World Congress of Families Descends on Africa

About Cole Parke

image_pdfimage_print
Poster for next week's African Regional Conference on Families.

Poster for the African Regional Conference on Families scheduled to take place in Nairobi next week.

Next week, the World Congress of Families (WCF) will host a regional conference in Nairobi, Kenya. For several years, PRA has tracked and reported on the WCF’s role in the U.S. Religious Right’s global export of homophobia and sexism, and the organization’s increasing focus on Africa is of grave concern.

WCF’s international convenings function as key sites of right-wing strategy development and dissemination. From its headquarters in Rockford, Illinois, WCF and its member organizations use deceptive “pro-family” rhetoric to promote conservative ideologies that dictate who counts as “family,” and who doesn’t (that is, any and all “nontraditional” families such as those constructed by single parents, same-sex couples, grandparents, non-biological guardians, etc.). These ideologies are then codified into regressive laws and policies that criminalize LGBTQ people and abortion, condoning and promoting the ongoing persecution, oppression, and violence experienced by women and LGBTQ people around the world.

WCF’s presence in Kenya has the potential to do real damage in a country that has been in the crosshairs of the U.S. Christian Right for many years. In 2010, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) opened an office in Nairobi, just as Kenya was debating a new constitution that included controversial addendums to its penal code regarding abortion. As Mother Jones reported, the ACLJ, founded by American televangelist Pat Robertson, “was among the most vocal opponents of the new constitution,” pledging to spend “tens of thousands of dollars” on the effort to defeat the constitution. Speaking to Christianity Today about the establishment of the “East African Center for Law and Justice” (ACLJ’s Nairobi branch), the group’s then-director of international operations, Jordan Sekulow, explained, “We’re looking long-term in Kenya because it’s such an influential country throughout Africa.”

Though abortion remains illegal, the new constitution—which was approved by a 67 percent majority—carved out exceptions if “in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law.” Despite these allowances, quality maternal health care and safe and legal abortion services remain largely inaccessible in Kenya.

Reporting on the aftermath of Kenya’s constitutional referendum, the progressive group Catholics for Choice warned, “[E]xternal forces, predominantly US evangelists, maintain a disproportionate level of influence in Kenya, beyond the debate on abortion. Ample political and financial resources allowed U.S. fundamentalists and anti-reproductive rights groups to establish offices in Kenya and recruit local staff. This presence might yet prove to be a springboard for more aggressive action in other parts of Africa. The activities of these outside religious groups should be closely watched, as they are placed to continue advancing their agenda to deny access to sexual and reproductive health services needed by many.”

Indeed, the influence of the U.S. Christian Right continues to wreak havoc in Kenya. As PRA’s senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma notes, WCF’s upcoming African Regional Conference on Families “may be called African in name only.” As Kaoma argues, “It is a U.S. conservative conference on African soil.”

The African Regional Conference on Families is scheduled to take place at the Hotel Intercontinental in Naiborbi, Kenya on September 22-24, 2016. (Image: conference promotional video available at https://youtu.be/CCw4Z9KqDdo)

The African Regional Conference on Families is scheduled to take place in Nairobi, Kenya on September 22-24, 2016. (Image: Conference promotional video available at https://youtu.be/CCw4Z9KqDdo)

The headlining speakers at WCF events are typically high-profile leaders of the U.S. Christian Right who are uniformly pursuant of an international anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ agenda. In the case of the upcoming Nairobi conference, Sharon Slater, President of Arizona-based Family Watch International, and Don Feder, WCF’s Director of Coalitions, will both be speaking. Additionally, Michael Hichborn, President of the right-wing Lepanto Institute, will present on behalf of the Population Research Institute. Hichborn, a Catholic anti-abortion activist based in Virginia, has referred to homosexuality as a “disordered condition” comparable to kleptomania and alcoholism and warns, “Western civilisation is on the brink of a moral implosion.”

In his foreword to Kaoma’s 2012 exposé, “Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa,” PRA’s Executive Director Tarso Luis Ramos wrote:

In Black Skin, White Masks French-Algerian psychiatrist and anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon famously wrote of the colonized African’s aspiration to imitate the culture and manners of White colonizers. Sixty years later, we find White Christian Right neocolonialists seeking legitimacy through a process of Africanizing the local leadership of their operations and leveling charges of neocolonialism against Western governments and international human rights groups when they advocate for the human rights of women and LGBTQ people. This tactical inversion of the colonial relationships described by Fanon might aptly be characterized as “White skin, Black masks.”

As Kaoma observes, “The upcoming WCF conference confirms PRA’s research on the Christian Right’s attempts to hide behind African faces. By whitewashing its activities with African masks, U.S. conservative organizations are transforming African sexual politics. ”

Ann Kioko is WCF’s newest mask-wearer, joining Theresa Okafor, WCF’s African regional director. Kioko, who describes homosexuality as a “learned behaviour” imported from the West, is president of the African Organization for Families and WCF’s lead conference organizer. She has worked for U.S. Christian Right groups such Culture of Life, Human Life International, and previously worked as the Program Manager for the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum, a partner organization of the East African Center for Law and Justice.

Another concerning speaker on the schedule is Stephen Langa, founder and executive director of Family Life Network Uganda. In March 2009, Langa hosted the infamous “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda,” which featured several U.S. Christian Right speakers, including Massachusetts-based American pastor Scott Lively. Lively’s presentation provided the raw material for what would become Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill (commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill due to death penalty clauses in the original draft).

When a draft of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB) initially came before Parliament in April 2009, Langa was among a handful of religious leaders singled out by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga to help advance the legislation. Langa was later indicted as one of four Ugandan co-conspirators in an ongoing U.S. federal lawsuit brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda, an LGBTQI advocacy group, against Scott Lively for “crimes against humanity.”

Langa, who hosted a service in 2013 to “celebrate the passing of the AHB into law and for preserving the sovereignty of our Nation,” sees his crusade against LGBTQI people as “a conflict between the kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God.” Now he’s helping to stoke the flames of that Western neocolonial crusade to Kenya.

Behind the Black masks of African fronts like Langa and Kioko, American activists like Slater, Feder, Hichborn, and other White, U.S. Christian Right stakeholders can gain access to politicians, religious authorities, and civic leaders. The organizers in Kenya have already indicated that Phyllis Kandie, Cabinet Secretary for Kenya’s Ministry of East African Community, Labour and Social Protection will be attending, and the agenda includes a closed door meeting exclusively for conference speakers, members of parliament, and dignitaries.

According to Kaoma, “Hiding behind African masks is the most effective route to Africa’s corridors of power.” WCF has observed this neocolonial dynamic, too, and is now positioning itself in Kenya to take full advantage of it, using a strategy that’s eerily similar to the formula documented by PRA in the lead up to Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill.

L. Cole Parke is PRA's LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for the past ten years. Raised in a military family and a conservative Christian world, Cole studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and traveled throughout the country advocating for LGBTQ justice at conservative religious schools and institutions as a part of the 2008 and 2012 Soulforce Equality Rides.