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The Schools of Fire and Blood

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The Schools of Fire and Blood
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I was once suspended for inciting a strike. Or at least that is what the letter said. It was the March of my second year in high school; in my first, we had gone on strike twice. The first was a peaceful act of protest that begun at the assembly ground on a cold Monday morning, moved to a kamukunji in the sports field, and ended with us walking seven kilometers to the highway.

The second was a brutal affair. To this day, I am not sure exactly why we went on strike. Days before the national exam begun, we woke up in a war zone. People breaking window panes, banging on doors, and fighting. What we woke up to, in the rooms nearest the toilets, which were nicknamed Soweto, was a hooded boy whipping one of my roommates with a hockey stick. The combined chaos was traumatic, and explains why I still hyperventilate whenever I hear a metal door banging.

The reasons for both were varied; the first involved a long list of asks, including a new TV. The reasons for the second were less defined, and did not matter much as we ran through the trees and climbed over the gate at midnight. What did was saving our lives, and helping the injured away from the mess.

After the chaos of my first year, we got a new deputy principal, a disciplinarian tyrant who came with the energy of a man on a mission. With no rules beyond those he decreed. Those rules were madness, and his favored way of implementing them was slaps, punches, suspensions and expulsions.

While I sat on the floor in his office that Wednesday morning in March, he said “I didn’t even know you, so huwezi sema ninakukuonea.” He said other things, but that is the sentence that lingers to this day. On that cold floor with my friend and classmate Jackson, who had returned from a previous suspension just two days before, our attempt at explaining what the grievance was dug us deeper into the hole. It was a simple demand, to restore the labor system we had found, which made first years the “wheelbarrows” of the school, with duties reducing as one moved through the four years. We had paid our dues, we felt, but the man sitting across from us did not want to hear. “You were planning a strike”, he repeatedly said, and our attempt at protest was indiscipline. We returned two weeks later, to sit outside the principal’s office as the adults in the room discussed how we should be punished. I was called in, for a short five minutes. I stood at the end of a long table, in a room full of men (including my father), and answered three questions. None was about what the issue had been, or what I had hoped to achieve. At the end of it, my tormentor pushed a ‘contract’ that stated that if I was caught in any act of indiscipline again, I would be expelled. Then I went back outside and sat. An hour or so later, my father, a retired high school teacher at that point, walked out right past me.

I spent the next three nights digging a pit, my act of penance. In my file, the contract sat at the very top, a reminder that this one misunderstanding would be part of my school record forever. Jackson did not survive. He survived our suspension, but he was on a third one within a week for a frivolous charge. Then he was expelled.

The result of this tyranny, which included a spy network (which is how they had learnt of our plan to approach the man), was not a better learning environment where discipline thrived to everyone’s benefit. It was the reverse. We became a police state in many ways, engaging in guerrilla acts of protest and subterfuge that extended beyond the school fence. Once, someone poked holes into the deputy principal’s tyres while his car was parked outside a hotel in a nearby town. Then, someone punched his young son in the face in the middle of a sports day. The culprit was never caught, even though the incident took place in the middle of the day on a field with hundreds of people.

Burned spies were hunted down and, in the middle of night, beaten to a pulp by groups of people with anything they could get their hands on. They lost their mattresses and blankets, and had to sit watching their laundry dry because it would disappear if they blinked too slowly. They became social pariahs, often only saved by being appointed to the prefect body, if they were not already members of it. Still, the resistance was broken by the brutality of the consequences.

The only time we came close to striking again was once when the deputy principal horsewhipped someone so badly he tore his back in multiple places. But there were many foiled attempts, sometimes only known to us when people were expelled. The relationship between the administration and the student body was irreparably broken, and it felt as if we were hostages as opposed to teenagers seeking an education. There was no recourse for injustice because even the parent body felt such measures were necessary to keep the peace. But it was not peace, it was just the absence of war.

Once, in my third year I think, we came back from the holidays to new rules. Only school uniform would be allowed within the school walls., Anything else we had with us was left in a pile, stashed in sacks, and hidden in the stores. Our t-shirts, jumpers, and pyjamas stayed there for more than six months. In the meantime, in the freezing days of Kijabe, we suffered recurrent bouts of flu and chest infections. Any attempts at getting our clothes back, so we could keep warm, resulted in the same consequences as organizing a strike or burning a dorm. So we stayed submissive, until we eventually could not. Three friends and I cornered the deputy principal one Saturday afternoon as he was walking up to his office. We told him, as politely and as vaguely as we could, that we were barely surviving the cold nights. He had this odd smile on his face, perhaps because of the distance we kept from him while we relayed the plea. Not be within arm’s reach of the man was a survival tactic, because he was ambidextrous with his slaps. He listened, and said repeatedly that whatever was not part of the school uniform was contraband. We told him about the chest infections, and the flu, but he was adamant. So we thanked him for his time and bid him a good day. It was only three months later that we got our clothes back, mouldy and damp. We could now wear them as long as they were under the school uniform. It was a small win, but a win nonetheless.

The man himself became my unwilling mentor (the lack of will was on my part) as I became the school pen. He pushed me to write more, and would publicly embarrass me if I had nothing for my five-minute news bulletin time slot during the school assembly. My reports were a mix of journalism, satire and sometimes pure gossip, a break in an otherwise boring school tradition. My personal relationship with him evolved from that Wednesday morning in March to somewhat of a distant friendship. He was still a brutal, angry man, but for some odd reason he thawed around me.  To the point of once reminding him of a time he slapped me so hard I farted as I fell on my back in his office. He laughed about it, we both did. But his idea of our inclination towards mischief remained, as did his spy network and his own creepy appearance in the school at odd hours, hunting for new culprits.

Our school grades remained unchanged, but for the next three years, there were no successful strikes. Any problems we had that we couldn’t solve ourselves, we swept under the rug and moved on. Any knowledge we had of who was sneaking out to meet girls or buy food or go drinking we kept to ourselves. Unless it somehow found itself in the wrong circles, then all we saw was people carrying their metal boxes and threadbare mattresses out of the gate. Or coming back with a roll of wire mesh as punishment, before being expelled.

***

Since the first school strike in Kenya, at Maseno School in 1908, students have gone on strike for almost any reason you can think of. At Maseno, the problem was that no learning was happening. The students were instead manual laborers, until they got tired of it.

Once, Alliance High School went on strike because there had been a fight, about foreskin politics, during a football match. Then some strikes, and I would say quite a sizeable number, have been spontaneous, because as Margaret Gatimu found out in this study, of “established cultural norms which dictated fights for power and status.”

Then of course there have been more legitimate causes for protest. Trying to get the attention of the administrators and sometimes even parents to a real or perceived injustice. Or even, as we’ve seen lately, real criminal activity by and against students. In other places it has been teachers driving strikes, to make the institutions ungovernable and get rid of administrators they don’t like.

There were schools like Njoro Boys in Nakuru County and Githiga High School in Kiambu county which were legends in the strike business. I think I once heard they were gazetted at some point as problem schools, got two deputy principals, and gave one an open ticket to instil discipline.

In other schools, there were cases of rapes and deaths and fires. There was Bombolulu, St. Kizito and Kyanguli. There were claims of devil worship and homosexuality. The system doubled down on punishment to find some order, built on the colonial thinking that power is always right. And that children are always wrong, and any stubbornness on their part was an act of defiance. It was a system built to subdue; a boot camp designed to break young men and women and teach them their distance from power. To silence their ability to express themselves, their needs, and their problems. To teach them that to survive, they had to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and their sexuality suppressed. Granted, the same thing was happening in the larger, adult world outside as well. So they expected their kids to submit too.

For the first seven years after independence, acts of protest in high schools were often peaceful. Then something snapped in the 1970s and they became more violent, more coordinated, and more destructive. A new authoritarian trend was trickling down the Kenyan social structure again, and the subjects in that system were reacting. It made high school and university students experts in guerrilla warfare not just against their teachers, but also against the state and its security forces. It brought fire, for example, the fore as a tool of choice because it is fast, vicious, and requires less cooperation on the arsonist’s part. It made administrators and teachers enemies of the majority, and anyone working with them equally so. It made betrayal punishable by beatings and recently, even poisoning. This is the stuff of war, not education.

Between 1986 and 1991, according to BA Ogot in his memoirs My Footprints on the Sands of Time, there were 567 school strikes (305 mixed schools, 206 boy schools and 56 girl schools). That was a rate of a school strike every two days of the school calendar. Despite this, President Moi only appointed a commission of inquiry after The Rape of St. Kizito where 71 girls were raped by the male students and 19 died trying to escape from their attackers.

That dark night was the worst yet, and it had begun as a protest against fees. The girls refused to participate in a planned strike, and on the night of July 13th 1991, all hell broke loose. The 271 teenage schoolgirls fled and hid in their biggest dormitory, locking all points of entry. At 1:00 a.m, after an initial attempt to break the doors had failed, the boys came back with bigger stones and smashed the doors down. The result was a massacre that shocked a nation, and the immediate consequence was the arrests of more than ten suspected rapists and three watchmen.

But the reaction, or rather the response of the school’s administration was the most telling of the problems emblematic of our school system. The principal said the school was haunted, and then added that rape was, in fact, a common occurrence there. He seemed to be saying that the only difference of the night of July 13th was that 19 girls had died, four of them from suffocation. The boys, as his deputy infamously and tellingly told the president “…just wanted to rape.”

It was appalling, but the response was not to try and make schools safer by listening and responding to student grievances, it was to double down on disciplinary measures. The Rape of St. Kizito was not the only time that year that boys in a mixed school broke down doors and dragged girls outside where they repeatedly gang-raped them. In another major incident of the year in another school, students protesting the bad state of their food drowned the school cook in a vat of porridge. The only reason St. Kizito made news, as someone noted at the time, was because 19 girls died. This remained the case when, 7 years later, 25 girls died in Bombolulu in a school fire.

And three years after that when 68 young boys were turned into smouldering piles of ash at Kyanguli. It was one of those days when everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. Arsonists begun a fire in a dormitory, then it got out of hand because someone had lost the key to one door and no one bothered to change the lock. Half the boys in bed that night couldn’t make it to the other side of the fire, and in the mix of panic, stampede and survival instinct, died. The same sequence of events happened at Bombolulu, except for the part where the girls were actually locked in their dorms at night. Sources differ on whether it was arson or the result of an electrical fault.

Then, in 1999, a group of arsonists locked four of their prefects in their cubicle at Nyeri High School, and doused it with petrol before setting it on fire.

In all these cases of extreme violence, there was always an underlying reason. At Kyanguli it was the cancellation of the results of the previous years national exams for 100 students, and the discussion, or lack of, on whether they should pay school fees to resit the exam. The pattern was the same. The administration had refused to listen to the students, and had responded only when it was too late. In their own macabre way, these extreme cases forced not just the administration, but the entire educational system to listen. But it was only as an immediate reaction to the tragedies, after which the system slid back into its old ways. And each generation of teenagers found that the only way to get the system to respond was to protest, burn a dorm, beat teachers and refuse to stay in school. Because of the overwhelmingly male nature of such violence, many of the strikes were in boy schools. Girls had to, and still have to, contend with the added gendered risks if they wanted to burn their school and escape in the middle of the night.

Each wave of school strikes is explained away with rampant indiscipline and the lack of corporal punishment in the school system. Despite the fact that research shows that violence among teenagers can spread like a contagion, as it often does in Kenya schools every few years, the glaring risk factor of one-way communication remains unchallenged. Children are meant to be seen and not heard and even teenagers, who are just years or months away from adulthood, are still considered treated as kids. Because often their priorities are different and immediate, like better food or less bullying, they are postponed until they cannot- be. Now, kids caught up in the only recourse they feel they have, are to be condemned with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

The same approach to strikes in universities that has cowed student bodies and made those education institutions prison-like entities will be escalated at the high school level on minors. If you think about it, the school system and the prison system have many things in common… The authoritarian structures, the set dress code, the emphasis on silence and order, the negative reinforcement, the loss of individual autonomy and the collective punishment. Like a prison, students walk in lines and have set times, enforced with severe punishment, for eating, recreation, and sleep…and recently, just like in the prison system, we are trying to set the same uniform for all schools in the country.

The state is doubling down on punishment despite the fact that our laws, despite their many flaws, are insistent on the protection and privacy of minors, even when they exhibit criminal behavior. But none of this will help, at least not in the way they think it will. If the issues that trigger strikes remain, and the adults in the room insist on speaking above the kids they have been tasked to educate, then nothing will change.

Every generation is expected to have a sense of history, but high school students are still adults in the making. Which is why we place them in the care of fully-formed adults who, we expect in theory at least, have a sense of history embedded in their moral and professional code. But if the havoc of school strikes hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, and students only stay in schools for four years, then who isn’t learning from experience?

***

A few years after I left, I was in my alma mater for an event when I bumped into my former tormentor and mentor, and we took a short walk together. There were many things to talk about, including how someone had burnt a dorm the previous term. The forlorn look on the man’s face, of failure on his part, was matched with his pursing lips, like a quiet determination not to let it happen again. I did not pry and got the details from someone else. After years of foiled strikes over different issues, both flimsy and salient, someone had finally succeeded. His choice of weapon, fire, was combined with another trait that tends to emerge in war zones; he was a lone ranger. He torched one of the biggest dorms in school, not at night, but in the morning while everyone was gathered for the school assembly. All the teachers saw was the smoke billowing towards the sky. There was no way to know who the lone arsonist was because the student body went on a stampede, expectedly.

A few years ago, the man who represented law and order at my alma mater tragically lost his son. The boy who had been punched in the school field, now a young man, drowned in a swimming pool. From the reactions in the many alumni Whatsapp and Facebook groups, what stood out was the lack of sympathy for his father. More than a decade after some of us left the school, which he had also left by then, he was still considered a vile human being who deserved any misfortune that came his way. This being said by people who were young parents, and who in a few years, would be driving their kids to begin their new high school life.

High school students might still be minors, but they are not the mindless creatures the school system is designed to treat them as. And they keep reminding the adults in power about this, generation after generation, often fruitlessly. The adults imagine schools to be utopias. They are not.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

Reflections

A Mother’s Love: ‘I’m So Happy My Son Came Out As Gay’

“I realised I loved him. I always loved him. And I told him that I didn’t look at him for who he slept with, but I looked at him as my son.”

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A Mother’s Love: ‘I’m So Happy My Son Came Out As Gay’
Photo: Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash
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Stigma has never been far from Rosemary Kasiva. In her case, you could call it quadruple stigma. She was brought up by a single mother in the sixties, brought up her own children as a single parent, watched her sister die of an AIDS-related illness, and today is the mother to an openly gay son, Leonard aka Mutisya.

Our meeting takes place in her son’s flat in a Nairobi suburb.  The rainbow flag hangs limply in a corner. This was not the first time we had met.  She had insisted that we meet at least once so that she could get to know me, and what I was after. She had good reason to mistrust the media in our society. Back to Rosemary. I was struck by how youthful she looks. Her spectacles sat squarely on her cappuccino coloured face. She wore a strong and somewhat serious face. She asked to make myself at home, and prepare whatever beverage I fancy. She’s been wanting to share her journey of being a parent of being an openly gay son. Especially following the recent ruling on the petition to decriminalize homosexual sex. She figured it was time to talk about her son, her first-born, the one she had when she was only 19.

Kasiva could possibly have been the only parent present at the High Court during the Repeal 162 case. I remember seeing her during the submissions and she was also among the throes of individuals who were present during the May 24th ruling.  She wasn’t there for Leonard alone, she wasn’t there for the queer community alone either; she too had a stake in the judgement.

“I’m glad Leonard and I can talk openly about gay relationships, marriages and having children within the gay setting,” says Kasiva. “We share posts on everything and I sometimes question why I was so mad when he came out. This has been the best thing that has happened to both of us.  There are no secrets we now relate honestly and openly.”

I know many other queer individuals who would love to hear their own parents utter those words. I know I would. There is acceptance, respect, and love in this home. Kasiva does not hide the deep love she has for Leonard and his siblings. But she is very protective of her children. Trust does not come easy to her. She has been hurt once to many times.

First, her sister. She tells me she wishes that when she had the same resolve to fight for her sister who died of an HIV-related illness the same way she now defends Leonard and his brothers.

“We faced stigma at the hospitals that I took my sister to. We were afraid then. When she died, who stood with us? No one,” she says. “I [wish I] would have made sure she would have gotten the best treatment and maybe she would have still been here. There was a lot of stigma and fear surrounding us. Now I am not willing to sacrifice any member of my family at the expense of the world.”

See where she is coming from?

We have the flat to ourselves, as both mother and son didn’t want to impede each other during the interview. Kasiva has her cup of chai, I’ve got my kahawa and for then, she gives me the precious gift of time. Time to re-open memories and remember her journey and subsequently, transformation.

Kasiva describes herself as a Nairobi hustler through and through.  This city is her home. She was born in Pumwani Hospital, raised at the BAT Village in Bahati, in the Eastlands area and spent most of her adult life in Dagoretti, until recently when she migrated to Athi River. But she still commutes daily into the city for business and for church on Sunday.  She had also made the trek into the city for this interview.

Kasiva beams with pride as she remembers how Leonard was a very smart child.  He excelled academically both in primary and secondary school and earned himself a scholarship to study in Singapore and then the United States.  She describes him as a gentle and obedient child. The ideal first born, though he suffered from a number of health challenges during his early childhood. She remembers he preferred playing with dolls more than cars or more ‘boys toys’. It was shocking at first but she opted to continue buying her so the toys that he preferred.  She didn’t think much of it.  It seemed like just a preference to her back then, something that didn’t warrant much fuss.

As she recalls Leonard’s formative years, there were little incidents here and there that hinted he was different, but she was dismissive of them. Like the time he had a close friend in primary school and during their Standard 8 exams, she came across success cards from this particular boy to Leonard. They had love hearts and affectionate messages. Leonard told her they were just friends.

However, it was not until many years later when Leonard was studying abroad did the matters of his orientation resurface. He had come back home for holiday from Singapore with a male friend and they went to the Maasai Mara together. While they were away, Leonard’s church friends came home to inquire on his whereabouts. When she told them that his away with a male friend, their reaction surprised her. She suspects that they knew Leonard was gay but she herself thought nothing of their interest in her son and his travel companion.  To her, Leonard had just brought a friend who wanted to experience his friend’s home country.

It was not until 2010 when Leonard came home unexpectedly from the US, where he was studying at the time, that things did begin to unravel proper. His university had been in touch with her a few times before asking her to intervene as Leonard seemed to be struggling academically. Leonard was halfway through his studies at this time, but he didn’t seem committal about his return to America.  There was always an excuse for the delay, until after he came out clean. She remembers him saying he was considering celibacy and informing his mother that he didn’t like girls, not in ‘that’ way.

“I hope you don’t like boys?” she remembers asking.   His response to her was, “Unfortunately I do.”  As she recalls this conversation, she falls back into the sofa. She remembers that the revelation was painful.  She tells me that she fired her son with a barrage of questions and even threatened to beat him. She verbally abused him, berated him and expressed her disappointment.  Some of the answers to her inquisition were greeted with silence, and some revealed the bitter truth.  One such truth was that some of the individuals with whom Leonard had gay encounters were also within the church. Her church. Their church. The church where Leonard and his brothers served in ministry. The family church. The sense of betrayal from within and outside her home was immense. Did everyone but her know of her son’s sexuality, she asked herself.  Had people within the church managed to ‘recruit’ her son, she wondered.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and as Rosemary reflects on that moment, she tells me she regrets her reaction and wishes she’d have acted better.  She describes the family as close-knit and expresses disappointment that she had not created an environment for Leonard to come clean about his sexuality earlier.

It was also around this time, she says, that Leonard got involved in activism. This added fuel to her fire. She hated the gay community for having ‘recruited’ her son and also from detracting him from his studies in the US. She recalls how Leonard’s coming out may have affected his brothers, as she hints their grades slipped around this time due to the tension that had come out in the home. Pun intended.
An ultimatum was issued. She categorically told Leonard that he could only live in her house if she renounced his homosexuality.  Then one day, he stepped out and never came back home. It was a harrowing six months that followed. There was no contact, nor knowledge of his whereabouts. Phone calls and text messages went unanswered. Some of these texts demanded that he came back home or else she was going to set the police on him. Leonard remained mteja all through this period.

“I lost so much weight during this time. Eventually, through my own networks and the rumour mill, I found out that Leonard was in Kisumu. I was on a matatu almost immediately once I got this news.” I’m astounded at the clarity at which she remembers things. She remembers it was a Prestige Shuttle that she travelled on. The two samosas and tea that she had for breakfast and the five hours she spent walking around Kisumu.  She believed that Leonard was living as a street person and she was somehow convinced was going to meet someone, anyone, who would know him. Maybe he now went by the name of Mutisya. I must mention she had never been to Kisumu before and had presumed that is was the size of Machakos (it is much bigger). Her words, not mine.

She admits there was a mixture of naivety, bravery, and desperation during this expedition. The fact that Leonard was AWOL was a secret that was known only to her and her other two sons. Not even her mother – Leonard’s grandmother – knew. She wanted him back and still hoped he would resume his studies.

Kasiva was relentless in trying to contact Leonard. She kept on sending him messages. She endured numerous sleepless nights. She’d rack her brain, wondering what her son was doing in Kisumu, whether he was homeless, and what he is eating. There is nothing like a mother’s love.

“Mutisya’s grandmother used to ask about him and when he was going back to the US. The bishop of my church would ask the same. I couldn’t tell them that I didn’t know where he was. I had to lie to them. I kept on telling them he is taking a break so that he could work on a project.”

“There was a rumour already doing the rounds in the church that Leonard had been chased away from America because he was gay.  I also started being blamed for making him gay. People were saying that it was my male friends who had abused Leonard, which is why he had turned out gay. There was so much hate!”

The wagging tongues and lack of support from her church led Kasiva to walk away from a place that she believed was a sanctuary. It didn’t end there. On the home front, Leonard’s siblings started questioning their mother on their elder brother’s whereabouts. “They started telling me, if I had not been angry with Leonard, he would not have run away.” Her voice now sounding pained.

The period of Leonard’s absence accorded her time to reflect and ask herself some hard questions.  Questions that made her think about his sexuality, her love for him, and whether she was going to live a life worrying about other people’s opinions. Despite not being in communication with her first born, she religiously kept on sending him money.  She was trying to reach out.

Kasiva looks at me squarely, tilts her head and with a seriousness in her eyes and tells me she prayed constantly for her son. Prayed for him to come back.  She got her miracle when Leonard called her one day and informed her he was working in Kisumu. A reunion and homecoming were delicately agreed on. By this time, she had to come to terms with two things – Leonard’s sexuality and his decision to drop out of university. Both were bitter pills to swallow for her because she had dreams for him once he graduated.  Kasiva also realised that Leonard’s coming out would also put her in the line of a lot of criticism and being ostracised.  However, she knew full well that she was not going to go through another six months or more of mental and emotional torture.

“I realised I loved him. I always loved him. And I told him that I didn’t look at him for who he slept with, but I looked at him as my son,” she recollects. She wanted her son(s) to be able to approach her with anything. In true Kasiva form, she laid down the questions again. She even asked Leonard whether he was dating. At the time he wasn’t, but she remembers him telling her that he’d let her know if there was anyone on the cards.

As I sat there listening to Kasiva, I remembered another friend who came out to both her parents and both were in full support of their daughter’s queer identity. There are many queer Kenyans who crave that kind of support from their parents or even friends.  Unfortunately, the Kasiva’s of this world are still few and far between. I marvelled at Kasiva’s 180-degree turn. Their relationship is warm, Leonard is now her right-hand-man, her go-to-guy and more importantly her friend.

In accepting Leonard, Kasiva wonders what she was really scared of. Was it because he chose to drop out of school or was it about his sexuality? Was it because of what people would have thought or had her worst fear been realised? Did she blame herself for the many ‘red flags’ that she ignored?

Kasiva and Leonard’s journey is a blend of the biblical prodigal son without the demand an inheritance (and with a mother instead of a father obviously), but a request for acceptance. It was like the runaway Jacob getting back to his father Isaac or Joseph reuniting with his father Jacob. In ‘finding’ her son, Kasiva opened herself to a whole new world of activism and a whole new community of friends.

However, this has not been an easy process for her. This has exposed her to the politics of the queer community, which at times left Leonard holding the short end of the stick because of his work in the activists’ space. In those initials days, she admits that her feelings towards the gay community swung like a pendulum.

I learnt at a conference a few years ago that when an African comes out as gay/queer, they come out with their whole family. With Leonard’s sexuality being an open book now, and with him being back home, the rejection squarely kicked in. Kasiva was ostracized by relatives, friends, neighbours, church members, fellow business people, the whole lot! She had not realised what she had signed up for by openly standing in support of her son. She also feared for her family’s security at the home in the Dagoretti area.

“Nobody wanted to identify with me. I would go to the market to buy vegetables or to the butchery to buy meat and the moment I would turn my back, people would start laughing.”  The pain stigma returned anew, this time, worse than those years ago with her sister.

In the years gone by, her relationship with Leonard has grown from strength to strength. “I am so happy that he came out as gay and decided to live as a gay man in Kenya. I’d be more worried if he came out as gay and he was away from me. I can see him happy, I can check on him and I have been able to see him transform.

“I’d like to encourage parents to embrace their children.  Talk to them about what they feel about their orientation; let’s be open to our children. Let us not put barriers to communication.”

Kasiva has severed relationships with individuals who seem spiteful towards her and her children. The accusations have been levelled at the whole family, insinuating that they are in the business of recruiting young people into homosexuality.

“I wish we could have honest discussions within our churches. My bishop has been supportive of me, even calling me during the absence to find out why I had kept away from the church,” she says. “The problem, I think, is with the congregants more, the ones who are trying to prove they are ‘holy’.”

The church still plays a pivotal role in Kasiva’s life. Her faith has become more personal. “We need to practise what we preach, we need to practise love, preach love and loving everyone and not judging anybody. We do not know until such a time when God comes who is living right and who is living wrong.”

Kasiva doesn’t trust easily. She has now kept a handful of friends and I understand why. She has been betrayed too many times. When things were really rough, the only people who stood by her were her Leonard’s siblings.  She would break down before them often. Those were days she didn’t have the energy to face her fellow hustlers. It was too much.  I sense that she is still grappling to understand how individuals whom she called friends or relatives could burn her at the stake because she had a gay son.

“Let’s be honest. We are not all the same and let us not hate people who are different from us,” she says. “All families are not perfect, even those with a father and mother. There are families that can have also gay parents. Let us be willing to judge and accommodate the other person. Let’s try and understand that we are not all equal.”

Kasiva knows that she is not the only gay parent in the village. She and another fellow mother occasionally check on one another. However, she knows that there is more than she can offer. She would love to start a support group to help parents understand and come to terms with their children’s sexuality or identity.

She urges parents to be more open-minded and to recognise that there are many forms of love that exist out there.  Unconditional support and love are the bedrock of the family, according to Kasiva.  Love, love, love is what she is calling for now.

As we concluded the interview, she tells me that she is surprised that she didn’t cry. She expected to be very emotional. It had been an intense one and a half hour interview. I left feeling envy for Leonard and his siblings, respect and admiration for Kasiva. I didn’t know how to respond to her statement on the crying then. It was only later that I found the words, where I wanted to tell her she had done her tears, and now it was time to enjoy the rainbows.

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Reflections

The Case For A Queer Christianity

After being pushed and suppressed into the confines of our culture, after being labelled demonic, unnatural, attention-seeking, perverted, and sin, queerness is simply asking to be seen and to be heard. It is asking for conversation. This is not an absurd or unjust demand. And it is time for Christian communities in particular to have this conversation.

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The Case For A Queer Christianity
Photo: Rod Long on Unsplash
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When Binyavanga Wanaina passed away it felt like the ground on which we walk froze, paralyzed with grief. The sky turned grey, drizzling its tears down on us. When I heard the news, I called up a friend of mine, one who I knew would understand this loss intrinsically because he, like me, had been heavily impacted by Binyavanga in high school, when his memoir, One Day I will Write About This Place first found its way to bookshop shelves. We both talked about how devastated Kenya should be for this Binya-shaped hole that had been left behind. We mourned a man who had been fundamental to the contemporary literary space in our country. We talked about everything from his work to his family to his impact to the sickness that ravaged his wholeness. And somewhere in that conversation this friend said something to me that struck me, “You cannot love Binya if you do not love his queerness.”

Since then I have had a few conversations that have run my blood hot. Red. Fire. In the middle of the conversation, a pause in the room. The silent, accusatory question lingering in the air, “The one who was gay?” An “aha!” moment. A sense of justification. As if that explains his death, as it was what he deserved. He becomes a lesson, in this broken understanding of morality that guides us.

In the same week as Binyavanga’s death, the Kenyan judiciary upheld the penal code sections 162 and 165 that criminalize sexual conduct between two consenting adults of the same sex, both in public and in private. The court cited regulations from other countries in their decision, including sections of the penal code in Botswana, which has itself recently decriminalized homosexuality. Other African countries that have revoked anti-homosexuality laws through penal code reform in recent years include Seychelles, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Lesotho, but more than 30 other countries maintain the laws on their statute books.

In 2015, when then US president Barrack Obama visited Kenya and addressed the issue with President Uhuru Kenyatta, the latter categorically shut the matter down with his (in)famous line, “…For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue… it is not… at the foremost minds of Kenyans and that is a fact.”

I see this attitude fuelling a lot of Kenyans’ arguments on the matter. As it simply does not affect them, it can only be considered a non-issue. Part of the collective trauma we have as a country is the inability to deal with anything we do not want to deal with. We simply sweep it under the carpet and pray to God a gust of wind does not come in and blow the dust around, because that will be messy. Messy means confronting our own beliefs and contradictions, and dealing with how that impacts the people we have hurt.

We have reached a point where it is clearly time for us to do some spring-cleaning. We can no longer wish or pray queer people away. Queerness is just as present in our society as heterosexuality. After being pushed and suppressed into the confines of our culture, after being labelled demonic, unnatural, attention-seeking, perverted, and sin, queerness is simply asking to be seen and to be heard. It is asking for conversation. This is not an absurd or unjust demand.

Many of the strident arguments that have been used to foreclose the possibility of queer acceptance, of freedom and love, have been religious ones. This article is my attempt at having this conversation. I will delve into Christian arguments against queerness because first, this is the religious tradition I am most familiar with, and second, because Kenya is a majority, or at least, normatively Christian society – it is our culture’s immediate history, having been colonized by European Christians. I will attempt to have this conversation only being biased to the bend of freedom and love. These two will always guide the words I write.

Religion can be on the wrong side of history

Throughout history, religion has been a tool of good, just as much as it has been a tool of harm and violence. As much as we are taught to defend our religion with every fibre of our being, sometimes it argues for the wrong things. And you cannot honestly defend what you believe in if you have never interrogated the belief itself. Christianity has been used to defend under-education, slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, and racism. To call the religion itself blameless is to counter facts and historical evidence that have proven otherwise. This does not mean that religion is evil. I am in no way invalidating the intention of faith at its core as something beautiful and whole. I am simply stating that when your religion becomes the be all, end all, when there is no room to think, to listen, to learn, or to grow from those outside your worldview, then there is incredible potential for harm.

Many centuries ago, Copernicus discovered that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of our solar system. The clergy of the day used Scripture to condemn this ‘outrageous’ argument. Even the Protestant radicals, who were breaking away from the orthodoxy of the Catholic church in other ways, opposed him. Martin Luther called him a fool, John Calvin implied it was blasphemy, and Melanchthon, a theologian of the Protestant Reformation, quoted Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 suggesting that, “severe measures be taken to silence” all those who agreed with Copernicus in order to “preserve the truth as revealed by God.” Obviously since then, science and evidence to the contrary have proved Copernicus right.

For many early Europeans – and even for many Christians today – the Bible was infallible. Yet, somehow, every interpretation always directly or indirectly privileged them. I find this very curious. The fact that slavery existed in the Bible was reason enough to have slaves. The fact that Africans were assumed to be descendants of Ham, the cursed son of Abraham – referring to a passage in Genesis 9 – was used as a further justification to enslave Africans, supposedly because this was their destiny and proper station in life. In fact, slavery was supposed to be a favour to the Africans, rescuing them from their heathen ways. This argument was later modified and repurposed in the interest of colonization, not only in Africa but in the Americas, New Zealand, and Australia where Native Americans, Maoris, and Aborigines were massacred, ran out, and for the longest time, by law, considered less human.

Examples from history have proven that religion in the hands of the oppressor has been used as a tool to validate the oppression. In Germany, church leaders and theologians provided arguments and preached sermons in support of Hitler, in so doing aiding and abetting the Holocaust. In the Jim Crow era of the US, white families would picnic after church on Sundays to watch lynched black bodies hanging from trees. During the women’s rights movement, patriarchy justified denying women the right to vote because men, in all situations were meant to be the heads.

Still, in all these scenarios, the courage of the oppressed to fight back has proven the ‘sensible’ and ‘infallible’ arguments that were supposedly supported by the religion itself, wrong. Acknowledging these aspects of religion that have been heavily problematic in history can open us up to the possibility that the today’s general accepted interpretation of Scripture may not always be the right, or the moral one. Ask Jesus about the multiple times he questioned the Pharisees, who were the custodians of the law, and the moral compasses of the time.

Scripture is not literal

Texts are written for a specific audience, time period, purpose, and context. As much as its wisdom can and has spoken throughout generations to guide and inspire hearts and minds, Scripture is still a text. That means it is injustice to not read Scripture without understanding its original intention. Reading the background and the whole context – whether it is poetry or song or theory or parable or history – informs your ability to interpret it as intended. There are several scriptures that we do not read or apply literally now, yet they are in the Bible! Kathy Vestal in her brilliant article, Sexual Orientation: It’s not a Sin shares several examples.

Exodus 13:14-15. Whoever desecrates the Sabbath day by doing any work on it must be put to death. (Harsh… also remember that time Jesus healed a man during the Sabbath and broke this rule?)

Leviticus 3:17, 11:6-7. Do not eat fat or blood or pig. (So bacon and sausages are technically a sin).

Leviticus 15:19-26. When a woman has a monthly period she is unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her is also unclean. Everything she touches is also unclean. (I guess women can’t be touched for around seven days every month.)

Deuteronomy 21:18-21. If you have a son who is rebellious and stubborn, take him to the elders of the town and have him stoned to death. (Dear parents, here is a solution to your rebellious teenager.)

Leviticus 24:20. A fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. (Jesus later contradicted this with his “turn the other cheek” sermon)

These are just a few of the verses that exemplify how context, audience, and purpose are essential to interpretation of Scripture. During this time when the Israelites had no centralized government and were wandering around the wilderness with no written direction, God gave them laws. These laws were not merely a moral compass but also civil laws to guide the Israelites as an autonomous nation and to give them their own specific identity, setting them apart from the nations around them. They were extremely specific, covering everything from food to hygiene to idolatry and cleanliness.

Some of the laws such as the laws on cleanliness were for the specific purpose of good hygiene in a world before indoor plumbing and the scientific germ theory of disease. These were God’s rules for Israel, in the land of Palestine, at a particular time in history. Furthermore, the Jewish rabbis themselves have always tried to interpret the Torah for the day and age they were living in. They were sometimes actually unwilling to implement the laws that they read in the Torah, putting up technical and procedural barriers to their implementation without necessarily rejecting the Torah in principle. For example, laws that called for a death penalty could go years without ever being implemented – one passage in the Talmudic literature said that if the governing council of the rabbis (the Sanhedrin) went seventy years without implementing a death penalty, then that was a good Sanhedrin. It was obvious to them that killing every rebellious son, for example, would lead to a breakdown in society, and forecloses the possibility of reform, repentance, and even growth. Teenagers are not teenagers forever.

Trying to apply some of these laws in the 21st century is ridiculous to say the least. And in an evolving time, it is impossible to not have an understanding of Scripture that is willing to evolve as well. With this understanding, we can then delve into what Scripture says about sexuality with the willingness to unlearn, question, and reimagine.

Scripture on homosexuality

First, it might be important to note that the word homosexuality did not even show up in English translations of the Bible until 1946. Secondly, there are six portions of Scripture that refer to same-sex relationships directly in the whole Bible. Let that sink in. Only six places in the whole of Scripture. And yet, today’s Christianity makes it seem as if the conversation on sexuality and gender is the biggest evil in the Christian church that there has ever been. Furthermore, the Bible has over 2,000 references to the relationships between the rich and the poor, the inequity that accompanies marginalization and the call to justice. Six against 2,000. This statistic alone should be a compelling argument to re-evaluate the priorities of the gospel in today’s faith spaces. Still it is necessary to analyse the Scriptures in question in the entirety of their context.

Genesis 19. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The history of this story has been so often used as an argument against homosexuality that the term “sodomy” was drawn from the destruction of this city. If we read the whole story we see the unfolding of an interesting string of events. Lot hosts two messengers of the Lord (often referred to as angels). Some men in the city, upon seeing the foreigners, knock on Lot’s front door wanting to rape them. Lot, being reasonable, obviously tells them no. He then offers them his two virgin daughters to be gang raped instead (in my view, the mortal sin committed in the story is the intention to rape, but let us continue.) God, understandably, gets angry at the whole situation and tells the messengers that the whole city will be destroyed the following day.

This is not the end to the referencing to Sodom and Gomorrah. Several other points in Scripture describe it as a city with no morals, full of decay, injustice, and oppression – vices that have nothing to do with homosexuality. As is very clearly stated in Ezekiel 16:49-50 “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13. The Exodus laws. These are verses that state very clearly, “If a man lies with a man as he does with a woman, both of them shall be put to death. It is an abomination.” My argument here relies on the unattainable Leviticus scriptures used as references above. Specifically, as the article Leviticus and the Holiness Code shares, for many centuries before Israel entered the land of Palestine, ancient Canaanite fertility cults used same-sex rituals to worship their gods. God prohibited Israel from adopting the cultic sexual fertility goddess worship of Egypt and Canaan. God’s biggest problem here seemed to be the correlation between same-sex ceremonies and shrine prostitution in relation to pagan worship of ‘false’ gods, which was a very specific situation.

If we choose to believe this law applies today then we must chose to believe that any person who touches a woman on her period is unclean and any man who shaves his side burns has committed a sin and anyone who has tattoos is heading for damnation (I say as I have three tattoos) and anyone who wears fabric of two different materials has committed an abomination and everyone who cheats must be put death and rebellious sons must be stoned to death and… you get the point. We can’t pick and choose which rules from Leviticus to follow and which ones to leave behind – if we do, then surely the 2,000 verses against economic exploitation and social injustice should be the ones we fall on. Ultimately, to do justice to the Scripture is to understand that these rules were written in a specific time for a specific people in a specific context.

Romans 1:24-32. Paul’s two cents. Many Christians use this portion of the New Testament where Paul talks about a specific group of the church that have fallen into wickedness and immorality as a case against homosexuality. Paul says specifically, “Because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even the women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones… men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves due penalty for their error.” The text then goes on to talk about the other things that this group of people were doing wrong, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.”

Reading into the context of this time, as with Leviticus, expounds on the message of Paul. During this period there was a flood of Roman fertility cults and shrine prostitution. This was influenced by popular religions at the time that were devout to the god Apollo and the goddesses Aphrodite and Cybele. According to a historical article by St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church, “One of the many practices of both of these cults was drunken, frenzied revelry that involved wanton sexual abandon. The temple of Aphrodite employed free (non-slave) boys and girls from the ages of about 9 to age 13 whose job was to be used in sexually servicing the men and women who came to the temple. The cult of Apollo hired boys from the age of 11 to 15 for the entertainment and pleasure of older men.”

These were the stories and the actual events that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Roman church. He was boycotting a religion and space that made it acceptable for little boys to be prostituted to older men and little girls to older more powerful men and women. Same-sex relationships in that context had been attached to something more exploitive and dark. It is also good to note that the verse addressed several other problematic tendencies of the time, including corruption, deceit, idolatry, greed, and hate. When you read this Scripture from this perspective, it is honestly hard to find any correlation to a whole loving relationship between two consensual adults.

1st Corinthians 6:9; 1st Timothy 1:10 Lost in translation? I consider these verses together because they use the same Greek word, arsenokoitai. Paul includes the arsenokoitai when referring to a group of sinners and those who won’t enter the Kingdom of God. The interesting thing about this word is that it so rarely appears in ancient text, that the correct translation has been debated for centuries. As Justin Lee points out in his side of the great debate, The NIV translation could not even decide on one definition so they used two. In 1st Corinthians it is translated as ‘homosexual offenders’ and in 1st Timothy it is translated as ‘perverts.’

And yet, as Adam Nicholas Phillips argues in this article, when arsenokoitai is used elsewhere in ancient Greek literature, it references the abuse of the poor (an example being the Sibylline Oracles) or economic exploitation and power abuses (such as a 2nd century text called the Acts of John).

Linking the two interpretations of the word – that is, homosexual offenders and exploitation – brings about an interesting theory. As Justin Lee argues, “The extramarital relationships of men with boys in ancient Greece are infamous even today.  Archaeological and literary evidence prove that these relationships were common for centuries in Greece, though they were frowned upon by many even while they were publicly practised… The most likely explanation then for this text in context would be that Paul was referring to a practice that was fairly common in the Greek culture of his day – married men who had sex with male youths on the side.” Paul’s letters would then be interpreted as condemnation of sexual exploitation, which again does not correlate to a whole healthy loving relationship between two consensual adults.

Where does that leave us?

After going through these Scriptures, there is a lot that is still left up in the air. There is a lot that can be and has been debated. As with so much else in life we simply pray for guidance and wisdom to understand wholly and interpret honestly. But for me it simply comes down to what I believe about God. I believe God exudes, exists in, and embodies love. I believe where there is no love there is no God and that God does not create any of us to live in a constant state of shame or fear, because that is the opposite of love.

I have had enough friends from conservative Christian evangelical backgrounds coming to me broken from beating themselves up as abomination and afraid because coming out as gay means experiencing rejection, discrimination, judgement, and condemnation. Hearing these journeys make you want to weep. The call of the church is to fight for freedom, love, and justice. I fall back on this Scripture in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

If, as a religion, we are not speaking to these spaces that then we need to rethink the religion. If as a country we are not even attempting to reflect on these principles then there is something deeply wrong with the state in which we are existing. Revolution is love, and love is love.

Further Resources

Romans and Shrine Prostitution
Roman Cult Practices
The Great Debate: Justin’s View
The Bible Does not condemn Homosexuality… Seriously it doesn’t 
Candice Czubernat’s Blog on being Queer and Christian
James Brownson — Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships
Justin Lee, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate

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Reflections

Subversive Styles: Fashion As An Unlikely Space For Kenyan Transgression

Far beyond the commercial viability of the sector, I believe that fashion remains one of the most complex languages of human expression. With every new project I lead or am involved in, I am continually fascinated by and careful to harness the power of garments and their combinations to appease, honour, protest, subvert and transgress.

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Subversive Styles: Fashion As An Unlikely Space For Kenyan Transgression
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2011

My relationship with second-hand clothing a while back was very intense. By 2011, I knew the second hand Gikomba clothes market in Nairobi like the back of my hand. You could blindfold me, put me anywhere in the market and I would know exactly where I was. I knew most of the vendors by name, and—despite my severe allergies—still got an amazing rush rummaging through piles and piles of clothes, because I would find the most incredible pieces. As I sorted through mountains of shirts—each costing Ksh50—my parameters for making decisions changed; at that price, it’s not really about cost any more, as it so often is with racks of new, ready-to-wear clothing.

I would pick a shirt for particular reasons—not for its colour, but the buttons, or how the sleeves fit. It is here that I begun to find myself stylistically. These open-air stalls were far more accepting of my curiosity than the air-conditioned boutiques we had in the few shopping malls in Nairobi back then. These stalls have been—and still remain to a large extent—the places where most of Nairobi’s and indeed Kenya’s fashion trends begin. It was here that new trends popped up first. If cigarette pants were in, the second-hand stalls would ride that wave way before any retail outlets in Nairobi did. The people who wore mitumba (used clothes) were actually the most fashion-forward in the city. Mitumba vendors led these trends, because they always had first access to the best piles. I found amazing treasures there, like a black Calvin Klein overcoat, and a fur stole.

With my friend Jim Chuchu, I started a project called Stingo—an old Kenyan slang word for ’style’ or ‘mode’. The general idea with Stingo was to organize regular photo shoots around any ideas we wanted to explore as a group. Jim also called up some other friends: producer Lucille Kahara and makeup artist Kangai Mwiti. I was the designated fashion stylist. Since there was no budget for shopping, every piece we used was mine: ‘stylist’s own’. I had to cheat by casting models who were my size. We put out the images resulting from the shoots on the project website and on Facebook—this was in the pre-Instagram age—and the response was wonderful. There was such excitement around the idea of a group of Kenyans coming together to create such images. We kept shooting every fortnight or so.

However, visiting Gikomba market became tedious—I now noticed the flaws in the second-hand clothes: a small hole from an iron burn, a frayed hem. While I could erase or hide these in the final image, I was no longer satisfied with just being able to put together a look. I was becoming interested in the story behind the garments. This made us wonder: was Stingo a design agency, a modeling agency or an online magazine? Beyond composing, styling and publishing beautiful images, could we do more to feature local design, and help address some of the challenges faced by the designers around us? I stopped sourcing clothes for the Stingo shoots from secondhand markets, and began to dress models in original pieces that had been locally designed and produced.

Going Local

One of the first local designers we featured was Sheila Amolo. I had met her at a small backstreet fashion show and I thought her clothes were stunning. I remember this one jacket she had made—it had beautiful peplum detail at the waist, long before such waistlines were trendy. I fell in love with it immediately.

We were overwhelmed by the response from our fast-growing audience: some wanted to collaborate with us, many wanted to model for the shoots, and others were excited to discover the very cool, new fashion designers we featured such as Blackbird and Blackfly, interested in buying their clothes. The requests by aspiring models were by far the most. Those we had already shot became incredibly popular online and were soon able to access a kind of instant celebrity status, based purely on these campaigns.

We continued to work with more designers, such as Kepha Maina. My interactions with him and other designers gave me a lot of insight into the fashion value chain in Kenya. I witnessed the development of garments from a concept to a toile, and eventually into a collection. The design process captured me: the time and effort the designers spent obsessing over the exact line of a collar or where to place a seam. It also began to bother me that I was working to create visual narratives and stories about my contemporary Kenyan fashion experience, but was not wearing clothes from local designers. After the shoots, I would fold the pieces neatly and hand them back to the designers. I gradually changed my wardrobe, moving away from affordable thrifted gems to pieces that had been designed and made by Kenyans.

2012

By this point, the Stingo team had become very busy with other projects.

Kangai had started her own beauty channel, Lucille went to culinary school, and I was out of school and working full-time at a boutique hotel in the city, and Jim had partnered with our friend George Gachara on what eventually became the multidisciplinary space we call The Nest.

From the many interactions and conversations we had with designers, we realized that many fashion designers were really struggling with the distribution of their clothes. Since most of them did not have retail spaces and often worked from home, we sought to find a solution that was effective and that would not cost much. Jim, George and I designed an online retail experiment and called it Chico Leco. We stocked a funky, edgy collection; a mix of locally designed accessories with some one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. We preferred accessories because they were easier to obtain— and we didn’t have to figure out sizing. Because of this, they were a lot easier to sell.

We put together a selection of ankara button earrings from Otenge, ankara bow-ties from Anyango Mpinga and some feather earrings from Bizzy Lizzy. We later added a few retro sunglasses I picked up from a really old optometrist’s store in Ngara neighbourhood in Nairobi that stocked amazing vintage frames from the 60’s and 70’s. We also got a few brooches from an obscure antique store that stocked delightfully elaborate costume jewellery. Brooches are usually a thing that only older people wear, which is such a shame because they are so beautiful and such an easy way to accessorise.

We put everything in place, including figuring out mobile payment options and delivery solutions. When the website went live, we were so excited the moment someone actually bought a pair of ankara button earrings! Chico Leco was soon receiving many orders and we were fast learning how fashion retail business worked. Soon, we gained some courage and began selling clothing. We stocked some cigarette pants from Kepha Maina in black and cobalt. We carried cropped pants with ankara roll-up detail from Nick Ondu, and some crop-tops from Katungulu Mwendwa. Jim and George ran the store in between their day jobs, and I—with any minute I could spare from my full-time job—curated the catalogue.

Since the early Stingo days, we had been disappointed by the rather uninspired safeness of the fashion images that had populated the mainstream until then: nothing was really fresh, new or exciting. Our editorials therefore had a rather sexual charge, ranging from coy and flirtatious to unashamedly risqué. We were exploring our adult freedoms and stretching them to shameless limits—‘manufacturing desire’, we called it. We became increasingly aware of how powerful images could be, and the clear space for considered image composition in the marketing of fashion.

Chico Leco was the first of its kind at the time, establishing an online Kenyan retail space in the early days when e-commerce here was such an experiment. However, most of our customers still preferred to see, touch and fit the clothes—just like they would in a physical store—before making a payment. As a result, our sales were mostly the accessories and other one-size items. Realising this, we widened our selection with leather laptop sleeves and clutch bags from Rift Valley Leather and clutches from Adèle Dejak. We also commissioned wool snoods—in black, white and cobalt—from a local women’s group.

We encountered many of the problems faced by young brands: effective pricing, packaging, managing overheads and logistics, ensuring a consistent supply of high quality products, as well as finding enough storage space for all our wares, which we had to move between our homes. We would have liked to expand our product catalogue, but we had limited working capital and would strain our cash flow trying to buy stock upfront. We were also aware that the consignment model was not sustainable for the young brands we were stocking. After about a year of operations, these persistent challenges led us to the decision to take a break from the retail part of our experiment in order to figure out a better way to grow the designers and their product, as well as the fashion value chain.

2013

In 2012, I left my job at the hotel to join The Nest with Jim and George, and we absorbed Chico Leco into The Nest as a program. We learned that fashion presentation was a recurring frustration for the numerous designers we were in conversations with. Many of them were growing disenfranchised with the model of fashion shows, as they are understood in Kenya. Designers are routinely asked to pay a fee to be included in the vast majority of shows, and these fees were often quite high—out of reach for many young designers, and without the certainty of any tangible returns or brand growth. The shows seemed to only benefit the event organisers, who would treat the runway as entertainment alongside dance and other performances.

Photographers covering these events were also not aware of the specific needs of fashion imaging, and would often shoot only the faces of the models, leaving out the clothes. Video coverage of these shows tended to focus on the general event. Therefore there was nothing that the designers could use for their own marketing after the show. We decided to use Chico Leco to address this, and our first project was a film project we called Chico Leco Presents. We called up some of the designers we had interacted with since the Stingo days and commissioned collections from them. In this project we carried collections from Katungulu Mwendwa, Sydney Owino and Zeddie Loky (Blackbird), Ruth Abade (Blackfly), Sheila Amolo, Kepha Maina, Wambui Mukenyi and Nick Ondu. I also challenged myself to create a collection alongside the others. I had dabbled in design since high school and through university, sporadically conceptualising and producing garments for myself, but never executing more than a few pieces at a time.

Referencing my multicultural background, I created a cross-seasonal menswear collection called Sun Seeker. It was an exploration of structures: fitted blazers worked in a variety of plaid suiting, slowly moving towards more relaxed silhouettes emphasised in light, richly coloured cottons. Working with a producer, a makeup artist and several models, the Nest team conceptualised and created short fashion films for each collection. We challenged ourselves to shoot eight videos in one location in a day and actually pulled it off!

We also wrote all the press releases that accompanied the fashion films. This was a necessary exercise in storytelling, designed to shift local fashion journalism from the use of vague adjectives such as ‘nice’, ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, and make stronger reference to the technical and design elements of the collections. We put the videos out on YouTube, and the result was very exciting. We got unprecedented press coverage— with much better language because they quoted and expanded on our press releases—and generated a much larger audience than even the biggest local fashion show could offer. Two of the short films in the project—Dinka Translation and Urban Hunter—screened in festivals such as the Fashion and Film showcase at the Guggenheim, and art shows in other countries. This confirmed to us that there existed far more effective tools for fashion presentation than were being used locally.

2015

In 2015, we decided to have a go at another audiovisual fashion showcase, and this time we challenged ourselves and our designers to develop elements around an original narrative. We developed a short fiction script titled To Catch A Dream, then commissioned the designers Kepha Maina, Katungulu Mwendwa, Namnyak Odupoy, Ami Doshi Shah, Jamil Walji and Azra Walji to create pieces that would befit the fictional characters as described in the script. We also got additional complementary pieces from Ann McCreath and Adèle Dejak. It took about four months for the designers to develop concepts for the film, and produce finished pieces. After that, there were a few more months for pre-production, and four intense days of shooting in four different locations. We were incredibly privileged to have Ajuma Nasenyana play our lead character.

The resulting film allowed us to instigate conversations around the ability of Africans to access fantasy narratives in mainstream media, and ask many other questions beyond both fashion and film—particularly on the use of African languages in film (the film utilized six indigenous languages). To Catch A Dream went on to screen at numerous fashion and film festivals, and even won the Best Original Music award at the Berlin International Fashion Film Festival.

2016-

Many things have evolved in the local fashion industry since my early Gikomba days, when designer shop fronts were sparse, and local ones even fewer.

With a rise in cultural pride, Kenyan fashion is gaining visibility within the region, expanding possibilities for successful production and retail of local designs. There is a thriving industry in fashion support—bloggers, influencers and stylists; models who are becoming recognisable brand names; fashion photographers; overlaps between fashion, beauty, lifestyle and wellness; specialised fashion PR, etc. Conversations with government are also much more productive. They have become more open to the sector’s huge economic potential especially regarding job creation, and are figuring out how to chip in through policy reforms, as well as manufacturing and import subsidies.

Far beyond the commercial viability of the sector, I believe that fashion remains one of the most complex languages of human expression. It is capable of multidimensional communication by both the designer and the consumer, superseding seasons and trends. I have curated wardrobes for movies and TV series, as well as various design showcases and museum exhibitions, but in many ways, I remain a student of style, always rediscovering the immense power clothing and dress practice has to alter people’s moods, attitudes, the quality of their interactions and their experiences of their surroundings.

It is amazing to be part of expanding the collective imagination, as well as my own, with regard to how human beings occupy public space. With every new project I lead or am involved in, I am continually fascinated by and careful to harness the power of garments and their combinations to appease, honour, protest, subvert and transgress.

As part of The Nest Collective, we have continued to ask cultural questions through fashion. We have put together these ideas and images from a selection of emerging Kenyan designers who are contributing to the shifting aesthetic of our country. In this interrogation of what exactly qualifies as ‘authentically African’, we challenge narrow definitions of African design and showcase original, unencumbered thinking and practice in this challenging sphere. Not African Enough was our translation of a voyage into Kenyan contemporary fashion as an exploration of wider issues regarding Africa’s place in global cultural debates and dialogues.

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