Together the voices of reason and care can bring sexual equality to an ever more draconian Uganda

Our writer, who saw an unlikely champion of gay rights fight for his beliefs in an African court, says that there are grounds for optimism in the battle for equality there

Related Topics

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. 

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul

Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living