By Rebecca Davis
Daily Marverick, Monday, September 16, 2013
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.
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
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
“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
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
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.”
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.