Where words, mere words, mean trouble

November 3, 2012

“Is that what you want to do? Run? Then run. This is my country. I love this country. And I’m not going anywhere!”

From the play The River and the Mountain


The official charge is ignoring orders of a public official. But the real problem is words. Just words.

You know, words can be enough. Too much, even, when they say this and that; when they’re relevant and lacerating; when they’re passed to others and speak more than anyone even realizes; when they speak truth that isn’t just truth to be understood, but that deeper truth that causes a lump in your throat because you know someone has experienced it with some amount of pain.

And so David Cecil, a Brit who thought he was just in the marketplace of words and art, who thought he was just making a dramatic-comedy, continues to wait for either the nod or the shake of the head, the return of his passport, and the final word of judgment on his alleged crime — not listening to Uganda’s official word, the word “stop.”

Earlier this year, Cecil, producer of the play The River and the Mountain, got caught in the crosshairs of art and politics when he showed the production in Kampala theatres. It’s about being gay in Uganda, specifically about a fictitious Ugandan businessman who, trying to live true to himself, is murdered.

Homosexuality, as you likely know, is both a crime and cultural firestorm here. Even exploring it through an even-handed drama, after Uganda’s Media Council had apparently said “stop,” got Cecil charged and jailed for some days before he was released on bail.

His return court date recently came and went quietly. So now we all — even Britain’s biggest names in entertainment have petitioned for his freedom — wait. Cecil, if convicted, could still get more than a year in jail.

Should he have known better, that when one is in Rome, one acts Roman? He had lived in Uganda for two years. Now he says he was naive, and that “Ugandans need to sort out their own back yard.”

It’s a noteworthy comment. Even Uganda’s gay rights community agrees. For it to last, any societal change has to come from within. Someone like Cecil can, sooner or later, pack and leave. Uganda’s gays can’t.

They’re trapped in a stormy climate caused by, for one, that infamous Ugandan bill that originally called for the execution of anyone who commits what here is often called sodomy. Now softened, that bill will still likely die in slow African time. It’s just not a government priority.

Even so, many Ugandans resent outsiders telling them what to think. Colonialism isn’t far from their collective psyche. So pressure from western powers may or may not be as helpful as you might think.

But back to words. Governments can fear them because they can disrupt entire societies. Just as governments can fear societal aberrations, anything out of the so-called norm, sexual or otherwise.

Good governments work to protect minority groups. But governments in places less developed — those holding on a bit tighter, those threatened more with daily existence, with tension on their streets, with a loaf of bread costing a bag of gold — will take longer to get there. They crave, they demand, conformity.

Seventy-six countries, in fact, criminalize homosexuality with a wide range of penalties. Fifty-three countries have anti-discrimination laws. Twenty-six now recognize same-sex unions.

So yes, any cultural change can be painfully slow. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t believe and work and struggle for it. This is the human condition. But it needs that local context.

I know. I was once threatened with jail in Uganda. It was some years ago. I had just arrived. A local captain, square-jawed and large-necked, didn’t appreciate that — while I was in his police precinct following up on the investigation into my stolen goods — I took some photos of what I shouldn’t have.

“Who do you think you are?” he asked, leaning into me on that day.

“I’m the guy with the camera.” That’s what I thought. But I didn’t say a word. I listened. Because I knew his question was a good one.

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November 3, 2012 • Posted in ,
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