A Mother’s Letter

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Rihanna was just 19 years old when she was arrested for being trans in Uganda. It was 2014. She spent 9 months in prison - an ordeal that tore a rift between her and her God-fearing mother. In this episode, we hear how her arrest radically changed the course of their lives - and how Rihanna’s mom unexpectedly became a staunch ally. This is the second in our two-part series on LGBTQ rights in Uganda, as the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 turns a year old.

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Disclaimer: Radio Workshop is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. The official record for Radio Workshop’s podcast stories is the audio.

 

Lesedi: It was nine months. Nine long months living in brutal conditions in prison in Kampala, Uganda. Rihanna hadn’t spoken to her mother during that time. They’d had no contact. So when Rihanna was released, she needed to see her mom. She missed her and went to her house.

Rihanna: So when I reached there, I found her, while she was cooking supper, then I hugged her. I, I cried. She also cried. She cried while beating me, you know, that kind of mother’s punishments. Why, why did you make me, why did you even have to be with those people? Now you see where you are. Now you don’t have anything. When I look at you, she quarreled for a thousand things, but that was okay. I would not stop holding her and that was my happiest moment, having my family again.

After all crying and we sat down, she first asked, are you gay?

Now, to my listener out there, how would you respond a parent? Would you, would you kindly tell the parent that yes, I’m gay or you keep it quiet? So it took me like a minute to decide what I should tell her. But I use that one minute wisely.

Lesedi: Rihanna took a minute to think about her answer because telling someone you’re gay, even your own mother, is dangerous in Uganda. Homosexuality is socially unacceptable there, and being queer is against the law. It has been for over a century. But in 2023, Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, signed the Anti Homosexuality Act, the most punitive set of regulations yet in Uganda.

Human Rights Watch called it one of the harshest in the world. The law calls for the death penalty in some instances, life imprisonment in other cases. Even those who advocate for LGBTQ rights or provide health services including antiretroviral treatment for HIV, could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

We are looking back a decade, to 2014, when Uganda passed an earlier version of the Anti Homosexuality Act. It was somewhat less restrictive, but only somewhat. It still earned the nickname, the Kill the Gays Bill. It was at that time, in 2014, that Rihanna was arrested. Today, activists see Rihanna’s experience a decade ago as a warning, and as a way to understand the evictions, discrimination, and arrests that are currently sweeping through the LGBTQ community in Uganda.

And Rihanna’s story is still unfolding. The way she answered her God fearing mother’s question changed the course of their lives in a way Rihanna would have never predicted.

This is Radio Workshop. I’m Lesedi Mogatlhe with the second episode in our two part series on LGBTQ rights in Uganda. Our reporter for this story is Ruth Muganzi, a queer editor of Kuchu Times, an LGBTQ media platform in Uganda, Ruth organized to meet Rihanna in a secure location outside the capital city of Kampala.

It wasn’t perfectly quiet, but it was safe. Here’s Ruth and Rihanna.

Ruth: It’s good to see you. It’s been a while. Thank you for accepting to sit down with us today for us to hear the powerful story that is Rihanna. Rihanna, Uganda’s Rihanna.

Rihanna: Yeah, number one property.

Ruth: How does Rihanna become the powerful voice that many of us have come to know?

Rihanna: The changing of Rihanna started from 2014.

Lesedi: 2014 started well. Rihanna was no longer living at home. She shared an apartment with her good friend Kim, and she was fully into the queer scene in Kampala. She was 19, proud, and trans. A life her family knew nothing about. Then late in January, on a Sunday night, like every Sunday night, she was out with her friends at a hangout called Rum Bar, one of the few places in the city where she could be openly trans.

Two months prior, in December of 2013, the Ugandan parliament passed an anti homosexuality bill that was sitting on the desk of the president waiting to be signed.

Rihanna: That coming bill was on everyone’s mouth. People were expecting it, when they might come what, what, what. But that wasn’t important because it, it’s coming bever stopped people from having fun.

Lesedi: Rihanna remembers having a great night and leaving Rum Bar at 3am. She brought home a friend who needed a place to sleep. Rihanna says they passed out in their party clothes. And then, just three hours later, at 6AM…

Rihanna: Someone knocked on the door. Three times. Yeah, three times.

Lesedi: Rihanna and her roommate Kim had no idea who was at the door. Especially that early.

Rihanna: Kim shouted, who’s that one? It’s me, the local council chairman. Chairman? That made things even more confusing. So Kim yelled out, what are you doing here at this time? He said, you open, I tell you. By the time he opened the door, the guy pushed the door handle like this. And then said, ah, he’s even putting on a dress. He’s putting on a dress. These are indeed homosexuals.

Lesedi: Rihanna says it wasn’t a dress. Kim was wearing a bathrobe. Regardless, Kim is a gay man, and they both knew people in the township were homophobic. But they never expected anyone to come knocking at their door like this.

What made matters worse, the chairman wasn’t alone. Rihanna says he was there with a gang of police and a crowd of angry neighbors. The media was there too, with cameras. She says they were pulled out of the house. The neighbors had sticks and stones at the ready.

Rihanna: They wanted to beat us as if we were thieves. They were saying, we are not beating the guy who was born, but we are beating the demon inside you that turns you to be a woman.

Lesedi: Kim escaped, so did their friend from the bar, but Rihanna fell unconscious. When she came to, she was at the police station. This was the first time she’d ever been arrested. Her family had no idea where she was.

Ruth: Did it ever occur to you that you could call your mom?

Rihanna: Yes. I wanted to call her because she was the first person I thought about, but the head of that station said he can’t offer his phone to, to, to a gay person. No, no, no.

Lesedi: The next day, Rihanna’s roommate Kim, was also arrested, and they were both transferred to a different police station and led to a cell.

Rihanna: And reaching there, he shouted that the inmates inside that those that are coming are gay. Give them a lesson. That’s what he said. When we entered inside, we were beaten.

We were beaten.

Lesedi: Rihanna remembers an horrific scene where she was made to clean the toilet floor with her tongue.

Rihanna: I begged. I remember myself begging. And then my friend came, said, No, let me do it. That is the time I normally don’t talk about in my life. Because it broke me to pieces. Every time I talk about it, I feel bad. Time has passed, Ruth. But my wounds are still fresh. I might be happy, but my wounds never go away.

Lesedi: Remember there were reporters in the crowd. The morning Rihanna was pulled from her home. So while Rihanna was held in pretrial detention, the story of her arrest hit the news. It was reported widely. Rihanna didn’t know it at the time, but her family saw the reports. This is how they learned Rihanna was queer.

Meanwhile, Rihanna and Kim’s case was quickly taken up by the human rights awareness and promotion forum. An NGO that provides legal support. But even though they had three lawyers assigned to the case, it didn’t matter. When it came time for Rihanna and Kim to hear the formal charges and make a plea before the magistrate’s court, they were taken a day earlier than scheduled.

Their lawyers didn’t know. Alone. They faced the judge, and the charges were read.

It’s important to know, while they were in police custody, President Museveni signed into law the Anti Homosexuality Act of 2014. But because Rihanna and Kim were arrested shortly before the act was passed, they were charged under a much older law, a section from Uganda’s Penal Code Act from 1950.

Over the years, people have been arrested under this law, but this was the first time anyone had officially been brought to court to answer for the crime of “Carnal Knowledge Against the Order of Nature.” A charge that could bring life imprisonment. Rihanna said she had no idea how to plead.

Rihanna: My friend was telling me, you can’t be guilty over something you have not done.

He told me, one day, you read your charges, please, don’t say you’re guilty.

Lesedi: So, they didn’t. They both pleaded not guilty. And it’s at this point that Rihanna’s long legal process began. A tangle, really. We can’t explain it all, but we think it’s important to include a few of the details in order to paint a picture of the difficulties some LGBTQ people face in the Ugandan legal system, including what the judge did next.

She ordered Rihanna detained for 14 days. That’s illegal. By law, bail hearings should be held within 48 hours. But according to Chapter Four, a government watchdog, often holding people longer is an accepted practice, especially in cases concerning a queer person. The order was just the first of many where the law was sidelined in Rihanna’s case.

Rihanna and Kim were delivered to Luzira prison. Rihanna told us the head of the prison paraded them in front of other inmates.

Rihanna: Everyone should come close. Everyone should come close. They said, now we have our new visitors here. And our new visitors, they are the top, the topest homosexuals in Uganda. Who has seen the news? They are here.

Lesedi: The details of Rihanna’s imprisonment are hard to stomach. It was much worse than her time in jail. Torture, abuse, no medical assistance. She says doctors refused to treat homosexuals. We’re not the UN, they said. But even more painful, Rihanna never saw her family. She learned later that they didn’t know where she was, and when they did, they were afraid to visit her because of what they’d heard in the news. Any contact with her could result in arrest.

Rihanna: That was the time I needed visitors more in my life. That was the time I needed support, but none came.

Lesedi: Eventually, Rihanna had a bail hearing. The lawyers convinced her family to post bail. It was the first time they’d seen each other since the arrest.

Rihanna: My father crying, my mother crying, all my sisters were crying, seeing me, and that really made me cry.

Lesedi: Rihanna had been sick in prison for some time. She says for anyone who knew her, it was shocking to see her in that state. Rihanna’s condition upset her mom, who was supposed to stand before the judge and guarantee bail. But Rihanna’s mom fainted and had to be carried out the courtroom.

Rihanna: I’ve never regretted being trans. That was the time I regretted it.

Lesedi: Rihanna’s mom recovered outside. She sat with the lawyers and lamented her situation. She cursed Rihanna for putting her in such a difficult position. My child wants me to die, she said. Inside the courtroom, the case continued. Rihanna’s dad stepped up to post bail. But he also needed to give the court support documents, like a letter of residence from Rihanna’s landlord, as well as her passport. He had neither. This was the first time he’d heard of it.

On top of that, the judge ruled the state hadn’t provided enough evidence but agreed to give them additional time to put more of a case together. So, bail denied. Rihanna returned to prison. When court wasn’t in session, Rihanna’s lawyers went into an exhausting back and forth with the judge, negotiating for a simpler process.

Weeks went by. Eventually, Rihanna’s father was allowed to stand in court again. This time, bail was granted. A little over three months. After Rihanna’s arrest, but once again, the law was sidelined. Normally, once a person is granted bail, they’re released until their court date, but not Rihanna. She was taken back to prison and held there.

Now, the back and forth between lawyers and the court grew from a tangle to a quagmire. While Rihanna remained imprisoned, the case drew a considerable amount of attention, international attention. Keep in mind, her case was the first of its kind in Uganda. Diplomats attended hearings, LGBTQ activists pushed international funders to cut aid to the country because of the anti homosexuality act.

The case had a substantial ripple effect. Finally, the court magistrate declared the prosecution lacked evidence. The case was dismissed.

Rihanna: I was very excited. I couldn’t believe it.

Lesedi: Rihanna had been in prison for nine months. On the day of Rihanna’s release, she says journalists from around the world swarmed her with questions. But she kept moving, her head covered while she was escorted to a waiting car. A driver rushed her to a nice hotel. She showered, ate a good meal and slept. But this was a vulnerable moment for Rihanna.

She was alone and there was no support transitioning from the prison system. Kim was still in prison. A week later, he would be released. Rihanna thought a lot about her family. She says she was afraid. She knew she needed to make amends with her mother. She had to. But how?

In the days after her release, no one from the family contacted her. And all Rihanna could think about was what the lawyers told her.

Rihanna: We don’t know whether she will be able to forgive you.

Lesedi: Rihanna understood what that meant, especially given their history together. The woman she calls mom is actually her aunt. You see, Rihanna’s birth mother died when Rihanna was 14.

She says her dad was no help and was not safe to be around. So, she left. She took her three siblings with her, and they lived on the street scavenging food. More than a year passed. As you can imagine, they weren’t doing well. Rihanna’s aunt found them living in a demolished house.

Rihanna: She was like, what? She came in, she carried us, she took us home.

Lesedi: Rihanna saw the effort her aunt made. She squeezed Rihanna and her siblings into her one bedroom house where she already lived with her two daughters. She ran a fruit and vegetable stand but to make ends meet. And put Rihanna and her siblings back in school, she started selling maize on the streets. That’s when Rihanna began calling her aunt mom.

Rihanna: She did her best because I have a thousands and thousands of things to appreciate on her. She gave us an opportunity to be in her life.

Lesedi: But now out of prison Rihanna worried their relationship was broken Her mother was traditional and very religious. How would she ever understand Rihanna? But she knew if she wanted a relationship, the only way to mend it was to face her mom. She felt compelled to do so.

Rihanna: I can’t even lie to you. It’s just that I just waked and said, I’m going there. I never planned for even my walking. It’s just because I had that unconditional love that I could not even bear more. I told myself, Rihanna, you have to go. They’re still your people.

Lesedi: Rihanna walked to her mother’s home and went in, terrified and unannounced. Her mother was eating, and when she saw Rihanna, she turned her back and said nothing.

Rihanna: And then I told her, Mommy, I want to talk to you, please. I know. I know you’re hurt.

The only thing she responded was, give me time.

Lesedi: Her mom could have said go away, or she could have said nothing at all, but instead her mom said, give me time. Rihanna felt this was a gift. Something to celebrate. She didn’t want to force the situation. So she went home and waited patiently.

Rihanna: Sometimes it takes a mile for them to accept you because sometimes they’ll start distancing themselves from you because you become a curse to them. They even start regretting the fact that they raised you.

Lesedi: One month went by, no word. Another month, nothing. Christmas was just around the corner and Rihanna figured she’d cook a chicken and eat alone. But on the 23rd of December, the phone rang.

Rihanna: I was like, eh, is it true? Is this her number? I was frightened. Actually, when I picked it, I just kept quiet on the phone. She shouted at me and said, I know you are here, Rihanna. You come home on Christmas. I want you to have Christmas with you. I have things to talk to you like that.

Lesedi: Rihanna’s mom hung up. No goodbye. Rihanna couldn’t wait two days. She went to her mother’s the following day. Unannounced once again. Her mom was cooking in the kitchen. This time, instead of shunning Rihanna, she let Rihanna hug her.

Rihanna: I, I cried. She also cried. She, she cried while beating me. You know, that kind of mother’s punishments. But that was okay. I would not stop holding her.

Lesedi: Eventually, they sat down. Her mom had a thousand questions. The first, are you gay? Rihanna paused, thinking through her answer.

Rihanna: I told her, I’m, I’m, I’m sorry to tell you this. Yes, I am. But I’m not gay. I’m trans. I’m a trans person. Then she said, ah, I think, who are those now? What is that?

Lesedi: Rihanna did what she could to explain, and her mom listened. She gave me that hearing ear Rihanna said. Then her father came to the house and he had a lot of questions too. Rihanna remembers he sat in a chair while she went to fetch him Mkeka or a floor mat for her and her mother to sit.

Rihanna: It was as if I was telling my parents that I’m going to get married.

Lesedi: What was most important for Rihanna to explain was her name. She told them she no longer wished to be called Jackson, her birth name.

Rihanna: Ever since that day, they called me Rihanna. And my dad was like, it’s okay, Rihanna. He never called me my name again in his life. Even until the time he passed away, he was calling me Rihanna. That one word of Rihanna, I felt it was enough for me to be recognized by my family.

Lesedi: Rihanna’s sisters also called her Rihanna and they teased her. They said she should have consulted them because they would have suggested a better name, Nicki Minaj.

Rihanna: I loved the fact that my sisters, my siblings were not looking at that homosexual that was put in media.

Lesedi: Rihanna was welcomed home that Christmas.

Rihanna: We ate, we enjoyed and I also realized that home was home and it’s always the best.

Lesedi: But the questions never stopped. Her mom asked question after question after question, looking to understand and walk the unpredictable road with her child. And in time, her mother’s views changed. Radically, in 2019, a new national organization formed, PFLAG Uganda, an organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ plus people and those who love them.

Because a mom was still perplexed and uncertain what to think, when Rihanna heard about PFLAG, she thought, ah, this is perfect for my mother.

Rihanna: When she met fellow parents, of course she felt Wow. Okay. Hmm. There are even other people. And then every day she would, she left pre flag meetings, she would come and say, hmm hmm. I’ve got something new, you know? Um, this is something very interesting. Wow. I need to go back next time.

Lesedi: Rihanna’s mom not only went back, she became a diehard member. Even though the Anti Homosexuality Act of 2014 was declared unconstitutional on procedural ground, the effort to put a similar law in place never ended. Which brings us to 2023, when Uganda’s LGBT community came under renewed fire. It is in this climate that Rihanna’s mom took a step that worried Rihanna.

In March of 2023, just two months before President Museveni signed the Anti Homosexuality Act, Rihanna’s mom opposed the act publicly. She and seven other mothers who were part of PFLAG wrote an open letter.

Ruth: Take us to that scene, your mom’s involvement. Did you know she was going to do this? How did it make you feel?

Rihanna: We had a small disagreement on that, like, I’m being honest. Because why, why, why are you interested in being part of that?

Lesedi: Rihanna was very concerned for her mother’s safety, but her mother didn’t care. She felt she needed to make a stand.

Rihanna: She was like, no, me, I have to go. I have to push for real. Me, I don’t think it’s right, you know? In my head, it traumatised me a bit.

Lesedi: The letter was published in The Monitor, a prominent daily newspaper in Uganda. It was titled, Open Letter to President Museveni from Mothers of LGBTQ Plus Individuals. It’s a long and heartfelt message. A desperate cry from mothers who declare they can no longer stand on the sidelines.

They can no longer watch as their children are “bashed and threatened,” as they put it. At the heart of the letter, the mothers say, “We are not promoters of any agenda. We are Ugandan mothers who have had to overcome many of our own biases. To fully understand, accept, and love our children. We request you, our cherished president, not assent to the anti homosexuality bill. And we instead ask that you task parliament to enact laws that protect all children from all forms of violence and discrimination.”

The name of each mother was listed at the bottom of the letter. Rihanna’s mom was the first. Jane Nasimbwa.

After the letter appeared in the newspaper, Jane and Rihanna went shopping together at a local market. Someone there shouted that Jane must also be a homosexual because of her stance. Rihanna says in that moment, she witnessed her mother’s spirit and resilience. She realized, too, that she’d never quite found the words to say how grateful she is.

We asked Rihanna if she’d like to write a letter to her mother, expressing her feelings. She did, and she brought it to the interview, along with Jane. Mother and daughter sat across from each other. Jane is in a bright red Chitenge dress, her hands resting in her lap. Ruth is at Rihanna’s side for support as Rihanna reads aloud what she’s written. First in Luganda, then in English.

Rihanna: Mama, olim, olichibaga bega, kwenes gama, olim kwanu gwange.

Dear mom, me growing up as Rihanna, I didn’t always show you how much I cared about you.

You are truly my lifeline. You are a shoulder to whom I cry on. You are a mentor, mommy, you are a friend, a supporter, and many more.

Lesedi: Jane listened. She looked at her hands, then back at Rihanna. Rihanna took her time to read. She expressed how grateful she was that her mother had taken a public stand against discrimination. Doing that, she said she became a mother for the entire LGBTQ community. But she told her mother she is concerned, scared even.

Rihanna: I remember asking you, mommy, do you think we should go on with this? Should we stop? You said no. You had so much courage, and you told me that when a lion heads out to hunt, It doesn’t turn back. You gave me that strong heart, mami. You showed me what it means to have a strong heart. But I’m worried about your safety, mami.

Lesedi: As many people in the LGBTQ community slink back into the shadows for safety, Jane took a further radical step.

Late last year, she joined a formal legal petition challenging the law. Other petitioners include members of the Ugandan parliament, and human rights activists, a lawyer, a journalist, nine altogether. Regardless of the court’s decision, Rihanna believes her mother isn’t taking the risk of her activism seriously enough.

In her letter, Rihanna stressed the need for her mother to be safe by having a plan, an escape.

Rihanna: I just want to be honest with you, mommy. I might not be the person to rush to save you in case of anything happens to you, mommy. And you know the reason why. People around where you are might be looking for me. And it hurts me a lot, mommy, to say this, honestly. You have helped me a lot in toughest time. And I keep on wondering how can I ever show you how thankful I am, Mommy? I love you with everything I have and more.

Lesedi: Rihanna finished. Put her letter away. And listened as her mom responded.

Jane: You can bring a child into the world, but you can never tell what they’ll turn out to be. If you birth a child and they turn out to be trans, you cannot poison them or strangle them. At this point, it’s not the project protecting me or keeping me safe. None of you can keep me safe. God keeps me safe. Because even if you run, If it’s God’s will, that’s you find a day. I’m not worried. It’s you guys that are worried. I’m not afraid. It is you that is afraid.

Lesedi: Since our interview with Rihanna, her mother Jane continues to run her fruit and vegetable shop at a local market. The legal challenge she signed her name to was rejected by the Constitutional Court. It’s now on appeal to the Ugandan Supreme Court. Jane has also expanded her activism. She’s now joined an NGO advocating for women’s rights. Rihanna runs an organization called Initiative for Rescue Uganda. They provide help to people in prison and assist with transition to everyday life once they’re released.

Ruth: Do you think of a moment that will let you know that, ah, Rihanna, you’ve done the work? How would that look like?

Rihanna: I can see my, my, my trans girls moving. Yeah. Yeah. Moving. They’re moving freely. When I can wear my high shoe up there in Kampala freely, trust me, that means I’ve done it all. And you will always say, Rihanna, thank you. But for now, no.

Lesedi: If you enjoyed our last two episodes on LGBTQ rights in Uganda, head on over to our Francophone podcast feed, Radio Workshop en Francais, where you’ll find Kindhasa Queer, a two part series exploring trans experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo and how to reconcile your sexual identity and your faith.

This episode was reported for Radio Workshop by Ruth Muganzi. A special thanks to Rihanna and her mother, Jane Nasimbwa, for agreeing to share their story. Rob Rosenthal and I produced and edited this episode. A special thanks to Gilbert Daniel Bwede for sound engineering in Uganda. Our managing producer is Jo Jackson. Music by Qhamani Sambu at Edible Audio in Cape Town. Sound engineering by Jo Jackson and Mike Rahfaldt. Thanks to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And outright international. A special thanks to Claire Byarugaba and Chapter Four, an LGBTQ organization based in Uganda.

This episode and the work of the radio workshop would not be possible without the support of Stephen Hendrickson, Luminate, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Other Foundation, and the Media Development Investment Fund.

Find out more about what we do and support our work@radioworkshop.org.