[All Africa News Agency] One of the most hotly debated issues in Africa today is homosexuality. Its exposure on the continent has excited deep and often extreme reactions. Some observers dismiss the habit as a western culture, yet it is spreading through the continent like a wild bush fire. Still, African traditions do not accept it, and one can almost be cursed at the mention of the word, reports Joyce Mulama.
A number of African countries have openly condemned homosexuality and anything that goes with it. In Uganda, for example, the practice, which is also referred to as "carnal knowledge of another against the order of nature," has been outlawed.
Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, was once reported to have said that homosexuals were "worse than pigs and dogs."
Reports indicate that South Africa has the most permissive gay rights legislation in the world, and also hosts several successful Gay Pride Marches (promotional gay events), which are well attended.
Behavioural experts contend that in environments where homosexuality is not acceptable, its tendencies exist but are concealed. "In such areas, homosexuals do it quietly and do not express themselves because of fear," observes Dr Maxwell Okonji, a psychiatrist in Nairobi.
He adds that in cultures where the habit is accepted, homosexuals will have voices, mostly through unions.
Opponents of homosexuality say it is unnatural. They note that it is wrong in the context of Christianity. "God didn't create man and man, he created man and woman; Adam and eve," says 27 year old Selina Babazi, a staunch Christian. She describes homosexuality as obscene, adding, "there is no justification for one to choose that way of life."
A 70 year-old village elder in Western Kenya, Waukhila Kasili, exclaims, "I simply do not understand how someone can become a homosexual. These are not normal people."B He adds, "True African traditions do not, and will never accept such weird behaviour."
Other idealists against homosexuality maintain that it is a western ideology that has been imported into the continent. But Dr Okonji differs, saying, "This is a universal biological predisposition which gets inhibited in certain cultures, where it is not acceptable." He adds, "How it comes out, it is the society that determines."
The Revd Dr Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), concurs that homosexuality is known in Africa as it is elsewhere. "It is part of every society," he says. "The only difference is how people react to it, how widespread the awareness of it is."
Medical experts grade homosexuality as a sexual deviation. They explain that there is a biological make-up to sexual orientation, and it is dependent on sex hormones. By the time an individual is born, the sexual orientation is already present.
"In a few people, something goes on with their sexual orientation such that individuals feel that the biological sex they have is wrong, and that they should have the other sex. They then develop a psychological orientation despite their genital orientation," notes Dr Okonji.
"The individual now starts to be attracted to members of the same sex," explains Dr Okonji, adding that in this attraction, there is a passive and aggressive partner. The aggressive one behaves like the man, while the passive partner plays the role of a woman.
However, whether homosexuality is a psychiatric problem or not, remains a controversial issue. Dr Okonji asserts that homosexuality is much more a problem of society than anything else.
Nevertheless, there are those who view it as a medical problem, others say it is genetic. Head of Theology and Interfaith Desk at the All Africa Conference of Churches, the Revd Arnold Temple, says, "If truly it is [a medical problem], then why shouldn't medical experts seek ways of correcting it?"
Realising the complexity of homosexuality, the Church in Africa has been deliberating on how to handle the issue, which analysts term as fragile.
Early in the year, Archbishop of the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa (CPSA), Njongonkulu Ndungane, called on Southern Africa's 10 million Anglicans to address the issue of homosexuality in a manner that would generate mutual understanding and bring people out of their corners of conviction.
His call came following a resolution adopted after an Anglican Synod late last year, which noted pastoral needs of the homosexually oriented.
It is in this regard that Archbishop Ndungane circulated a discussion document on Human Sexuality to the clergy in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola, all which fall under his province.
"People are hurting as they continue to feel rejected, despised, misunderstood, demonised and 'unchurched' because of their orientation and convictions," part of the eight- paged document explains.
At the 1998 Anglican Lambeth Conference, a resolution on sexuality failed primarily because of the African vote. It wanted to allow same-sex unions and for the ordination of practising homosexuals.
Arnold Temple underlines that the subject of homosexuality requires much reflection, and that there are many sides to be looked at, for the Church to come up with one voice.
He points out that the Church's ethical view, traditional and Biblical standpoints are areas that need to be considered. "In Africa, I do not know of any church that has actually taken a position on homosexuality," he says.
The 1998 Lambeth Resolution on human sexuality includes clauses like "we commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ."
Arnold Temple assents, adding that even though homosexuality is abnormal and not God's will for humankind, people in that kind of sexual orientation should not be discriminated against. "I do not think any of God's children should be discriminated against because of race, tribe, gender or sexual orientation."
The CPSA homosexuality discussion document underlines that homosexuals should be welcomed, and sexuality should not infringe on the roles they play in Church.
But on the issue of ordination, Mr Temple maintains that homosexuality is a sexual perversion and sexual perverts should not be ordained. "If they are able to overcome the sexual perversion, then they should be ordained," he adds.
Ishmael Noko underscores the need for deep theological study on homosexuality, and pastoral care for those practising it. "If someone declares their gay status, we have to emulate how Christ acted when he met 'outcasts'," he states, referring to the humble nature of Jesus and how he received even those who had been condemned by society.