The East African (Nairobi)

28 February 2005

East Africa: Ugandans Like Dirty Pictures, So Why Faint At the V-Word?

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Nairobi — Going by what one sees and hears, Uganda seemed to be less conservative about sex than Tanzania and Kenya.

That openness is believed to have led to the country achieving one of the best records in the Third World in rolling back the Aids scourge. Uganda also has newspapers that are dedicated to publishing nothing but what the prudes would call "pornography".

However, over a year ago, the play, Vagina Monologues, by US playwright Eve Ensler was staged in supposedly more "conservative" Kenya, to enthusiastic audiences and was treated in press reviews as if it were Wole Soyinka's The Lion and Jewel.

I went to a party in Nairobi late last year and met a straight-talking guest who said they were trying to stage the V-Monologues in Kampala, but she "sensed there were some difficulties". I was surprised and waxed on about how the play could even pass without notice since my country is very liberal on matters of sexuality.

I was quite wrong. The Ugandan government banned the play last week. Information Minister Nsaba Buturo, a born-again Christian, had earlier denounced the play calling it an immoral tale that had no place in Uganda.

The government-dominated Uganda Media Council said the play could not be staged. "The play promotes illegal, unnatural sexual acts, homosexuality and prostitution. It should be and is hereby banned," the council ruled.

The play, which has been a sell-out around the world, explores female sexuality and violence against women by individual women telling their stories in the form of monologues.

What has certainly changed dramatically is the official politics around "pornography". One of the more interesting episodes of this was the recent national campaign led by First Lady Janet Museveni, also a born-again Christian, to promote virginity as the only thing that would save young women from catching Aids. A national census of virgins was even proposed.

What is going on? This puritanical streak became public some years ago when President Yoweri Museveni announced that the only way to end corruption in the Uganda Revenue Authority was to employ born-again Christians. The God-fearing people were appointed, but corruption in URA continued.

However, by choosing those who are favoured by God, the government was able to deal with two problems, and to achieve an important strategic goal. President Museveni is the born-again movement's unofficial patron. His government was for a long time criticised for favouring people from his village and district in the distribution of plum jobs. The emphasis on born again credentials seems to have been the president's idea of containing public grumbling by offering that as a meritocratic standard.

Secondly, as the competition for jobs increased, it was no longer possible to appoint people because they were, to use the parlance, "good Movement cadres". These were too many and too diverse. Therefore, a religious fundamentalist standard meant that many leading lights of the Movement who are atheists could no longer influence appointments.

The moral crusading has allowed the Movement, which has been torn by internal feuds over the plans to create a president for life, to recruit a young crop of firebrand pastors and evangelists from the independent churches as its campaigners.

Despite its posturing, the government is not so morally upright. The state-owned newspaper, Bukedde , has been the purveyor of "pornography" for the longest time. The government has ignored complaints from the churches and MPs because the paper is published in Luganda, the language of the masses, and the government would not like them to be reading serious politics. The idea is to excite their fantasies to distract them from what is happening in the country.

The government is unlikely to stop publication of nudity in Bukedde because it is "good official porn."

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group's managing editor for convergence and new products.

E-mail: cobbo@nation.co.ke

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