Life Has Hills

Jeff Chu
Jeff Chu
Aug 24, 2016 · 10 min read

Inside one young, gay Ugandan man’s struggle to navigate the intersection of poverty and discrimination, pain and hope

“We wanted to have Christmas.”

It was December 2014, and as Moses looked around his hovel in a slum in Kampala, Uganda, there was just one thing of significant monetary value: his boyfriend John’s old laptop. So they sold it.

With the $55 they got, they bought ingredients for a lavish Christmas dinner: two live chickens ($11), potatoes (55 cents), green beans (70 cents), bananas to make the staple called matooke ($2). They cooked. And they feasted.

Then, after Christmas, they splurged on a rare night out: They went to the movies (Men in Black III) and bought sodas.

Within two weeks, all the money was gone.

Uganda is one of the world’s most youthful nations; more than three-quarters of its citizens are under 30 years old. According to the government, just 5% of working-age Ugandans under 30 are unemployed. But this relies on defining “employed” as anyone who has worked an hour for pay in the past week. More trustworthy estimates of the actual youth-unemployment rate vary range from 65% to over 85%.

Four years ago, Moses lost his job as a photo-lab technician because he is gay. That he even had a job to lose made him an outlier among Uganda’s young people. That he struggled to find another one had less to do with his sexuality — which few of his friends know about — than with the state of the Ugandan economy.

While the particulars of Moses’s story may be unique, his life at the intersection of poverty and discrimination is not. The voices of LGBTQ Ugandans that we read and hear are usually those of middle-class activists, a tiny elite in a nation where a fifth of the populace subsists on less than $1 a day. “What we need is advocacy for health care. What we need is food. What we need is economic empowerment,” says the Ugandan transgender advocate Bad Black. “Many people are suffering silently at the grassroots.”

Moses grew up middle-class. His father was a chef, and his mother worked at a bank. “We had a very beautiful house — and it was our house,” he told me when I visited him at home in Kampala last summer. They had a car, too, and a microwave, and a toaster, and a refrigerator that was always full of food.

The family was faithfully Protestant. “My mom taught me how to pray. My dad taught me that without God, nothing is possible,” Moses said. “God protects me. God provides for me.”

After his parents died — his mom when Moses was in his early teens, his dad a week after Moses took his secondary-school final exams — he and his sister could not make the loan payments. They lost the house and everything in it.

After he finished high school, he applied to a university in Canada, and he proudly showed me his acceptance letter. (“Do you know where Regina is?” he asked me. “It must be very cold.”) But he lacked the proof of assets that the Canadian government required for a visa. He tried to find a friend to lend him their bank statements, but nobody agreed to this dubious strategy.

A few months before I met him, he moved into a one-room hovel in a slum several kilometers north of central Kampala. (A friend in America had wired enough money to cover the $40-a-month rent.) It had no indoor plumbing. He fetched water from a nearby well and shared an outdoor latrine with the neighbors. Everything he owned was arrayed on the floor.

John, a hair-extension salesman, gave Moses money when he had some to spare. Usually, it was enough for a week’s worth of mobile-phone airtime (30 cents), tea (3 cents), and sugar (18 cents for a packet that would last seven days “if you just put very little little little,” Moses said), but no food.

Over the past four years, he has lost about 100 pounds. “Every day you’re becoming smaller,” a friend said to Moses recently. “Are you in a modeling competition?” He replied that it was good to lose weight.

“I love food. I think about it all day. I think about meat. I think about matooke. I think about rice. I think about vegetables,” Moses told me. “That’s what I think about most of the time.” When he got hungry enough, he would contact a friend to ask if he might be able to come over for dinner — he’d done that two days earlier. That was the last time he’d had a meal.

Shortly before leaving his house, I asked his age. “Right now?” He smiled. “Thirty. Today is my 30th birthday.”

Early one morning, I met Moses at his house. He was planning to go to a recruitment agency in downtown Kampala, which he did once or twice a month. I’d asked if I could join him, and he said yes, as long as I didn’t mind walking, since he had no money for the minibus.

The roads in his neighborhood are unpaved, so by the time we reached the main road, our shoes and pants were coated in fine red dust. We walked past the Roadside Guest House for Safe Accommodation; an outdoor casket shop, where the baby-sized coffins outnumbered the adult ones; eight-foot-high mounds of empty plastic water bottles; and an old man selling pineapples and watermelons from wheelbarrows. Forty-five minutes later, we were in the town center.

When we walked through the agency’s doors, the recruitment manager recognized Moses immediately and greeted him. Moses asked if there were new openings. The answer was no. The manager got a call on his mobile phone — ringtone: the praise song “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” — and excused himself. We waited, and waited, and waited. When he finally returned, he told Moses — not for the first time — that many other applicants have university degrees. Moses doesn’t, putting him at a disadvantage. Also, there was now a new procedure: Going forward, job listings would be posted only online. He handed Moses a slip of paper with a URL on it.

Moses whispered his thanks. As we left, he quietly said: “It’s the same old thing: They tell you to wait.” More significantly, the recruitment agency had, in the name of efficiency and technological progress, erected another obstacle between the educated poor—people like Moses—and paid employment: He couldn’t afford the 35 cents per hour that Internet cafes charged for online time or the 30 cents it would cost to upload his resume. “It will be more convenient for people who have money,” he said with a sigh.

Afterward, over breakfast at a diner nearby, he told me more about his family. His devoutly Pentecostal sister has disowned him because he is gay, but she won’t tell any friends or relatives because of the shame that it would bring on the family. “When you change and are ready to become a real African person, let me know,” she said. “Go to church. It’s a demon.”

He does attend church, though he stopped going to prayer meetings after one all-night session last year. One attendee mentioned homosexuality. “He said, ‘We should pray this doesn’t come to our nation,’” Moses recalled, laughing weakly at his memory of the man who had no idea a real live gay person was right there in that prayer circle. “I just felt out of place. But I still do pray,” Moses said. “I just feel maybe God can make a miracle, especially for LGBT people in Uganda.”

He has maintained contact with one cousin. “Twice a week, she’ll call,” Moses said. His cousin has tried to find him a girlfriend. “I like white women more,” Moses told her. “Why would you prefer white women?” his cousin asked. “She wouldn’t give me a headache,” he replied, counting on the fact that she’d never be able to find a white woman to set him up with.

Moses has slightly sleepy eyes that, no matter whether he’s telling a happy story or a sad one, give him the look of a dreamer. When he talks, his eyes tend to drift upward, as if he’s constantly looking to the sky for ideas, or help, or inspiration. When he feels especially downcast, he pulls out some old family photos — the only souvenirs of his previous life—shuffling through them repeatedly. “I look at my pictures and I cry a bit and I think about my mom and my dad,” he said. “I wish they were around.”

Sometimes, he imagines having kids with John. “I would like two girls and one boy,” he said. “But it is just a dream. How would we do it? I don’t know anyone who has, not here. But I love kids so much.”

After we finished eating, he said he had something he wanted to tell me. He looked around the half-empty restaurant and dropped his voice.

In the spring of 2015, he felt so desperate that he finally reached out to a Ugandan gay-rights organization for help. A caseworker opened a file, but, according to Moses, said it was unlikely that any support would be available, unless he wanted enough money to get to Kenya, where he could register as a refugee. (I heard such accounts from several sources. Two lawyers who work with LGBTQ refugees in sub-Saharan Africa told me separately that it aids fundraising in Europe and the U.S. to be able to say that persecution is pushing Ugandans to flee.)

Moses didn’t want to leave. Most of the time, he felt physically safe. Hunger was his biggest problem. And as frustrated as he was, he didn’t know that it would be much better elsewhere. Anyway, he said, “Uganda is my home.”

One day, Moses got a call from someone saying he thought the organization had figured out a way to help. Could Moses meet to discuss? Of course he went. And when he asked the man what help he could get, “he said, ‘I have to do something with you before.’” He raped Moses.

According to Moses, when he went back to his real caseworker and reported the attack, his response was, “You shouldn’t trust everyone you find.”

Moses feared that if he went to the police, he’d be arrested for sodomy, and if he went to a doctor, he’d be turned into the police. But he was in such great pain that, finally, a friend he’d confided in told him he had to seek medical attention. He went to a free clinic near his house. The doctor immediately asked: “What have you done? Did you have anal sex?” Moses replied simply: “Something bad happened to me.”

(That friend shared with me some correspondence from immediately after the attack. The caseworker did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Though he has lost faith in Uganda’s gay-rights organizations — “they did not help me” — he professed no anger at God. In fact, he was more confident than ever in God’s goodness, because surely this had to be part of a master plan. “I don’t doubt God,” he said. “I believe God lets it happen for a reason. Maybe there is something better for me that I just don’t know yet. Life has hills, and maybe you have to live with these to get to your destination.”

One evening, I took Moses and John to dinner. They chose a Chinese restaurant in central Kampala.

With John next to him, Moses’s spirit seemed lighter, his manner more playful, his laughter louder and more frequent. John was the more reticent of the two. But over sizzling beef (their choice), “special” fried rice (their choice), and a steamed tilapia with ginger and scallions (mine, which they barely touched), John began to talk about his devoutly Muslim family. His parents did the hajj; “for my mother,” he said, “we had land in some village and we sold it, because she said, ‘It’s my turn to go to Mecca.’”

Though he still refuses to eat pork or drink alcohol, he now identifies as Christian. He attends church with Moses. While he has resisted Moses’s suggestions that he be baptized, they say the Lord’s Prayer together at bedtime. “Sometimes,” John said, “you wake up and you don’t know if you will survive the day. I think you need God in every situation.”

I asked Moses how he manages to remain hopeful. He picked at the food on his plate. “I have nothing to lose,” he said. “That’s why I can be hopeful.”

You should know, by the way, that Moses is not his real name. That evening, I asked him to pick a pseudonym. He said, “How about Moses? I’ve always liked Moses.” He reflected on the Biblical Moses’ long journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness. He drew strength and inspiration from the fact that God had picked Moses to do something great in the world.

After dinner, as I walked back to my hotel, it struck me: the Biblical Moses never entered the Promised Land.

Last December, I sent Moses a Facebook message to see how he and John were doing. (His pay-as-you-go mobile network provides 25 megabytes of free data on Facebook monthly.)

John, who had been working for and living with his uncle, was fired and kicked out after his uncle learned about his relationship with Moses. Then, in November, Moses’s landlord evicted him. The couple found an abandoned house and squatted there until it flooded during a rainstorm. Now Moses was staying with a cousin.

“I feel so helpless,” Moses said. He had been praying “every second” for “a stable life.” Christmas would be spent “with John and no food.” They had nothing left to sell.

But some months later, Moses wrote to tell me that he did get a late Christmas present: a job. He asked that I not disclose where. He’s not out to his co-workers. He fears that someone will learn of his sexuality, and that it might again cost him what passes for his livelihood. The pay isn’t much — just over one U.S. dollar a day. He doesn’t earn enough to rent his own place. But at least he can eat regularly without begging for meals.

“Not yet lucky,” he told me. “But I feel so hopeful.”

Additional reporting by Timothy Meinch. This story was reported with the support of the International Reporting Project.

Questions? Comments? Email me: jeff@byjeffchu.com

Related stories:

“I Forgot I Hated God” — Uganda’s LGBTQ community finds hope and strength for the future in the very thing so often used to abuse them: faith

Unshakable in Uganda — the story of Clare Byarugaba, a lesbian activist working out her faith

Reporter’s Notebook

Stories from all over

Jeff Chu

Written by

Jeff Chu

Reporter | Writer | Author, “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America” | Storyteller | Pilgrim | Seminarian

Reporter’s Notebook

Stories from all over