My grandparents on both sides of the family were early converts to the Yearly Meeting of Friends, also known as Quakers. You could say the Bible, school, tea and sugar were all tied to an idea of what it looked like to prosper in modern Kenya. Part of what showed that you were prospering was: tea and bread for breakfast, tea and bread at 4 o’clock, and tea at night for the adults sometimes, and also for the watchman. My mother had died soon after I was born. Yet my father, a single parent, was providing these things for his four children. He was prospering. And tea was at the center of prosperity, as were visitors. I was taught that you must offer tea to guests. This is how you make them feel welcome. This is how you put meaning into the words ‘feel at home’.
I learnt to make tea from watching our house help. We had a specific tea sufuria, from which she knew, just by looking at it, what level the water had to be. The water had to be warm before the tea leaves were added, and boiling when the milk was added. I was the last born, and so would act as the watcher of the tea sufuria, the one tasked to stand by the cooker and watch the tea rise and rise and then call for an older sibling or adult to come and switch off the cooker. I was taught that you couldn’t let the tea rise in the sufuria just once. You had to turn down the heat and then turn it up again, blow on the rising tea, and then stir it with the plastic sieve before finally turning off the cooker and pouring the tea into the blue enamel birika. There was some instruction about being careful not to stir the tea too much.
We always had our tea with bread, often spread with butter, jam or marmalade. Sometimes we’d have bananas instead, like the Kamau family in my English textbooks. Other times we’d have boiled maize, boiled sweet potatoes, boiled nduma or makhayo (maize and beans) instead, but this would happen when we had come from Kakamega or a visitor had brought something from Kakamega, home, as my father called it.
It was always two teaspoons of sugar per cup of tea.
My father had worked at the same organization, a subsidiary of a multinational company, since before I was born. Aside from providing a salary that allowed us to live as we did, the job ensured that we had calendars, t-shirts and even tablecloths (vitambaa) that carried the company’s brand. In this way, his working in that place was a part of my identity. However, in 1988 my father had a dispute with his employer that resulted in him being forced to resign. He had just remarried, and so losing his job made for a rocky start to a new marriage.
(In 1988, the exchange rate was 17 shillings to the US dollar. This mattered because the income he lost was based on this exchange rate. More on this later.)
In the wake of my father’s unemployment, his new marriage quickly broke down, and then he decided to sue his former employer. The turbulence meant that we moved a lot – 1989 felt like a strange nightmare. But by 1990, things had begun to settle down. My father, single again, had secured a new job, my sister and I had moved to a private primary school while my brothers attended good high schools. It seemed to be going back to normal except for the lingering court case that my father was confident he would win. From here onwards, the 4 o’clock tea was less likely to have accompaniments but it was mostly still available.
But this was the time that the Thermos Flask began to be more of an everyday-use item. When we were younger, The Thermos was an item reserved for visitors. It was carried out on a tray along with newest mugs and the visitors’ sugar bowl. But gradually, we started using it everyday. The Thermos was a genius hack because it meant not having to look for fresh milk every afternoon, and not having to light the cooker, saving on gas. But it also meant that the 4 o’ clock tea was the tea that had stayed in the Thermos since morning.
My father met someone else, and remarried again. We moved to a house that was much closer to my school. This came in handy on days when there was no fuel or car to take my sister and I to school. But then, the job troubles returned – it turned out that his previous employer was the client of his new employer and so this new job ended sooner than expected.
In my school diary, where it said “Father’s Occupation”, I wrote ‘businessman’. A code.
10 O’clock tea break
In my first primary school, a government school, tea had been served with bread every break time. Here, in the private school, we were required to carry our own snacks –whatever your preferred to eat and drink. It was understood that this had to be junk food – crisps, chevda, biscuits, chooze and diluted juice. You could carry bread and tea but also it was the sort of snack you didn’t feel proud to remove from your bag. At some point, I could no longer keep up with these requirements. Sometimes I had juice only, other times bread only. Other times nothing. I carried the boiled eggs to school but was too embarrassed to eat them so I carried them back home and ate them in my bedroom after school.
But there were always some of us who didn’t carry break. The ones who spent the entire 20-minute break intently focused on play or with faces hidden behind books. I may have at times made an unnecessary announcement about not feeling like eating. I doubt anyone cared really, and if they did they never made a big deal of it. My school fees kept rising, and my parents were the loudest ones in the PTA meetings, complaining. Eventually I moved back to a government school to complete Standard 7 and 8. Here, at least, we were more than a few people who didn’t carry anything for break. At least some of the my anxieties about break-time-hunger resolved.
Around us there were sugar shortages, and the absurdity of only being able to find sugar cubes, which couldn’t be rationed quite as easily. And there were times we switched to direct-from-the-farm milk suppliers because this milk was thicker and could stretch much more.
In 1992 all of my siblings and I were in our teens. I was the only one not yet in high school. Every beginning of term my siblings would undergo an extreme scrutinising of school shopping lists. Do you really need 5 bars of soap? Didn’t I buy you a shoe brush last term? Are you sure toothpaste costs that much? That kind of thing.
The tea and bread were never enough when they returned home for the holidays. The price of milk had leapt from 2 bob to 3.50 bob and it kept increasing. The price of bread had leapt from 4.75 to 6 shillings and then the government officially reduced the loaf size from 500 grams to 400 grams. This created all kinds of tension in the house. I learned to wake up extra early so that I could get the good bread slices – the crust, or the accidentally thick slices. At times we had to manage things by working out a roster of some kind, predetermining how many slices each person got and who got the extra slice if there was any. Sturungi (black tea) days instead of milk tea days became the norm. Jam was a Sunday breakfast delicacy or a thing that was offered to guests only and then it was disappeared for good. There was always the awkward moment when we had been told that there was no more margarine, or sugar, but a visitor arrived and these things appeared out of unseen stores. These were the times I hoped that the visitors would decline the extra slice of bread, already bluebanded and jammed because later it might be mine.
The visitors who saved us are the ones who showed up with milk, tea leaves, bread and margarine. For them and for ourselves we staged a dicey performance, pretending that we already had the sugar, the tea leaves and the milk we needed for making their tea. We were meticulous in arranging the tea cups on trays and providing them water to wash their hands. We might have even faked running to the kiosk for the extra ingredients that we didn’t actually have the money to purchase.
Deep freezer tea
Around this time, we had switched from cooking with gas to cooking with the kerosene stove or charcoal cooker. It just made more sense. In the happy event that there was gas, then this was strictly reserved for reheating food and anything that cooks fast like tea. Especially tea for visitors.
We were growing, our appetites had increased, so it meant always having a lot of tea around. But the tea was still always prepared with that one 500ml packet of milk from childhood, sometimes getting really translucent. But we always prepared a lot of it, and leftover tea was good – it was there to be sipped later to soothe our teenage hunger pangs, and could be served to unanticipated odd-hour visitors, or added to new tea for next time. At about this time that this strange innovation took hold at home. Deep freezer tea.
Until this disruption, leftover tea would sit in the kettle or the flask. If it went unconsumed until the end of the day, it was transferred into an old empty Kimbo tub or any other plastic container and stored in the fridge. In this new order, we learnt that tea in the freezer did not give off that ‘stayed-in-the-flask’ or recycled tea whiff. It was important, as such, that once breakfast was done, that it was quickly removed from the flask and let to cool off before being stored in the freezer. We’d always been having the old leftover tea mixed with new tea. Now, especially in the afternoons, the kitchen counter constantly had defrosting blocks of tea. There was the regular panic of having forgotten to take the tea out of the freezer. At times it was the unappealing blandness of two separate batches of defrosted tea combined. If you mixed the not-yet-defrosted frozen tea with the fresh tea on the stove you ran the risk of burning the tea. Burnt tea is terrible. The freezer can’t save it. Nothing can. Of course, our visitors always got tea made with fresh milk. Of course there were times I got reprimanded for mixing in old tea, or burning tea that was intended for visitors.
Rituals of visiting
When I was about 12 years old, I accompanied the adults in my life on a visit to a friends’ house. We’d travelled to this house with a girl, my age mate, and her mother. At this house, we’d sat on the sofas and waited to be served. We stared at the wall that had photos and pictures of the host family. The host brought out the jug with warm water, the basin and a hand towel. We washed our hands in turns and watched quietly as the tray of cups, sugar and the kettle was brought out. Our host then went around asking us what we would like to have. How many teaspoons of sugar? When it got to my age mate’s turn, she said she didn’t drink tea. She asked if she could have cocoa instead. The rest of us were all tea and two teaspoons of sugar takers. The host returned to the kitchen to seek out the girl’s preference and then returned to report that there was no cocoa. She asked the girl if she could take soda instead. The girl’s mother, somewhat angry, said that her daughter was just pretending. She insisted that cold water was all the girl needed. The host suggested that they could buy soda but the girl’s mother was firm. No need to spoil her. While we sipped our teas with buttered (not magarined) bread, the girl ate her bread with water. This scene stayed with me for years. I could never understand why her mother be so harsh. Now I look back and think how maybe these adults knew something about what this serving visitors’ good tea was costing our host.
Tea as consolation
Throughout the 90s my father never again secured full time (permanent) employment. It helped that my stepmother had a stable job that provided housing. It made it possible to stay in Nairobi even after we had lost the house he’d once owned. My father tried all sorts of ways to stay afloat. He was a taxi driver; an air travel agent, whose office also offered photocopying, printing services and telephone services; he ventured into politics; became a management consultant; and a computer instructor. Sometimes home entertainment was a practice round for a presentation on a slide projector, or watching training videos such as The Unorganized Manager. Sometimes, I’d come home from school and find him playing his old records – Franco, Tabu Ley and taking tea. Some days he’d be excited about the political events, the rise of multiparty democracy, or about whatever was showing on our very unclear CNN broadcast on our illegal connection of KTN. The court case that we’d thought was ending soon, was still going on and some days he was in a bad mood, playing dirge-like nostalgic music as he talked about the court proceedings.
There was the first time we had sturungi and rice for supper. There were not enough money to buy cooking oil and sukuma wiki. There was only rice and ugali flour in the kitchen cupboards. Rice was the better option.
When my father eventually moved out of Nairobi, my siblings and I remained because school was in Nairobi. I was in Standard 8 when I moved in with relatives. It was a bit of a shock to notice that they didn’t ration sugar as we had. At home we’d adapted to having sugar mixed in the tea while it was still in the sufuria, or going without sugar at all. At my relative’s house, we had tea and bread and it felt so weird to carry break to school again. A different universe.
Of breaking habits
I had missed the first day of high school because of a delay in getting money to sort my school fees and shopping. I had missed the class orientation session. At the 10 am break time, on my first day in high school, I went looking for my Form 2 roommate to ask her where the tea was served. She laughed and explained that in the school, break time was not for tea unless you had a doctor’s note. Those students who had notes from their doctors went to the dining hall and drank from their packets of UHT milk and their Marie biscuits. The rest of us, normal students, just studied or basked in the sun until break time was over.
In December 1997, my sister and I met my father in town, with our packed bags, as we were going to travel to Kakamega after court. I had just completed Form 3. Until then I’d always seen these losses and cutbacks that had happened to my family as an isolated situation. That morning though, we met my father along with former colleagues and friends who were there to accompany my father to court. They were all dressed in suits that had been bought around the same time, a while back. Faded. They had this look of trying to appear okay when it was evident that things had gone awry for all of them. They were jovial enjoying their tea at Trattoria restaurant, a short distance away from the high court. As if drinking tea in such a place was their normal routine. As if it was the kind of place they had always belonged. And yet it wasn’t. We were all smelling victory. I imagined that my father would come out of court and we’d be able to afford anything. However, that afternoon, the judgment was postponed. And it was postponed many times over until 2003 when it felt more like a release than a victory.
This part, my father tells me over a cup of tea: He sought audience with Chief Justice Cocker, Chief Justice Chesoni, and Chief Justice Chunga. He was always being told, write a letter. He wrote letters. He eventually got his judgment in 2003, but the victory was partial. His compensation was handed over at the USD/KSh exchange rate of 1988 rather than 2003. Still, it was something.
Tea as reparation
I keep trying to create a tea recipe that will be mine. It started when I bought a batch of chai masala that was just tasteless. I then purchased the unprocessed ingredients separately – dried cloves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, black pepper, fresh ginger. I’m trying to determine what the perfect proportion is. Some of it comes from that place of not wanting to experience the wateriness of tea, the burntness of tea, and the memory of scarcity it evokes. It comes also from wanting an elaborate reason to justify standing so close to the cooker to just watch the tea.
I’m lactose intolerant but have refused to accept it. I take milk often and then regret it. I go off milk and then get back again. I feel a little anxious when the milk runs out at the wrong time of the week. When the Finance Bill was passed I went and stocked up on milk because I’d like to believe that when I stop taking milk tea (if I ever do), that it will not be because I cannot afford it.
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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