Other Ugandans and international visitors were coming and going through the gate and security screening, on their way to listen to the local band performing on stage.
“At the moment, it’s a People’s Space with a clause at the end: ‘Out of Bounds for Homosexuals,’” Kimani said.
Kimani is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Kenya. She was at the People’s Space with members of Freedom and Roam Uganda, a gay rights organization. The group was invited to make a presentation at the public venue, which was part of the civil society forum that preceded the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala.
Members of the organization were escorted out of Centenary Park venue shortly after they arrived on Friday, when people started calling for police to arrest them. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, punishable by as much as a life sentence in prison.
“A man with a State House security badge came up and asked to talk with us for two minutes,” Kimani said. “Once we got outside the gates, he said we had ten minutes to leave the area.”
Kimani said when she and the others did not leave, security guards started hitting them with sticks.
“After about five minutes, there were loads of police surrounding us. They said they had orders from above to make us go away.”
On Thursday, members of the group were part of a discussion about homosexual rights followed a film screening about homosexuality and discrimination. Alice Smits coordinated the film festival at the People’s Space.
“Yesterday the debate was heated, but there were no fights. It was really good,” Smits said. “It was the first time a real debate about homosexuality happened in Uganda.”
A demonstration against equal rights and protections for homosexuals was held on Thursday, at conference site far from the People’s Space. On the same day, the Uganda Joint Christian Council, released an open letter to the people of the Commonwealth, which listed “sexual disorientation” as a challenge to the human development of Commonwealth Nations.
“In many African societies [homosexuality] is considered a threat to humanity, African family values and a sin against God,” the letter said. “We as religious leaders in Uganda have objected to the possible focus on promoting the rights of the minorities and ignoring the rights of the majority as something that is unacceptable.”
Homosexuality is illegal in most of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states. Despite that, it was one of myriad social, environmental and economic issues that were slated for discussion at the People’s Space.
“The People’s Forum is designed to enable the diversity of the Commonwealth in all its forms to come together for exchange, debate, discussion,” said Vijay Krishnarayan, Deputy Director of the Commonwealth Foundation.
The Commonwealth Foundation and the British Council hosted the People’s Space. Krishnarayan said the venue was intended to make the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting more permeable to the public.
Previous meetings have been criticized for being exclusive, closed door affairs. The People’s Space was free and open to the public. It included music and theatre performances from around East Africa, as well as workshops on various cultural, political and environmental issues. Member of Freedom and Roam Uganda were invited to speak at Speakers Corner, a venue for discussing hot topics.
Anti-gay rights activists were invited to Speakers Corner at a different time. Kimani said it was members of that group who called for guards to arrest her and her colleagues. She said well-known preacher, Martin Ssempa, greeted the group shortly after they arrived at the site.
“The [anti-homosexual rights] demonstration on Thursday was led by Pastor Ssempa,” she said. “When we met him today, it was like we were just having a conversation until other people surrounded us and started shouting for soldiers to arrest us.”
Kimani said the police stopped harassing them when Smits and other conference delegates intervened. Smits and the others were kept off the People’s Space site for the rest of the afternoon. Smits was allowed back into the venue around six p.m., but she said other people who were seen talking to the homosexual rights activists were also banned from the site.
“Friends of mine are out there who aren’t even homosexual,” she said. “Ugandans are being kept out just because they know me.”
Human rights activists called the Commonwealth Foundation staff at three p.m. on Friday to tell them that Kimani, Smits and others were locked out. Vijay Krishnaryan said there was nothing he or the foundation could have done to force the Ugandan police to allow the homosexual rights group onto the site.
“Because this is Uganda and we respect the right of the government to regulate and govern the space,” Krishnarayan said. “For me the space was conceptualized as somewhere that people could be free to express themselves, but freedom doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
He said the Commonwealth Foundation and the British Council worked with the Uganda government to host the People’s Space. Despite the confrontation over sexual orientation, Krishnarayan said he is happy with the overall outcome of the space and the Commonwealth People’s Forum.
“We are very pleased that it’s thrown up all sorts of new challenges for the Commonwealth.”
Standing outside the gates of the People’s Space on Friday night, Pauline Kimani was not quite as optimistic. She said, while Thursday’s open discussion about homosexuality was a big step forward for socially conservative Uganda, she was frustrated with the treatment on Friday.
Leaning against the eight foot high perimeter fence of the People’s Space, Kimani said, “It’s not the People’s Space. It’s the Some People’s Space.”