It’s time for me to come out of the closet. Mom and Dad,
it’s time to tell you the truth, and here it is.
I have a tattoo.
Now before you freak out, know that it is located on my left
hip, where it is easily covered. In fact, I’m the only one who sees it. You may
wonder why I got it in the first place, so let me explain…
I have it so I will always remember my time in Africa.
Whenever I look at it, I remember that each star represents a country where I have
lived or traveled. But most importantly, I remember “Ubuntu,” the African
principle that “I am because we are.” I remember my friends in Africa like Kidiaba,
Doctor Pierre, and Michèle*, friends who literally saved my life. While living
in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I could not have survived without their
help. When I did not have food, Michèle took me to the market and taught me how
to cook. When I got malaria, Doctor Pierre came to my house and brought me free
medicine. When I did not know how to communicate, Kidiaba taught me Swahili and
helped me interpret. Without these friends, I would not be here today. For me,
this is the essence of Ubuntu, an understanding that none of us would be here
without those who have raised us and taught us to survive. In this way, as
Desmond Tutu puts it, “a person is a person through other people.”
Recently I attended ChurchQuake, RMN’s Convocation, where this
Ubuntu principle was a central theme of our time together. While there I co-led
a workshop with Rev. Neal Christie, Assistant General Secretary for the
Education and Leadership Formation for the UMC General Board of Church and
Society. Our workshop was entitled “Will Africa Always be Anti-LGBTQ? Forming
Partnerships across Borders.”
Now I know that the title sounds a little misleading. From
this alone, you might assume that Africa really is anti-LGBTQ, which is not the
case. The title was meant as a “hook” to get people into the workshop, but in
reality, Africa can’t be limited to a box. Africans come in all shapes and
sizes; they are heterosexual and gay, rich and poor, transgender and cisgender,
black and white, and every other shade of gray. Often times however, news of
Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill or comparisons between homosexuality and
bestiality at General Conference by a Congolese delegate overshadow the
diversity of Africa and can limit our perspective. In order to get the full
picture, we must explore the complex underlying issues of our tumultuous
relationship with Africa, including how our past and present paternalistic,
racially prejudiced, and ethnocentric mission practices have fostered
homophobia and anti-Western sentiment in Africa.
Because the truth is, Africa doesn’t need saving, and never
has. As African economist Dambisa Moyo points out in her book Dead Aid, efforts by Americans to
alleviate poverty in Africa have actually increased their plight. Large amounts
of foreign aid have been funneled into oppressive governments and corrupt institutions
and stifled economic growth. Or, to use a smaller-scale example, sending our
old shoes to and clothes to Africa has not helped in the big-scheme of things;
it hinders small African business owners from producing or selling African-made
shoes and clothes, and limits them to a childlike state of perpetual need.
As we raped the African land of resources for our own
benefit, we also forced literalistic Biblical interpretations that subordinate
women and LGBTQ people. We imposed our individualistic conceptions of love and
marriage on people for which procreation is essential for survival. We (myself
included) have tried to be “white saviors” for people who never needed saving
in the first place. It’s no wonder some Africans are hostile towards the acceptance
of homosexuality when it feels forced upon them by their Western oppressors.
So when we get frustrated at Africans, or view Africa as a
stumbling block to LGBTQ inclusion, we must acknowledge the complex issues at
work and repent for the harm we have caused. Only then can we begin to form
mutually affirming partnerships and work towards positive change.
So yes, Mom and Dad, and everyone else…I have a tattoo. Every time I look at
it, I think of Africa, the birthplace of Ubuntu and the friends who helped me
survive and continue to show me how to be human and whole.
*names have been changed
- Four Reasons Why We Can’t Blame Africa for Anti-LGBTQ Policies in The UMC - August 7, 2014
- Attached to Africa at the hip - September 9, 2013
- Welcome to our family - November 27, 2012