- by Brittany Burrows -
It’s time for me to come out of the closet. Mom and Dad, it’s time to tell you the truth, and here it is.
I have a tattoo.
I have it so I will always remember my time in Africa. Whenever I look at it, I remember that each star represents a country where I have lived or traveled. But most importantly, I remember “Ubuntu,” the African principle that “I am because we are.” I remember my friends in Africa like Kidiaba, Doctor Pierre, and Michèle*, friends who literally saved my life. While living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I could not have survived without their help. When I did not have food, Michèle took me to the market and taught me how to cook. When I got malaria, Doctor Pierre came to my house and brought me free medicine. When I did not know how to communicate, Kidiaba taught me Swahili and helped me interpret. Without these friends, I would not be here today. For me, this is the essence of Ubuntu, an understanding that none of us would be here without those who have raised us and taught us to survive. In this way, as Desmond Tutu puts it, “a person is a person through other people.”
Recently I attended ChurchQuake, RMN’s Convocation, where this Ubuntu principle was a central theme of our time together. While there I co-led a workshop with Rev. Neal Christie, Assistant General Secretary for the Education and Leadership Formation for the UMC General Board of Church and Society. Our workshop was entitled “Will Africa Always be Anti-LGBTQ? Forming Partnerships across Borders.”
Now I know that the title sounds a little misleading. From this alone, you might assume that Africa really is anti-LGBTQ, which is not the case. The title was meant as a “hook” to get people into the workshop, but in reality, Africa can’t be limited to a box. Africans come in all shapes and sizes; they are heterosexual and gay, rich and poor, transgender and cisgender, black and white, and every other shade of gray. Often times however, news of Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill or comparisons between homosexuality and bestiality at General Conference by a Congolese delegate overshadow the diversity of Africa and can limit our perspective. In order to get the full picture, we must explore the complex underlying issues of our tumultuous relationship with Africa, including how our past and present paternalistic, racially prejudiced, and ethnocentric mission practices have fostered homophobia and anti-Western sentiment in Africa.
Because the truth is, Africa doesn’t need saving, and never has. As African economist Dambisa Moyo points out in her book Dead Aid, efforts by Americans to alleviate poverty in Africa have actually increased their plight. Large amounts of foreign aid have been funneled into oppressive governments and corrupt institutions and stifled economic growth. Or, to use a smaller-scale example, sending our old shoes to and clothes to Africa has not helped in the big-scheme of things; it hinders small African business owners from producing or selling African-made shoes and clothes, and limits them to a childlike state of perpetual need.
As we raped the African land of resources for our own benefit, we also forced literalistic Biblical interpretations that subordinate women and LGBTQ people. We imposed our individualistic conceptions of love and marriage on people for which procreation is essential for survival. We (myself included) have tried to be “white saviors” for people who never needed saving in the first place. It’s no wonder some Africans are hostile towards the acceptance of homosexuality when it feels forced upon them by their Western oppressors.
So when we get frustrated at Africans, or view Africa as a stumbling block to LGBTQ inclusion, we must acknowledge the complex issues at work and repent for the harm we have caused. Only then can we begin to form mutually affirming partnerships and work towards positive change.
So yes, Mom and Dad, and everyone else…I have a tattoo. Every time I look at it, I think of Africa, the birthplace of Ubuntu and the friends who helped me survive and continue to show me how to be human and whole.
*names have been changed
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Brittany Burrows is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology, and serves as Director of the Denton Wesley Foundation. A lifelong United Methodist, Brittany has served as a youth minister, musician, campus chaplain, and organizer with RMN. She has done extensive work in central and southern Africa as a project coordinator, orphanage worker, and schoolteacher.