Undercover Dispatches from Ghana

By Scott Novak

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“In Ghana, being gay is an abomination for our culture,” Daniel, my host father, said.

It was one of the last nights of my two-month stay in the village of Nkontomire, and I was interviewing Daniel about his perspectives on LGBT people. As a 47-year-old elder of the local Pentecostal Church, he said the usual things that almost everyone else in the village had told me by now.

“God says in the beginning, in Genesis, God created heaven and earth,” Daniel continued. “And then God created something in his own image – humans. God created men and women for each other. So, we follow that principle.” He pointed out that the Muslims and traditionalists (followers of tribal, pre-colonial religions) in Ghana also thought gay people to be an abomination, so it wasn’t just the Christians who believed this.

I asked whether gays or lesbians were worse. Daniel replied, “Both are equally bad. At the end of the world, they will all be judged on Judgment Day.” This was unusual. In most of my previous interviews, people told me that gays were much worse than lesbians. I didn’t ask about bisexual or transgender persons, since there was little awareness of what those labels meant.

But like all of the other villagers I had interviewed, Daniel had never actually met anyone who was gay. “We have a few people in Ghana here who are gay,” he said, “but it is always a secret.”

I knew this secret all too well. I successfully lived in the closet during my entire stay in Nkontomire, something I thought I had been prepared to do when I decided to spend my summer of 2013 on a program run by a development company called ThinkImpact in Ghana, a country that criminalizes same-sex relations. According to a recent report from Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, 98 percent of Ghanaians think homosexuality is morally unacceptable. Ghana was the most homophobic country on the list, surpassing Uganda’s 93 percent, Nigeria’s 85 percent, and Russia’s 72 percent.

It would be fine, I told myself. I just wouldn’t talk about LGBT issues at all.  I’d pretend I didn’t have a boyfriend and wasn’t president of my college’s LGBT group for two short months, and then I could be my regular, gay self again.

However, after living in Nkontomire for just one week, it became clear that silence on LGBT issues would not be an option. It all started when one of the women in the village asked me, “Why is Obama for the gays now?” I was taken aback at first by the directness of her question, but then quickly started defending the president’s “evolved views” while assuring her that I, of course, was not gay. This sparked the first of many conversations I would have about LGBT rights while in Ghana.

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The next day, my host brother, Emmanuel, brought me and two friends to his family’s cocoa farm to spray herbicides. While filling up a yellow carton with water from the river, he told us that Obama spoke in Senegal yesterday, telling African countries that they must treat LGBT people with respect or face foreign aid cuts. He paused and then asked me, “Why did Obama say that?”I gave an answer that I would repeat dozens of times over the next two months. I explained that Obama believes that homophobia is just another form of discrimination, like racism. He realizes that gay rights are human rights, and that is why he supports LGBT equality.

“I do not think gay marriage will happen in Africa for a long time, though,” Emmanuel said.

“It already has,” I replied. “It is legal in South Africa now.”

Emmanuel smiled in surprise. “How strange. That is against the Bible.”

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In subsequent conversations, I found that the residents of Nkontomire were outraged by the U.S. policy Emmanuel had mentioned, and the topic of LGBT rights became increasingly difficult to avoid. Unfortunately, the threat of foreign aid cuts seemed only to strengthen the Ghanaians’ disdain for LGBT people. “You see, they’re costing us money! I knew they were nothing but trouble to begin with,” they’d insist.

As I discovered when I returned home, Obama did openly support LGBT rights in his Senegal speech, but he never threatened to cut foreign aid to anti-LGBT countries. Of course, neither the community members nor I could have known this information while living in a rural, electricity-barren village due to the highly misinformed battery-run radio reports that stated otherwise.

Other countries have recently taken much harsher actions than the United States when it comes to punishing anti-LGBT governments. After Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which has since been overturned by Uganda’s Constitutional Court because the parliament passed the law without the necessary number of legislators, Western countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark cut off millions of dollars in aid to Uganda. The World Bank also halted a $90 million loan that was going to improve the country’s health system.

In comparison, the United States has carried out measures against Uganda that are less extreme and more effective in ensuring the safety of the LGBT community there. On June 19, the Obama administration announced that it would end or redirect financial support for the Ugandan Police Force, the Ugandan Ministry of Health, and the National Public Health Institute. The administration also placed sanctions on Ugandan officials involved with human rights abuses against LGBT people that bar them from entering the United States. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has since confirmed that although some of Uganda’s foreign aid is being redirected away from organizations that supported the anti-gay law, such the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, the country will not receive any foreign aid cuts.

After my conversation with Emmanuel, contrary to my original intentions, I decided to take up the project of interviewing as many people as I could about their views on LGBT issues. Oddly enough, people actually wanted to discuss this topic with me, and Emmanuel happily accompanied me as my translator.

Not surprisingly, people cited religion as the dominant reason for why they were against gays and lesbians, employing the same arguments Daniel expressed in his interview. Luckily, I attended Catholic school as a boy, so I was well-equipped to counter these arguments with my own. For example, I pointed out that the villagers’ attitudes towards LGBT people were directly opposed to certain passages in the Bible, such as the Golden Rule. Still, in response to this, one community member said, “You see . . . when Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, he meant for the rule to apply only to people who are like you, your neighbors. It does not apply to gay people. They are not like us.”

In Ghana, being gay is viewed as a choice, and a sinful one at that. When I asked Daniel what he would do if his son Emmanuel told him he were gay, he said, “The Bible tells us, ‘show the child the path, and he will not depart from it.’ Ema is my son, and he attended church as a child, so he knows what is good and bad. He will not be gay.” Other community members said that they would abandon their children if they “chose” to be gay.

“We don’t hate gay people,” Elder Shaaz, another elder of the Pentecostal Church, told me. “We hate their actions.” This phrase had an uncomfortable familiarity for me. It was what some of my teachers in my Catholic high school had told me about homosexuality: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” As if sexual orientation could be separated from one’s identity.

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I wrote in my journal that the ideas of many of the villagers sounded as if they had been copied directly from the teachings of the American Christian Right. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth in this comparison. The anti-gay Christian evangelical movement has exported itself from the United States to Africa with a frightening amount of success. Tellingly, Emmanuel once asked me, “Why is it that you as a white person are for gay rights when it was white people from your country who originally told us that the gays are bad?”

Media attention has focused almost exclusively on the Christian evangelical movement’s influence in Uganda, where a conference sponsored and attended by U.S. Christian evangelicals entitled “Seminar on Exposing the Truth behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda” inspired Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Sadly, the Christian evangelical movement’s influence is far more extensive in Africa than just this country. While in Kumasi, one of Ghana’s major cities, I saw billboards advertising similar evangelical conferences, the faces of white American ministers plastered across them.

Aside from religious teachings, people repeated a host of horrendous rumors about gays and lesbians in Ghana. For example, some people said that gay sex causes immediate death. Another prevalent rumor is that rich gay people from America come to Ghana to hire male prostitutes. In this situation, it is assumed that the prostituted Ghanaian is choosing to be gay in exchange for the American’s money. Therefore, the logic follows that these Americans are responsible for turning Ghanaians gay. This rumor furthers the belief that the LGBT agenda is a uniquely American one, that homosexuality is nothing but a malicious Western invention.

“I’m angry at Obama,” Emmanuel said after we had just finished another interview. “He shouldn’t have cut funds on us just because we don’t accept the gays. Africa has its own laws. We can never be the same as America. We can’t compare ourselves to them.”

This piece has been difficult to write, and I had put it off for some time. The truth is that, despite all of these awful things the people of Nkontomire think about gay people, I consider them family. They welcomed me into their community with an unparalleled hospitality. Each week, people would bring fresh oranges and bananas from their farms to my homestay. One of my Ghanaian friends, Abigail, would help me wash my clothes by hand each Friday, because the scrubbing made my hands bleed. And whenever I walked to the village center, it was impossible not to be stopped by at least five people, greeting me and asking me how I’m doing.

Together, we formed design teams that built a total of four socially innovative local businesses. The design team that I was a part of decided to improve the experience of washing clothes by creating wooden washboards, an invention that most villagers didn’t even know existed. We all grew very close to one another. One of my teammates, Cecilia, had her newborn grandchild named after me at a village naming ceremony. The next day, Nana Adaakwa, the Head Chief of Nkontomire, pronounced me Nkusou Hene – Development Chief. He then invited me to stay in Nkontomire after my colleagues had left to take charge of my new position. By the end of my visit, I had become a part of the community, and they had become a part of me. As one of the Ghanaian ThinkImpact employees said when we first arrived, “You’ve never been loved until you come to Ghana.” It was true.

And yet, if these people found out who I really was, none of this would have been possible. In all likelihood, I would have been on the next plane flight out of Kumasi. Coming out as gay held no liberation in Nkontomire.

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For most of my time in Ghana, and long after leaving, I struggled to reconcile this loving hospitality the community had shown me with the underlying oppression I witnessed.  Just over a year later and after much reflection, I have reached the following conclusions.

It goes without saying that I find the villagers’ views on gays and lesbians abhorrent, but I understand why they believe the things that they do. If I had been born and raised in Nkontomire, there is no doubt in my mind that I too would believe these same things. After all, people don’t just grow up naturally hating groups of people that are different from them. Discrimination requires conditioning.

Clearly, Christians have been quite effective in spreading this type of conditioning throughout numerous countries around the world. In the past, homosexuality was not the taboo subject that it is today in most of Africa. In fact, the Nzima people of Ghana even had a tradition of marriages between adult men. But thanks to Africa’s colonization by European powers and the subsequent missionary trips by American Christian evangelicals, gays and lesbians in this country must now fear for their lives.

With this knowledge in mind, I believe that instead of permanently condemning the people who oppose the LGBT movement as irrational bigots, we need to be willing to meet them where they are on their journey of understanding LGBT equality and engage them in a respectful dialogue. Even if they do not respect us, we must set the example by respecting them as human beings. After all, at its heart, respect is what the LGBT movement is all about.

The Christian Right certainly understands the importance of respectful dialogue. In the film God Loves Uganda, young missionaries from the International House of Prayer walk rzight up to Ugandans and discuss topics like the saving power of Jesus Christ and why homosexuality is sinful. The tone of these discussions is warm, open, and engaging. Thousands of missionaries travel to Africa each year to initiate thousands of conversations like this, and they’ve been doing it for decades. Meanwhile, instead of engaging these countries in effective dialogue like Christian evangelicals do, certain pro-LGBT Western governments cut off foreign aid and condemn the countries as bigots.

If our goal is to punish these governments for laws and ideas that citizens from our own country have played a central role in encouraging, then such policies are fine. But if our goal is to actually improve the lives of LGBT people within these countries, then current Western LGBT foreign policy may be doing more harm than good. John Nagenda, a presidential advisor and one of the first public figures to come out in opposition to Uganda’s anti-gay bill, echoed this sentiment in an interview with the BBC, saying, “this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying, ‘You do this or I withdraw my aid’ will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children.” Additionally, when British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut foreign aid in 2011 if Uganda and other countries passed anti-gay laws, LGBT leaders across Africa were horrified. In an open letter, they wrote that such cuts would pose “the real risk of a serious backlash against LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] people.”

These leaders also observed an additional consequence that countries like Norway may not have anticipated. They wrote, “A cut in aid will have an impact on everyone, and more so on the populations that are already vulnerable and whose access to health and other services are already limited, such as LGBTI people.” Thus, it is difficult to cut foreign aid to a country without also cutting aid to LGBT people within that country.

Instead of cutting ties to countries like Ghana and Nigeria, the West needs to create more. After all, why cut foreign aid to these countries when we could redirect those funds to support LGBT groups within them? Fortunately, the Obama administration pledged $3 million in 2011 to fund LGBT organizations in other countries, but more countries need to have policies like this.

Governments could also adopt the Christian Right’s tactics and incorporate positive dialogues about LGBT rights within the framework of development organizations. Again, the United States is leading the way on this initiative. This past summer, USAID announced a new LGBT Vision for Action plan that will enact nondiscrimination requirements in all of USAID’s grants and contracts, organize local LGBT groups, and create an open and safe space for dialogue in countries around the world.

These recent developments in U.S. foreign policy are welcome, for I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of dialogue. While my conversations with the people of Nkontomire didn’t convince anyone to suddenly support LGBT rights, their views on gay people have changed for the better. I managed to dispel some of the false rumors the community had about gays and lesbians, and elders of the Pentecostal Church are at least aware of alternative interpretations of the Bible that support LGBT equality.

As for my host brother, Emmanuel, he undoubtedly knows I have a boyfriend, since we are now friends on Facebook. Despite this, we have continued to chat throughout the year to keep each other up-to-date about our respective lives. Sometimes I wonder if he knew all along. When I asked him last month whether it would be safe for me to go back to Ghana given my sexual orientation, he replied with an enthusiastic “Why not!” I don’t know whether I believe him, but perhaps it is because I am not a part of his culture that makes it slightly more acceptable for me as an American to be gay.

Although these are but mere baby steps along the pathway of LGBT equality in Africa, I am convinced that this approach of respectful discussion is much more effective than slashes in foreign aid or name-calling. Why do I believe this? Because this technique has already worked right here, in America, on a massive scale. The LGBT movement has forced an unprecedented political and cultural shift that hardly anyone could have envisioned a few years ago. That wasn’t accomplished through isolation – rather, the LGBT community engaged America in a nationwide discussion. We showed our family, our friends, and our neighbors that we were just like them in so many ways, that there was nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. And slowly, things began to change.

I saw some glimmer of that change in Ghana. Not across-the-board, paradigm-shifting change, but change nonetheless. However, while LGBT equality in Africa certainly has a long and difficult road ahead of it, it is a road made that much more difficult by Western foreign policies that shut out dialogue rather than kindle it. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Just like people, foreign policy can change. America’s domestic victories for equality have been won through millions of discussions and tireless activism, not threats; our international victories as a movement should be won in the same way.

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