KAMPALA, UGANDA – Adultery is something I’ve never really thought about much. But the papers here in Uganda are full of it: adultery is no longer a crime.
The dusty law which, upon conviction, carried a fine of 1,200 Ugandan shillings, or the price of a box of Smarties, has been deemed unconstitutional. It seems, not surprisingly in this patriarchal society, that guys and the gals were treated differently.
It’s been a crime for a married woman to have an affair with a man—married or not—but not a crime for a married man to have an affair with an unmarried woman.
Uganda’s Church has had some things to say about it all. One is that, whatever the state does or doesn’t legislate, Christians shouldn’t sleep around anytime. Okay.
Some Christian leaders also want the law or a reworked version retained, or, they warn, there will be anarchy. Folks will go on a kind of sleeping around-bender, not just ruining families, but killing each other along the way.
Henry Luke Orombi, the Church of Uganda’s archbishop, put it this way: “Suppose someone finds you with his wife or daughter, and kills you?”
What? My first thought is that I don’t know of anyone, certainly no Christian, who started smoking dope in Canada just because it was, in practice, decriminalized. The law, or lack of, is an issue more for the already-dope-smoking crowd.
But the sad truth is that here I’m likely wrong and the good archbishop, right. Yes, now with no adultery law, a Kampala man recently caught with another’s wife has already dragged up the “but it’s legal now” defence.
To be fair, the illicit act might have happened even with a law in place. But, it’s true: while some of us wouldn’t even think about taking that proverbial joint just because we now can, others will start smoking it, inhaling all the way.
In religious cultures, this seems especially true. People simply don’t know how to live without tight rules. I found this true while living in Yemen, where the rigidity of Islam holds things together, and I’m finding it true in Christian Africa.
In fact, while one easily sees Bibles open in public here, I can’t even begin to explain the mixed messages on sexuality.
Some things are a big no-no. “Students fornicate” is a recent newsbrief naming each offender like a good old-fashioned stoning. But drive five feet into Kampala and see your first “Need a lover?” ad on some street post.
Open the classifieds and find young gals seeking so-called “sponsors,” or sugar daddies: men, often married and socially respectable, happy to cover women’s university costs for certain return favours.
Or read advice columns on how to get along with your “co,” that is your co-wife. Following tribal traditions, polygamy is still practiced here. At best, your co is like a sister and you’ll get to share clothes. At worst, you’ll fight and lose a hand.
Oh, and Uganda has no law on domestic abuse.
If you’re a widow, you’ll likely never attain Wife #1 status. Same for single moms, like our house-help Alice, a Christian who was a co-wife before her husband left both her and his Wife #2 … for #3.
“Now I’m looking for a good man,” Alice tells me, determined not to be an everyday mistress or concubine, seeking financial security but settling for leftovers.
Finally, throw into the mix Africa’s staggering tide of AIDS, which commonly spreads into families through adulterous men.
Uganda has healthy, monogamous relationships, too. And unlike in some other regions, it’s refreshing to see men and women mingle easily in public. But considering how easily “God talk” flows here, sexual attitudes are incredibly relaxed.
It’s something to think about the next time you chafe at Canada’s mainstream secularism.
When I return soon and land at Toronto’s airport, I know I won’t hear Michael W. Smith in the public corridors, like when I arrived at Uganda’s Entebbe airport for the first time. But at least I’ll be in a place that forces me to handle freedom with care.