“If homosexuality is ever legalised in Uganda I’ll be on the next flight home”

Edwin S is an LGBT refugee from Uganda, now living in South London. Here, he describes how he left behind everything he knew and loved so he could live in freedom and safety.

A taxi driver reads the news of Uganda's new anti-homosexuality law in Kampala. Photo: Getty
A taxi driver reads the news of Uganda's new anti-homosexuality law in Kampala. Photo: Getty

It was around 1992 when I realised I was gay. There was a lot of confusion. I loved life in Uganda before then.

Mum reacted very bad. Very bad. I didn’t expect it. I’d “let the family down” she said. As time passes, I wonder whether I made the right decision telling her. But you have to. At one point in life, you have to. And in Uganda, if you do, you suffer the consequences.

I’ve hardly spoken to mum since. My father died a few years ago but mum still lives in Uganda. I think she’s in her sixties. In Africa it’s not in our culture to ask how old a parent is. You will get told off.

I had one brief relationship in Uganda, which lasted two months. It wasn’t one of those relationships where you can tell a friend or your family, it was very, very secret because it’s something you’re not allowed to do. The consequences would have been fatal.  There would have been tears.

A beating maybe. But when they punch you in Uganda, it’s a real punching.

My relationship with Charles was not something I could be proud of. The love was there. But when you lack that kind of openness of expressing your love, there’s something missing. The fear of the consequence was always there. It was like a sitting time-bomb. It ended when I left Uganda and I haven’t heard from Charles since. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.

In Africa neighbours don’t complain if you play loud music, they enjoy it. In Africa you don’t have to make an appointment to see someone, you just drop in. In Africa cooking is in the open; I could tell if somebody was roasting chicken or pork because I could smell it.

In the evening I would hear the birds from my homestead. I would hear the stray dogs bark and the music from South Africa and the Congo. I would rest in the courtyard with relatives in the dry summer heat.

At the Ginga Kalori boys’ school I would play football with my Muslim best friend, Isma. We would put two sticks in a car tyre and wheel them, racing home. He died not long after I left. I never had the chance to tell him.

I left behind the things I grew up with, the things I was used too: the people, the environment and the Ugandan culture. You know you’re used to an environment when you close your eyes and you still know how to navigate. I lost all of that. But I was free and safe.

I had been an activist for a while. There was a political campaign and I was involved in the LGBT opposition group. On the radio I heard stories of gay couples being beaten and killed by police. We got caught up. Beaten up. I was always on the other side as a young boy, trying to fight against Museveni’s government.

I was lucky because I survived. Being submitted to cover up what I am was the saddest thing.

I arrived in the UK in 1995.

The accent was difficult: I knew they were speaking English but it was different. The way we speak English back home is quite different. It’s not “What’s your name”, it’s “What.is.your.name”. I remember one day I said “Good morning, sir” to a gentlemen and he gave me a strange look. In Uganda every grown-up is a sir or madam. Here it is different.

The other thing: I met a black guy on the bus and spoke to him in my native tongue. I thought everyone that was black spoke my language. I was wrong…

But here I am in heaven. You can do whatever you want with your partner. You can kiss in the street and hold hands. You don’t have to look over your shoulder to see who’s watching you. You can be what you are here. You can go to Gay Pride. Whatever you can think of doing you can do it here. No complaint.

Actually one complaint. Matoke (a Ugandan national dish). You can get matoke here but it’s not the same. In Uganda everything is fresh. When you order fish, it’s been caught at seven in the morning and it’s on your plate by one. You see chicken running and somebody cuts it and puts it on the fire. But here, everything is frozen.

There is freedom to campaign here. If there’s something I do not like, I can protest and demand answers. A few weeks ago with Peter Tatchell, we went into the Ugandan embassy in London and submitted a letter. It demanded the repeal of the anti-homosexuality bill. Homophobia in Uganda is an import. Homophobia came from the west.

If homosexuality is ever legalised in Uganda, I’ll be on the next flight home.

East or west, home is best.

Edwin S is an LGBT refugee living in South London. He moved from Uganda as a teenager. He is now the director of the African LGBTI Out & Proud Diamond Group. This week the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a controversial law allowing those convicted of homosexuality to be imprisoned for life. Ugandan politicians celebrated.

Interview by Ashley Cowburn

Tags:Uganda