Not Enough Sun

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It was May of 2023 and Musana was on a romantic getaway in Kenya with her girlfriend. It quickly turned somber when Uganda's President, Yoweri Museveni, signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law. Now what? Should Musana make a new life in Kenya or risk returning home? On the one-year anniversary of the Act, Musana reflects on her decision. This is the first in a two-part series on LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda.

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Lesedi: I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe and this is Radio Workshop.

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Lesedi: The day started out like any other. Musana woke up, had breakfast with her girlfriend. They sat down to watch a show together. Then Musana’s phone blew up with texts from friends. She scrolled through a group chat she and her friends set up.

Musana: I kind of remember like, being seated maybe on the edge of my bed and reading everyone’s messages and being very like frozen. Frozen with dread and worry.

Lesedi: One friend wrote, “Okay, we’re all illegal now.” Someone replied, “Yeah, there go all our plans.” And another friend texted, “We’ll take care of each other.” To Musana, the messages felt unreal. Heavy.

Musana: Like a literal five kilo dumbbell like, sitting in my chest. Yeah, that’s how it felt like that day and the weeks that followed.

Lesedi: Musana was on a beach holiday in Kenya with her girlfriend when the news from her home in Uganda streamed in. It was a rude awakening because Musana says Kenya felt like paradise.

Musana: It was amazing. It was this like a new environment and Kenya is much more liberal than Uganda. You see, you see lesbian couples like on the street in Nairobi. I’m sure you’ve seen them… I could breathe out.

Lesedi: Musana was only planning to be on vacation in Kenya for a few weeks, and that was coming to an end right around May 26th, 2023, the day Uganda’s president, Yoweri Mseveni, signed into law the Anti Homosexuality Act of 2023.

Musana: But the informal name is the “Kill the Gays Bill:, which is accurate.

I think its goal is to just eradicate all traces of homosexuality from Ugandan society. It covers all, all aspects of being alive. Basically, it makes it so that you cannot be alive. You cannot rent, you cannot get healthcare, you cannot exist, you cannot talk to anyone, you cannot be.

Lesedi: So, what do you do when you cannot be? When it’s no longer safe to go home?

Next month marks the one year anniversary of Uganda’s Anti Homosexuality Act, one of the world’s toughest, signed into law in May of 2023. Ugandan lawmakers say it defends Ugandan culture and protects the sanctity of the family. The UN Human Rights Council called the law an egregious violation of human rights. They said LGBTQ people will constantly live in fear and stress for their lives. We have one such story today.

For the past few months, the Radio Workshop team has reported from Uganda. Our interest is simple. How have LGBTQ people responded in the days, weeks, and months after the new law passed? Musana’s story is the first episode in this two-part series.

Musana is not in any immediate danger, but she is afraid of being identified, so we’ve taken many precautions to protect her. She won’t use her real name or give her exact location. She feels safer that way. And she only agreed to be interviewed by a friend and a reporter who we’re calling John. He also wants to keep his identity a secret.

John: Tell me whenever you’re ready.

Musana: I’m good. I’m ready.

Lesedi: John started the interview with Musana very gently…

John: And if you want to hold my hand.

Musana: No, let me… I’m okay.

John: We are all here for you…

So you’d like to use a pseudonym for this interview, which is totally fine.

Musana: Yeah.

John: Is there a story behind the choice of the name you chose, Musana?

Musana: Yeah. So Musana means “sun” and sun is my element. I, I believe that when I die, I’m going to become part of the sun. So I’m very much connected to the sun.

Lesedi: It’s sunny and warm all year round in Uganda, an idyllic environment for someone like Musana. And because it lies on the equator, Uganda’s climate allows a wide variety of animals and plants to thrive. Musana loved growing up surrounded by this beauty.

John: Is there a particular sound you associate with Uganda?

Musana: Wow, um, when you ask me that, I guess what comes to mind is just like music, Ugandan traditional music. We have a lot of drums and the women, when you’re happy, we ululate. So that’s a very Ugandan sound. Yeah.

John: I didn’t realize how beautiful your voice is.

Lesedi: Eight out of 10 Ugandans are Christian and many tend to hold more conservative values. Musana was raised in a liberal home, and there wasn’t much religion either, but still…

Musana: I grew up always feeling very different from the people around me, like, I always felt, and I still feel like I was an alien, like, really, like I came from another planet, I’m not supposed to be here.

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Lesedi: The earliest anti-LGBTQ laws were introduced to Africa during the colonial period. In Uganda, that has laid the ground for modern iterations of homophobic laws. And over the past 10 years, Uganda has repeatedly tried to criminalize same-sex relationships. But in 2023, Musana says the latest law feels far more dangerous than any that came before.

Musana: The most shocking part of it is the death penalty, yeah?

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Lesedi: People found guilty of what the government calls “aggravated homosexuality” could be put to death. This is defined as sex with a minor, the elderly or someone living with a disability. But Musana doesn’t believe the law has the right intentions.

Musana: Of course, the way they market it is that this is protecting minors and children but the same penalties do not exist for straight rapists, for straight pedophiles. So yeah, that’s obviously just a lie. It’s not about anyone’s safety or protection. It’s just hatred being manifested into law.

Lesedi: The law includes a range of other punishments for homosexuality. Anyone found having intercourse with someone of the same sex can face life in prison. Just attempting to have a homosexual relationship is punishable by a decade behind bars.

There’s also a 20-year sentence for what the law calls promotion of homosexuality. Activists are worried this could be used against anyone who defends LGBTQ rights. Musana even worries that being public in any way might get her arrested for what the government calls “normalizing homosexuality”.

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Musana: All this stuff I’ve been doing is now like evidence against me. My entire life is evidence against me. Everybody knows. People are obligated by law to report me and stuff like that.

Lesedi: Some of Musana’s siblings support her, but she says most of her family, including her parents have turned their backs on her. And now the law is also on their side.

Musana: I didn’t choose my family. I didn’t choose my country. I didn’t choose any of it and it all, like, rejects you. It all fights you. It all doesn’t want you. It all doesn’t like you. It’s, it’s, it’s a tough existence. It’s a very tough existence.

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Lesedi: Musana first came out in high school. She went on Snapchat and told a girl she liked her. That was almost a decade ago.

John: Was she also on Snapchat?

Musana: She was, she was, she was on my Snap. She didn’t like, respond or anything, so yeah. Didn’t go anywhere. But shout out to her. Let me not say her name, but yeah. She’s still a special person in my life.

Lesedi: They were both enrolled at a school that made her feel protected from discrimination.

Musana: Like people were not allowed to like, be outwardly hateful or bully. So I had that safety net. Um, and then yeah, I just feel like since then I just like, never looked back. It was just like a part of me. Yeah.

Lesedi: As she got older, it seemed Uganda was becoming more hostile towards homosexuality.

Musana: Like, God forbid, like, that’s the worst thing you can be in Ugandan society, truly.

Lesedi: This was true at home too. She says her parents rejected her decision to get tattoos and piercings. Most of all, they disapproved of her sexuality.

Musana: I actually call myself a black sheep. The black sheep will be different, will be hated, will be judged, will be misunderstood. And that’s me. So I’ve come to accept it.

John: Do you have like a moment when you are like really open and feeling yourself in public and you forgot everything and potential danger?

Musana: Mostly at the club, I’d say. So unfortunate- for me, unfortunately, like queer culture, especially in Uganda is very centered around partying, drinking, clubbing like that. That’s the culture. That’s the thing to do. And I, I don’t want that. Like, I wish we were able to go to a park. I wish we were able to go to a restaurant and be just as happy and be ourselves.

Lesedi: Police raid queer-friendly clubs and bars. According to lawyers and human rights activists, they humiliate detainees with strip searches, looking for supposed “evidence of homosexuality”, and threaten to tell their family and friends. They use these tactics to extract bribes from the victims.

Musana: And gay people are such an easy target, you know, cause A, it’s illegal, B, the police know no one will be on your side. No one will support you. Absolutely, like, everyone is already against you. Um, and you don’t want to be outed. Like you don’t want to be taken to jail, then your picture is published in the newspaper, because that’s the end of your life. So you will most likely pay for whatever they want to leave you alone. So it’s such an easy target. Like, such an easy target. That’s why I say like most parties will end in raids.

Lesedi: Musana says she feels lucky. She’s never been attacked, but she knows of many people in the queer community who have been harassed and beaten up sometimes by the police, other times by homophobic thugs, like the time her friend was attacked.

Musana: They killed his partner, they killed his boyfriend, and then when they were at the hospital, like, they took pictures of him next to his partner, and they were like, “Yeah, this is the other one.” And they come after him, and they arrested his friends, and then they got all his property, and they put it outside, and they set it on fire. Um, his family cut him off. He was in a youth group. They kicked him out without really specifying why.

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Lesedi: Anti-gay laws are not unique to Uganda. Homosexuality is illegal in over 30 African countries. It is punishable by death in some, including Nigeria and Mauritania. Recently, Ghana’s parliament passed new legislation to severely restrict LGBTQ rights. Across the continent, queerness is seen as “un-African”. But long before European colonization, homosexuality was part of many African cultures.

Today, experts say hate is still being exported to Africa. Since the early 2000s, right-wing American evangelicals have been active in Africa. A London-based group called Open Democracy tracked tens of millions in US dollars that were sent to African governments to bolster anti-homosexuality laws. 20 million to Uganda alone.

And yet, somehow, despite these hostile laws and a repressive government, Musana fell in love with Dee.

John: So, tell me, tell me the day that you guys met.

Musana: So, she has a friend and I have a friend, and those two friends were going on a date, yeah? Also both girls, and they decided to bring their friends. And it turned into a double date and we went out and we had beers. We both have different stories about this. I say she hit on me, she says I hit on her. Believe me, I’m right, she’s wrong.

Lesedi: After their first blind date, Musana began seeing Dee, which is not her real name. They were discreet in public, except for one place, a date at a music festival.

Musana: And that’s when we would be, like, really act like a couple in public, you know, like kiss and stuff like that. And in that type of environment, everyone’s kind of hyped up. And like, as I said, even the straight girls are kissing. So it’s not, it’s not so scandalous, you know, when you’re amongst drunks.

Lesedi: What started as one date turned into six weeks of dates, and that turned into a yearlong romance. Musana says it felt like she found her soulmate.

She wanted to share it with the world. And so one day she did just that on social media.

John: So tell me the story about the, the moment when you felt like posting the picture.

Musana: Yeah. Um, man, have you been in love? Like when you’re in love, it’s just like, you’re on a cloud. You’re like. So happy you’re having the best experiences of your life. And like, of course I want to share these experiences. Yeah, like I’ve had the most magical day with my soulmate. I’ll be damned if I don’t post a picture. Um, I put like at first I’d post pretty like tame pictures, you know, just us. And then I post a picture of us kissing, um, which was like, you know, kind of a big deal. And I would have done it more just that personally. I also, I don’t like how, like it’s so sexualized. Like same sex relationships are very sexualized and that’s not what I want to promote, but otherwise I would have done it more. Um, but yeah, I was just, I was just like a human being in love. Like my life suddenly is so perfect. And of course I’m going to post a picture. Yeah.

Lesedi: So here’s where we are in Musana’s story. She’s in love with her girlfriend. She posts about their relationship on social media. They take a holiday to Kenya. And that’s when she got that barrage of text messages about the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Musana took to social media again.

This time she poured all her fears into a post. For someone whose pseudonym means “sun”, Musana felt dark and gloomy.

John: And I remember reading your post that day.

Musana: Yeah.

John: And you wrote, “Not enough sun in the world.”

Musana: Yeah.

John: Can you tell me what was going on through your mind?

Musana: I’m so like, I’m weirdly touched that you reminded me that I posted that because it’s truly how I felt like… I think that summarizes things very well. Yeah, there’s no, there’s not enough sun in the world like the world is dark. The world hates you. The world wants to come for you. That’s how I felt and they will. They have the tools. They have, you know, all the masters on their side. They have the law on their side. They like, who are you? Who are you really in the face of that? Yeah.

John: It’s okay if you want to cry.

Musana: I can cry – I can cry very quietly also.

John: No, you can let it…. Yeah, no.

Musana: Okay. I’ve reached a point where I can barely say the words like LGBTQ anymore because it just brings me so much pain. And it’s just associated with suffering. That’s why I even, like, refused to use my name. Like, it’s that whole thing is just associated with suffering, and rejection, and judgment, and ostracization, and stigma, and… Oh, man. It’s… Yeah, it’s, it’s a thing. It’s a thing.

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Lesedi: When the country Musana called home was no longer a safe place to be in love, she says her only option was to stay in Kenya. And even though that means leaving her entire life behind, her friends, her home, the greenery, all that she loves about a very complicated place, she says the decision came easily.

Musana has now lived in Kenya for about a year, and she’s focusing on her career, and she is safe. She still hears about violence and discrimination against queer Kenyans, but not nearly on the same level as Uganda. She won’t apply for asylum because she’s heard that LGBTQ refugees can face horrific treatment.

And again, she doesn’t want her sexuality to color her entire life. But she’s not forgotten about her friends back in Uganda. The ones who were texting her on that day in May, when they reach out for help, she finds ways to get them out.

Musana: I mean, of course, my answer is like, of course, of course, I’ll help you. Like, I wish I could do more. If there’s more I could do, I’ll do it. Like, I, I feel you, I’m with your cause. Um, and I remember that day I just, I felt helplessness. So having the chance to help was a huge, huge deal for me.

Lesedi: Like her friend, the one whose partner was killed, Musana raised money for him. He used that money to escape Uganda, and then Musana helped him settle in Kenya. She’s found him a job and a place to live, and they’re both enrolled in Swahili lessons together.

Musana: So it’s, it’s been so positive. Like in Uganda, when people think of immigrating, they think of the UK, you know? And I’m like, nah man, I made it work in a fellow African country. It’s just helped me feel like an African person.

John: In what way does Kenya feel like home now?

Musana: So being in Kenya has made me more like embrace a more pan-African identity. You know, like we are all Africans. We’re all black. We’re all Bantu. Like I, I reject colonial borders. I reject the colonial concept of a country, um, and being here and being able to survive here and being embraced here. Because, oh my God, I’ve also made like low key, like a network of people, you know. Kenyans are not xenophobic at all, at all, at all. You tell them you’re from Uganda and they’re like, they’re curious, they’re happy, you know? So it’s, it’s been so positive. And once I get the language, like, it’s a wrap. Like I, um, I was telling my friend that I’m right now I’m Kengandan, so Kenyan and Ugandan. Once I learn Swahili, then I’m Kenyan.

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Musana Voice Note: Uhm, good afternoon.

Lesedi: As we were getting ready to release this episode, we checked in with Musana. She sent us a voice note saying her life in Kenya was going well, but she’d run out of money and so she had to make another tough decision. This time to move back to Uganda, which she’d sworn never to do. She told us she’s keeping safe by staying close to friends she can trust.

Musana Voice Note: Like the honest truth is I’m just a young person. That’s like lost and stuck and still figuring things out. Um, and being here is a part of that right now.

Lesedi: Around the same time we heard from Musana. There was breaking news from Uganda.

The country’s constitutional court delivered its verdict on an appeal to overturn the law.

Announcement: The petitioners sought a myriad of remedies that essentially call for the nullification of the entire Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023.

Lesedi: The appeal was brought by a pair of Ugandan law professors alongside local lawmakers and activists. They argued the act violated fundamental rights guaranteed in the country’s constitution. Delivering the court’s verdict, Uganda’s Deputy Chief Justice Richard Butira said they declined to nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 in its entirety. The decision was unanimous, but in a small victory for activists, the judges agreed the act violates key rights enshrined in the constitution, including the right to privacy and access to health care.

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Lesedi: In our next episode, part two of our LGBTQ series from Uganda, we’ll provide an update on the impact of the court’s decision. And we’ll bring you a very timely story – one that offers further insight into what’s happening in Uganda today: The story of a proud trans woman who is staying in Uganda to fight for LGBTQ rights, alongside her God-fearing mother who has unexpectedly joined the fight.

This episode was reported for Radio Workshop by our youth reporter John, with our senior producer Darshan Moodley. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this episode. A special thanks to Semabox, Kenya’s first special specialist podcasting studio for providing us a safe and comfortable place to record this interview.

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 Biarugaba, an LGBTQ activist 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 at radioworkshop.org.

John: Oh my God, love. “Love is love.”

Musana: “L is for the only one I see.”

John: Do you know the feeling when you’re floating over the ocean? Like that feeling of like you’re breathing. That’s – that to me is love.

Musana: Your love is so positive and safe! Mine is much more tumultuous. I’m not floating!