Local Voices and Identity in Uganda

Local Voices and Identity in Uganda
by Edison Ndayambaje

What is your opinion on the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda? As a Ugandan studying in the United States, I have been asked this question many times over the past year. 

Living outside of Uganda while the international media presented and discussed Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law led me to contemplate the many single stories that are told about this issue and so many other issues. I would like to present a more nuanced picture. 

The local voices on the issue of homosexuality have not been heard, especially in the Western media. Ugandans have been portrayed as universally homophobic and intolerant of their neighbors with different sexual orientations. In the community where I grew up, the schools I attended, and even the places I have worked, I never observed sentiments or heard questions about one’s sexual or religious affiliations. I believe that the motivations of our politicians backing this law are not about protecting religious beliefs or even about representing the views of the majority, but rather about their desires to distract us from the real issues confronting our society. 

The biblical teachings I have been exposed to taught me tolerance, compassion, kindness, mindfulness, and unbounded love...

Being asked by so many to speak on behalf of Uganda in regards to this issue has also prompted me to reflect on where I stand on these issues and to determine whether my stance aligns with the social justice work I have done in the fields of health and community development. The biblical teachings I have been exposed to taught me tolerance, compassion, kindness, mindfulness, and unbounded love, all of which have formed the values that I believe I need to exhibit as an advocate for social justice. I have never been taught to have or to show hatred, even towards those with whom I disagree. Reflecting on what I have been called to accomplish in this world has helped me to realign my values in relation to the meaning and purpose of this life. Considering the deeper purpose and meaning of life may help us Ugandans realize that we do share some values that have been rooted in our national identity. We are fortunate to be a culturally diverse society with over 50 tribes, all speaking different languages and dialects. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity.” Our diversity is what we need to cherish as Ugandans. Let’s be inclusive, love one another, and embrace what we have in common instead of focusing on what makes us different. 

Let us continue to create an environment where individuals from all walks of life can seek opportunities for a better life. In times of crisis, many people from our neighboring countries have sought safety in Uganda. Our own citizens are able to move freely from one region to another and to integrate with other cultures. In the early 1990s, as a child I witnessed how households that were relocated during the creation of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Kisoro district were resettled and accepted throughout communities in central and western Uganda. When I speak to my relatives who live in places as far as Hoima and Kiboga, I am told the same story: communities live in harmony despite significant divergences in cultures and customs. 

When I speak to my fellow classmates who grew up in Uganda but were originally from South Sudan or Rwanda, they share how they have cherished our hospitality and social inclusion. These stories of hospitality, tolerance, and social inclusion have not been reflected on either side of the debate surrounding the anti-homosexuality bill. I am one Ugandan who wants to promote the vision of our nation as socially conscious, hospitable, and inclusive. One of the many privileges of living abroad for the past four years is that I have been given the opportunity to cherish the values—biblical and communal—that I was taught growing up in the small rural village of Kisoro. I have come to realize that no matter who we are as individuals, we are all humans, created—I believe—in God’s image.

By raising my voice and encouraging others to do the same, I hope that the Government of Uganda will adopt policies that leverage the power of the more deep-rooted national values of hospitality and inclusivity. We must not infringe on the rights of any one of our citizens. §

Edison Ndayambaje grew up in Kisoro, Uganda. He is the co-founder and director of Mgahinga Community Development Organization (MCDO), which is dedicated to creating opportunities for communities in southwestern Uganda to benefit from the growing tourism industry. Edison served as a Global Health Corps fellow at Last Mile Health. He holds a Masters in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University and a B.A. in Economics from Makerere University.

Header Image: Ugandan students working together at Mutanda Eco Community Centre courtesy of Mgahinga Community Development Organisation (MCDO).