From Travel Pulse by Paul Heney
Michael Kajubi, the founder of McBern Tours and Travel, received a scholarship from the IGLTA Foundation to attend this year’s IGLTA Convention in Toronto. McBern is a Ugandan company that employs members of the LGBTQ community, as well as the elderly. We spoke to him about his home country and what it’s really like for queer citizens and travelers.
TP: The Western world hears a lot about the dangers of being gay in Uganda. What is your perspective on the ground there?
MK: It’s true that Uganda suffers from widespread homophobia. Despite the criminal laws and prevailing negative attitudes by the general population in Uganda, the LGBTQ community has continued to fight for its rights.
There is a growing and strong civil society, working tirelessly to advance the rights of LGBTQ persons in Uganda—so they may have access to health services, to justice and legal literacy. But, as it happens in many countries around the world, through hard work in education, dialogue and one-on-one interactions through tourism and business, we can change this.
We in Uganda have a long way to go in establishing the rights deserved to our LGBTQ citizens. The road is long and uphill, but we have started and have made some progress. We have to be careful, definitely respect the culture and tread carefully. There is no public affection shown (even for straight couples).
For now, one doesn’t have to parade oneself on the street and pronounce him/herself gay. All should be done in private.
TP: Can you share any personal experiences about your life there, your own coming out process, etc.?
MK: Well, I have not come out publicly to pronounce my sexuality. I keep it low and continue my life normally. It has only been in circumstances when asked by people privately as to when I intend to get married to a woman and start a family. Then I have to answer that I do not intend to get married to a woman because I would like to have a like mind in my life—which is a man.
I have lost some friends and family of course, but they have to either accept me as I am or not accept me. But even without them, I am comfortable in my space with the people who welcome me as I am.
TP: How safe is it for LGBTQ people to visit Uganda? What, if any precautions should they take?
MK: The beautiful country that I am proud to call home was called the “Pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill. It does receive LGBTQ travelers. We guide them and keep close contact at all phases—taking special care of each and every guest at all times as their confidential and trusted travel partner.
It is safe, as I mentioned earlier, as long as the culture is respected and there is no public showing of affection.
TP: There is a split in the queer community, where some say they refuse to visit and spend their money in homophobic places, where others feel it is important to visit those places and be visible to change hearts and minds. Where do you stand on this, and why?
MK: I believe that those who travel bring a big impact to the world. As more LGBTQ tourists venture into our country, Ugandans will learn first-hand of who we are, who our community is, and how LGBTQ tourism can only be a benefit to them bringing in revenue to the country.
The person-to-person contact between the tourists and the hotels, the restaurants, the drivers, the guides, the shopkeepers, will slowly but surely encourage a change in the thoughts of Ugandans. I believe that travelers learn and make big impacts to the society in which they visit.
For instance, with tourists using McBern Tours and Travel, the funds support the elderly and of course, there is employment for the youth. When the people see the good coming as a result of these visitors, this will help change their hearts, their minds and perception of the LGBTQ community.
TP: Why should queer people visit Uganda now? What does the country have to offer someone who has traveled to many other places across the globe?
MK: Uganda is a beautiful, safe, English-speaking country with a diverse landscape. Besides the amazing areas provided for safaris, Uganda is home to the famous endangered mountain gorilla sanctuary, where half of the world’s population of these animals live. The approximate population today is around 900 gorillas.
Being on the equator means the climate is at a constant temperature—not necessarily an extremely hot temperature. Climate is constantly between 17°C and 26°C. I call it a “year-round Summer.”
Uganda is ranked as one of the friendliest countries in the whole world, according to the InterNations report of 2017. Uganda is also very affordable for food and labor—so when it comes to the expats, they are able to maintain a high standard of living.
Uganda has so much to offer to every person regardless of one’s sex, race, religion—the source of the Nile, the amazing mountain gorillas, the animals in the wilderness, the fresh waters in the lakes, the natural resources, and many business investment opportunities.