Felistas Waguthi’s mirth is unmistakable: She laughs easily and has lot of hilarious stories galore. When she was young, she must have been stunningly beautiful: chocolate-dark skinned, she is tall and has an athlete’s body. At 75 years and living in Kirimukuyu location in Tumu Tumu sub-location in Mathira constituency, Nyeri County, 140km north of Nairobi city, she has seen it all – but one thing that has been constant – her life has been riven with staggering poverty.
I found her peeling some pint-sized potatoes that looked like marble balls. “The harvest was poor, there wasn’t enough rains,” Felistas told me, in her mud-house that had dangerously hanging soot in the “sitting room”. She cooks, entertains and sleeps in the oblong shaped mud house. I have experienced and lived poverty, but Felistas’s searing poverty was mind numbing in a county celebrated as agriculturally fertile and rich. “We are looking to being given relief maize by the (national) government,” said Felistas. “Many people in my locale do not have enough food.”
On my way to visit her, I had passed through Murang’a County using Kenol-Saba Saba-Murang’a road. I noticed the stunted maize crop that had obviously failed because of the inadequate rains. Stopping in Murang’a town to refill, I engaged some local residents, who told me Murang’a County was already receiving relief maize. I arrived in Kirimukuyu in time to find Felistas with a 2kg packet of unga (maize flour) and a kilo of Basmati rice. “There is a young man here in my village, I knew his father in the 1960s, he is been sending me some foodstuff, especially rice and maize flour – like he has done today,” said the granny.
“All our leaders are capricious and greedy,” ventured the old lady. “They do not care for anything or anyone. They are just interested in self-aggrandizement. They have contributed to this poverty that abounds in this area.” To illustrate her point, she digressed and told me the story of her elder brother. “My elder brother – now deceased had been born disabled, so as the last born, I spent many years looking after him. In his last five years of his life, he suffered greatly, and couldn’t leave the house. ‘Isn’t there something like a national fund for the disabled?’ she posed aloud. There is not an office in Nyeri I didn’t enter. I wanted some help from our elected leaders and government for my brother. When I tell you all these leaders – from the top to the lowest – are only interested in grabbing everything for themselves, believe me. “It is the same young man who frequently sends me flour and rice my way that helped me in those five years that my brother was sick.”
Felistas told me she used to work for an English master in Nairobi in 1965, two years after the country gained independence. “My white boss treated me better than any of our leaders have ever treated us,” said a nostalgic Felistas. “I gave up on our leaders a long time ago: They are masters of deceit and subterfuge. My life belongs to the Lord, who sustains me and who has kept me going all through these hard times. If I had relied on the leaders, do you think I would be alive today?” She was not asking me, she wanted me to know the contempt with which she held the politicians, who every cycle of five years, came to lie to her, on how they were going to improve her life.
Barefooted, Felistas’s feet told the story of a resilient woman who had faced the vagaries of life stoically. The feet had trekked many kilometres in search of food for her children in yester years and, they were still doing the same for her grandchildren, who were playing outside her mud structure.
“Mathira ya githomo”. The educated Mathira. That was how Mathira, her constituency was once referred to. In the days gone by, Mathira produced some of the best and most educated Nyerians. But today, it has sunk to the bottom of the ladder. “Illiteracy, poverty and unemployment are the order of the day,” said James Karani, my boda boda ride when I was in Karatina. “Do not forget that Mathira is where competing politicians brag on how they can boil a pot of githeri with KSh1000 notes, until it’s cooked.”
Karani took me to Wariruta trading centre, an outpost on the Karatina-Nyeri Road. We met young men who were chewing muguka – a bitter-sweet stimulant of the miraa species, whose leaves chewed long enough makes you feel high. Others were playing pool, still others idled around. “It is at Wariruta that you will find all manner of drugs,” Karani reported to me. “Cocaine, heroine, marijuana, you name it. I grew up in Wariruta and went to school with many of these guys, so we interact, but I am puzzled by how the drugs find their way here.”
Karani told me the young men and women had refused to take up farming. “Look at the farms, there isn’t anything growing or any animal movement. Farming takes too long, the young people do not have the patience for the crops to grow up, when there is betting and hustling. In idiomatic English, a hustler is a prostitute. So, drunkenness among the youth of Wariruta, has become the norm. “The youth have become fatalistic and hopelessness and restlessness has become their way of life,” said Karani. “They no longer believe in the country’s politics or politicians. When Uhuru came to Karatina town to campaign for the August 8, 2017 general elections, the youth yelled and shouted at him when he asked the Mathira people to vote for the Jubilee six-piece-suit. ‘We are farmers, we don’t wear suits’ replied the youth. It was their way of telling him, they were tired of five-year-cycle of politics that had failed to improve their lot.”
On my way back to Nairobi, I wanted to sample the Sagana town nightlife. So, I used the Nyeri-Sagana highway. Sagana is at the “Makutano” junction of Kagio-Kutus-Kerugoya road that took you into the heartland of Kirinyaga County and the Nyeri-Sagana highway. I saw, in the one street town, twilight girls, peddling their wares to the truckers who stop at Sagana, on their way to Meru, Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale and Mandera. I remembered what Karani in Karatina had told me: many of the youth in Central Kenya have chosen the “hustler life”, which though is replete with avoidable risks, they opted for it nonetheless, because the returns are immediate and rewarding, as opposed to waiting for the rain-fed crops to sprout and be sold in the markets for peanuts.
Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age
The High Court’s decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear.
I will never forget that weekend, over 32 years ago. It was a sunny day; I was walking on Koinange Street, and was about to get onto Kenyatta Avenue, when a vivid and amazing realization hit me, “I am gay!” I was 22 years old at the time, and had been struggling for many years prior – I had become familiar with the darkness of depression and shame at the thought of being homosexual. I had prayed desperately to God to take away the feelings I had.
I knew from a very young age I was different but never actually understood what that difference was. By Class Three or Four, my brothers – I have five in total – had given me nicknames “Ciku” or “Suku” that always had me fighting with them, since they seemed to disparagingly suggest I was engaging in roles that were supposed to be for girls. I was too young to understand any of this at the time. But as I grew up and went into high school I completely got lost when my male peers started having discussion about girls. I could not understand their excitement and strategies on how they would get their first kisses or hugs. My lack of comprehension of what my peers were going through began a deep fear in me that there was something terribly wrong with me. I pretended with my friends that I understood their conversations but I failed to catch this wave of pubescent excitement.
It was not until I got into college, and luckily took a class in human sexuality, that I finally understood that I was part of the sexuality spectrum that included same-gender attraction. This realization was liberating, albeit for a very short period, because once I actually understood what this meant for me, my understanding of my family, my culture, religion, friends and everything I held dear to my life, I became petrified. I was barely 21 and was about to start a very challenging journey of shame and refusal at what was very clearly the reality of who I was. I loved my family deeply but with the realization that I was gay, I was afraid that I would be a disappointment to my loving and supportive parents. This of course led to feeling ashamed and undeserving. The prayers to God and anybody who could hear me seemed to land on deaf ears until that fateful sunny day on K-Street. It’s kind of funny how this moment happened on a street that was known to be Nairobi’s red light district. Irony, you might say.
For reasons I still do not understand till this day, I felt a divine intervention and connection in that moment, possibly with ancestors looking out for me, that finally made me stop questioning myself and finally accept how I was born and who I was. For the next many years, I realized that my realization on that sunny day was just the beginning of a very long journey of self-discovery, a different kind of struggle that comes with claiming my space in life.
With a new acceptance of myself, I began looking for people who might be going through similar experiences. This was Nairobi before the digital age and so there was no Internet, no social media, Facebook, Twitter, or anything like that. Amazingly, there were individuals going through the same thing, and often one got introduced via networks that people had made over time. The fear slowly began to ease, and I began to be excited since I now did not see myself as a problem but as someone who belonged.
Over time some of us spent long hours at various places, including Cameo Cinema on Kenyatta Avenue, talking and getting to know one another. There was a lot of cruising around on Kenyatta Avenue, where lifelong friendships and even relationships were born. I was to later learn that these encounters were happening in other parts of the city and particular bars, clubs had begun to be spaces that individuals could meet and socialize. This is why it is important to have spaces to experience oneself with people like yourself. And all this existed in pre-digital Nairobi. Today’s society might not want to believe it, but we – queer people – have always been here. These pioneering spaces, I believe strongly, were the precursors for organized LGBQTI groups that were to start in the late 1990s and really blossom in the mid-2000s.
I left Kenya soon after for further studies, and moved to New York City. There, an HIV epidemic was in high gear, affecting primarily gay and bisexual men. While in New York, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and working within the HIV sector, I saw dozens of my gay friends die, not only from the lack of medication then, but from also the intense stigma and discrimination they received from the society at large. With my background in health, I got immersed in the responses against HIV in the city. This included facilitating HIV-positive support groups for gay and bisexual men of African descent ( African-American, Caribbean and African immigrants), and visiting hospitals to visit abandoned gay men whose families only showed up once they had passed on. I could not, and still do not understand how a family can abandon their child simply because of their sexual orientation.
It was at this time, and I believe as a result of a lot of pent up anger at the injustices I was experiencing all around me, that I came out to my family. My thinking was if they decided to abandon me (as I had seen many of my friends experience with their families) then I wanted to be in the space where I could speak directly to that, in case it ever happened. But I was surprised – and incredibly relieved – that my brothers were supportive of me even though they did not quite understand what I was experiencing at the time.
I began my journey back to Kenya in 2006 and finally settled back home in 2008. I had come back to support the beginnings of the governmental response to the HIV epidemic affecting marginalized communities including the ‘Most at Risk’ Populations (later to be renamed ‘Key Populations’ – sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who use drugs). My experience in the US provided me with some perspective to the growing voice of marginalized communities to the HIV pandemic – I felt I had something to contribute. I was also blessed to join in the growing voices of LGBTQI activists beginning to articulate and claim their rightful spaces as full citizens of this country. Eleven years later much has been achieved by LGBTQI and other marginalized communities in both the health and legal sectors.
This is why I woke up with great expectations on that Friday, May 24th 2019. I was optimistic because within this past decade, the LGBTQI community has had some incremental but significant legal wins, many of them made possible with the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution and its progressive Bill of Rights. In 2012, for example, a transgender woman was stripped naked by the police, in the full glare of the media. The court ruled her rights had been violated and ordered the government pay for damages caused. In a 2013 case that challenged the NGO Board, which had refused to register LGBTQI organizations, the High Court held that Article 27 of the Constitution protected ‘every person’ regardless of their sexual orientation. The Court further held that permitting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation would be against constitutional provisions of equality and non-discrimination.
And in another 2013 case, Baby A was born with both male and female genitalia. Hospital records indicated the baby’s sex by a question mark (?) and as a result, the child could not be issued a birth certificate or, concomitantly, an identity card. The court agreed with the petitioners that this offends the child’s rights to legal recognition, erodes its dignity and violates the right of the child not to be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment as guaranteed in both the Constitution and the Children’s Act. It was a landmark case that provided for the first time relief for intersex persons in Kenya and ultimately led to the creation of the Intersex Task Force by the Attorney General’s office.
It was with this background of the successes the LGBTQI movements have had in their engagement with the judiciary, which gave me hope that early Friday morning. But halfway through the reading of the judgment, it became clear to all around that things were not going well. When the judges stated that majority views – ‘public opinion’ – must at times prevail in rulings such as this, we knew the case was lost. The judgment made it clear that in Kenya, the existing Victorian-era colonial penal codes are here to stay.
This decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. The High Court’s conservative negative ruling basically invalidating the existence of LGBT people in Kenya was not only a body blow to many LGBTQ individuals in Kenya, but truly had me going back to 32 years ago, where shame and self-hate ruled my life. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear. The ruling seemed to not address the pertinent issues brought up by the petition but used as a platform to preach to queer Kenyans about Kenya’s cultural and religious values, things that were simply not being challenged in the court.
The reaction of the LGBQTI community has been one of devastation. We are part of this country. We work and contribute to the nation’s development. We will continue to challenge laws and a society that is intent on excluding us from our rightful place as citizens of this country. We have however shown great dignity and resolve and intend to continue our long journey for recognition, the same as has happened in other struggles in the past, including for our own country’s independence. Our uhuru will come.
Genesis: A Revolutionary Dance
I greet you in the name of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Micere Mugo, Thomas Mapfumo, and Bob Marley. I greet you in the name of dance, song, story, and poetry.
A friend comes up to me and tries to convince me how art is unnecessary:
A luxury for First World countries, but apparently for us who are still developing,
It is only hindering
Unlike the Sciences, business studies, and engineering which are actually Doing Something
“Building”, according to him,
“The arts are simply a frivolous pastime”
And I should have known by his first line, it was already past time to shut down his lip
Damn. The whiteness runs deep
I do not understand whether it is extremely sad or deeply infuriating:
This heavily colonized way of thinking
Erasing chunks of history
Dumbing down my destiny to unnecessary
You see, I am here to tell story
And in this story, this type of thinking is my enemy, choosing to unsee my poetry
Telling me as a black African woman I should put my mind to better use
As if I do not use the tears and injustices against my people as a muse
To speak to what we could be above and beyond what we are
As if dance, poetry, song, and story are not the only balm working towards healing continental scars
As if the sky is anything but dark at night without the stars
If you come at me with art is unnecessary, more so in a developing country
Ayii yawah! May the ancestors judge you accordingly!
Because you have not done the work to know your history
And one simply has no right to dismiss art as inconsequential to the freedom fight
So today I bring you the forgotten histories
Like the griots who have come before me
From the beginning: Genesis
If God created the world with words, then creation lies on the tips of our tongues
Revolution sits in wait for a song to be sung
A poem to reiterate how freedom has now come
In the early 1960s, 300 years after the Dutch subjugated South Africa
A man known as apartheid’s father, Hendrick Verwoerd, became prime minister
The earth wailed for this broken nation
In this period of black subjugation, oppression, degradation, and shattered dreams of emancipation
One man, Vuyisile Mini, composed one song to a silent symphony
The ground responded collectively…
Bringing in the people’s harmony,
“Ndondemnyama ve Verwoerd”
And the people collected the song and started singing, “Ndondemnyama ve Verwoerd-
Watch out Verwoerd, the black man is coming! Your days are over.”
Reiterated decades later by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela
The song became the people’s prayer:
Chanted on lips, music the tool of power whispered through chattering teeth
Vuyisile Mini was named a rebel organizer and was sentenced to death by the apartheid powers
They say he died, head held high… a martyr
Singing, “Ndonemnyama ve Verwoerd” with fire
And this is what music does for the revolution
It is power on the lips of children
Ask the sons and daughters of South Africa as they sing,
“Freedom is coming! Tomorrow!”
Song is power, “Amandla!”
In the early 1940s, two decades after the Harlem renaissance of the 20s
Led by black poets, jazz musicians, and writers in American society,
Leopold Senghor sat in his room writing poetry
After two years in Nazi concentration camps, captured while fighting French wars
He now armed himself with African words
Having received the highest distinction as an African in French education
This man who would become the first Senegalese president did not simply sit in his achievement
Instead he wrote poetry
Critiquing the Frenchman’s philosophy
Questioning the idea that Africans have no civilized culture or history
Mourning assimilation’s intention to eradicate the collective African memory
This one man whose civilization and history was considered crude sparked into existence the continental movement known as Negritude
Black Self-love. A whole damn mood!
In 1910 colonial Kenya
Lived a priestess from the people of the Kamba known as Syotuna
When she was younger, she had been a warrior
But now a widow, age had begun to catch up with her
But still within her was the spirit of a fighter, her soul burned fire
The colonial regime had driven her people out of their lands
Hiking up taxes, tying their hands
Forcing them to slave their way for some white man’s pay day
Syotuna’s spirit could not simply sit and wait
So she challenged her people’s predetermined complacent fate
Choosing to fight for her people instead of leaving it to chance
Her weapon of choice, as unconventional as it sounds: Dance
The Kilumi dance was sacred to the Kamba women’s history
Syotuna realized she could use it to weaponize her stories
So she danced, sang, and chanted her memories
Reminding her people of their past warrior glories
Spitting on the colonial regime’s atrocities
Freeing her people from their mental slaveries
Soon the dance of Kilumi began to pick across the lands as children and women attempted to mimic
Syotuna’s thrusting hips, so free and unbridled
The colonizers called it demonic
And the ancestors must have laughed at this fearful tactic
The more they danced, the more the Kamba rebelled
The white man’s fear propelled their last move:
Syotuna was exiled
But not before the revolution of the Kilumi dance spread into the hearts and minds of the young Kamba revolutionaries left behind
If I were to sit around this fire and tell you the stories of all the artist revolutionaries throughout our collective history from the beginning,
We would spend eternity
So for now I merely greet you in the name of these and others from our ancestry.
I greet you in the name of another warrior dancer, Mekatilili.
I greet you in the name of another music freedom fighter, Fela Kuti.
I greet you in the name of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Micere Mugo, Thomas Mapfumo, and Bob Marley.
I greet you in the name of dance, song, story, and poetry.
I greet you in the name of revolutionary history.
I greet you in the name of Love.
The Kenyan Media and the Queer Stories Of Our Lives
I hope that soon when I encounter media coverage of LGBTQ issues, it will recognise and acknowledge that there isn’t one single narrative to our ‘gayism’, which actually isn’t even a proper word.
My earliest encounter of the word homosexuality in the Kenyan press was in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to the magazines Drum and True Love, which were published out of South Africa at the time. There was the Dear Dolly advice section, which offered advice on relationships and what I thought then were ‘adult’ things. The mainstream press occasionally carried out an ‘expose’ on areas of Mombasa Island that were notorious for homosexual activities. When it came to TV, I remember there was a couple of male sex workers who were used as the standard representation of all things gay. This seemed to suit the narrative that all gays were sex workers and effeminate. Any queer reporting had to be sensational, and inevitably leading to an AIDS-related life or death.
Even today, in most cases, whenever there is a ‘gay issue’ that cannot be avoided, the pictures used in the local media will be of cut-off jean shorts or the most dramatic photo that can be found off the wires. It’s all aimed at creating the ‘hawa watu’ (these people) feeling. ‘Gayism’ – a term that doesn’t exist in the English language until our newsrooms birthed it – is rarely portrayed in a way that normalises same-sex relationship or depicts queers’ identities in a positive way.
I cringe when I remember the Standard’s coverage of the UK-based Kenyan gay couple who got married back in 2009. Once the story was picked up by other media houses, they hot-footed to the unsuspecting parent’s home in Murang’a, and sought a reaction that was anything but shocking. No one really cared to ask whether she even knew what homosexuality was.
Do we ask the same of women in heterosexual relationships?
“The responsibility for the news rests with consumers as well as producers, or rather when we accept and repeat statements, we too become producers of the beliefs that shape this world. It behoves us to do so with care.” The majority of the media houses are guilty of regurgitation of the lie that homosexuality is illegal and that Repeal 162 was about gay marriage. This has not stopped the public to from asking the same media houses: ‘if homosexuality is illegal, then why are gay people allowed to walk around freely in the country?’ The gay marriage line has kept being weaved into stories even after the petitioners of the case repeatedly stated the case was not about marriage. Sadly, we have become a public that simply consumes without question. Media audiences in Kenya are severely malnourished! There is a lot more reporting than real journalism from our media houses. One might even say there is a lot more misreporting than reporting taking place. And this extends beyond ‘hawa watu’ issues.
Sadly, many notable stories on LGBTQ Kenyans or allies are falling off the radar of our media houses and being picked up by the foreign press. I must say the Daily Nation is in the habit of covering LGBTQ Kenyan stories through news agencies like AFP. I could be wrong but I have not seen a local interview done with Rafiki film director Wanuri Kahiu on any local platform. The film remains banned in Kenya. Another banned film is Stories Of Our Lives, and producer Jim Chuchu told me that no local media house approached their team for an interview even as the movie was receiving accolades and screenings at film festivals across the globe. There are writers who are getting recognised for the queer literature that is being produced in this country. Junior Nyong’o’s non-binary but very stylish fashion sense has led to questions about his sexuality, instead of being applauded for its uniqueness. They aren’t even letting him shine! There are visual artists whose work portrays queerness in a way that celebrates us as Kenyans. Work is being created that is showcasing our varied tapestry as a people and narratives being created that are ours, Kenyan. But journalists who have been trained to report on the issues by LGBTQ activists point the finger at their editors and editors in turn are in fear of the media owners. Plus, there is also the fear that covering a good queer story or even humanising a queer might be seen as an assertion of queerness. And what is wrong with that? Why can’t stories be told without being moralised? Doesn’t the Kenyan reader, listener or viewer deserve the right to make their own judgement?
Chinua Achebe in his essay, Spelling Our Proper Name, says, ‘The telling of the story of black (insert LGBTQ) people in our time, and for a considerable period has been self-appointed responsibility of white (insert patriarchy or moralists) people and they have done it to suit a white (insert patriarchy or moralists again) purpose, naturally. That must change and is indeed beginning to change, but not without resistance or even hostility. So much psychological, political and economic interest is vested in the negative change. The reason is simple. If you are going to enslave or colonize somebody, you are not going to write a glowing report about either him before or after. Rather you will uncover or invent terrible stories about him so that your act of brigandage will become easy for you to live with. ‘
Our media for many years was lauded for being the most vibrant, ‘free’, daring at one time, and most professional in the region. And many editors, journalists and even photographers paid the price, some with their lives, for choosing to fight with the pen and protect the integrity of the fourth estate. Fortunately, we no longer see arguments about homosexuality being un-African or a western import, because ‘hawa watu’ are us, Kenyans of the soil. It is increasingly difficult to sustain the ‘western influence’ argument. There are fewer images of stereotypical gay bodies used to depict gay narratives. There is more discourse. However, it needs to be a discourse that honours the strength of the Constitution and the dynamism of our Kenyan human-ness. I hope that soon when I encounter media coverage of LGBTQ issues, it will recognise and acknowledge that there isn’t one single narrative to our ‘gayism’, which actually isn’t even a proper word.
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