I took a taxi in Kumasi four weeks ago at the height of the Nana Oye Lithur abuse campaign and the Akan news on the car radio was all about the then Minister-designate whose appearance before the Appointments Committee in Parliament had raised a storm. The news reader, in what has become the radio style in Ghana, added her personal insults to spice up other people’s comments about the human rights lawyer. The driver grunted his approval and added his own caustic comments about how this woman deserves to be killed and that sort of thing. I concentrated on my own matter at hand, which was how to find my destination in the gathering dusk. However, when I thought both the news reader and the driver had gone too far I decided to tell the driver a story.
About five years ago I gave a woman a lift at the Cylinder Junction on the Spintex Road in Accra. She looked so sad and distraught that I could not help but ask what was eating her. Her husband had lately died and his sisters had denied the woman and their two children any share in the man’s property and money leaving her and the children virtually destitute. She needed help. I wrote a note for the woman to take to Nana Oye Lithur, the only person I knew who could help her in that situation. The following day the woman called to tell me of the “miracle”. She had not really believed that any lawyer would receive her, a mere common woman, in that warm way… for free!
More miracles happened as Nana Oye did not just write letters but took her to court and made representations on her behalf not once but scores of times until this woman and her children got justice. Nana Oye had not charged her one pesewa and continues to seek her interest to this day. The lawyer does this for hundreds of people and communities being cheated every year by an institution or individuals.
The driver looked confused. Is this true, Daddy?
Yes and those hundreds and thousands of people are all speaking up but her critics do not seem to be interested in that story.
But daddy, why does she want men to sleep with men?
This is what I told the taxi driver:
Men sleeping with men is not new; at least we have all heard of Sodom and Gomorrah, right? Yes. Nothing that Nana Oye or I or you would say will change that. That is the first thing. Equally, the practice has been denounced by popes, priests, Imams, patriarchs, politicians, prophets and holy men of every description for centuries. It still goes on. Maybe the time has come to think about this very carefully: the people who do these things, - are they just evil or were they born that way? I do NOT know, and I don’t think any of the people screaming their heads off knows either.
But this is not my main point: Nana Oye has not said anywhere that men should sleep with men or women with women. Nana Oye has not prescribed any particular sleeping arrangement for anyone or any group of people. This is what Nana Oye has said: She is a human rights lawyer and advocate. She stands for the human rights of all Ghanaians and people who find themselves under the protection of the CONSTITUTION of Ghana, and that includes people you and I may not like but who are protected regardless. For example, there are people who have stolen billions of cedis from the people of Ghana and go about flaunting their wealth in our faces every day. You and I may wish them lynched but they are protected by the Constitution so if we know or think they have broken the law we have to take them to court. Right? Yes.
And on that point this is what Nana Oye says, which appears to infuriate her critics and enemies even more. There is no law against homosexuality in Ghana. That is a fact. Nana Oye has not said there should be no law against homosexuality; she is only stating the fact. Ironically, it is up to Parliament to make such a law if the House thinks such a law will be good for the country. Her critics and most Ghanaians point to a law against “unnatural sexual practices”, which is meant as a reference to anal sex. In the first place, unnatural sexual acts might also refer to oral sex and the use of sex toys and even sex stimulants. It might even refer to all the sex positions in the Kama Sutra, apart from one! So there is nothing specific about homosexuality in that act, and given the possible wide interpretation of the term unnatural sexual acts may the person who has not sinned before please cast the first stone!
Nana Oye has never described herself as a gay rights activist or advocate. She is a human rights activist, advocate and lawyer; her courageous defence of human rights has brought relief to thousands of Ghanaians who are not gay. The connection to gays came at a specific instance when some people attacked a group of people suspected to be homosexuals. Was she right or wrong to defend them against a lynch mob?
Many religious leaders from almost all faiths have condemned homosexuality in line with their creed. Most vocal is the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, my church. He is a man I respect and who commands respect beyond the confines of our Church. He and all the other religious leaders are doing their job when they issue moral warnings against practices proscribed by their faith. Nana Oye Lithur as a human rights lawyer and advocate is also doing her job when she defends all people against arbitrariness in line with the Constitution of Ghana. Ironically, the Constitution of Ghana makes room for all faiths and opinions, and this right should not be taken for granted because in some countries such religious diversity is not permitted and religious leaders are persecuted for their faith.
The argument that Nana Oye is somehow disrespecting “our traditions” is ridiculous. Nana Oye is a law abiding lawyer who will not disobey lawful traditional edicts, however, our “traditions” do not permit us to ill-treat people who do things we do not like. I presume that our traditions are also against corruption but we do not go round beating up people we suspect to be corrupt but if we did that Nana Oye Lithur would defend such people. As she puts it, her work is similar to a doctor’s; she cannot turn people away because of who they are or what they do.
As for our “traditions”, let us think about them a bit more carefully. In many parts of our country widows are subjected to horrendous mistreatment at the hands of other Ghanaians just because their husbands have died. This includes the widow being kept with the corpse overnight in a locked room. This is “tradition” but is it defendable in modern Ghana? And yet I have not heard any loud condemnation coming from traditional and religious leaders.
This is how I summed up the argument to the taxi driver: Nana Oye is saying that even if you do not like what another person or a group of people say or do, our reaction to them should be in accordance with the laws of the land. For example, we cannot just beat up a group of people because we suspect that they are homosexuals. How can anyone disagree with her on this? Are those calling for her blood saying that Ghanaian citizens and residents suspected of homosexuality should be beaten up or killed in the village square? I have a feeling that this is not what some of our religious, political and traditional leaders are advocating. It appears that a lot of communication and common understandings have been lost in social translation.
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