Graffiti? What a wonderful colonial idea!

“When asked his opinion on western civilization, Ghandi once remarked; ‘what a wonderful idea!’ Many a time, western human rights ‘experts’ approach African realities with great prejudice and ethnocentrism: mirroring western societal realities to that of African contexts, and making pronouncements that their belief systems are the ‘right’ way for any developing society. For some it is an honest mistake, for others it is a discourse, regrettably…” (my upcoming book: Advocacy in Sub-Saharan Africa)

This was once again seen a few days ago, when the US embassy decided to organize a graffiti day with an LGBTI theme. Artists were invited to draw on the Embassy’s walls facing the Kacyiru roundabout graffiti symbolizing gay rights. I am told the event was fun and colourful.

Here, let me pause to remind two things: One: Graffiti are the most un-Rwandan thing they could have come up with! Kigali is probably the only city in the world where graffiti are noticeably absent.

And two: Public support to gay rights is highly contentious at the moment in Rwanda! And even more in the region. You see where I am going with this?

It may have been a beautiful awareness campaign for the people present at event – and the media quoted an embassy official as saying: ‘gay rights are human rights, and gay people also need rights to protect them. This event was to emphasize that’, the most read online news site, on the same day, headlined: ‘On the walls of the American Embassy there are messages of support to fags’ they went on to explain: ‘although western countries are excited in supporting gay people, most African countries do not accept the practice. In Uganda, president Museveni did not care about pressures from western donors and rights groups, and signed a law criminalizing them. Since then, many countries have declared that they have stopped aid to Uganda’

The next morning, the same, headlined: Is Homosexuality the development that America needs for Rwanda or they are looking for something else?

It is in Kinyarwanda, so here is my quick translation: Intro: ‘Rwanda is a sovereign country which upholds the law. The fact that our country is poor makes it imperative for us to foster friendships and support relationships with foreign countries. There is a lot that we benefit from that, including knowledge, aid and other things. However, from the look of things, this aid is coming in form of poison’

Elsewhere in the article it reads: ‘By the way, sexual intercourse is a private matter, and Rwanda has refrained from regulating individual private matters. There is no one being harassed because they are gay. Why are they bringing this debate out?

And in conclusion: ‘This is provocation, government should watch out, they are trying to make us a pariah state like they just did for Uganda’

I can’t help but agree with the conclusion…

At first, one would think: Graffiti, at the American Embassy’s wall? Well that’s Americans using an American approach to advance American interests. Now, that would be fine, if it was the case; it is not! These are critical rights of Rwandan men and women who are gay!

Kigali is probably the only city in the world where you do not see graffiti, and there is a reason to that. Kigali is also the city where you hardly see manifestations of support to minority rights, and there is also a reason to that.

It still could have been shocking if there were graffiti about the ongoing world cup; just like it would have been strange if it were banners about gay rights (banners are ubiquitous in Kigali). Whether it is a good thing, or a bad thing; that is the topic of another blog post.

For now though, let’s agree that for homophobia to be eradicated, people have got to start talking about these issues, and they are. I am aware of many efforts being attempted by both government and civil society to find the best way to provide health services to LGBTI and protect their rights. Some of these efforts are regularly shared on this blog and new ones are coming up.

So, it is not the place of the American Embassy to introduce graffiti in Rwanda – but we can forgive them that, can’t we? Most importantly, it is either naive or arrogant, to usurp their position, overlook all other efforts by Rwandans – who know better – and fiddle with such a delicate human rights question.

In a conversation with an activist friend on the incident, we were imagining the meeting where the graffiti decision was made: some young intern, freshly given the gay job, who knows nothing about Rwanda – I hope; says: well what shall I do to check the box in my ToRs on promoting gay rights in Rwanda? And his innocent boss to answer: well, dunno, I saw these beautiful graffiti in Amsterdam during the gay parade; why don’t you organise a graffiti day? I’ll make punch and my wife cookies; its gonna be fun! And off they went to organised a colourful and completely counterproductive graffiti day.

‘This colonial blindness and blubbering needs to stop! People need to come out of the darkness and finally see the light. Before its too late!’ said my friend…

An Issue that even professionals have failed to solve shouldn’t be let to interns, or incompetent people. It is probably an honest mistake, but it will be perceived as if the diplomats have low regard for those who might suffer as a result.

‘If we publicly say that we want to promote the rights of gays, that’s a nonstarter!’ A seasoned human rights activist in Kigali recently told me. ‘We have got to be careful’

And it is not a priority; Rwandans have other problems, other needs. If, like they say, LGBTI rights are human rights, then let’s address human rights in general, human dignity, and among them LGBTI rights. That is a message that will be well received: to approach it as part of rights of Rwandans in general.

The embassy should have sought advice from their partner NGOs. The problem is, NGOs receiving funding from the US Embassy – just like in Uganda – would never look them in the eyes and tell them: look guys you screwed-up this time: You don’t bite the hand that feeds you and all…

Plus, the NGO guys want to look tough – again, just like in Uganda – they know that if they question the wisdom, or should I say the idiocy of the graffiti, the embassy will tell them, well guys you have no guts to take this on, you are not worthy of our money. So, they say: Graffiti? What a wonderful idea!

The lobbying role held by embassies is very important – I make no mistake about it. I have personally made use of it in the past. However, it has to intervene only on critical issues where no local efforts are envisioned: say for example, Rwanda is supporting M23 and no Rwandan NGO will say or do something about it, then they can talk; The recent case of the alleged forced disappearances, which no Rwandan NGO was willing to talk about; that they can bring to the fore.  But on issues where both government and civil society are active, and everyone agrees things seem to be going in the right direction; they should hold their peace!

Ok, I will not belabour this too much, if I haven’t already… There is no tragedy here. But tomorrow, please do not organise Thanksgiving and Halloween with a gay theme! Rwandans will be even more perplexed. If you do, keep it to yourselves: it’s a free world with boundaries. In emergency Muslim countries, they have UN and Embassy compounds where alcohol is served, public kissing is allowed, even women are unveiled and live their lives… but these compounds are barricaded!

You want to live the American dream, fine, live it in the confines of the American embassy. Here in the open, we live the Rwandan dream. Have the decency to understand it before you pretend to affect it.

Posted 28th June 2014