President Barack Obama’s endorsement for gay marriage has prompted debate in the United States and condemnation in many sub-Saharan African countries, where gay men and women continue to face discrimination, violence and jail time in many countries because of their sexual orientation.
The president’s immense popularity on the continent is taking a hit, even in his father’s native Kenya, says Nairobi resident Vincent Ondera. “President Obama, I just can’t imagine that he supports gay marriage. Why do I say so? In fact, I’m very much bitter with him, the president of the USA supporting gay marriage? Lesbian? No, it can’t happen”
Homosexual acts are illegal in many sub-Saharan African countries like Kenya. Openly gay individuals on the continent face imprisonment, discrimination and physical violence.
Role of religion
Many Africans, like Kenyan pastor Nelson Otieno, cite religion as the source of disdain for gay marriage. “I would say to our beloved president of America to rethink about the statement that he made and know very well that it is against our religion; we as Christians, we cannot support gays at all costs,” said Otieno.
In Senegal, which is 95 percent Muslim, angry mobs have dug up the corpses of suspected homosexuals from Muslim cemeteries before dragging them through the streets and depositing them at their families’ doorsteps. A housekeeper in Dakar, Sokhna Fall, says marriage between two people of the same gender would sully this country and endanger its prosperity. Islam says marriage can only be between a man and a woman, she says. Senegal is a Muslim country that has always known peace and unity and she says they cannot allow homosexuality to destabilize it.
Many Senegalese reject homosexuality as being “imported from the West.” Indeed, pressure from the United States, the United Nations and other international powers to protect gay rights has only further entrenched homophobia among many in Africa. Threats to withdraw foreign aid have been met with defiance.
Amie Weeks, a mother of four in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, said gay marriage is out of the question. “Very, very wrong. We are not in favor of it at all. So if they want to withdraw their support, let them. God will make way for us because God would never be in favor of such a thing,” she said.
Even in South Africa, the only sub-Saharan African country to have a law legalizing same-sex unions, political analyst Eusebius McKaiser says homophobia and opposition to gay marriage are the norm. “In South Africa, we had a revolutionary break with the past which is why our legislation in favor of gay rights is so much more progressive, even though it is ahead of social attitudes,” he said.
Hope among homosexuals
Still, Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage has sparked joy and hope among homosexual men and women in Africa.
Seydou Djamil Ba is one of a handful of openly gay men in Senegal, where homosexual acts are punishable by five years in jail. Violence and death threats have forced him to flee abroad twice in the past five years. Ba says he wishes people in Africa, particularly in Senegal, could understand that homosexuality is not the end of the world. He says gays are people with the same rights as everyone else. He says Obama has set an example that he hopes other world leaders will follow.
For now, however, Ba said he would settle for the right to live his life in peace and without fear.