Learning the ABCs of Humanity
With A MISSIONARY POSITION, actor & playwright Ntare Mwine expands his repertoire of social justice
by Alina Oswald
One thing is perfectly clear after talking to actor, photographer, playwright and activist Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: He is not your usual Hollywood actor. The award-winning artist has remained untouched by the Hollywood glamour, and has stayed very much in touch with the real world. Ntare Mwine [A&U, June 2004] has appeared in Blood Diamond, Heroes, CSI, The Riches, ER, and has a recurring role on Treme. He can be spotted attending the HBO’s Emmy party in L.A., as easily as in Uganda, working with activists on the forefront of the fight against AIDS and for equal LGBT rights.
One then may call him an activist, only to discover that Mwine is not your usual activist, either. He does not reflect the image many associate with this term. He is soft-spoken, his gentleness underlined by his passion and determination of using the world as a stage from where to spread the word about causes close to his heart. While Ntare Mwine seems to have it all—fame, glory and unbelievable talent—one can only wonder what makes him take on causes like HIV/AIDS and LGBT rights.
“I’m an artist. [I] have to tell stories,” Mwine explains when I call, a few days shy of the premiere of Treme, now in its third season. “Uganda has been my muse in many ways,” he adds, “so it’s not a coincidence that the two pieces I’ve written have been inspired by Uganda.”
His first play, Biro, premiered in 2004. A one-man show, Biro was inspired by his uncle’s AIDS story. “At the time not many artists in Uganda were writing these stories, and HIV/AIDS touched everything. It touched my family, too, my uncle,” Mwine comments.
The second play, A Missionary Position, is inspired by the recent homophobia that has touched Uganda, igniting the fight for equal rights in that country. Most importantly, A Missionary Position is inspired by the courage of Uganda’s LGBT community.
“When you are in crisis, you feel you are the only one in the world,” Mwine states, talking about the reason behind A Missionary Position. “And part of human condition is to connect with others and to find that there are others who are or have been through the same crisis or are sympathetic and provide some sort of support. That’s what humanity is, [helping people] pull from one crisis to another.
“That’s why some are saying that if you are not part of [the] solution, you are part of the problem. And that’s what made me create this piece, A Missionary Position, because I was known as an artist from Uganda and…I felt like if I wasn’t doing something or saying something then I was somehow part of the problem, endorsing the hatred put out there. So I really felt compelled to be part of the solution and share these stories of human condition from the LGBT community.
“I was surprised by the vibrancy of [the LGBT] community,” Mwine comments. “Looking from abroad, we hear the voices of fear and hate. [But the LGBT community] has mobilized, and has a strong sense of purpose.”
A multimedia work produced and performed by Ntare Mwine, A Missionary Position premiered this summer at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in L.A., on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The story of A Missionary Position started with Mwine spending five months of research in Uganda, working with organizations like Icebreakers, Freedom and Roam Uganda, Rainbow Health Foundation, and Sexual Minorities Uganda, and recording over forty hours of interviews. The result is a true-to-life ninety-minute-long multimedia one-man show, with four characters, each played by Mwine.
The first character is Brigadier BigamAnus, a closeted bisexual man, who opens the show by giving an overview of the problem—his efforts to catch gays for some time, taking it on himself to impose the anti-gay bill as law even though it hasn’t been passed.
The second character is a transwoman, who paints a picture of an idealized world—entertaining rich, white men. Her character is based on a sex worker Mwine met in Kampala, Uganda. The fact that she’s an audience favorite has taken Mwine by surprise because, he explains, “from all
characters, I was the most terrified to play her, because it seemed such a stretch to put on dress and heels….”
The gay priest character is also based on a real person. In A Missionary Position, he dwells in the two extremes—the idealized image and the hard facts of homophobia-related hatred. And he tries to find a balance and keep himself alive, while working within an institution that condemns his lifestyle.
The lesbian activist character is based on Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, who is considered a legend in Uganda. She founded Freedom and Roam Uganda and organized the country’s first Pride parade. She also opened the first gay bar, Sappho Islands, which appears in A Missionary Position as a place to which Kasha’s character invites everybody, straight people, too, because, after all, she’s “a straight lesbian.”
“I wanted to have voices representing the LGBT community—a lesbian voice, a bisexual voice, a gay voice and a transgender voice—because, when I was on the ground, I realized that there was one [LGBT] group, but there are all these different experiences, depending if you were a lesbian, transgender, bisexual, or gay,” Mwine explains.
In A Missionary Position he shares the stories of the LGBT community, as they were told to him, with a sense of humor, because sometimes humor can be therapeutic, because people on the ground are getting on with their lives….But this doesn’t mean not to take them seriously.
Homophobia’s effects in Uganda are multi-layered. One of them is the Uganda’s current AIDS crisis. When I talked to Mwine back in 2004, Uganda was praised worldwide for its ABC HIV prevention strategy and for taking a firm public stand in the fight against AIDS. The ABC model—Abstinence, Be faithful, and Use a Condom—helped lower the HIV infection rates from twenty percent to 5.6 percent. Unfortunately, nowadays Uganda and Chad are the only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV infections are on the rise.
How could this happen? The answer is three-fold: homophobia and its effects on Ugandans, complacency due to the availability of ARV medications, and changes in Uganda’s successful ABC HIV prevention model.
Homophobia has kept individuals from getting tested. The related fear and stigma have forced people to get tested too late, or not at all; hence the fast and wide spread of the disease. Uganda’s effort to marginalize the LGBT community has put MSM (men who have sex with men) who are usually less likely to get tested, at substantially higher risk of contracting HIV than the rest of the population.
Homophobia is to blame for what is known as corrective rape, which is more frequent in South Africa, but also exists in Uganda. Women thought to be lesbians usually fall victim. It is believed that rape “corrects” lesbians and turns them into straight women.
Also, with the arrival and increasing availability of ARV medications, complacency settled in. As the lifesaving treatments started reaching more and more people (300,000 people in Uganda), HIV-positive individuals started living longer. The memory of AIDS as an immediate death threat started fading away.
Another factor is the very ABC HIV prevention model that, back in 2004, put Uganda on the forefront of fighting the pandemic. That’s because
the ABC model started losing letters.
“There’s a big question about not using condoms,” Mwine comments. “Because part of the campaign was ‘Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condom use.’ And at a certain point, condom use got on the backburner….And what was then looked upon as a great story became a real problem. We need to go back to the initial success that we had,” Mwine says “which was across the board, dealing with condom use as well.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [A&U, April 2005] visited Kampala, Uganda, this summer and spoke at Reach Out Mbuya, an American government-funded faith-based organization to show her concern over the increasing numbers of HIV infections in Uganda. Two years ago President Barack Obama addressed the same problem in a meeting with young African leaders. He pointed out that the battle against AIDS cannot be won if HIV infections are on the rise. He added that more AIDS prevention programs are needed, as much as care for the infected, in order to win the battle against the pandemic.
Ugandans are not ready to lose any battle, not the one against AIDS and not the one for equal LGBT rights. Thus, the LGBT community from Uganda had a strong presence this summer, at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. And therefore, Icebreakers Uganda opened the first health clinic, specifically geared toward LGBT patients, to allow them a safe place to go and get tested for HIV or be treated for all sorts of health issues, talk about their problems and get care. The Ugandan government has actually put together a special wing for MSM, though it has yet to promote it or talk about it openly.
Meanwhile, as an artist and activist, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine continues being part of the solution, helping people pull from one crisis to
another. When we spoke, he mentioned a possible trip to Toronto, at the African Medical and Research Foundation (an organization similar to Doctors Without Borders) for the screening of Call Me Kuchu, a film about the first openly gay Ugandan—Mwine has work in the film and is a panelist at the screening.
Also, in the following months Mwine may be spotted in Uganda, yet again. He plans to take A Missionary Position to the people who inspired it in the first place.
For more information, log on to Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine’s Web site at www.gumadesign.com. Watch A Missionary Position on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/45549040. Find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ntare.mwine.
Alina Oswald is a writer/photographer and the author of Journeys Through Darkness, a biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alina-arts.com
or follow her blog, Unconventional, at alinaoswald.blogspot.com. Alina first interviewed Ntare Mwine in 2004 for A&U and was glad to be able to catch up with him.