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Unlike the Rest of the UN, Is WHO (Finally) Taking Sexual Abuse Seriously?

6 min read.

A disturbing report on the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children in the DRC has laid bare the failure of UN agencies to protect vulnerable populations.

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Unlike the Rest of the UN, Is WHO (Finally) Taking Sexual Abuse Seriously?
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It is extremely unfortunate that at a time when the World Health Organization (WHO) is spearheading a campaign to get people vaccinated against COVID-19, and pushing rich countries to donate their vaccines to low-income countries instead of hoarding them, it is confronted with revelations that suggest deep systemic failures within the global health agency that have allowed its employees to get away with sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable populations.

Last month, WHO released a report that confirmed that there was sexual abuse of women and children by WHO employees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during an outbreak of Ebola in the country’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces between 2018 and 2020. This report was the result of an independent commission’s investigations following an exclusive media report last year that found that dozens of women in the DRC had been sexually exploited by aid workers, including WHO employees.  The most disturbing revelation was that some of the perpetrators were medical doctors. Many of the abused women were offered jobs in exchange for sex; others were raped or coerced into having sex against their will. There were also stories of women being forced to have abortions after they were sexually abused. The independent commission stated that its findings showed that 21 of the 83 alleged perpetrators were WHO employees, and that “individual negligence” on the part of WHO staff may have amounted to “professional misconduct”.

This is not the first time that sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children by UN employees has been reported in the DRC. In 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered an investigation into sexual abuses by UN peacekeepers in the country after it became apparent that such abuse was widespread in this mineral-rich but conflict-ridden country.  The investigation detailed various forms of abuse, including trading sex for money and food. It was in the DRC that the term “peacekeeper babies” first emerged. Women who had given birth after being raped by UN peacekeepers spoke about being abandoned by both their families and the peacekeepers who had impregnated them. However, the report had little impact on the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC – none of the perpetrators were brought to book nor were the victims compensated.

Sexual abuse of vulnerable populations, especially women and children, is particularly rampant in UN peacekeeping missions.  In 2017, the Associated Press revealed in an exclusive report that at least 134 Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers had exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. Many of the victims were offered food or money after they were sexually violated. (These “sex-for-food” arrangements have also been reported in other countries experiencing conflict or disaster.) Although 114 of these peacekeepers were sent home after the report came out, none of them were prosecuted or court-martialled in their countries.

One reason why UN peacekeepers evade the consequences of their actions is that under the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated between the UN and troop-producing countries, UN peacekeepers fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the country they come from. When cases of abuse are reported, they are either ignored by the countries, or the perpetrators are sent home—no questions asked.

Unfortunately, civilian UN staff who commit crimes such as rape also evade any legal action because the UN accords the UN and its employees immunity from prosecution. This immunity can only be waived by the UN Secretary-General, but the Secretary-General hardly ever waives this immunity even when there is overwhelming evidence against a UN staff member. This means that cases brought against UN employees cannot be tried in national courts, nor can the perpetrators be detained or arrested by national law enforcement agencies.  

At a press conference held last month, WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, apologised to the victims of the abuse in the DRC at the hands of WHO employees and promised to take action to prevent such abuse from happening again. “I am sorry for what was done to you,” he said. “What happened to you should not happen to anyone.”

The head of WHO has also promised to review the organisation’s emergency response measures and internal structures and to discipline those staff members who fail to report cases of sexual exploitation and abuse. WHO member states have also called for an “immediate, thorough and detailed assessment of what went wrong”.

I have no doubt that Mr Ghebreyesus is serious about fixing a problem that has plagued the UN for decades. In fact, his response to the sexual abuse allegations is much more honest and sincere than the responses of other heads of UN agencies whose employees have been accused of allowing sexual exploitation and abuse to occur under their watch. One, he established an independent commission to look into the sexual abuse allegations, which rarely happens. (Most UN agencies either ignore the allegations or order an internal investigation, which invariably determines that the allegations “could not be substantiated”.) Two, he has publicly committed to undertake wholesale reforms in WHO’s structures and culture that allow sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable populations to go undetected, unreported and unpunished. Three, he has agreed to the independent commission’s recommendation that an independent monitoring group be set up within two months to ensure that the commission’s recommendations are enforced.

“What happened to you should not happen to anyone.”

Most UN agencies would not welcome such intense scrutiny of their operations by independent bodies, so WHO’s efforts in this regard are laudable.  WHO’s actions could also be attributed to the fact that, unlike other UN agencies that report to the General Assembly, WHO reports to the World Health Assembly that comprises delegates that have technical competence in health matters and represent their governments’ ministries of health. Because it is a specialised UN agency not governed by the General Assembly, WHO can establish its own rules without deferring to the General Assembly. In this sense, WHO enjoys relative autonomy from the UN system’s gargantuan and highly opaque bureaucracy.

Cover-ups and impunity 

WHO’s response is a far cry from the normal tendency of UN bosses to cover up cases of sexual abuse and exploitation taking place under the UN’s watch.  In 2014, for instance, when a senior UN official reported to the French government that French peacekeepers operating in the Central African Republic were sexually abusing boys as young as eight years old, his bosses at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) responded by asking him to resign. When he refused to do so, they suspended him for “unauthorized disclosure of confidential information”, and, in a typical case of “shooting the messenger”, they directed their internal investigations towards him rather than towards the peacekeepers who had allegedly abused the children. This case, which received wide media coverage, did not lead to significant changes in how the UN handles sexual abuse cases. On the contrary, Anders Kompass, the UN official who reported the abuse, was retaliated against, and eventually left the organisation in frustration.

Cases of UN employees sexually abusing or harassing their colleagues are also brushed under the carpet. In 2018, for example, when an Indian women’s rights activist accused the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s India representative of sexual harassment, the UN agency said that its preliminary investigations showed that her allegations could not be substantiated. The Code Blue Campaign, which tracks instances of sexual harassment and exploitation by UN employees, dismissed the findings of the investigation, calling them a “cover-up.” (Soon after the activist made her allegation, UNFPA evacuated the accused from India, which further muddied her case.)

This is not an isolated case. In 2004, when a staff member at the UN’s refugee agency accused the head of the organisation of sexual harassment, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, dismissed her claims. Recently, a woman working at UNAIDS lost her job soon after she filed a complaint of sexual harassment against UNAIDS’ deputy executive director. This was after Michel Sidibé, the then head of UNAIDS, told a staff meeting that people who complain about how the agency was handling sexual harassment “don’t have ethics.”

The UN’s highly patriarchal and misogynistic culture allows such abuse to continue unabated. In 2018, the UN conducted an internal survey that found that one-third of the UN employees surveyed had experienced sexual harassment. It revealed that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44. Two out of three harassers were male and only one out of every three employees who were harassed took any action against the perpetrator. About one in ten women reported being touched inappropriately; a similar number said they had witnessed crude sexual gestures.

Another survey by the UN Staff Union found that sexual harassment was one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results of the survey showed that sexual harassment made up about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment. Forty-four per cent said that they had experienced abuse of authority; of these, 87 per cent said that the person who had abused his or her authority was a supervisor. Twenty per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting the misconduct.

The UN’s highly patriarchal and misogynistic culture allows such abuse to continue unabated.

Since then, the UN has established a new sexual harassment policy and a hot line for victims of sexual harassment. However, remedial actions spelled out in the policy appear to be mediation or counselling exercises rather than disciplinary ones. The emphasis is on psychosocial support and counselling (for the victims, of course) and “facilitated discussions” between the “offender” and the “affected individual”. Disciplinary measures include physical separation of the offender from the victim, reassignment, and temporary changes in reporting lines. Official internal investigations are permitted, but as I have tried to illustrate, most internal UN investigations into cases of sexual harassment and other kinds of wrongdoing inevitably conclude that the sexual harassment or wrongdoing “could not be substantiated.” This leaves victims vulnerable to retaliation.

Perhaps WHO can lead the way in showing the rest of the UN system how to tackle sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment by UN employees. WHO has already terminated the contracts of four of its employees who were accused of sexually exploiting women in the DRC. However, a true test of WHO and the UN’s commitment to end such abuses would be if they reinstated all those who were fired for reporting such cases. I for one am eagerly awaiting the independent monitoring group’s findings on whether or not WHO has taken tangible and impactful measures to protect people from being sexually abused and exploited by its employees and to safeguard the jobs of those who report such abuses.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation.

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree
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The joint United Nations (UN) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation is like a ham omelette: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. In this investigation, the UN only reluctantly became involved in demonstrating its efforts in investigating atrocity crimes, while the EHRC was committed to defending the government of Ethiopia – the architect of the war on Tigray.

Various reports on the investigation into atrocity crimes committed in Tigray are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

The report of the joint UN and EHRC investigation was released on 3 November 2021. The much-anticipated report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the determination by the United States government on whether genocide against Tigrayans has been committed, are also expected to be released in the near future. These reports will be markedly different from the discredited report of the joint investigation.

The joint investigation’s report failed to establish facts because the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had no access to the location it purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed. Due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the joint investigation was unable to access atrocity zones. It also underreported on, and failed to include, infamous atrocity zones in Tigray, including Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adrigrat, Hawzen, Gijet, and Maryam Dengelat as well as the Tigrayan bodies that washed up in Sudan on the Nile River. As in most cases, the worst atrocity zones in Tigray were located in active battlefields. Yet, the investigators were able to visit and interview witnesses in parts of Tigray that had been ethnically cleansed.

Victims side-lined 

Moreover, the report downplayed the concerns of victims. The UN Basic Principles on Right to Remedy and Reparations, under Principle 8, define victims as:

[P]ersons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law, or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimisation.

The final report did not include the findings of extensive interviews that the UN conducted with Tigrayan refugees from the second week of November 2020 through to the end of December 2020. These interviews were held in refugee camps in Sudan, with victims and witnesses of human rights violations of various kinds and to different degrees. According to some informants, the report was submitted to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January 2021. However, for unclear reasons, the findings of this investigation have not yet been made public, and there is no mention of it in the joint report. Informants say that few staff members of the Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights in Addis Ababa raised questions regarding the integrity of the investigation carried out by their colleagues in Sudan.

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded. Instead, the UN issued the report authored jointly with the EHRC while concealing the report its office in Sudan had produced earlier. This amounts to subversion of investigations and victims’ right to truth and remedy – a violation of international law.  Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia curtailed the UN’s role in the investigation including by expelling one of the UN investigators.

Witnesses were reluctant to participate in an inquiry involving the EHRC. As one of the challenges, the report mentions the “perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray where some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”. This is a deliberate understatement.

Tigrayan victims and Tigray authorities rejected the joint investigation from the outset and declared their non-cooperation. In a recent report the Guardian asserts, “Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is partial towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF.”

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded.

Victims are right to fear reprisals by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, and this fear silenced many and reinforced victims’ non-cooperation since the EHRC was involved. Conversely, perpetrators believe they can get away with their crimes when the EHRC is leading the investigation.

A principal at the core of the concept of justice is redressing the wrongs done to victims. The interests of victims should thus remain central to any investigation. In Tigray, women are the principal victims of the war, and a deliberate campaign of rape and sexual violence has been as typical as murder.

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation. Justice entails that victims have the right to the truth and that those responsible for victimising people are held to account for their actions in a transparent fact-finding process and held liable for remedying the harm caused. The truth of what occurred should be established through the verification of facts and full public disclosure.

Bad start

The joint investigation started on the wrong footing. The basis on which the decision to constitute a joint investigation was made, the terms of reference, the selection of the investigators, and the agreement between the UN and the EHRC have never been made public, despite many requests. They remain shrouded in secrecy.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia. Others argue that such a joint venture would help build local and national capacity for investigation. It is heartless to think of building local capacity at the expense of victims of mass atrocity crimes (rape, killings, displacement and destruction of livelihoods). In effect, in this investigation, though committed to addressing atrocity crimes, the UN has been allowed to play second fiddle to personalities of a national system. The UN offered a façade of independence and impartiality to the investigation. The decision to conduct this joint investigation politicized a process that could and should have been de-politicized.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia.

Given that a general situation of war, chaos and a breakdown in law and order has been deliberately created in Tigray to systematically and systemically commit atrocities, destroy infrastructure and loot property, fears of reprisal are real. Consequently, the victims had little confidence in the joint investigation’s impartiality, capability and mandate to establish the truth, let alone identify perpetrators – particularly those holding the highest offices of command, control and communication.

Pleas unheeded 

For these reasons, many Tigrayans denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for involving the EHRC. The investigation was, from the start, designed to fail the Tigrayan victims. Tigrayans consistently called for the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry equipped to investigate crimes of such magnitude and gravity.

What is more, the report subverted the core aim of a standard investigation. Investigations and findings should be based on verifiable evidence collected from the ground without any involvement from the parties to the conflict and institutions accused of bias. The UN also failed to follow its guidelines and precedence of establishing independent and international commissions of inquiry or international fact-finding missions, as it did in Burundi, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sudan (Darfur), Côte d’Ivoire, and Lebanon. These exemplary investigations were comprehensive and served as historical records of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, offered the victims truth, and ensured the legal and political accountability of those responsible. In addition to holding criminals accountable, such investigations are supposed to help in restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and above all, guarantees of non-repetition of violations.

One asks why the UN thinks the atrocities committed in Tigray are less deserving.

False equivalence

All investigations need to include all alleged violations by any party. The prosecution also needs to include all responsible parties to ensure that no justice is victor’s justice. This is not only the right thing to do but also the most effective method of legitimizing the process, ensuring accountability, providing remedies, and fighting impunity. However, such a process should not apply bothsidesism as a method of investigation and attribution of culpability.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators. There are more paragraphs about calls for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than accountability, attribution of culpability, and ending impunity. The report is crafted in a manner that covers up the ringleaders of the crimes, softens accountability, advances recommendations that permit impunity in the name of reconciliation, and establishes false equivalence among warring parties. One paragraph in the report, for example, states, “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms. In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.” The report advances proposals on non-legal issues including political causes of the war, humanitarian consequences and capacity building of EHRC.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators.

It is bizarre that the UN believes that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Attorney General of the Government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the Attorney General remains the chief architect of massive profiling of Tigrayans living outside Tigray, rounding up Tigrayans and leading the campaign for their internment. Like the EHRC, the Attorney General has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.

Furthermore, many Ethiopians see only the victimization of their own group and not what their side has done to others. Dialogue, reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved while every fact is disputed. This report adds to the fierce dispute around the facts. For this very reason, many will continue to reject the report – as they did the investigation.

Victims’ demand

Overwhelming segments of the Tigrayan society reject the joint report. In particular, Tigrayans demand that the UN conduct its investigations, revealing Tigrayans’ high expectations of the UN’s ability to establish the truth based on which justice can be served.

Given the recent leaked audio recording that reveals the conspiracy against Tigrayans by some of the leaders in the UN Ethiopia office, one is forced to ask why Tigrayans have such high hopes in the UN. Many are left with no option but to reject outright the poison fruit of the so-called joint investigation, much as the victims, their families, the survivors and the Tigrayan community at large have done. By disregarding repeated calls for an international commission of inquiry, the UN has missed an opportunity for an empathetic and purposeful connection with the actual victims of the war.

Many atrocity situations such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Burundi have been visited by the highest level officials of the international community. The highest-level officials of the UN, AU, IGAD and the US and EU leadership should travel to Tigray and other war-torn areas of Ethiopia. Even if permission from the government of Ethiopia for such high-level visits would have been difficult to secure, such attempts by high-level officials to visit the region would have demonstrated at least personal compassion and solidarity with victims. Such visits would have been viewed as both a symbolic and tangible commitment of leaders to end the war and the siege, and address impunity.

In the interests of the victims – and to place them at the centre of UN’s human rights work – the UN should authorize a UN-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate the atrocity crimes committed in Tigray and in other parts of the country.

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No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land

Kenyans choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army (also known as Mau Mau) did not fight for a monument. They fought for land.

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No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land
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Mau Mau heroes now have a monument, but no land. Earlier this month, they were invited to the unveiling of this monument in Nairobi; a “memorial to the victims of torture and ill treatment during the colonial period 1952-1960.” They turned up in large numbers, the majority wearing bright red t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Shujaa wa Mau Mau” – Mau Mau hero.

In their hundreds, they were a sea of red and black amidst the green of Uhuru Park, watching avidly for when their monument would be unveiled in the section of this commons called “Freedom Corner.”

And while the British and Kenyan government and collaborating NGO representatives, all younger than the actual heroes, were sitting within an expansive white tent, these aging freedom fighters were sat under the hot sun, waiting for the official ceremony to begin. Some were said to have arrived as early as 6 am.

Finally, we could say, at least some recognition for our people who were classified as terrorists until 2003. Finally something to honour the bravery of all freedom fighters and the significance of that period in our history.

But, as social movement activist Gacheke Gachihi asked, what can we gain from a narrative that continues to posit them as “victim” instead of victor over the British? And even while recognizing the inhuman excesses meted out against them, what are the motivations for a rewriting of history that perpetuates a narrative of their victimhood and, as is appearing to be more and more the case, erases the full extent of their struggle?

Spoken interminably at the monument unveiling was the word “reconciliation,” followed closely by “ending” and “closure.” It seems that this monument is also meant to make us reconcile our past with all features of British imperialism; the £90,000 monument (an incessantly repeated figure) is where all further questions about the ravages of empire stop.

Inevitably, it seems also to be the national burial site for the land question.

Not one mention of it anywhere at this launch.

It was the elephant in the room, the solid yet invisible presence that no one spoke about. It was clumsily replaced by other buzzwords: reconciliation, closure, victimhood.

And while they turned up in their numbers, the show could definitely have gone on without the Kenya Land and Freedom army for in many ways these heroes were the appropriate props for the speeches and photo opportunities of innumerable people who were not Mau Mau, yet who will revel in the after glories of the praise that will come from being “important” at this event.

It is reported that these important characters then later went off to drink at the Norfolk, the oldest and, undoubtedly, most colonial of Nairobi’s hotels (even President Roosevelt stayed here in 1909 when he came to shoot half our wildlife to “collect specimens for the Smithsonian institute”) and whose terrace is “rumoured” to be the site where Africans were often shot for sport.

Meanwhile the actual shujaas then walked home, 80-year-old grandmothers bent over with no shoes walking through busy Nairobi to go back to their rural homes.

And in the the Nairobi headquarters of the Mau Mau, Mathare constituency, life continued as normal for Monica Wambui, a 101-year-old Mau Mau woman who has been living in her mabati tin house for the last 50 + years, and with no water, permanent shelter and still having to find her own firewood to cook.

And for this shujaa wa Mau Mau from Mathare, tells it all.

In this same place the descendants of these two heroes are caught in the spate of police killings that Mathare Social Justice Centre is working to document. And there will never be monuments for these young people who, in many ways, are also fighting for land.

A week later we are still being told about the £90,000 monument to “victims,” and being assailed constantly by the supposed generosity of the British government who solicited this monument at their “own” expense  (one twitter commentator remarked that this money is likely to have been easily raised from all the exorbitant visa fees Kenyans are charged to visit the UK) .

And in all the hyper-buzz about this memorial we choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army did not fight for a monument.

They fought for land.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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I Am Samuel

The government should support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard, and everyone’s point of view to be listened to.

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I Am Samuel
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“I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

We first got introduced to independent documentary filmmaking in 2013, at a gathering of Kenyan filmmakers in a small office of the nascent DocuBox film fund. Pete Murimi, director of I am Samuel, and I, producer, had no idea that it was possible to tell stories independent of a broadcaster or funder. As a service producer, I was used to receiving agency or broadcaster briefs and working according to spec. Pete, as a filmmaker at the UN, was familiar with that style of telling stories.

This intimate gathering of filmmakers (which included directors of The Letter, Kenya’s submission to the Oscars in 2020, and the director of New Moon, winner of Oscar-qualifying 2018 DIFF Best Documentary award) did not know that it was about to embark on an arduous multiple-year journey to tell their stories, and self-release at global festivals. But we all somehow made it through the strength of community and the determination to have complete agency over the stories we felt were important to tell. Pete and I were committed to telling stories of outsiders, people who did not accept the way things were, just because.

Voltaire’s quote above is our fallback when asked about freedom of expression, the freedom we committed to when we decided we wanted to tell these stories. We are a diverse country, with complicated, layered realities. Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

Shot over five years, I Am Samuel tells the story of a queer man navigating the tension between his life in Nairobi and his rural childhood home. He and his partner Alex want to build a life together, but his father and mother want him to get married, have kids, and live the exact kind of life they have.

Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

This was not an easy documentary to make. Samuel had to give up a lot of his privacy, and trust Pete and I, who were first-time independent filmmakers, balancing making this film with our day jobs. But Samuel allowed us into his life, without restriction. And that was a privilege that we could not afford to take lightly. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In fiction films, the director is God; in documentary, God is the director.” We believe this to be true; life as it happens, with all its messiness and unpredictability, is what makes character-driven verité styles so difficult to do, but ultimately so rewarding.

I am Samuel was released at Hot Docs 2020, an international film festival that showcases stories from across the globe. It then toured the Human Rights Watch Film Festivals the world over and showed in South America, the Netherlands, and the UK. But our eventual goal was always to bring it back home. Because we felt this was a Kenyan story, we knew it would connect with audiences back home; mostly because Samuel’s lived reality as a queer, religious, traditional man is not unique. We applied for classification in Kenya to be able to screen it locally, and waited weeks for a response. We were asked to attend a meeting at the KFCB offices on Thursday 23rd September, but we were unable to make it in person. We then heard about the press conference, the ban, and the press release later that Thursday.

We are yet to receive a letter in writing or a certificate that shows our Kenyan rating.

We were deeply disturbed by the discriminatory language used in explaining the ban: they described it as “blasphemous” and “unacceptable, and an affront to our culture and identity.” The restricted classification of the film contained a number of inaccuracies. It referenced a “marriage” that never happened and said we were “promoting a homosexual lifestyle”. The board noted a “clear and deliberate attempt by the producer to promote same-sex marriage as an acceptable way of life. This attempt is evident through the repeated confessions of the gay couple that what they feel for each other is normal and should be embraced as a way of life, as well as the characters’ body language, including scenes of kissing of two male lovers.”

We were simply filming people’s lived experiences.

By banning the film, KFCB is silencing a real Kenyan community and trampling on our rights as filmmakers to tell Samuel’s story. Every story is important. And we are all equal in the eyes of the law and before God, in line with the religion the film board is invoking in this ruling. The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

The Kenya Film Classification Board is trying to censor a part of Kenya that has always existed, is a lived reality for millions and will always be a part of us. Several high-profile Kenyans are queer, including government politicians and public figures, but the intolerant atmosphere created by discriminatory statements like those of the KFCB make it impossible for them to live openly – and allow other Kenyans to continue to discriminate, wrongfully so, against LGBTQ+ Kenyans. As I Am Samuel shows, prejudice forces LGBTQ+ Kenyans to live in the shadows, fearful of being beaten up, fired from their jobs, or evicted from their homes. Stigma puts pressure on their families, who fear that if their neighbours find out they have a gay child, they will be ostracised.

The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

In their press statement, the KFCB appealed for content that “promotes Kenya’s moral values and national aspirations”. What are these values? The KFCB is assuming that the values of all Kenyans are the same – conservative and Christian. But Kenya is a diverse country and it is the responsibility of our government to represent and serve everybody. Our differences should be acknowledged as a strength, and shown through our filmmaking. Kenya is Africa’s third biggest film producer, after Nigeria and Ghana, making 500 films a year. African filmmakers are attracting international acclaim. Softie won an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year. The United Nations recently said that the African film and audio-visual industry generates US$5 billion a year and has the potential to create 20 million jobs. I Am Samuel is the third LGBTQ+ film to be banned by the KFCB, following Stories of Our Lives (2014) and Rafiki (2018). Among other movies that have been banned by KFCB are The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).

Our film is a true record of Samuel’s lived experience Samuel. Gay African men, gay African people, should be recognised and have their rights respected. This includes the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination. Samuel himself is a strong Christian, and Kenya has several LGBTQ+-friendly churches that provide a place for queer Kenyans to worship together. Banning of films is a blow to Kenyan filmmakers as our audience is inherently local, and we need to have a wide distribution to reach audiences, to go regional, to go global, for so many reasons: telling our own narratives, correcting the misguided ones, creating jobs, and widening our own imaginations, exponentially, of what is possible for us as Kenyans. The Lupita Nyong’os and Edi Gathegis of this world should not only exist in a rare and unexplored vacuum.

It is time for the government to accept and support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard – because the banning also leaves us with questions about whether everyone’s point of view truly is listened to. The documentary has been released across Africa on the AfriDocs website, and we hope that African audiences will still get a chance to watch a film that is not accepted in its home country. . . yet.

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