When the pandemic hit last year, Shawn Mugisha shared his two-bedroom apartment with nine other people. They were other members of Kampala’s beleaguered queer community whom he had met through his work as a human rights activist and paralegal – people who had been ostracized by their families or who had come out of police custody with nowhere to go.
For them, the lockdown has posed particular challenges, says Shawn: “What does ‘staying home’ really mean to someone who doesn’t have a home? What does staying home mean to someone in prostitution? “
Uganda was first locked down in April 2020 and food security deteriorated rapidly. Supply chains collapsed, food prices soared and people started going hungry. In cities like the capital Kampala, fresh produce and vegetables have become particularly scarce.
Shawn, 34 and transgender, says that while many people in the city relied on family in rural areas to send supplies, those who were ostracized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity were often left alone.
Shawn grows fruits and vegetables in the garden 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 answer 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 agriculture, art, mental health advocacy, collaboration, and human-centered ethical design. Its goal is to use sustainable agriculture to build the resilience of Uganda’s queer community and help victims of abuse and discrimination to help themselves.
Having studied permaculture, Shawn believes that sustainable food production can help victims of discrimination and abuse heal from trauma and build a life that is not dependent on activities like sex work that could put them back. in the hands of the police. “Human-centered ethical design really puts you at the center of solving your own problems and looking at the history of those problems,” he explains.
Uganda’s LBGTQ community facing violence and arrests
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 rights activists say was a hate crime, reminiscent of the 2011 murder of David Kato.
Kato, also a gay rights activist, was bludgeoned to death after winning a lawsuit against a local newspaper which named him a ‘gay’ under the headline ‘hang them’.
Some Ugandans fled the country to avoid discrimination
In 2014, Parliament passed the law against homosexuality. It was later declared unconstitutional by Uganda’s Constitutional Court. But in May, the country’s parliament approved a Sexual Offenses Bill, which, among other things, criminalized same-sex relations 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, sexual minorities editor at Minority Africa, says even the fact that the government is debating this type of legislation legitimizes homophobia and is “a kind of endorsement for harassing 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 committing acts likely to 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 attended a “same-sex wedding” for “spreading disease” – without specifying whether it was COVID.
Shawn, who has 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 assistance is limited to meeting basic needs.
Shawn would like to integrate community gardens into shelters across Uganda
“Every time I thought 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 people who access these spaces. You are given basic accommodation, which is a blanket and maybe a mosquito net, and maybe a meal a day.”
With FAMACE, Shawn would like to integrate community gardens into shelters across Uganda. For one thing, they might offer better nutrition, which is especially important for those taking medications like HIV prophylaxis. But feeding the plants could have beneficial effects on mental and physical health.
Tumukunde* ran away from home to live with Shawn after she was forced to marry a pastor because her family suspected she was gay. For her, the garden was a place of comfort to heal.
“It was also more comforting 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” of Shawn’s apartment – “just because we’re gay,” he says. Shawn moved into a large shared duplex nestled in a private compound filled with flowers and chirping birds and established a new vegetable garden there. He can’t support just one person here 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 outed for downloading gay porn and ostracized from his community. He survived three assassination attempts.
“It’s quiet and I can be invisible,” Charles said of the garden, his eyes glassy with tears. “I think about life, I think about my choices…Gardening gives you ownership of something, control over something at least. There are aspects of my life that I can’t control, but with gardening, I can do it.”
So far, FAMACE has supported five people. Shawn talks enthusiastically about plans for a queer eco-village and how the ethics and principles of permaculture and eco-friendly agriculture could be incorporated into social change projects.
At 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 donating FAMACE products to help families in need.
“We live in a society where once you have some sort of contribution that you give to the community, you have social protection,” he says. “I think it’s time we started relying on our own local solutions to tackle marginalization and discrimination.” Particularly in urban areas where food is scarce, “it’s something we can use as an approach for advocacy and creating greater social inclusion.”
*Names have been changed on request for security reasons