(Editor's note: JP Conly of San Diego spent two weeks in December in Kampala, Uganda, working as a nurse and a Good Samaritan Consortium volunteer. He is writing a series of articles about his experiences. Part I was “My story: Volunteering in Uganda and grateful” in which Conly shared how he worked with an amazing volunteer, Maxensia Nakibuuka Takirambule, and her Lugunjja Community Health Clinic. Part II was his reaction to the unexpected passage of the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill by Uganda's parliament. Part III documented a historical moment he witnessed in Uganda.)
Before traveling to Uganda I heard about the shocking arrest of Sam Ganafa, an LGBT activist who is executive director of Spectrum Uganda Initiative and chairman of the Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG).
Sam was someone I had been planning on connecting with to learn more about the plight of LGBT people in Uganda as well as learn about how HIV and AIDS is treated in the landlocked nation in East Africa.
Several of my hospital co-workers, after hearing about Sam’s arrest, asked me not to travel to Uganda, because it is one of the most dangerous places in Africa for someone such as myself to travel. I had already made up my mind that the only way I would not go to Uganda is if our government prevented me from doing so.
Long Jones, a well-known LGBT activist with Spectrum who was featured in the documentary “Call Me Kuchu,” was my only contact to Sam and Spectrum. When I arrived in Uganda, I didn’t have high hopes of contacting any members of Spectrum because of Sam’s arrest and the many security issues that hound the LGBT community.
Meeting Long Jones, one of the stars of "Call Me Kuchu" documentary
Surprisingly, on my second day there, I received a phone call from Long Jones, who said he wanted to meet. I was nervous and anxious, because I had been advised to be careful and that any meetings that I had in public would most likely be listened to and that my Ugandan phone may be tapped.
Long Jones and I met in a hotel lobby and proceeded to a restaurant. As we discussed his activism and his role in the movie, a young man appeared and Long Jones asked him join us. It turns out that he was one of the young men who was also arrested along with Sam. The young man and the others arrested with him were advised not to go home and to hide in a hotel for their safety after their release from jail. The day I arrived in Uganda, the young men were released from jail but Sam was still behind bars.
The young man gave me an account of what happened the day he was arrested and what followed. While we spoke, the other young men who were arrested joined us.
These young men gave a vivid account of their horrible arrest. They recounted how the police interrogated them without providing them legal representation and asked them repeatedly about whether they had sexual encounters with Sam Ganafa. All of the young men denied ever having sexual relations with Sam.
While in jail, they said, the police paraded them in front of the other prisoners and told them that these young men were gay, guilty of crimes (although they had not been convicted of anything), and that the prisoners needed to protect themselves from such men. In addition, during their interrogations, the police allowed local media to be present in order to harass and humiliate the young men. They had no privacy, and the local media is well known for exposing LGBT people in the news, since simply being LGBT is a crime in Uganda. They were paraded in front of the local news media, who were told that they were all guilty of crimes (which was false).
At dinner, I observed that all of young men who had been arrested appeared to be OK, except for one who seemed to be traumatized. I asked if he could get counseling but I was told that there are no resources for young men like these in their situation. I was also told that no one usually follows up with men who have been harassed, arrested and possibly tortured, nor no one is available to assess their mental status after false arrests and detention.
Looking back, I am not sure if any of these young men were OK. Yes, they smiled and joked at dinner, but I wonder if this was their denial of their current circumstances or if they have become accustomed to living in such an environment where they are continually in fear for their safety, security and lives.
Long Jones told me that after Sam’s arrest, he feared for his life for the first time. After the death of his friend David Kato, he was overcome with dread, but not to the extent that he did when his close friend and colleague Sam was arrested. “This was too close,” he said.
To this day I do not know what has happened to these young men. I don’t know if they found a place to go, if they received mental health counseling, or if they are safe. Since I left Uganda, parliament passed the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which has since been blocked by the president. No doubt the bill will return to parliament in the near future.
Danger in the night, meeting up with Sam Ganafa
The following week while I was in Uganda, I got the news that Sam had been released from jail and a trial date had been set. I was still eager to speak with him, and Long Jones set up the meeting.
My instructions were to take a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) to a bar and wait for Long Jones to pick me up and take me to Sam at an undisclosed location. The trusted boda boda driver I had been using wasn’t available and it was getting dark. In Uganda it is dangerous to ride a boda boda, especially at night. My friends in Uganda were trying to stall me and said it wasn’t a good idea to go. However, it was important for me to meet with Sam because I wanted him to know that he had support from the U.S. and because he is a member of the Good Samaritan Consortium, like me.
Up to this moment, no one had sat down with Sam to interview him about his arrest and treatment.
I traveled via an unfamiliar boda boda, whose driver was instructed not to leave my side until I made contact with Long Jones. I had no idea where we were going and I was scared. Long Jones picked me up and we traveled to Sam’s location at the home of someone who will remain anonymous.
We visited for about an hour and he described his ordeal. Sam appeared weak, his speech slow, his eyes bloodshot, and his body language indicating that he was tired. He detailed his arrest, saying he was denied proper medical care and was continually harassed by police and prisoners.
Sam was initially charged with infecting a young man staying in his home with HIV and a rare STD. This bogus charge was the law enforcement’s way to barge into his home. Sam said he was forced to take an HIV test and undergo a medical exam, the results of which eventually exonerated him of having sexual relations with the young man who had allegedly accused him, and those charges dropped.
Sam’s home was searched twice as police were looking for anything to incriminate him. Once Sam was in custody, he said, the police sergeant and other officers were congratulating themselves, crowing that they finally captured a “big fish.”
A diabetic, Sam said that while he was in jail he was not given any medical treatment for his condition. Authorities eventually allowed Sam’s friends to bring him the medicine he needed and food to sustain him.
After his release, Sam said he could not return home. His neighbors were informed of his arrest and he was told that if he returned home his house would be burned to the ground.
I was surprised to learn that Sam said he has no intention of leaving Uganda even if he was given the opportunity. His court date in January has been postponed until February, coincidentally after the Anti-Homosexuality Bill had passed parliament without a proper quorum. Sam’s current charge is “crimes against the order of nature.”
My feelings about my experience
Sadly, Sam’s story is an example of what LGBT Ugandans must go through every day. What I experienced was what it is like to live in a place where it is not OK to be who you are, where you have to look over your shoulder everywhere you go, to watch the words that you speak on your cell phone or in any public space, to be afraid that one of your companions may be unduly pressured by law enforcement to turn you into the police. I experienced fear, first hand, in my everyday living activities while I was volunteering in Uganda.
President Musevini reportedly has said that he will not support the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in its current form, and he hopes lawmakers will now shift focus instead on the protection of children. I hope we see this happen, but I worry that it will be just another version of Russia’s anti-gay law that claims to protect children from learning about “gay propaganda,” but which instead is being used to squash all forms of free speech and the right of assembly by groups, gay or straight.
When I drive to work every day, I pass by the huge rainbow flag that flies high above Hillcrest, and for that I am grateful.