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The Dukkha of Loving Others: Homophobia In Africa

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The Dukkha of Loving Others:

Homophobia in Africa

Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha:
… death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha;
association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha;
not getting what is wanted is dukkha.

—Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion

Last month my husband and I hosted a birthday party for his nephew, a sweet, loving, humble man who’s risen surprisingly high in the infamous Nigerian government, the poster child for corruption and Greed (lobha). He’s a born-again Christian, so my husband warned the guests that the party would be “dry” until the celebrant and his family left, as which point we’d break out the wine, liquor, and of course, Guinness.

My husband was pleasantly surprised when his nephew promptly requested one of my infamous cocktails. “No, no,” the young man protested, “Jesus turned water into wine after all!” He raised a finger in our East Bay kitchen and pleasantly surprised me: “I drink, but even if I didn’t, why shouldn’t those around me do as they please?”

The next morning he called to thank us, saying that our party was a major life event on his Facebook Timeline. “Friend him, friend him,” my Luddite husband urged. I was about to do so, when I saw that comments from his 1000-plus followers praised Nigeria’s new law imposing 14-year prison terms for gay marriage and 10-year terms for those supporting gay rights.

The next day the nephew’s face appeared, wild-eyed and frothing about homosexuals, in my news feed and on the cover of a Nigerian newspaper. “What happened to ‘why shouldn’t those around me do as they please’?” I moaned to my husband. Homophobia – something that’s long caused our Nigerian-American household dukkha, as we routinely sift through our list of African friends and family members to determine who to include in dinners and parties – is rocking Africa’s most populous and important nation.

When we talk about our human suffering, it brings out our compassionate tendencies.

But when we talk about our opinions, about what I think and what you think

about politics and religion, then we can get into wars.


—Ajahn Sumedho

Much of my time online is spent recoiling at the sentiments my compatriots express towards gays and lesbians: Homosexuals are possessed by Satan and should have the gay beaten out of them. They are rutting animals who should be put down. They are the brainwashed victims of a great Western conspiracy to destroy Africa. And while I would agree that there is indeed a great Western conspiracy at least to exploit and consume Africa, I hardly think that gayness is the weapon of choice!

Of course, homophobia exists everywhere, including countries that support marriage equality and gender reassignment. And it could be argued that many African nations have more pressing survival concerns. But I would counter that the recent rise in state-sponsored homophobia in 38 of Africa’s 54 nations proves that a) the Three Poisons (Kilesa) – greed, hatred, delusion – lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, association with the unbeloved, separation from the loved, and far too often, death – in short, dukkha; and b) in this, everyone suffers.

Who suffers from African homophobia?

1) Our agency.

In being kidnapped, colonized, converted to Christianity and Islam, plundered, under-developed and “saved”, we have internalized the suffering around being perceived as “backwards”, “uncivilized” and in need of rescue. Now we are thumbing our noses at the West’s latest requirement. But this agency is Delusion (moha). Most countries that criminalize homosexuality are former colonies, particularly of Britain, which exported its anti-gay laws. Furthermore, we Nigerians are first in line when it comes to happily swallowing Capitalism, materialism, individuality, colorism, Anglophilia, Fundamentalism. So until we rid ourselves of our Blackberries and British accents and Bibles and skin-bleaching creams, I’m simply not buying homosexuality as “un-African” neo-Colonialism.

Who suffers from African homophobia?

2) Those who don’t hate.

The particularly insidious nature of these laws criminalizing same-sex conduct is that anyone providing support, or who even fails to report suspected gays, is also liable for prosecution. This violates international codes of human rights, evokes Nazi-era Germany, and allows fear to embody Hatred (dosa).

Who suffers from African homophobia?

3) Anyone who doesn’t conform to so-called traditional gender behavior.

In traditional, communal societies, the survival of the family, clan, village reasonably took precedence over the individual, but a) there was always a role, often spiritual, for those who didn’t fit the mold; b) adaptation keeps societies relevant and healthy, so tradition alone cannot justify oppression; and c) Nigeria’s population growth – and strain on land, schools, jobs – is already at dangerous levels. Any fear that the Nigerian family is in danger is simply Delusion (moha).

Who suffers from African homophobia?

4) Tradition.

Westerners are always stunned to see men and boys holding hands; women and girls walking arm-in-arm. When my husband’s male cousins spend the night, they pile into bed with him; my favorite part about visiting Nigeria is the easy intimacy with which my clanswomen snuggle up for naps, running their fingers through my curls and over my tattoo. Now, according to Nigeria’s new law, anyone caught in a “public show” of affection faces a 10-year sentence.

Who suffers from African homophobia?

5) The 61% of the population who live on less than a $1.00 a day, despite Nigeria being one of the world’s top oil producers and Africa’s second-largest economy.

The 100 million poor Nigerians who don’t have access to clean water, safe roads and transport, electricity, schooling, healthcare, or security, because our politicians divert oil wealth and foreign aid to their families and skin-bleached mistresses, and then distract the public with hateful legislation. It is Greed (lobha) at its most cynical.

Who suffers from African homophobia?

 6) Any African identifying as — or merely accused of being — queer.

In Cameroon, alleged gay men are subject to anal exams, and Jean-Claude Roger Mbede was convicted on the basis of a text message. Across Africa, lesbians are targeted for so-called “curative” or “corrective” rape; gays and lesbians are refused medical treatment; dozens suffer in prison awaiting trial; conviction in some countries carries a death sentence. In 2010, after a Ugandan tabloid published a list of the country’s “Top 100 Homosexuals” complete with photographs, addresses, and the line: “Hang Them”, prominent gay-rights activist David Kato was beaten to death with a hammer. In 2012, Tanzanian human rights advocate Maurice Mjomba was found bound and murdered in his home, blood oozing from his genitals. And violence has been increasing since January 13, when Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, already under pressure by the defection of party members and terrorist attacks by Fundamentalist group Boko Haram, signed the bill many of us believed would never pass. On Valentine’s Day, mobs wielding nail-studded clubs and whips dragged young men from their homes in Abuja, the shiny new capital built with petro-dollars. Oh, yes, Nigeria celebrates the Western tradition of St. Valentine’s, day of romantic love.


Don’t tell me we’re not all suffering.


Adiele Horizontal (1)

Faith Adiele is the author of Meeting Faith (W.W. Norton), a memoir about becoming Thailand’s first black Buddhist nun, which won the PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir.

She is the writer / narrator / subject of My Journey Home, a PBS documentary about reconciling her Nigerian / Nordic / American family; and co-editor of Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology (The New Press). Named as one of Marie Claire Magazine’s “5 Women to Learn From,” Faith has spoken at universities, churches, temples and community centers around the world, and her writings on spirituality, travel, and culture have been published in such periodicals as YES! and O: The Oprah Magazine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Robert Aitken Roshi, carrying his signature sign at a protest

About BPF’s The System Stinks

Buddhist social justice curriculum

To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.

This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.

Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.

If you like what you see, spread the word to show the world another side of Buddhism!

We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.

You can support engaged Buddhist media makers by donating to BPF.

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