One Day in Uganda

Two weeks ago, I heard from Andy Kopsa, an American reporter in Uganda whom I know glancingly as a colleague. While in Kampala reporting for The Washington Monthly on U.S. funding for faith-based organizations there, Kopsa found herself helping “a trans woman [who] was beaten to a pulp”—and who, Kopsa told me, had difficulty getting appropriate medical or police attention, again because she was trans. The beating was brutal, as you’ll read below. One man started it, and bystanders joined in. The police wouldn’t help. Doctors wouldn’t help. All these things are shocking to Americans. But as you will read later in this series, the only thing that stands out about this incident is that the transwoman, Mich, was willing to seek help.

Uganda may not have passed a death penalty for homosexuality, but if LGBT people can be beaten ferociously and refused medical care, a kind of death sentence is in place nevertheless.

Information for this week's three-part series comes from on-the-ground reports from Kopsa posted on her blog and from telephone, Skype, and e-mail exchanges with Kopsa and local Ugandan human-rights activist Clare Byarugaba. Today, tomorrow, and the day after, I will report on what they told me.


Part 1: A Vicious Beating

According to Clare Byarugaba, co-coordinator at Uganda’s Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Mich is “very girly, fabulous, you know?” The 22-year-old Ugandan activist lives upcountry, outside Kampala, with her uncle and has no income; no one will hire her, even when she presents herself as a man dressed in men’s clothes. When Mich landed an interview for a position as a radio journalist, one of the interviewers sneered, "Are you a man or a woman?" Mich did not get the job.

On August 28, Mich had come to Kampala to visit friends, one of whom took her to a party. There, a man taunted her all evening: I can’t tell if you are a man or a woman. You look like my ex-girlfriend. What is wrong with you? Mich ignored him. Sticks and stones, as we say in the U.S., may break my bones, but names will never harm me. But the truism isn't true when the slurs are just the verbal warning of the violence to come. 

Mich and her friend left the party and went to a bar nearby, Kopsa and Byarugaba told me. The taunter was there as well. He started beating her. Bystanders joined in. The taunter slammed her head against the concrete. Others beat her ribs. Someone else tried to strangle her.

In a jointly written blog entry, Kopsa and Byarugaba describe the beating:

[H]e started the assault in the open courtyard of the club, he pushed her to the concrete, started thumping [her] face mercilessly, while at the same time holding Mich by the throat with an intention of strangling her to death, as fate would have it friends joined in the beating, kicking her in the ribs and chest, Mich asserts that what saved her was her insistent screaming for help, to which the askari (or guard) responded by pulling her away from the attackers.

The “gatekeeper” or bouncer called a bodaboda, a bicycle taxi—the quickest local transport. She got away. Two days later, a transwoman known as Beyonce, the leader of Uganda’s Trans Support Initiative, brought Mich to see Clare Byarugaba at the Civil Society Coalition.

When I spoke to Byarugaba via Skype, I couldn’t see much because of the poor video quality. But the glimpses showed me that she is young, dark, and has a lovely sculptured face, with high cheekbones and bright brown eyes. She wore small hoop earrings and an MLB baseball cap backward; its logo’s tiny white batter was the brightest thing on my screen, like a star shining from her forehead. Clare told me that it had been a while since she’d seen such a terrible beating. “The veins in her eye were damaged. She had a puffed-up face. Her ribs and neck were bruised from the beating and attempted strangling,” Byarugaba said. Her voice was slow and strained, as if she were pushing the words out through a very small hole.

Kopsa had been interviewing Byarugaba as part of her reporting—and was surprised to be swept up into this more urgent story. She went along as Clare and Beyonce took Mich to the local clinic, where she got “tablets for the swelling and pain.” But the Ugandan medical system, Byarugaba explained, starts with local clinics that can offer simple care; a referral is required to get to a doctor who can offer more specialized treatment. In Mich's case, the clinic refused to give a referral because homosexuality is both illegal and despised. More medical care was too good for her. Fortunately, Clare said, "Beyonce had friends in high places, so she was able to get Mich an appointment in another big hospital, where she got care for her bruised ribs and ointment for her neck."

Courtesy of Andy Kopsa

Mich after being beaten outside a nightclub

In her first e-mail to me, Kopsa explained that the group took Mich to the hospital because "she was having more pain in her ribs and since she was also strangled, they wanted to check her trachea. She did go to the doctor but started having pain again." To an American, what is just as shocking as the beating are the lengths to which Mich had to go to get medical care. As Kopsa said in her e-mail, "You would not believe the hell we went through to get her seen at a friendly hospital by a friendly doctor. The phone calls, the secrecy, the hooking-up with a driver, it was insane—because she is a transwoman. I made a promise to a high foreign official of some country I can't name that I wouldn't talk about the name of the hospital, this official's role in aiding the woman, or anything of the sort as it is all illegal."

In the article she jointly authored with Byarugaba, Kopsa described the foreign official's attitude this way:

Visibly upset, pacing, the official told me my being there could put Mich and Beyonce in jeopardy. … The relationship they had groomed with the facility was a long time in the making.  This clandestine series of phone calls, pick ups, drop offs and assists carefully calculated by another government that cannot talk of their involvement in any of this openly.… I had to swear not mention the hospital, doctor or foreign agency involved.    This is how a transsexual who is brutally assaulted in a hate crime gets medical attention in Uganda if they are lucky enough.

When the group took Mich to the Old Kampala Police Station to report the assault, guess how they were received? The officer's first question, Kopsa and Byarugaba write, was, "Is this a boy or a girl?" Clare lost her cool and yelled, "What kind of question is this! What kind of professionalism is this?”

When I spoke with Byarugaba, she told me how frustratingly difficult it was to try to explain the assault to the police, who didn't see a motive. While we in the U.S. are steeped in the concept of a hate crime, the Kampala police couldn’t get it in focus. They wouldn’t accept that the motive might just be hatred and fear of LGBT people; surely someone was trying to move in on someone else’s girlfriend or boyfriend? In the end, they told the group to find witnesses and gave Mich a warrant to arrest her attacker if she wished to find him. That’s how things work in Uganda, Kopsa told me: If you don’t have money for bribes, you have to do the police work yourself.

No one would admit to having seen the beating. The guard insisted that he spoke only Rwandese. All of the staff insisted they had not been there at the time. The owner kicked them out.

Mich returned home, defeated and scared.

Tomorrow: One or two beatings of transwomen and butch lesbians a week. 

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