When the pandemic struck last year, Shawn Mugisha shared his two-bedroom apartment with nine other people. These were other members of the besieged homosexual community in Kampala whom he had met in the course of his work as a human rights activist and legal assistant – people who had been excluded from their families or had been released. police detention with nowhere to go.
For them, the lockdown posed special challenges, Shawn said: “What does ‘staying home’ really mean to someone who doesn’t have a home? What does staying home mean to someone who engages in sex work? “
Uganda entered lockdown for the first time in April 2020 and food security deteriorated rapidly. Supply chains collapsed, food prices skyrocketed, and people began to suffer from hunger. In cities like the capital Kampala, fresh produce and vegetables have become particularly scarce.
Shawn, who is 34 and transgender, says that while many people in cities relied on their families in rural areas to send supplies, people ostracized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity were often alone.
Shawn grows fruit and veg in the backyard of a suburban apartment building
“We found ourselves waiting for the government to give us food and some of us didn’t get that food even in the community,” he says. “So we had to think smart, think about: how do we survive?”
He decided the solution was to grow his own fruits and vegetables in the garden of his apartment building in the suburbs. This became the start of a new organization, FAMACE, an acronym for Farming, Art, Mental Health Advocacy, Collaboration, and Ethical human-centered design. Its goal is to use sustainable agriculture to build the resilience of the Ugandan queer community and help victims of abuse and discrimination help themselves.
Having studied permaculture, Shawn believes that sustainable food production can help victims of discrimination and abuse heal from trauma and build lives that are not dependent on activities like sex work that could put them back in their hands. of the police. “Human-centered ethical design really puts you at the center of solving your own problems and the history of those problems,” he explains.
Uganda’s LBGTQ community faces violence and arrest
Uganda is a hostile place for its LGBTQ + community. In 2019, gay rights activist and paralegal Brian Wasswa was brutally murdered in his home in what human rights activists called a hate crime, recalling the murder of David Kato in 2011.
Kato, also a gay rights activist, was clubbed to death after winning a lawsuit against a local newspaper that named him among gay people as “hang them”.
Some Ugandans have fled the country to avoid discrimination
In 2014, parliament passed the anti-homosexuality law. It was later declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Uganda. But in May, the country’s parliament approved a bill on sexual offenses, which, among other things, criminalized same-sex relationships with a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Earlier this month, President Yoweri Museveni said he would not sign the bill. But Florence Kyohangirwe, editor-in-chief of sexual minorities at Minority Africa, says the government even debating this type of legislation legitimizes homophobia and is “some kind of endorsement to harass the LGBTQ community.”
And activists say the pandemic itself has been used as a pretext for harassment, with police raiding LGBTQ + homeless shelters and arresting people for engaging in acts that may spread COVID- 19.
Using gardening to heal trauma
In June, police raided an LGBTQ + shelter on the outskirts of Kampala and arrested 44 people who allegedly participated in a “gay marriage” for “spreading the disease” – without specifying whether it was COVID.
Shawn, who worked as a paralegal and for several human rights NGOs, helped secure their release. But he says that once free, LBGTQ + people who have been persecuted by the state go to shelters where help is limited to meeting basic needs.
Shawn would like to integrate community gardens into shelters across Uganda
“Every time I said to myself, why can’t we find a lasting solution to this person’s problem?” he says. “A lot of dignity is taken away from the people who access these spaces. You get basic accommodation, which consists of a blanket and maybe a mosquito net, and maybe one meal a day. ”
With FAMACE, Shawn would like to integrate community gardens into shelters across Uganda. On the one hand, they might provide better nutrition, which is especially important for those taking drugs such as HIV prophylaxis. But feeding the plants could provide mental and physical health benefits.
Tumukunde * ran away from home to live with Shawn after she was forced to marry a pastor because her family suspected her of being gay. For her, the garden was a place of consolation for healing.
“It was also more heartwarming for me because during that time I was going through a lot,” she says. “And maybe I needed something less human. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I just always wanted to be alone.”
Shawn believes sustainable food production can help victims of discrimination and abuse
In January, the group was “randomly kicked out” from Shawn’s apartment – “just because we’re gay,” he says. Shawn moved into a large shared duplex tucked away in a private resort filled with flowers and birds chirping and established a new vegetable garden there. Here, he can only support one person and will have to move by September. But for now, the garden is bearing fruit.
And for Charles *, 39, it brought a kind of peace. Charles moved in with Shawn after he was exposed for downloading gay porn and banned from his community. He survived three attacks.
“It’s quiet and I’m becoming invisible,” Charles said of the garden, his eyes glazed with tears. “I think about life, I think about my choices … Gardening gives you ownership of something, at least control of something. There are aspects of my life that I cannot control, but with gardening, I can do it. “
So far, FAMACE has supported five people. Shawn enthusiastically talks about plans for a queer eco-village and how the ethics and principles of permaculture and environmentally responsible agriculture could be incorporated into social change projects.
For the moment, he is struggling to find the money to rent permanent premises. So far, he says the project has produced enough food for those immediately involved. With enough space, he would like to increase production and start selling some of the food in local markets. But he also sees potential in the donation of FAMACE products to help families in need.
“We live in a society where once you have any contribution you make to the community, you have social protection,” he says. “I think it’s time we started building on our own in-house solutions to tackle marginalization and discrimination.” Particularly in urban areas where food is scarce, “this is something that we can use as an advocacy approach and to create greater social inclusion”.
* Names have been changed on request for security reasons