FEATURE - Gay activist murder prompts Ugandan reflection

KAMPALA Sun Jan 30, 2011 10:44pm IST

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KAMPALA (Reuters) - "I think I'll be safer here at home" -- those were some of the last words Julian Pepe heard from her friend and fellow gay rights activist David Kato. That night his head was beaten in with a hammer.

"He just didn't feel that he could leave his house anymore," says Pepe.

"He was that frightened. I wanted him to meet me in town to talk about our security as things had gotten worse after the Rolling Stone publication."

The Ugandan newspaper, not to be confused with the U.S. music and politics magazine of the same name, was so-called because "it is a stone that is rolling to smoke out the homos," its editor told Reuters.

Kato's photo was printed in October on the cover of an issue calling for gays to be killed. The headline was "Hang them".

It is still unclear whether the murder was provoked by his sexuality. The police say preliminary investigations point to theft and they have arrested one man and are seeking another -- a well-known thief who had apparently been staying with David. Mukono, where he lived, is notorious for robberies by "iron-bar gangs".

Some people don't agree. They whisper that a police cover-up is to be expected in a poor country keen not to jeopardise the Western aid upon which it relies.

Rumours are spreading around Kampala that Kato's computer was left untouched, unlikely if the attack were a robbery.

People also point to a government-aligned paper reducing a story that made international headlines to just a single, small article on page three.

Others blame the international media, accusing it of sensationalising the death.

In one sense, whether or not homophobia motivated David's killer is unimportant. A global spotlight has shone on the country in a way it rarely does and many Ugandans are unhappy with what it highlights.

"A PEACEFUL SOUL"

Alan Kasujja, host of a breakfast radio show in Kampala, used his broadcast on Friday to urge Uganda to turn its back on homophobia and focus on other issues.

"I have tons of friends who are gay," Kasujja told Reuters. "These are people who I have gone to school with, who I have worked with. They are our brothers and sisters, our children.

"So am I supposed to join ill-informed, undereducated people who advocate for them to be ostracised? Sorry, I cannot be part of that," he said.

Alan says his listeners were divided over whether David was a victim of hate, or robbery. Though many listeners expressed reservations about homosexuality, they said that Uganda should not be known for violence.

Some texted the show, however, telling him to stop promoting "deviants", a reflection of a culture of hate that many say has been encouraged by the Christian right in the east African nation -- often funded by Christian groups in the United States.

Kampala's Red Pepper newspaper headlined its story on the murder: "Self-confessed bum driller murdered", accusing Kato of "luring" men into gay sex.

People from all over the world reacted to the news on Twitter, pushing it into the top 10 subjects on the social media site -- a rarity for African stories.

David was "courageous", people said. He was "inspiring", "unbowed", and perhaps most wrenching of all given his last moments of life "a peaceful soul".

Two gay Ugandan men, poring over the newspapers on Friday morning, smiled ruefully when they saw the Red Pepper story and shrugged their shoulders.

"This is what we have to deal with day-to-day," said one, who did not want to be named. "But I listened to the radio this morning and I read Twitter yesterday and I felt some hope. Maybe this is so awful, it can change things."

The two friends finish their tea and push through the swinging doors of the cafe and out into the blistering heat.

One pauses and turns his head back.

"Do you promise you won't use my name?" he asks. "I know David didn't mind. But David ... David was... I don't know." He shakes his head sadly. "I don't know."

(Editing by Matthew Jones)

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