„If they find us, we'll end up in prison.“
Sometimes it's enough to help people to end up being be persecuted yourself. The story of Promise Ssonko is about a woman who now lives more than 5000 kilometers from her four children because she has been working for the LGBT* community in her home country of Uganda. Promise is 49 and has lived in Munich since July 2016. She describes herself as an LGBT* activist but is not a lesbian herself. Before fleeing to Germany, she worked in a film crew of the African Film and Writers Society Uganda (AFWS). "The first ever gay film in Uganda" - this is how the film she worked on at the time is advertised on YouTube. "Should Abbey kill Cain" addresses the taboo subject of homosexuality and aims to promote more openness in Ugandan society. The YouTube trailer gives you an impression of what can happen when the local community learns about a gay couple: A mob attacks the victims and responds with brutal violence. It was a very similar situation that changed everything in Promise Ssonko's life.
After an incident during a film shoot with AFWS Uganda, you had to flee the country. What exactly happened back then?
It was awful, to this day I'm still having blood pressure problems from the shock. I was there as a makeup artist on another shoot in Kampala. Someone had probably told the police about it, because in the middle of the film shooting a group of at least 20 people suddenly attacked us. They stormed at us, screaming and throwing chairs, car tires and bricks. They hit the crew members with sticks, some saved themselves by jumping from the windows. I ran away immediately and was lucky to escape. One of my colleagues was so badly injured that he died a short time later. From that moment on we were no longer safe in Kampala, the police were looking for us. We knew if they found us, we'd end up in jail and be in there for years. The film company helped me escape and paid for the flight to Germany.
What were you and the film crew accused of?
In Uganda it is forbidden by law to be lesbian or gay. It is also forbidden to fight for the rights of the LGBT* community. Whether you are gay or lesbian yourself, or whether you are committed to these people - both are no-go in Ugandan society. We are accused of additionally promoting homosexuality with the film. That's a big risk we took. Many activists from the film crew had to flee to other countries.
In addition to her commitment to the film, she has also worked directly for young members of the LGBT* community in Uganda. How exactly could you help the young people on the ground?
Gays and lesbians live on the margins of society. You are isolated and excluded from the community. Teenagers in particular often run away from their homophobic families and are in bad health. I visited them several times a week and gave them medication, wound dressings, condoms and lubricants. Condoms and lubricants are very expensive in Uganda and only available in a few supermarkets. Because they have unprotected sexual intercourse without lubricants, gay adolescents suffer from sexual diseases and sometimes serious wounds in the genital area, which become more and more inflamed because nobody treats them.
How was it possible to get to teenagers when they were being followed by the community themselves?
In Uganda everything runs on rumors. When I heard that someone was suspected of being gay, I went to the young people and offered them my help. At first it was hard for them to trust me. They were afraid I'd report them to the police. But I was able to build trust and made it clear to them that I was on their side. They saw me as a kind of surrogate mother because their own families rejected them because of their homosexuality. Many people in Uganda do not dare to help gay or lesbian people because they are afraid of getting into trouble themselves. I was afraid of it, too.
In order not to go to prison, you had to leave your four children behind in Uganda. Who's taking care of them now?
I've always been a single parent. When I had to flee, they were suddenly without parents. I miss them terribly and haven't seen them in almost three years. Since then, my two youngest children in particular have been moved from family to family. They're 13 and 16, the other two are adults. Every day they are told that their mother is a bad person because she helped gay and lesbian people. I'm also being vilified at their school, but my children stand by me. They understand that I saw it as my job to stand up for the LGBT* rights. I hope they don't get too influenced by the propaganda. In Uganda, children are brought up to be homophobes at an early age. You teach them that homosexuality is a terrible thing. I'm afraid that's the way education works. Ugandan parents establish lesbian and gay enemy images in the minds of the children and turn them into intolerant people.
What's next for you?
I trained as a geriatric nurse here in Munich and can work in Germany, I am very happy about that. I am still committed to LGBT* rights, but I have to be careful not to let too much get back to Uganda. The more it is known there that I continue my LGBT* activism here, the more my children are exposed to hostility and agitation. I myself will probably never be able to return to Uganda. The police are looking for me there and as soon as I set foot in the country, I will end up in jail. I hope that one day my children will be allowed to come here.
interview: Anna-Maria Deutschmann
Illustration: Franziska Romana