The cultural barrier to discussing sex and sexuality

Published: July 13, 2011

A friend just brought a discussion on this subject in another forum to my attention. It was then that a light bulb went on in my head about why coming out in Uganda and Africa at large is such an awkward proposition.

Consider this: there is no equivalent for the words "I love you grandson" in my local language, Luganda. So, there is no way my grandmother, God rest her soul, could have told me she loved me – ever.  But I knew she loved me dearly through her actions. Whenever I arrived, she would struggle up, dance and twirl, ululate, admire me, chide me on having lost or gained weight, and call whoever was within earshot to come and see her Mwaami (husband). Beyond that, though, there was never any mention of the word love because we have no words in Luganda that a grandparent can use to tell a grandchild that they are loved dearly.

Indeed, in Uganda, it is also quite unusual for a man to tell his wife in any local language that he loves her. People talk vaguely about okuganza  (to make a favorite) and okwagala (to like, to want): two words that are a compromise but do not, strictly speaking, really translate into "romantic love" in the Western sense. 

Traditionally, we talked about love and sex indirectly, and mostly using innuendo. That is why our traditional folk songs are couched in riddles when it comes to sex and children will miss the gist entirely – which is the point. I know of no traditional folk song in Uganda that directly addresses intimate subjects such as adolescence/puberty, hormone changes, menstruation, the erotic love/longing a man has for a woman or sexual intercourse. But we have beautiful odes to the dead, songs about birth, marriage, becoming a man, respect for elders etc.

When I was growing up, women used to talk about "okwekoona akagere" at a certain time of the month and it all went totally over my head. Literally translated that means "hitting one’s toe" but today I know that "okwekoona akagere" is euphemism for a woman’s period. Sexual intercourse is discussed all the time in agony aunt forums, even on radio. But what you will hear is "okunyumya akaboozi akekikulu" (having an adult conversation) or "okuwa omwaami akatunda" (giving the husband a dose of passion fruit juice). Ha, Ha, Ha.

Imagine then sitting your Ugandan parents down to tell them that you are gay. In Uganda, homosexual sex and/or anal sex seems to have only a derogatory description "okulya ebisiyaga" which, I gather, is a bastardized version of "okulya ebigasiya" (to eat garbage). Since the moment you mention that you are gay, the automatic assumption in every mind is you engage in anal sex, all gay men (though not women) are ‘eaters of garbage.’ Now, try telling your mother and father that "Hey mom and dad, I have something to tell you. I am a musiyazi" (I am an eater of garbage). Ayayayaya!

It would be totally impossible to have such a conversation even if one of the parents didn’t pass out at the bombshell.

There is a half-way house that works. Because Ugandans are not given to talking about sex or sexuality, and may sometimes go as far as pretending that no sex is happening despite women getting pregnant and giving birth, the silence around matters sexual provides some sort of escape hatch for both sides. If you live as a gay man, whether openly or not, it is eventually apparent to whoever is interested that you only keep the company of men (or women) but prudery will prevent anyone from remarking on it, in your presence anyway. In that conspiracy of silence, it is thus quite possible, and many a gay man or woman has taken advantage of it, to live in a gay relationship while everyone around pretends that they haven’t noticed. There are increasingly many people in this category in Uganda and elsewhere.

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