February 1, 2011
KAMPALA – On Sunday I attended the church service of one of Uganda’s most talked-about pastors, Martin Ssempa, a leading voice championing homophobia in the country. David Kato, a gay rights activist Uganda, had been murdered under mysterious circumstances a few days prior, causing international outcry. In light of the tragedy, I wanted to know if Ssempa thought anti-gay hysteria here had gone too far? Did he feel partly responsible? Did he feel compelled to preach a more moderate message?
I caught up with him in the courtyard beneath the crumbling university lecture hall where he had just held his sermon.
“This, actually, is the person you should be speaking with,” said Ssempa, his hand gesturing with a politician’s smooth precision to the young man at his left. “He was viciously abused by David Kato.”
The young man was frowning at the ground, as if still acutely smarting from the experience.
“I would like that.” I offered. “But I would like to get your insights too. After all, these young people” – many of them college students; sipping sweet ginger tea around us in the afternoon sun – “look to you for guidance.”
And it was easy to see why, at least on a superficial level: a former break-dancing champion, he had wrinkleless light-brown skin, burning eyes and a motivational smile. His white wife and mixed-race children made for a picture-perfect family. He spoke with the gravely feistiness of a wronged Rasta man determined to make things right. Perhaps most enticing, his sermons divided the world clearly between good and evil.
“That may be,” said the pastor. “But I don’t feel it would be right to comment so shortly after David Kato’s death.” His hard grin communicated a desire for closure.
Ssempa, though, had just spent a portion of his three-hour service discussing David Kato in terms that conflicted with police and news reports – how David had given alcohol to unsuspecting men and molested them before taking off in the night; how David had been murdered by his “partner.” Ssempa had used David Kato that morning to remind his congregation that homosexuality is an abomination, a scourge to be (God insists!) mercilessly assailed. No prayers were offered to David or his family.
“Perhaps after you have some time to reflect then,” I said.
He moved in close. “You know, it amazes me. How all you people are the same.” (All you people. Journalists? Whites? Human rights supporters? Atheists? Americans?) “When I offer you the privilege of talking to the right person – a victim of this David Kato – you’re not interested.”
“I’m sorry to hear you’ve prejudged me. But no offense taken.”
He insisted he hadn’t prejudged me and I insisted he was really in no position to judge what was in my head, and then, looking like he might lose it, I said, “Do know, though, I found parts of your sermon today entertaining.”
Suddenly it was if all had been forgiven. His body slackened. He beamed. “ I’m glad. I’m really glad.” But he had caught the avoidance in my compliment and added, “I also hope you found it interesting.”
Actually I had found it simplistic and hypocritical. After thundering bitterly against homosexuals and feminists (“who have taught women they are men!”) and fellow pastors, Ssempa said, “Instead of guns I hope people will have flowers” and that he had come “to preach a message of unity. Our nation is divided…we survive together or perish as fools.” I am of the opinion that he last thing Africa needs is another self-promoting “prophet” like Ssempa, preaching divisiveness in the guise of unity.
So I said nothing, before asking if he considered David’s death a tragedy.
“You know what?” He glanced around at the half-dozen or so onlookers expectantly cradling their plastic cups of tea, before stepping closer to me and smiling contemptuously. “I find you really annoying.” There was a tense silence. “And so, I’ve decided…I’m not going to give you any interview.”
His face pinkened in wait; the news was meant to maim.
I chuckled instead. “That doesn’t seem like a very Christ-like response.”
That’s when he turned to my girlfriend beside me and, with the gentlest of voices, asked her name (“Oh, that’s a lovely name”). If she was in school (“Oh, that’s great”). Who she had studied under (“Oh, he’s a great man”). Why she had a tongue ring (“Did you do it because you saw someone else with it?” And this is where it took me every effort not to say, “Did you start hating homosexuals because someone else was doing it?”)
But his control technique led to one question – “What did you think of the service?”
She told him she had found it ok.
“Let me ask it this way. What did you like about the service?”
“The choir,” she offered. “Some of the songs were nice.”
“Anything else?” pressed Ssempa.
I had read that Ssempa had grown up not knowing the identity of his father and that his former aspiration had been to be a celebrity. But I didn’t expect a need for approval to reveal itself so conspicuously in a pastor.
The choir is all that came to mind, she said. “But if I come again,” she assured him, “I am sure I’ll find other things to like.”
Retaining the lightness in his voice, he said, “So are you a lesbian, too?” (As if to suggest we were, both, gay.)
“Lesbian?! This is my boyfriend.”
“Oh,” said Ssempa, the surprise in his voice exposing a tribalistic streak in his outlook: a difficulty to grasp how a person could possibly defend a lifestyle other than his own. Defend a gay’s rights; you must be gay.
He went on with his questions.
“Dear,” I said, “maybe you have some questions for him.”
“Excuse me,” hissed Ssempa, I’m still talking. Don’t you know it’s impolite to interrupt when someone is still talking?”
“You said you didn’t want to be interviewed, but here you are interviewing her.”
“You are this close to having security kick you out.”
As we turned to leave, he barked, “Leave, you atheist,” marking his final statement in an exchange in which he unwittingly exposed himself as a man struggling (more than many atheists or gays I know) to grasp the basics of Christ’s teachings.