Africa’s new colonists: American evangelical Christians
Opponents of gay rights in Africa often suggest that homosexuality is “un-African”. But over the past few years, scholars and activists have warned with growing urgency that it is the increasing pitch of homophobia on the continent that is really un-African, because it is literally being imported in some cases. Their claim is that anti-gay sentiment is being consciously fomented and spread by huge evangelical churches in America, who see Africa as their shot at power and influence if America is lost. REBECCA DAVIS spoke to the makers of a new documentary on the subject, God Loves Uganda.
The Reverend Kapya Kaoma is a short, dapper man of unfailing politeness, excusing himself apologetically every time he rises from our table at a Cape Town hotel. It’s generally in search of more tea. “How much tea do you drink?” asks his companion, the filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, with incredulous good humour. “Too much,” Kaoma says wryly.
It’s understandable that Kaoma needs a strong tea transfusion to start the day, because he and Williams have been on what sounds like a gruelling tour throughout Africa to screen their documentary on the rise of the US Christian Right’s influence on the continent, God Loves Uganda. Williams was the first African-American director to win an Oscar in the category of Documentary Shorts, in 2010, for Music by Prudence, and also the first African-American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film, regardless of length. But despite Williams’ impressive CV, if it wasn’t for Kaoma, there might not be any film.
Kaoma wrote a report in 2012 called “Colonizing African values: How the US Christian Right is transforming sexual politics in Africa”, which is what introduced Williams to the subject of his documentary. Kaoma, who is originally Zambian, had observed with concern the extension and intensification of anti-gay legislation in Africa over the past decade. From 2006, when Zimbabwe expanded its sodomy laws, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria and the DRC have all either mooted or implemented more extreme homophobic laws. Kaoma went undercover for months of research to try to figure out what was going on.
“There were Christian missionaries in Africa since the nineteenth century,” Kaoma explains between bites of breakfast. “It was in the 70s and 80s that a new wave of Christianity starting arriving that was charismatic, evangelical. In the past, we used to see the kind of missionary who would come and stay for a long time and become part of a community. Now… you have 10 minutes? You can come to Africa.”
Uganda was particularly targeted after the fall of dictator Idi Amin in 1979. Kaoma and Williams say this was twofold: because US Christian organisations wanted to safeguard Ugandan Christians, reportedly persecuted under Amin’s reign; and because US Christian organisations wanted to ensure that the Soviet Union did not procure a foothold within Africa from which to spread Communism. In the post-Cold War era, the infrastructure used to spread the message of anti-Communism could be used for other messages.
Watch: God loves Uganda - trailer
To make his documentary, Williams spent a lot of time with the leaders and missionaries of an evangelical group called the International House of Prayer (IHOP), which sends very young-looking Americans to Uganda to proselytize. Leader Lou Engle, a well-known opponent of abortion and homosexuality, tells the camera: “The West has been in decline. Africa is the fire-pod of spiritual renewal and revival.”
In the USA, recent shifts in public attitudes towards homosexuality, together with growing legislative permissiveness on issues like gay marriage and abortion, has left the American religious right “on the losing side of a battle that it now seems incapable of winning”, to quote a report released by civil rights NGO the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) in July.
And so their attention has shifted to other parts of the world, beyond US borders, where they believe they can still make an impact. They’re focusing on Africa and the Caribbean. Uganda is popular with US evangelicals today because it is already a religious country, with an estimated 85% of the population identifying as Christian, and because it is the youngest population in the world, with 50% under the age of 15. IHOP calls Uganda “the pearl of Africa”, and their missionaries encourage Ugandans to believe that their country is the most important nation in Africa – or could be, if Ugandans stick to strict Biblical principles.
“They say Uganda will rule the world eventually,” Williams explains. “They give examples of their victories. For instance they say they prayed [warlord Joseph] Kony away.”
Later I mention that Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of the Ugandan parliament and public champion of Uganda’s kill-the-gays bill, has just been elected chairperson of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, a role she was nominated to, incidentally, by South Africa. Williams and Kaoma hadn’t heard the news, as they have been touring Malawi, and both are shocked.
“But you see how this works for their plan!” Williams says, wide-eyed. “Now they can point to that too, and say see, Uganda will rule Africa!”
In his documentary, there is footage of US far-right preacher Scott Lively addressing an Ugandan audience, which was filmed by Kaoma. Writing on a flip chart, Lively instructs his audience that gays are pederasts, that gays were responsible for Nazi Germany, that gays have taken over the UN and that gays are coming to Uganda to “recruit your children”. But, Lively says, “Uganda can be the first country to stop them” if they implement “public policy that discourages homosexuality”.
On that same visit to Uganda, Lively was given permission to address the Ugandan parliament for five hours. It was after this that MP David Bahati introduced the kill-the-gays bill in October 2009. Bahati claims that after the bill was introduced, donations to Uganda from Western churches tripled. In 2010, Uganda’s Rolling Stone newspaper published the names, addresses and photos of “Uganda’s Top Homos” with an exhortation to “Hang them”. Less than six months later, Ugandan gay activist David Kato was murdered in his home.
Williams asks the young American missionaries of IHOP on camera what they think about the anti-gay bill, and they shrug it off, saying they haven’t read it. In the face of pressure, most US evangelical groups have denounced the bill. But Scott Lively described it as “an encouraging step in the right direction”, and Lou Engle is shown on film calling for prayers of strength for the Ugandan government and their “statement of righteousness”.
Barack Obama was among the world leaders to condemn the anti-gay bill. In the documentary, Ugandan preacher Martin Ssempa, who was trained by evangelicals in the US, bitterly denounces Obama for “coming to Africa and telling us what to do”. It is, Ssempa says, “hypocrisy of the highest order”. But the fact that Ssempa’s own anti-gay rhetoric has been adopted straight from the States too doesn’t seem to worry him.
“It is factually incorrect to say we never had gays in Africa or that the Europeans trained Africans to be gay,” Kaoma says, and he gives a number of examples of long-tolerated homosexuality from African culture, such as the yan daudu – “men who act like women” – of northern Nigeria. “What is un-African is Western-defined homosexuality. This idea that gays molest kids, for instance. We never saw them like that!”
Williams knows that his documentary runs the risk of being interpreted as anti-Christian, and he’s at pains to state that a lot of American religious groups do “an incredible amount of good work” in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. Williams’ own family ran a mega-church when he was growing up.
“I spent three years with fundamentalists [while making the documentary],” Williams says. “They weren’t these evil bogeymen. I had a lot of fun, I really liked some of them.” Kaoma, meanwhile, has retained his religious faith. “We don’t have to demonise [evangelicals],” he says. “They really believe in what they are doing. Christianity is all about convictions… They can have all the views they want but what I denounce is that they want to use that as the basis for [government] policy. We condemn Islamic fundamentalists, but if we do that how are we different?”
Kaoma fears that the influence of US evangelicals will continue to grow unless Christians in sub-Saharan Africa start defining issues from their own perspective. “Africa is caught in the middle of a battle between Western conservatives and Western liberals,” Kaoma says. “Ideas that didn’t work in the West are now being dumped on Africa.” And he says South Africa isn’t helping matters.
“Most of the [evangelical] groups have sister churches in South Africa,” Kaoma says. “South Africa is the training ground if [would-be Ugandan preachers] can’t go to America. If you would expose them, we would read about that…South Africa has the moral responsibility to try to defy these guys.” DM
Two relevant groups with apparent South African ties:
Human Life International, which Kaoma’s report notes spends almost a quarter of its overseas budget – $400,000 annually – on “anti-abortion and anti-gay activities in sub-Saharan Africa alone”. A former PR director for the group said in 2006 that “homosexuals reproduce sexually by molesting children”. According to its website, there’s a South African chapter in Milnerton, Cape Town.
The Family Research Council, which reportedly lobbied Congress against denouncing Uganda’s kill-the-gays bill, and which the SPLC describes as one of “the largest Christian right heavyweights”. The Family Research Council trained notorious Cape Town pastor Errol Naidoo, who interned with them in the States after South Africa passed its gay marriage law, and then returned home to set up the Family Policy Institute (you can read it in his own words here. It was Naidoo, you might recall, who managed to blame gays for Marikana. DM
God loves Uganda opens in the USA in October and the filmmakers are hoping for a theatrical release in South Africa thereafter.