In her Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change Distinguished Lecture Sylvia Tamale, notable human rights activist and University of Minnesota alum, suggested a framework through which human rights and, more specifically, gay rights can be achieved throughout the continent of Africa. Rather than using contested rights discourse or other politically charged language, activists and theorists ought to employ the concept of "ubuntu."
In an appeal to culture without making a relativistic argument, Tamale noted that this widely accepted concept could provide a solid base for the realization of universal human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ubuntu, roughly translated, means "humaneness." It refers to basic human dignity, respect, and community. Ubuntu derives from the Bantu language family, and thus is understood widely across Africa. Tamale noted that the concept is something most Africans grow up with, and it is internalized so that it becomes something almost intuitive.
In the case of gay rights in Uganda, the interjection of ideas seen as "western," like human rights, often have adverse effects. Additionally, politicians and others opposed to gay rights often allege that homosexuality is a western export. Tamale referenced numerous historical examples to show that it is not homosexuality but homophobia that was foreign to African thought. That type of argument, Tamale said, holds more sway in classrooms in academic buildings than out in the community. Outside of academia appeals to cultural norms, like ubuntu, will be more effective.
Written by Whitney Taylor.