Money, Sex, Power & Christian Evangelicals in Roger Ross Williams' 'God Loves Uganda'

An in depth interview with Oscar winning director, Roger Ross Williams as he discusses his latest film: God Loves Uganda.

Pastor Solomon Male at an Anti-Gay Rally in Mbarara, Uganda in 2010. Image Credit: Benedicte Desrus

The Scramble for Uganda

OKA: So how is homosexuality being instrumentalized in Uganda specifically?

RRW: Pastors are competing for power in Uganda, and it’s extremely complicated. At one point Martin Ssempa accused Robert Kayanja - the most powerful pastor - of being gay.  Ssempa held a press conference and brought out eight boys who he said were molested by Kayanja. The boys are taken into custody where they change their testimony to say that Ssempa paid them to say that they were molested and then Ssempa gets accused of framing Kayanja and Ssempa goes on trial. I filmed all of this but it was too much to include. But I wanted to show that they use this hatred against each other to bring each other down. The government brings out the Bill whenever they want to distract people and bring out a bogeyman. And it’s right out of the American playbook: you use a wedge issue to drive people to the poles. The government doesn’t want you to think about the corruption. The Bill is back on the table in Uganda because of the oil scandal right now surrounding the oil reserves. And they have successfully distracted everyone: the Western media is all focused on the Bill, again using homosexuals and minorities as scapegoats.

OKA: From the street preachers to the pastors showing S&M gay porn to congregants, the film captured a seemingly prurient fascination with ‘other’ sexualities. And in communicating that supposed repulsion there’s a real sense of performance and theatre.

RRW: The pastor showing porn is Martin Ssempa, and Martin Ssempa is all about theatre. Whenever cameras come around he’s so good at playing it up. He demonstrates on the stage. He takes a piece of paper and rolls it up while saying “so they insert it” he’s showing it on stage he’s demonstrating “and the intestines come out and they are ruined, they usually die and if they don’t it’s because they are flown to South Africa to have their butts sewn up.” Another pastor, Solomon Male held a rally in David Kato’s village to send a message that this should not become a place of pilgrimage - this while David Kato’s mother looked on from her house. Male is the one who says that lesbianism causes breast cancer and ovarian cancer and that women in the country can’t find tampons because all the gay men are using them to plug themselves up [laughs] And I had to sit there with a straight face, like “really!? That’s interesting”. It’s tough spending time with these guys.

Martin Ssempa demonstrates the mechanics of anal sex using fruit and his hand on NBS news

OKA: What do you think about the relationship between socioeconomic status and the church? Because, let’s not mince words, it’s a lucrative business, and the church provides access to wealth.

RRW: Right. At first I wondered “Why does he flash his watch?” And then I realized, it’s the same as Creflo Dollar and Reverend Ike back in the day. There’s this whole idea that “if you follow me you can be rich too”. It’s the prosperity gospel. In a sense Kayanja’s old school. What a younger Pastor like Martin Ssempa has realized, is that you can be rich by playing up to Western expectations of what you should be doing. They all realise that every pastor has to have his niche and if you climb to top then you can be rich like Kayanja. So one guy’s niche is orphans, and another guy chooses homosexuality. As an issue homosexuality is lucrative because you can get money from the Americans who will  support you financially. In the film Bahati admits that his donations from Western churches tripled when he introduced the Bill. They’re cleaning up. Ssempa had a church at Makerere University and all his money was coming from this mega church in Las Vegas. Even when Uganda had clearly gone too far, the Western funders took a long time to denounce Ssempa. When they finally did, Rick Warren did a YouTube Video denouncing the Bill and Martin Ssempa did a response – and there was a back and forth. We wanted to have that fight in the film but in some ways the already complicated story was getting too complicated.

2010 - Kampala, Uganda - Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa warns press against what he calls the danger of homosexuality at a press conference in Kampala Photo Credit: Benedicte Desrus/Sipa Press

Uganda's Powerplayers

OKA: Can you expand on the idea that U.S. evangelicals are taking the lost war against homosexuality to Uganda? How specifically - aside from providing donations  - are they making this happen?

RRW: Ugandans are fed the Western/American media diet too. If you go to Uganda and watch TV it’s the Christian channels that have the strongest signal [laughs]: PTL, Trinity Broadcasting and God TV. And all the superstars of televangelism are loved Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn are so popular in Uganda (worldwide black people love Benny Hinn!) it’s crazy. So when he goes to Uganda he’s like a rockstar, it’s like Bono, wait, it is Bono! Benny Hinn does that thing where he’ll touch someone and the whole church falls down, even Kayanja falls down. And here’s Kayanja who is the most powerful, wealthy pastor and owns the biggest single family residence in Uganda. His entire career has been formed by Americans. TL Osbourne who is the father of the prosperity gospel and Joe Olstein who took Kayanja under their wing when he was 17 years old preaching in his village. They came in and were like “this kid is gonna be our superstar.” They created him. And now he has the biggest church, 3000 satellite churches, he’s one of the biggest faith healers in all of east Africa with homes in Dallas and Kampala. People aspire to be him.

OKA: You’ve said that the film was made specifically with the Christian community in mind, but what about the American LGBTQ community? There can be a tendency to patronize queer Africans. Does the film speak to that at all?

RRW: We’ve been working with a lot of LGBTQ people and that’s important because it’s a global struggle, it’s not American, Ugandan, Nigerian or Russian. It’s global. That voice needs to band together in an organized fashion. On the other side the fundamentalist evangelicals are well organized, they have an amazing ground game, and you can’t even compete with the money. They have a head start so it’s really going to take a coalition of LGBTQ organizations, and moderate and progressive churches to say here’s the alternative.

OKA: This isn’t just happening within the Church. Do you have any thoughts on the way that African leaders are hijacking pan-African rhetoric to frame their anti-gay legislation as resistance to Western dominance?

RRW: Right, and there are a couple reasons for that in Uganda specifically. During the time of Idi Amin evangelical Christianity was outlawed. So the Pentecostal church went underground and became connected with the pan-African movement because they were both underground. The revolution happened, and Idi Amin was ousted and the evangelical movement immediately co-opted the pan-Africanist message. Mike Bickle (the founder of IHOP) tells this story about being on the ground the day Idi Amin was ousted, with bullets flying past his head and all that. And as he puts it, he was there with other American evangelicals to take that country. So I wanted to expose the real imperialist forces as American evangelicals. They’re saying that homosexuality didn’t exist in Africa or that it’s a western import, which is not true. The King of Buganda was openly gay and everyone accepted that. Before the arrival of Scott Lively, there were gay bars In Kampala. The evangelicals were very smart to co-opt that language.

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