The United Nations is a club. Albeit, not a very exclusive club but a club nonetheless. And like with any club, if you want to be a UN member state then you have to go through a bit of an initiation. After pledging for a number of weeks, aspiring member state delegations traditionally have to streak around the Security Council chambers, do a body shot out of the Secretary General’s belly button in front of the General Assembly, shotgun 1 beer local to each existing member state, and recite the acronym of every UN agency while being held upside-down by the Russian delegation… oh yeah, and you have to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but that tradition is much less important than other activities. Unfortunately, Thanks to the Women’s Hockey and Men’s Rugby scandals at Dal, the UN has been forced to scale down their initiation festivities in recent years. Now, if a country wants in, all they have to do is sign the UDHR and a few other unimportant documents. Easy as pie!
Because so many member states ignore the provisions set out in the UDHR, the UN has decided that they need to take stock of the human rights situations in their member states. As a result, every four or five years, the UN kindly asks their members to submit a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to the General Assembly. The General Assembly then passes the UPRs off to the UN Human Rights Council for further analysis.
2 problems with the UPR process:
- Member states do not give a rat’s ass, which means that regular reports few and far between
- When member states do get around to submitting a report, they tend to lie about the human rights situation on the ground in their respective countries
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in member states are allowed to submit a shadow report to let the General Assembly know what is really going on.
Rachel and I have been tasked with drafting a CSO shadow report on the Right to Food in Uganda. Shit is getting real. More details to come later.
According to the enlightened and socially progressive “journalists” at Cosmopolitan Magazine, there are three things that you should never talk about on a first date: (1) politics, (2) religion, and (3) sexual orientation. Thankfully, this entry marks your 35th date with “Life as a Canadian on the Equator”, so the gloves are coming off! In this entry, I am going to break free from the shackles of popular culture and ignore the advice of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Pretty radical stuff, I know.
The political culture in Uganda is an ideal that Canadians ought to strive towards. When I say “political culture” I am not referring to the laws and policies of the Ugandan Government. Further, I am not talking about the National Resistance Movement (or NRM – Uganda’s dominant political party), Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan Cabinet Ministers, corruption, or infamous presidents – Idi Amin, for example. Indeed, these factors might influence a country’s political culture, but they certainly do not define it. In my view, a political culture is principally defined by the strength of a community. So what does a strong community look like?
Strong communities are comprised of people (not individuals) who live public lives. And a public life is one that is characterized by a shared existence. People can share their lives with each other in a number of ways: engaging in informed discussion or outright debate, preparing communal meals, playing sports after work, spending Saturday afternoons at a public park (or attend an “Umuganda” if you live in Rwanda), attending public school, or volunteering at a local NGO. All of these activities typify a shared existence because they allow people to insert themselves into their community – to live a public life.
Based on my observations, Ugandans live public lives; Canadians do not. Yes, most of us Canadians have reluctantly attended a ‘block party’, played Timbits soccer at the local community centre for a couple of cold springs, and spent an afternoon at a Habitat for Humanity build. More often than not, however, these activities are the exception to the rule. A block party might occur once a year if you have friendly enough neighbours to organize it. Few parents ever really get involved in community sports – the rest just sit on the sidelines, chew sunflower seeds and count down the seconds until they can return to the solace of their own home. And while some attend Habitat for Humanity builds, many prefer to lazily oppose the projects in hopes of keeping their community a monolithic heaven for white, middle class, 3rd generation European immigrants.
Quite simply, when shared activities are done disingenuously, their outputs do not create a public community. By extension, when people live private lives, they add to the broader degradation of Canadian political culture. Why? Because when people do not wholeheartedly insert themselves into their communities, they lose the ability to understand the social, political, and historical contexts in which they operate.
Without a grasp on these fundamental factors that shape human interaction, people who opt for private lives do not exist as humans, but rather as individuals. And civil society is not made up of individuals. In a civil society an individual is a non-entity because she cannot root her humanity in anything but herself. Instead, civil society it is made of people who deliberate with one another; of people who share their opinions by knocking on their neighbour’s door rather than poking them on facebook; of people who accept each other regardless of one’s “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability; of people who are not afraid to disagree with each other.
In absence of people who live public lives, a political culture cannot flourish. It is my belief that Canadian political culture will not reach its full potential until individuals can become people. Until people embrace a shared existence in a strong community.
I am not saying that Uganda is a paragon of all of the things that I describe above. Even still, many Ugandans do live public lives. For instance, I was talking to a colleague from another NGO about the ubiquity of noise in Kampala.
As a side, even as I type this, people in a nearby church are yelling “HALLELUIAH!” at the top of their lungs, a baby is screaming bloody murder, and loud hip-hop music is radiating from a truck on the street. The truck actually has its speakers turned outwards so everybody can listen along.
I was met with a perplexed look after I expressed my frustrations to my colleague. He said, “Jeremy, that is not noise you are hearing. That is people celebrating life!” I replied, “So the people who ring my doorbell on Sunday morning at 5:30 and try to sell me fruit are not attempting to give me high blood pressure?” The colleague laughed and said “That mama just wants to know who you are. You should offer her some tea next time”.
Ugandans’ willingness to share their lives with each other is the key to the deliberative nature of their political culture. The children who play in front of my apartment building every day (and torture Rex) are far more likely to care about a nearby road reconstruction project than a Canadian child who plays “Call of Duty” in his basement until 4:00am on a school night. An adolescent who walks to and from school with her friends every day has a higher steak in keeping that route safe than a Canadian teen who bums a ride with her parents. An adult who harvests produce out of a community garden is much more invested in the food security of his neighbours than a Canadian who avoids an old high school friend at a grocery store.
Granted, political culture is operationalized by voting, running for office, and holding informed opinions on policy-related issues. However, a political culture is built on the foundation of a public life. That foundation is laid by those who play outside, walk to public school, and participate in community projects.
I grew up in a fairly secular family. We never went to a religious institution to warship a Judaeo-Christian “God” on the weekend. I did not pray before every meal or adhere to any diets on religious holidays. I was never told by my parents that I had to believe in a divine entity, live my life according to a religious scripture, or shun those who did not share my beliefs. My family gave me space to observe, weigh the evidence, and decide for myself what version of spirituality (if any) aligned with my values.
All of this is not to say that I was deprived of tradition as a youngster. In the holiday season, I would join my extended family for several meals. We would sing traditional songs, read traditional stories, and eat traditional food. Yes, all of these traditions arose out of a religion – but that was never really important to me. What mattered was that my family was together and that there was good food.
The secular practices that I observed in my home were mirrored in the public schools I attended. From k-12 I attended school with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc, etc. Friendships were largely forged notwithstanding religious beliefs and people accepted each other for who they were rather than what they believed. The latter, of course, was not always the case, but in broad strokes, freedom of and from religion was the accepted practice.
Things are a little bit different here in Uganda. Many people certainly have freedom of religion; however, freedom from religion is a different case. To be clear, I am not ascribing any value judgements to the religious culture in Uganda. I am simply stating my observations. Anyhow, religion is just about as ubiquitous as noise in Kampala. At 5:30 in the morning I wake up to a call to prayer from a local mosque. Every meeting I attend is opened and closed with a prayer (almost exclusively to a Christian “God”). Taxis and boda bodas usually have a religious slogan painted on their windshields: “Jesus will save ME”, “In God’s Hands”, “I know Him”… you get the point. Even the names of businesses reflect the highly religious nature of Ugandan society: “God is Good Beauty Salon”, “The Light of the Lord Mechanics”, “Jesus is Able Restaurant”.
Many people attend church more than once a week, hum church music when they are not in a place of worship, and set their cellphone ringtones to the latest Christian rock hit.
People are usually confused or burst out in laughter when I respond to the classic conversation opener: “so are you Protestant or Catholic?” My response: “I believe in nothing and everything. But to be honest, religion is not a very big part of my life”. I am often met with: “how can you be a Muslim and a Christian at the same time? Didn’t your parents make you go to church?” After a few more minutes of back and forth, me and my new friend agree to disagree and move on to more pressing matters.
Granted, freedom from religion in Uganda is not as prominent as it is in Canada. But hey, there is nothing wrong with having conviction! At least people here are not afraid to take pride in their beliefs. The question of whether I agree with these beliefs is irrelevant. In sum, Uganda’s hyper-religious tendencies certainly have their advantages and pitfalls. All the same, religion makes Uganda what it is and I would not dare try to undermine such a fundamental component of my friend’s and co-worker’s lives.
- Sexual Orientation
Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that:
“Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
In recent years, our courts have read in “sexual orientation” as an analogous ground on which Canadians cannot be discriminated. The process of “reading in” a new ground is quite simple. All of the grounds that the Crown cannot discriminate against are things that people cannot or should not have to change. For instance, it would be an undue infringement for the Crown to make you change your sex or age. Similarly, sexual orientation is a lot like the other grounds enumerated above because somebody’s sexual orientation cannot and should not be influenced by the Crown. Therefore, in Canada, the Crown cannot give royal assent to any legislation that discriminates against somebody on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Things are a little bit different here in Uganda. The current government believes that a state has the right to dictate the sexual orientation of its citizens. The Ugandan government and many of its MPs who sit in parliament believe that homosexuality should not exist; that sexual orientation is something that one can and should change if it does not align with a narrow set of societal values. The following statement was submitted by Uganda to the UN Human Rights Commission in 2011. It does a far better job of illustrating why Ugandan law makers feel the way they do than I ever could:
“Article 31(2a) of the Constitution prohibits marriage between persons of the same sex. Sections 145 and 146 of the Penal Code prohibit same sex relations. While the Constitution, under Chapter Four, guarantees rights of persons, it also imposes duties and obligations on them to ensure that in the enjoyment of such rights, they do not infringe on the rights of others. Those who practice and / or support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues continue to push for their recognition as a right. There is information of covert recruitment, of especially our children and youth, into such practices which we consider to be detrimental to the moral fabric of our society. In Uganda, there is an overwhelming consensus that such practices are untenable; and thus culturally and legally unacceptable. It is our considered opinion that such practices remain a matter of private choice. There should be no promotion of those practices.”
Whether or not these values truly reflect the will of Ugandans is not something that I am willing to discuss online. Here is what I will say: Canada can learn a lot from Ugandan political culture and Uganda can learn a lot from s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
That said, Ugandan society has its quirks. What Canadians would classify as overt public displays of affection, Ugandans do not bat an eyelash at. For example, every day at exactly 5:20 I pass a long line of male security guards who are walking home from work. These security guards are quite intimidating from afar: tall, uniformed, and armed with large rifles. A closer inspection reveals something that many Westerns would find, well… different. Without fail, each security guard is holding one of his friend’s hands. As a get closer I notice that the two male security guard’s interlocked fingers swing back and forth, back and forth. If these men were not dressed in uniforms and carrying large rifles, one from the West might think that they were in a homosexual relationship. Why? Because in Canada when you hold somebody’s hand in public, you are typically in a romantic relationship with them.
In Uganda, however, things like handholding (or any close physical contact for that matter) are not associated with romantic relationships. Rather, public displays of physical affection are used to convey friendship. Men will shake your hand and then hold it for an entire conversation; if you walk beside your friend then you put your arm around him; if you are having an important discussion, then you place your hand on your friends arm or knee. Interestingly enough, a Ugandan in a romantic relationship will seldom touch their significant other in public. It is even considered indecent for a bride and groom to kiss at their own wedding!
Once again, I place no value judgements on these interesting quirks. Nevertheless, as a Westerner, I find it fascinating that a society can simultaneously condemn homosexuality and condone public displays of same-sex physical affection. Not to say that the two are mutually exclusive!!!!! Just saying… quirky.
Well, we have made it through our 35th date! Any suggestions on where to go for number 36?
Your tolerant friend,