Nikki Mawanda was 13 when his stepfather kicked him out of his family’s home because he thought he was a lesbian.
The executive director of Trans Support Initiative-Uganda, a group that advocates for transgender and intersex people in the East African country, had returned home late after visiting his girlfriend.
Mawanda, 32, told the Washington Blade during an emotional interview on April 28 that he heard noises coming from his mother’s bedroom. He said he opened the door and found his stepfather strangling her because “she gave birth to me.”
“I was sent out,” said Mawanda. “Then there was a big fight. Neighbors, so many people came.”
Mawanda, who now identifies as trans and uses male pronouns, spoke with the Blade slightly more than two months after President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. Reports this week emerged that Ugandan lawmakers are slated to introduce a measure that would ban non-profit organizations from promoting homosexuality.
Mawanda is among those included in a list of “200 top homos” that a Ugandan tabloid published after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
“I think I was number 10, something like that,” said Mawanda. “My name appeared and where I hang [out], things like that.”
Mawanda, who grew up in a Muslim family in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, told the Blade that his mother’s neighbors held a prayer vigil outside her home to “pray for me to leave the village.” He said they returned after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
“They told my mom that they wondered why she tolerates me coming there, even with my so-called girlfriends when they know that she’s a Muslim person who should be very against it, who shouldn’t even be a part of it,” Mawanda told the Blade through tears. “They told her that she had two options: One is to see me being punished as their religion says or for me to not be around because for them they think I’m sowing the seed of homosexuality in their children.”
Mawanda said his grandfather, who is a “very staunch Muslim,” wrote a letter to his mother after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and asked her what they are “going to do with the homosexuals that we know at home.” Mawanda went to his mother’s house and waited for her response.
“She didn’t know what to do, but I said to her it’s your call, say what you feel,” he told the Blade. “I don’t know what she wrote him, but she just told me she said to him ‘let the government do whatever they have to do because she’s not going to the police.’”
Officials ‘don’t understand’ trans issues
Mawanda, who is a board member of Sexual Minorities Uganda, another Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade that police on Feb. 1 arrested him at Entebbe International Airport outside Kampala as he returned to the country from South Africa. He said the authorities confiscated his passport and accused him of “impersonating to be someone else.”
“In Uganda, they don’t understand the issues of trans,” said Mawanda. “When I say I’m a trans person, that is a typical gay. That’s why it was an issue for me to prove whether I’m gay or not actually.”
He said a mob attacked him in March during a friend’s father’s funeral.
Mawanda told the Blade another incident took place in 2005 while he was shopping in a convenience store at a gas station in the Wandegeya neighborhood of Kampala while his girlfriend sat outside in their car.
Mawanda told the Blade a man approached him while inside the store and said “get your things and go.” He said he ignored him, but the man approached him again. Mawanda said he pulled out a gun and struck him in the face with it.
“He was like, ‘does this shop look gay to you?’” said Mawanda, pointing to the left side of his jaw where he said the man hit him. “I couldn’t swallow for two weeks. My face was swollen.”
Mawanda said he sought treatment for his injuries at a private hospital because of the discrimination he says LGBT Ugandans experience at public institutions.
“That is the price I pay for who I am,” he said. “I pay a lot of money to get worked on. It’s a challenge because of the discrimination that comes with it. And so as a result you do self-medication. If you can afford it than you have a private doctor working on you.”
Mawanda and other Ugandan advocates with whom the Blade has spoken in recent weeks say anti-LGBT discrimination and violence has only increased since Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
Ugandan police on April 3 raided a U.S.-funded HIV/AIDS service organization in Kampala it said recruited teenage boys and young men “into homosexual practices.”
Mawanda told the Blade a group of people who identified themselves as police officers kidnapped a trans man and his partner less than a week ago. He said other forms of discrimination and violence that include physical assault, rape, a lack of housing and parents disowning their LGBT children often go unreported.
“It looks like the community-at-large has taken on the role of doing vigilante [justice,]” said Mawanda. “Since the law was signed on the 24th of February, people felt that they should implement the law even before it was gazetted.”
Scott Lively ‘inciting a genocide’
The White House announced after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that it would review its relationship with the Ugandan government.
The U.S. has suspended a study to identify groups at risk for HIV/AIDS the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had planned to conduct with a Ugandan university. A CDC agreement that funded the salaries of 87 employees of the Ugandan Ministry of Health who support the country’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic expired at the end of February.
The World Bank delayed a $90 million loan to the Ugandan government that had been earmarked to bolster the East African country’s health care system — although published reports earlier this month indicate that Kampala will receive the funds.
Uganda receives nearly $300 million each year through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to fight the epidemic in the East African country. Kampala in 2013 received more than $485 million in aid from the U.S.
Museveni has repeatedly criticized the U.S. and other donor countries that have cut foreign aid as a result of his decision to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The Ugandan president has also said homosexuality is a Western import.
“People say homosexuality is from the West, it’s from you whites — but that’s a lie,” said Mawanda, noting the Muganda tribe of which he is a member has a gay king. “Why even did it take the white man to put together a penal code to criminalize something he did find? Of course he found it there and because for them they had criminalized it where they were coming from.”
Mawanda also accused the U.S. of using Uganda to “play their own politics.” He specifically cited the White House’s decision to increase aid to help Kampala track down Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who faces international war crimes charges that stem from his group’s decades long insurgency against the Uganda government, while cutting support for other programs.
“They’re using our situation, our misery to play with their own politics,” said Mawanda. “You can’t tell us that you’ve cut aid within our health sector and you increase aid in defense.”
Mawanda also angrily criticized Scott Lively, a U.S. evangelical who faces a federal lawsuit for allegedly inflaming homophobic attitudes in the country before Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati in 2009 introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The measure once contained a provision that would have imposed the death penalty against anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual relations.
“I look at this creature and wonder,” said Mawanda. “He says he’s a Christian. I don’t know whether the Bible he reads is the same Bible that I read.”
Mawanda also blasted Lively — who is running to succeed outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — for comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and linking gay men to Nazis.
“He should be really punished for all these evil deeds he’s done,” Mawanda told the Blade. “Those are crimes against humanity in a sense. He’s inciting a genocide and right now many Ugandans are unsafe. Ugandans are dying. We are committing suicide. Everything that is happening to LGBT people is in the hands of Scott Lively.”
Mawanda also urged the U.S. to relax relations for those who want to obtain a visa to travel to the U.S. or receive asylum. He said he raised the issue directly with U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi during a February meeting.
“We know they’ve supported the lawsuits that we have right now, but those are long-term goals that we have,” Mawanda told the Blade, asking whether the U.S. can do more to support LGBT Ugandans who remain in the country. “Those who are in hiding don’t have food.”
Mother has been ‘my dad and my mom’
Mawanda arrived in D.C. on March 20, but he said he remains worried that Ugandan authorities would seek to extradite him back to his homeland.
“I personally feel safe, but not completely knowing that I’m still a citizen of Uganda in the United States,” he said. “I worry that if I go back, I worry they can just get me at the airport because they told me that my passport is being monitored.”
Mawanda continues to speak with his mother.
“She’s been my dad and my mom,” he emotionally said, noting his father passed away when he was three months old. “When I came, she was so worried. She wasn’t sure I had actually reached [the U.S.]”
Damien Salas contributed to this article.