Aside from Russia and the American “Bible Belt,” few places in the world have seen such virulent debate (and hate) around the treatment of LGBT people than the East African country of Uganda. Like a nightmarish extension of the colonial battlefield that Africa has long been treated as in the West, the trials and tribulations of Uganda’s sexual minorities have become the focus of global media and political attention. In 2009 Uganda’s parliament started considering a bill that even Stephen Harper’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has called “abhorrent.”

Known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, the proposed legislation would make being gay and HIV positive a criminal offense punishable by death and imprisonment, in addition to numerous new offenses for “aggravated homosexuality” and failing to report “known homosexuals” to police. Currently shelved, the bill hangs over Ugandan LGBTs like a suspended death warrant invoked by conservative religious leaders and the tabloid press. The homophobic furor would lead to the brutal death of prominent activist David Kato, in 2010.

Call me Kuchu, the multi award-winning documentary by US-based filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, tracks the small and resilient group of activists for SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) over almost two years, a process which involved numerous visits, and extended periods of living with one of the film’s participant subjects, Noame. Increasingly embedded in their participants’ lives, the filmmakers would submit testimony to immigration authorities about the risk of being an out queer woman in Uganda, which eventually allowed Naome to claim asylum in Sweden.

Already shown to much acclaim at numerous major film festivals – including Hot Docs and Image + Nation – the heart-rending feature will be screened twice in Montréal, at Cinema Politica on Feb 25 and at the Massimadi Festival of LGBT Afro-Caribbean Film on Wednesday, Feb 27 at Cinéma du Parc.

2012 IDA Documentary Awards at the DGA Hosted by Penn Jillette“The factors feeding into homophobia in Uganda are so complex,” Zouhali-Worrall tells me via Skype from her home in Brooklyn. “It does seem like evangelical leaders have done a lot to inspire it – religious leaders in the Catholic and Anglican Churches have fuelled it.” Souhali-Worrall cautions viewers not to draw conclusions or generalizations about “Africa” or the Global South from watching what her subjects live through in this lightening rod country. “People often want to talk about the situation in Uganda as if it’s a very different and separate type of persecution… While there are probably some aspects of the situation in Uganda that are unique, it seems more helpful to see what’s happening there as an extension of what’s going on all the time in the US, Canada, or Europe.”

Fairfax WrightFor Fairfax Wright, who is based in Los Angeles, “there are so many parallels between homophobia in the US and elsewhere. Even the rhetoric, stretching back to the Harvey Milk days; it’s astounding. It’s the same phrases being thrown around, that [LGBT people] can’t reproduce and therefore they recruit… So many of the tensions at play and the tactics are so similar,” the documentarian says, evincing the journalistic objectivity that is as much a part of the film as the compassionate character treatment for which it has been praised.

“Right now the Anti-Homosexual Bill is brought up by parliamentarians as a political football. The idea of ‘homosexual terror’ is also a convenient way to distract people from more pressing issues in society,” she adds.

Behind the agit-prop and the harrowing political drama lies an elegy to Uganda’s gay rights hero, David Kato, who was beaten to death halfway through principal shooting in 2011.  “We are consumed by these people’s story, perhaps even a little more than we would like to have been,” the documentarians admitted, reflecting on the intimacy with which they treated their film’s subjects, and their responsibility to promote the Ugandan LGBT cause. “Every time the film wins an award we try and remember that David isn’t there for that,” Worrall concludes, certain that the battle for gay rights in Uganda, and elsewhere, is far from over.

Call Me Kuchu @ Cinema Politica, Monday Feb. 25  7 p.m., Concordia University, Room H110, 1455 de Maisonneuve West

For more info:


@ Festival Massimadi, Wednesday Feb 27, 6pm discussion (in French) on lesbians and HIV; Screening at 7pm, Cinema du Parc, 3575 av du Parc

No-flush, or dry toilets can be designed to recycle waste and reduce environmental contamination

It wasn’t all that long ago that we needed to use an outhouse to do our business. Even my mom remembers using newspaper instead of toilet paper in the 50s because it wasn’t a common household item at the time.

Living in rural Ghana during the summer of 2007 brought me back in time to Montreal’s pre-indoor toilet era. My compound had one communal latrine (a tiny closet of a room with a hole in the ground and grooves to place your feet) that was locked, and only two people had the key. When my host family wasn’t there to open the door for me, I had to pee-pee dance sashay to the cranky old woman who didn’t like anybody and plead for the key with yellowing eyes.

If the need to go struck me in the middle of the night, I had to creep behind my compound to what I determined was a safe spot to do my business and hurry up before anyone, or any malaria-carrying mosquito, came along. I preferred the open-air bladder relief system to the latrines because I could gaze at the night sky and not smell other people’s waste.

Of course, I only did this as a final resort. If everyone went to the bathroom in this way, we’d be knee-deep in our own waste. The children were apparently exempt from proper sanitation in my village. They would often be pooping and waving to me by the side of the road with big grins. It was far more interesting to note the white lady on the bicycle than the fact that they were relieving themselves in plain sight, but maybe they also preferred to avoid ‘that’ smell.

The most disgusting toilet experience of my life was at a bus stop in Ghana while I was traveling from my home in the North to the airport to return to Canada. The vile smell was nauseating as I approached the open and brightly lit concrete structure. There was no use in lining up because the “toilet” was just an open troth with a horseshoe platform running   the length of the room for women to stand on and aim into the putrid mix of urine and feces below. It was the ultimate fly fiesta, and I seemed to be the only one who was squeamish.

The room was half-full of typically loud and colorful Ghanaian women, chatting away doing their business   next to each other. No stalls, toilet paper, or soap were anywhere in sight, so I did a discreet jiggle and hurried on my way, sneaking some anitmicrobial hand sanitizer from my bag as I closed around the corner and hopped back on the bus.

While my experiences were unpalatable, at least I was never in danger from the hail of problems people face in places where open-pit latrines and unsupervised toilets are the norm. Sanitation is a human rights issue, and where rights are neglected, the environment doesn’t stand a chance.

For health and biological reasons, having an environmentally secure place to void your waste helps prevent or at least slow down disease transmission. Some parasites, like intestinal worms, complete part of their life cycle by depositing eggs in our poop. A badly designed, or absent toilet will guarantee that the eggs will be inhaled or transmitted back to humans through our food that may have picked them up while it was still running around, like goats and chickens.

No-flush, or dry toilets can be designed to recycle waste and reduce environmental contamination.

School children and women are also at risk of assault in badly monitored and badly designed toilets. They’re caught off-guard with their undergarments already partially removed, making them easy targets. As a result, many people avoid toilets, opting for the immediate safety of their peers and open spaces versus a contained area that could put them in harm’s way.

We’re very fortunate in North America, although the toilets we do have are a colossal waste of water. You can conserve water from your toilet’s flushing mechanism by placing a two liter bottle filled with sand or water in your toilet’s tank. With this in place, it takes less water to fill the tank, and doesn’t remove from the flush power.

* photos and

Unbiased reporting is very difficult when it comes to the environment. How can one deliver a balanced report when ultra-rich investment corporation ‘X’ forgoes the environmental impact assessment, and goes ahead with project destroy-precious-habitat-for-profit-again? Unfortunately, this is a tale of that exact old story. The happy ending will come from a simple click to share your voice. It’s easy to feel heroic these days.

Blackstone, in their own words, is “a leading global alternative investment manager and financial advisor and an established global financial brand.” They speak of providing alternative energy to parts of the United States, which dresses them in sheep’s clothing, since their biofuels exacerbate the problem they claim to fix. Palm oil, a frequent ingredient of biofuels, is a bittersweet fuel. Touted once as an alternative to ‘dirty’ coal and oil fuels, it is just as devastating.

The WWF state that “Large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantation,” which is why alarms are now sounding for the forests of Cameroon.

Dr. Joshua M. Linder, an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at James Madison University, has been working in Cameroon and has witnessed first-hand the effects of tropical deforestation for palm oil plantations.

According to a survey he has been circulating, “Blackstone … a huge international investor, finances  a 70.000 hectare palm oil plantation. For this plantation dense, high canopy, mature rainforest would be cut down fragmenting a continuous forestblock.”

Habitat fragmentation is one of the triggers that can cause a wildlife population to collapse, bringing it to the deep gorge of endangerment. Fragmentation isolates animal populations, making it harder to maintain a cohesive group, which is supposed to help with gathering food and protection against predators. It also imposes other dangers and opens up the forest for further development.

According to Dr.Linder, the permit for the plantation was given without agreement from the 30 small villages (3,000 people) and actual landowners, whose estates would be confiscated.

Blackstone intends to clear 700 square kilometers of Africa’s oldest forests near Korup National Park, in Cameroon. This area is a region known for high levels of species diversity unique to that region, such as drill, chimpanzee, red colobus monkey, red-capped mangabey, the redeared monkey and a variety of small, shy antelopes known as duikers.

Photo courtesy of the Stop Blackstone Deforestation in Cameroon facebook groupAccording to Dr. Linder and his colleagues at McGill University, “Oil palm plantations kill off tropical forests and biodiversity throughout the tropics.  Much of this is being done in the name of biofuel, a senseless paradigm.  Note too that Cameroon is a major exporter of petroleum from off-shore drilling.”

Dr. Linder is in Cameroon presently, and will be contacting colleagues and protesters within the next two weeks after he re-emerges from the forest, where he is studying the loss of property and forest habitat directly.

“The companies are quickly moving forward with their development but the protest is gaining momentum, even in the Cameroon govt.  We actually have a chance to stop this with your help with the Cameroon oil palm protest.”

Signing this petition will give you an exciting opportunity to be part of protecting some precious forest land that would otherwise be lost forever to palm oil plantations. Once a crop like this is planted, the tropical soil, which is shallow in nutrients, is sapped of its ability to support a complex ecosystem and will collapse several years down the line. Click here to sign the petition.

Following the revolutions to oust Mubarak and Ben Ali, the world has turned its focus on the country sandwiched right between Egypt and Tunisia. On the 15th of February, only four days after the resignation of Mubarak, an uprising began in the western Libyan city of Benghazi.

At the onset of the uprising, Libya’s ruler of 41 years Muammar Gaddafi stayed uncharacteristically silent, to the point that many of his own followers believed he had fled the country. Unfortunately for everyone this wasn’t the case.

By the 21st of February violence had erupted as Gaddafi ordered a crackdown on the protests. By this time the protesters had reached the capital of Tripoli. Mad Muammar sent in the army and air force to bomb the protesters. Although casualty numbers are impossible to verify, estimates of the dead range from one thousand to three thousand lives.

Saif al-Islam Muammar Al-Gaddafi, the eldest son of Gaddafi, went on state television to warn all the dissidents of the dire consequences of their actions. He claimed if the uprising was successful “15 Islamic fundamentalist emirates” would take control of the country, he said this presumably to gain favor with western nations. He also mentioned that “mistakes had been made” in dealing with the protests.

The following day Muammar Gaddafi himself went on state television to deny rumors that he fled the country saying “I want to show that I’m in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs.” Soon after, two Libyan Air Force colonels flew their jets to Malta refusing orders to bomb civilians.

Protesters in Benghazi, February 25, 2011

Since Gaddafi’s first public address he has gone on television repeatedly sounding more desperate and crazy by the day. On the 22nd, he said he will hunt opponents of his regime, purging them “house by house” and “inch by inch”. He vowed to “fight until his last drop of blood” and “die as a martyr”.   A Libyan diplomat who recently defected said this speech was “a code to start genocide” against the Libyan people.

Gaddafi has also threatened to blow up his country’s oil pipelines should his regime fall, saying “It’s either me or chaos.” This sent oil prices soaring over the $100/barrel mark in the last week, even though Libya only produces 2% of the world’s oil.

On the 24th he told state television that al-Qaeda was responsible for the uprising in his country and claimed al-Qaeda had been drugging the youth with hallucinogenic drugs. On top of that he compared himself to Queen Elizabeth of England saying only he had the “moral authority” over his country.

Madman Muammar is now more desperate than ever as his opposition presently controls most of the country including the three largest cities outside of Tripoli. He is now said to be held up in his bunker in Tripoli with loyalists in the army and armed mercenaries surrounding him, ready to be unleashed on the public in a last ditch effort to cling to power.

Over the past few days, the US, the UN and the EU have all put sanctions on the Gaddafi Regime and family in response to the violent crackdown on his people. They are trying to freeze the oil driven Gaddafi fortune, which some estimate to be as much as 92 billion dollars.

With no real American ties to the regime it was easy for Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to pledge assistance to the Libyan opposition over the weekend, although it is not known what kind of assistance she was referring to (my guess is to protect the oil fields!).

Libya Sandwiched between two revolutions

No one really knows for sure whether or not Gaddafi will survive this third African revolution in a month and a half. The only thing that is known is that Libya, like Egypt and Tunisia will never be the same again.

They say that the young shall inherit the earth and it appears they have no desire to follow in their fathers’ economic, social and political footsteps and who can blame them. The youth in revolt, already tired of life without employment prospects, decent food and freedom are taking to the streets in northern Africa, the Middle East and around the world.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia could never have been successful without the resourcefulness of their countries’ kids. With their love of modern technology, they were able to organize massive rallies and protests using Facebook (even their CEO is a youth!), Twitter and cell phones. They were the main reason why decades of oppression and autocratic rule came to end in these two countries.

Knowing they should not have to settle for anything less than what most adults strive for; peace, justice, liberty and a means to live a healthy and happy life, the fires in their eyes have now spread to other parts of the world. The children of Libya, Bahrain, Iran, Morocco, Yemen and Wisconsin (really, Wisconsin?) have all seen their brothers and sisters take to the streets in recent weeks to vent their anger.

While the youth of the Middle East and Africa are fighting for the freedom that even their fathers have never known, the kids of Wisconsin are fighting for something that their fathers have always taken for granted, the right for government workers to collectively bargain.

Youth on the streets of Wisconsin

Much can be argued about the usefulness of the unions for public workers with the seemingly limitless wallets of the government. The fact is, why should teachers, policemen and firemen have less rights then the plumbers or steel workers? Politicians give out handouts to banks and car companies, build sports stadiums and give out tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy and then they have the nerve to say that not only will you not be getting that annual inflation raise, but we’re going to take away your right to try and do something about it. I digress.

Kids today, just when you’ve witnessed them speak their first words, you turn around and they’re staring down a tank while screaming for freedom. Dissent will always be the realm of the young and I’m happy to see it’s not always about the size of their allowance.

Smiling from across the table sits Tyler Bonnell.   A soft-spoken man with striking blue eyes and a well-trimmed beard, it is hard to imagine that this young parent is a world expert on mapping primate behavior.

Because of his early combined interests as an undergraduate in health related topics, maps and a gift for working with computers, Dr. Raja Sengupta and Dr. Colin Chapman from McGill University hand-picked him for graduate studies to investigate a new frontier in science.

“Because he had an interest in these fields and was (computer) programming on his own, we found him to be the perfect student,” said Dr. Sengupta.

In what looks like an archaic version of Pac-Man, Tyler spends his days programming how virtual primates might move in different landscapes.   It can be anything from how a monkey acts when it’s hungry, to how it moves around a forest when it is sick.

“It’s my own virtual laboratory.   I run tests under strict scenarios, tweak them, and then see what happens,” said Tyler about his research.

Welcome to the world of agent-based modeling (ABM).

A very basic model. The dots are agents that behave the way a programmer tells it to.

“ABM started with economics, what people might call computational social science,” said Dr. Sengupta, “people would replicate the stock market, with agents buying or selling stocks and shares to simulate what would happen in the real world.”

An agent can be anything you want to learn about, which you place in a model.   Dr. Sengupta said that people began realizing that agents had to have landscapes.

In Tyler’s case, the agent is the colobus monkey, a herbivorous primate species that lives in and around the lush Kibale National Park in Uganda.   His PhD focuses on combining ABM with health and geographical information systems (GIS).

The layers of GIS. Place the "agents" in this landscape and see how they act!

Using data collected over the years by Dr. Chapman from Kibale, Tyler has pieced together a complex, virtual world where he can observe what happens to primate agents if their programmed food sources are altered.

On his computer screen, the primates are represented by tiny dots.   They move as individuals within a social group, sharing information about food sources in a forest landscape that Tyler has created through real data.

“I use ABM to simulate foraging patterns, to see how primates move. If they are driven by their natural habitat, we can see how changes to the environment can change the rates that diseases spread. There’s awareness that ABM will become more important because of the rate that we’re changing the environment,” said Tyler.

“It’s a pretty powerful tool,” said Dr. Chapman.

“People are interested in how diseases spread. We share a lot with primates, being so closely related to them, which include diseases like AIDS and Ebola. Tyler can look at what could happen if an outbreak occurred. This would let us look at what mechanisms could be put in place to stop it from spreading,” said Dr. Chapman.

Tyler’s talents with ABM let him work in dynamic settings that let him answer “what if” questions with relative accuracy, which is particularly useful when raising a child who constantly asks “why?”