre meant to him. He smiled, “this is my comfort; this is my safe place.” I then asked him what he felt on the other side of the compound’s strong walls, his smile soon dropped, “you are always worried – this is about your life.”
I left the safety of Ice Breakers and headed back into the chaos of Kampala. The human rights tragedy will continue to unravel, and as it does, it will bring a health catastrophe with it. But from the courthouse to the safe-house, the voices of care and reason do exist, and they are strong, even if they are occasionally accidental.