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Stories we tell

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As an undergraduate student I had a professor who began the school year by telling his students amusing stories. He'd tell us stories about his early experiences as an international student in North America from "somewhere in Africa." This was the age before, "let's Google it" became a part of our everyday lexicon.

To some degree, the world was smaller and many of his classmates had limited experience with Africa and what it was to be African. He'd tell stories about hunting lions with his bare hands and sending messages across the dusty Savannah through the beat of a drum. We've all heard similar stories. We'd shake our heads in disbelief, amazed that some of his classmates had believed his tall tales, which were in some instances nonsensical.

He used his experience as a teaching tool to remind us that we are all products of history and the stories about people and places that we've been told. They shape our worldview and the spaces we exist in. Perhaps his classmates were more inclined to believe his tales because their world view had been shaped by the limited stories they'd been told about Africa and Africans.

I was reminded of this lesson on Feb. 24 when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a harsh, anti-gay bill into law in Uganda. He declared the bill was reflective of the country's cultural and moral beliefs and that to be gay was "disgusting," "unnatural and un-African" He told two stories with those statements; the first was a troubling narrative erasing LGBT Ugandans from the country's history, the second was a story that stripped LGBT Ugandans of their humanity. The outcome of these events was to alienate LGBT African's, setting the scene for horrific violence perpetrated against the community.

Two days later a Ugandan tabloid published an article outing the country's "200 top homosexuals." Within hours of publication LGBT Ugandan's named in the article were fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes and violently attacked by angry mobs, while the police looked the other way. The scene had been set by the stories told before Feb. 24. By the time Uganda's ominous anti-gay bill was signed into law, a narrative had been created of LGBT Ugandans as outliers and pariahs whose rights deserved neither protection nor respect. The community was dehumanized, labeled as the other and denied the same rights and protection offered to other citizens of the country.

Meanwhile, in the West, another story was unfolding. Uganda and whole African countries were written off as despotic countries filled with brown people who are all homophobic and oppressive. The stories were laced with an old form of discrimination and ironically, they too silenced the voices of millions of LGBT Africans and allies who have been and continue working to change the story unfolding in Uganda and other parts of the continent.

There are lessons to be learned from the events unfolding in Uganda and how we talk about those events. The way we tell stories matters. All over the world our understanding of the experience of humanity is shaped by the stories we tell.

There will be long-term impacts of the events unfolding in Uganda and the stories we tell about the events of the last month. Unfortunately, as it stands, the stories we're telling may do more harm in the long run.


Sané Dube is a Winnipeg-based, queer African writer. She was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2014 A9

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