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.
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
They Call it Shalom
7 min read. BETTY GUCHU visits a cluster of IDP villages in Laikipia West where the ghosts of the post-election violence are still very much alive and where families struggle to survive.
They call it Shalom. Peace. A vast plain in Laikipia West dotted with United Nations-blue corrugated iron roofing. The people who live here used to live elsewhere until the somnolent demons of tribalism woke up in December 2007. They had lived in Burnt Forest, Kipkelion, Kuresoi, Kitale, Kapsabet, Koibatek, Mogotio, Nakuru, Eldoret, Molo, Subukia, Nandi Hills, Kaptembwa, Eldama Ravine, Timboroa, Koru, Mau Narok . . . places with beautiful, evocative names. They had made their homes there over decades, generations even, raising children and farming their own land. Or renting housing and working for others. Running businesses.
Then, suddenly, they were not welcome any more, chased away by marauding gangs of their once friendly neighbours, escaping with only their lives (when they could), and the shirts on their backs. Their names are Wangari, Barasa, Wanjiru, Kwamboka, Wangui, Mugo, Muigai, Wagichohi, Rioba, Kariuki, Kombo, Nyaboke, Robi, Twethaithia, Karema, M’bwii, Otsiro . . .
They endured the hell that was the Nakuru showground, where many had sought refuge, and survived the punishing cold at Mawingu, high up in the clouds over the Aberdares, where the piece of land they tried to settle on proved to be too small to contain them. Years went by, children became young adults and parents died of illness or despair. Yet they endured, organised, lobbied, and finally—after years of homelessness—found themselves resettled at the Makutano Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp on land purchased by the government from a family of wealthy landowners.
A bunch of bureaucrats well ensconced in their important offices had taken the executive decision to organise the IDP families into four villages, creatively naming them Villages A, B, C and D. Each family in each village (there are around 1,500 families in the whole of Shalom) was given a quarter of an acre of land on which to establish a homestead. To this end, each family was provided with building materials in the form of 20 UN-blue corrugated iron sheets, wood for the trusses and 25 poles to hold the whole thing up.
The IDPs had to use their own resources to finish building the houses: for the external walls, they used the plastic tarps under which they had been living in Nakuru and at Mawingu, or whatever bits of carton, wood and sacking they could salvage. The government also brought electricity right up to every homestead—which is presumably why the families had been organised into villages in the first place—but, alas, the vast majority couldn’t afford to properly finish their homes, let alone pay for the luxury of having electricity to light them.
Each family also received two acres of land on which to farm. These two acres are not situated next to the homestead but somewhere else on that vast expanse of grassland, making it that much harder to fructify the land. Something as simple as keeping backyard animals and using the manure for fertiliser becomes impossible; finding fencing material is a challenge in this treeless landscape and keeping animals—both domestic and wild—away from the crops a constant fight.
Not that there is much agricultural activity taking place at Shalom. Finishing the family home was always going to be the priority and, having arrived with nothing in the pocket, money must be found to keep the family fed and, eventually, properly housed. Yet there is little work to be found here, your neighbours being in the same situation as yourself. Going further afield means walking for miles and earning Sh200 at the end of six hours of work if you are lucky, enough to buy some maize meal and a handful of greens.
You could always start a kitchen garden – and many do – but the rains are erratic here and the water from the two boreholes that feed the four water points in the four villages is saline. A well-meaning NGO did finance the digging of small water pans in some of the homesteads but these have not been of much use. The pond liners were not suitable and started leaking. Besides, the pans were a hazard to small children often left alone at home while parents went looking for their daily bread. And so they have been drained and abandoned.
Yet the resettled at Shalom are not completely forgotten. Indeed, they are every so often remembered when it is politically expedient.
A slow death
I was running an errand for Isaac in Village C when I was waved down by Wa-Lillian, a grandmother of three orphaned girls. She thanked providence for sending me along just as she was about to give up trying to walk all the way to Makutano, a motley assortment of small businesses on the Nyeri-Nyahururu road, a couple of kilometres up a gentle slope. Wa-Lillian had been poorly of late and it would have taken her the better part of an hour to get there. As we drove up to Makutano, she told me that, together with other elderly women living in Shalom, she had had her name put down to receive a Meko, a combination gas burner and cylinder of the type one might take on a camping trip. Deputy President William Ruto was the eagerly awaited benefactor.
Shalom is in my neck of the woods, a few kilometres down the road and over the Nyandarua-Laikipia West border. I would have known nothing of it, would have had no reason to go there, were it not for Isaac. They used to call him Karaka because of the clothes he wore – a medley of rags that he had learned to stitch together with needle and thread from a young age to avoid going altogether naked. His father, under whose care he had been left when his mother returned to her people, was already an old man when Isaac was born, an old man whose only conversation were the stories he told about the Mau Mau and the war for Kenya’s independence, and whose parenting was limited to ensuring that Karaka never went hungry. Somehow, despite the grinding poverty, Isaac went through high school and left home to make a life for himself and, many years later, we met when I moved to Ndaragwa where he was now the project manager at a children’s home.
But even as he was going up in the world, leaving behind the poverty and want of his childhood and finally finding a steady, salaried job, Isaac also took up his true calling as a missionary among the people of Shalom. He would solicit material donations from well-wishers that he would then distribute to the neediest of the needy at the Makutano settlement, all the while offering them words of comfort from his Christian faith. And so it was that I once went along to help him ferry foodstuffs and clothing and came face to face with the grim reality of the lives of the victims of the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
Kariuki, whom we call Karis, is a tall, gangly fellow somewhere in his late thirties or early forties. When I first met him, Karis was living in a one-room hovel built with the government-issue UN-blue corrugated iron sheets and wooden poles, with black plastic sheeting for the walls. He slept in there with his one goat, his few straggly chickens and the ghosts of his wife and children who were murdered in the post-election chaos. Karis has a green thumb and, despite the water challenges, he had planted a promising kitchen garden from which he gifted me a handful of soybeans when Isaac and I passed by with some maize meal and porridge flour.
Much further down the road from Karis, at the furthest end of Village C, lives an elderly gentleman. Guka is small and slight, barely five-foot tall, and walks with a cane, turned out in an ancient suit and tie, his hat at a jaunty angle. Isaac was alerted to Guka’s circumstances by a village elder; hunger had been driving the old man literally insane and he would walk around the village weeping and wailing and talking to himself. He lived in his unfinished hovel on his own, his wife having long passed away and his grown-up children living elsewhere and unable to provide for him.
Njeri I met more recently, when, together with a foreign couple that was visiting me, I went to Shalom to deliver some building materials at Isaac’s request. We found her sitting on the ground outside her shack, listlessly sorting through a meagre portion of maize kernels. Hovering around her were two very young boys who should have been in school but, for want of Sh30, were not.
Njeri was very thin, almost skeletal, and I thought then that she must be suffering from some serious illness. She couldn’t fend for herself and if her equally food-poor neighbours did not share what little they had with her, then she and her two orphaned grandchildren went without. On seeing that Njeri had visitors, her neighbour came over, greeted us and asked me in Gĩkũyũ, “Woka kũmonia njaga itũ?” Have you come to show [these foreigners] our nakedness? I felt deeply ashamed. Njeri died last August; the neighbours tell me no cause was given but she may well have died a slow death from years of hunger and malnutrition.
Kwamboka’s mother died an internal refugee at Mawingu, leaving a teenage Kwamboka and her two younger brothers to fend for themselves. The relationship with the father of her children – two boys and a set of fraternal twins – did not survive the hardship and Kwamboka was left to raise her children singlehandedly in an unfinished shack with plastic walls through which the biting winds of the Laikipia plains blew relentlessly, giving the children snotty noses and permanent coughs.
These are just some of the many residents of Shalom whose lives have been made slightly easier because Isaac did not forget where he came from, and that he was once called Karaka—he who wears rags. With the help of self-effacing well-wishers, Isaac has over the last five years found the wherewithal to finish the houses for Karis, Njeri, Kwamboka, Guka and the many, many others who simply were never going to be able to do so on their own. The houses are nothing fancy, just corrugated iron sheet walls lined with plywood on the inside to keep out the cold, and a covered toilet outside. (There were families that used to have to ask to use their neighbour’s toilet.) Isaac has also found the wherewithal to provide tanks for rainwater harvesting, and solar lights for the homes with school-going children. The elderly also receive a monthly food parcel and this past Christmas a warm blanket was thrown in.
As for Wa-Lillian, she was one of twenty elderly women who each received a small gas cylinder, not from Deputy President William Ruto (who only delivered a political speech) but from Laikipia Women’s Representative Catherine Waruguru. Alas, it did not come with a burner or indeed the stand on which to place a cooking pot but Ms. Waruguru did promise that those would follow. Still, Wa-Lillian might only ever use the Meko until the gas runs out, after which she “will wait upon the Lord”, as she told me. A refill costs Sh900, and she is too old and sick to work. The family survives on the wages that her three school-going teenage granddaughters earn every Saturday and during the school holidays, and on Isaac’s monthly food parcels.
A Diary of a Young African Man
6 min read. To be young is to have hope. So all these hinderances did not deter Kagwa from pursuing his interests. He was a keen member of the very local soccer league, replete with its own legends, and of their occasional jogging gang. He also knew where to buy the most lethal strains of moonshine, which was to be his undoing.
The details are getting hazy now, much to my annoyance. I know I have them somewhere in my many notebooks. But even then, I wrote them down unwillingly, as it meant beginning that process of converting a person I knew into a mere story, or statistic. As any writer will tell you, it is an alienating experience, the last thing you want to do when remembering someone after their death.
My August trip to Ethiopia was marred by the sudden death of one Kagwa. Within the details of the life of someone not yet twenty-five years old, was the story of the crisis of the upper end of Uganda’s youth population bulge, of what also happens when a government abandons its people to the ravages of an economy over which it long lost command.
The actual circumstances seemed clear enough: he was one of the many—estimated to be perhaps three hundred to four hundred thousand—mainly young, mainly male motorcycle taxi operators that have come to wholly dominate the road transportation spaces of Uganda, as in many other African cities.
They have very bad PR: they are seen as lawless, unscrupulous, and often chaotic, especially should one have the misfortune of a traffic entanglement with them. The expected modus operandi is for every other passing rider to stop and engage the motorist in a rapidly escalating war of violent words, and physical threats, usually ending in some type of extortion in which even those that arrived last, and certainly did not witness the accident leave with some form of “compensatory” payment. The issue of who was actually in the wrong is often irrelevant.
Kagwa was as similar to, and as different from, all the others, which is a normal thing with a stereotype—you would be hard-pressed to find any person who wholly conforms to one.
What I certainly do remember is that, like many of his colleagues, Kagwa was not as he wished to be seen. He was in fact a plumber by training, who had found little employment in his chosen trade. Much like the cliché of the restaurants of Los Angeles being staffed by waiting staff who see themselves as actors, many of these gentlemen seem to be at a remove from themselves.
Of the five or six I use regularly, one is also a land broker, another an electrician, there is a lawn cutter and even a police informant. Two others—brothers, no less—are also both grass cutters, and yet another two are chauffeurs who do the school run using the parents’ cars before joining their fellow bikers at the “stage”.
Like with all trades, their skills have deteriorated through lack of frequent use (the electrician once made some positively hazardous “repairs” for me), and so the skill that paid them was ferrying people through the grinding traffic to which they are a contributing factor.
As is to be expected with such a system, the oversupply has created a crisis.
On the one hand, the formal economy has simply not trickled down. There is little formal employment, skilled or otherwise, into which these youth can be absorbed. On the other, two decades of a government policy of dismantling the public institutions—such as cooperatives and agricultural banks—that facilitated a viable interface between traditional agriculture and the modern food commodities market, has progressively collapsed the informal economy, principally rural agriculture.
This has broken a previously frugal but stable rural family-based employment system, and left the youth streaming into urban spaces, or even just urbanising rural spaces in search of new occupations. Often, they have bought a one-way ticket out of the extended family network, cashing in their birthright to make a down payment on their first bike.
This essentially lumpenised economy is the pool into which the human resource from all the other failing sectors drains. It survives because it must.
Having said that, incidents of boda boda riders being killed or suffering serious, often permanent injuries are legion. These young men are heavily over-represented in the orthopaedic wards. Kagwa was in fact the second fatality in our neighbourhood in the space of a few months after one Jjemba was flung helmetless over the bonnet of an SUV that had made a sudden turn, never regaining consciousness after his unprotected head hit the tarmac. The driver—a Chinese expatriate—was forced by a small mob to drive the man to a nearby hospital, but he refused to pay for the cost of a head scan despite having a substantial amount of cash on him, as was later found out at the police station he was then dragged to. The cash may have been more useful to him there, as he was later released without charge after a couple of days’ detention.
And so boda boda riders have acquired a reputation as violent and quarrelsome, a reputation complicated by the interests that then latch onto their predicament, like the constant inducements to work as informers while, ironically, being robbed by thugs pretending to be customers.
To be young is to have hope. So all these hinderances did not deter Kagwa from pursuing his interests. He was a keen member of the very local soccer league, replete with its own legends, and of their occasional jogging gang. He also knew where to buy the most lethal strains of moonshine, which was to be his undoing.
Among those hopes was Kagwa’s desire to become a grown man by starting his own family. This is where the youth crisis bites: at that point of attempted transition into full adulthood, or some semblance of it, through the struggle to secure three things: a permanent home, a family, and a steady income.
Looking back, I can see now that that was the point at which all the situations in Kagwa’s life—born of the crisis in our city and economy-—became unsustainable, and may have indirectly led to his death.
After over a year of knowing him, Kagwa proudly showed me the logbook to his bike. He had finally paid off the last outstanding installments of the loan he had taken out to acquire the bike, which then died the very next morning.
The credit regime is quite burdensome. On taking the loan, one must pay a monthly installment which includes interest and administrative fees. Defaulting makes one vulnerable to repossession, no matter how long you have been making repayments, and then one has to pay off the defaulted amount, the equivalent of two months going forward, as well as a penalty fine to get their ride back.
With some companies, I am told, repayment terms are enforced by means of a hidden tracking device. I am not sure if one had been planted on Kagwa, as his usual ruse of parking the bike in the nearby churchyard and then skulking nearby until the heat was off, usually worked. I learned this from the occasions when Kagwa had apologetically declined to pick me up because he was in hiding from the loan company enforcers.
Once, to my surprise, less than a month after he had fixed his bike, he collected me on a brand new motorcycle, of which he was very proud. I became curious because it was me that had gifted him the money to get his old one back on the road.
I asked him what had happened: was he hiring out the old one (as some operators owning more than one would)? He said no and told me that he had sold it off. I asked him whether he had used the money from the sale to make a down payment on this new one. No. I asked if he had saved the money somewhere. Again no, he had had to spend it. I asked him what he had used to buy his new bike, and he told me that he had taken out another loan, from another company.
This was a life of pressure.
I do recall late one night before Christmas receiving a phone call from Kagwa. He was in desperate search of a chicken, but could not afford the seasonal prices. His wife had made it clear that she expected there to be chicken for dinner, and was not interested in excuses. He knew that I raised hens in the backyard because I often hired him to deliver the chickenfeed.
Kagwa’s wife later left him. Her replacement came with other demands, foremost amongst which was that he begin formalising their union starting with a first customary visit to her parents. This is where the money from the sale of his original fully paid for motorbike went.
Then came the demands for an actual wedding ceremony. All this left him deeply in debt and under such pressure that, according to his colleagues at the stage, it led to him drinking heavily and then riding ever longer hours with hardly a break.
Part of me is left wondering just how much of an accident his crash was. We shall never know. Some witnesses report that he seemed to head straight into the path of the large oncoming car. His chest was crushed and he died on his way to hospital.
Kagwa’s burial took place deep in the countryside, on a piece of land so recently acquired by his estranged father, that his was the first grave in it. The stories that emerged from his colleagues, framed by his modest wake through to his internment, painted a picture of pressure and crisis. And it is from them that I pieced together this picture of an unfolding crisis of unrealisable and imposed expectations.
On my return from Addis, I thought to pay the customary visit to Kagwa’s home, but was discouraged by his resentful workmates, angry with the lady now technically his widow, with whom he had one child to add to the one he had had with his previous wife who had already taken up with another man.
And there we have it: hope and youthful energy preyed on from afar and at very close quarters. A life that begun already foreclosed.
And him nowhere near thirty.
How to Write About Northern Kenya
6 min read. In your article, talk about the vastness of the landscapes. Say that it looks like a forgotten country, but don’t ask why that is so. Talk about the empty terrain you have to cover, the harshness of the abandoned lands. Mention that the land has been abandoned because of banditry.
Always use the word ‘Rustler’ or ‘War’ or ‘Wilderness’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Somali’, ‘Bandit’, ‘Shifta’, ‘Survival’, ‘Ahmed the Elephant’, ‘Drought’, ‘Resilience’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Spear’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Rudimentary’. Also useful are words such as ‘Warlord’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘Bandit’ and ‘Shifta’ are both words that can be used to mean person from Northern Kenya.
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted person on the cover of your article or in it, unless that person has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, two AK-47s, a child holding three AK-47s: use these. If you must include a person from the area, make sure you get one holding four, or better still, five AK-47s.
Everyone is a bandit. The carjacker is a bandit. The fast-talking man who cons you out of your money is a bandit. The mathe at the market who refuses to bargain is a bandit. The people chilling in the barbershops are bandits. The old man lounging in the sun in his shuka is a bandit. The child playing football at the corner and glancing at you warily is a bandit. Even the newly-born baby is a bandit, given a gun as soon as it can hold its neck up.
In your text, treat Northern Kenya as if it is one unified whole. Wajir, Laisamis, Loiyangalani, Garissa, none of these places exist in themselves; it’s all Northern Kenya. It is hot and dusty with kilometre after kilometre of desert and huge herds of camels and tall, thin people who are starving, but for the sticks of khat they chew. Or it is hot and dry with people who are war-torn. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Northern Kenya is big: too many counties, and too many people who are too busy starving and dying and being bandits to read your article. The region is full of deserts, mountains, lakes, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions wild and evocative and violent and unparticular.
Be vague about where Northern Kenya is. Northern Kenya might be Marsabit or Wajir or Sudan or Somalia. It might be Turkana or Baringo or Meru or Tana River. We are beyond boundaries. A better guide of where Northern Kenya is to follow where the bandits are. A bandit is in Northern Kenya, automatically. In your report, list the places in Northern Kenya where bandits have raided in 2019. Northern Kenya is Baringo North, and West Pokot and Samburu. Bandit area. Northern Kenya is South Gem in Siaya, and Bahati in Nakuru and Meru, where bandits have been banditing. Sometimes, make these suspected bandits, because the only way one is not a bandit is if one is a suspected bandit. Good synonyms here are ‘rustler’ and ‘Al-Shabaab’ and ‘secessionist group.’ But bandit works best. List them all, the bandits. In Lodwar and in Pokot Central and in Nyandarua. Northern Kenya. To bandit is to Northern Kenya. For ease of vividity, the bandits, have them spray bullets.
Make sure you mention that, despite it all, people are showing resilience in the face of it all. Wake up, survive bandit attack, be resilient, sleep. Mention Lake Paradise, and Ewaso Ng’iro and all the other oases in this den of banditry. Mention Ahmed. Ahmed the elephant with his mighty tusks. Ahmed who was protected only by the good graces of our dear founding father, God bless him, the first president. Don’t forget Koobi Fora. The cradle of mankind. And the oil underneath the ground that will bring development to this godforsaken region.
Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between the people (unless a death from banditry is involved), references to writers or musicians or intellectuals from the area, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from banditry or famine or having to be bandits or forced early marriages or female genital mutilation.
Throughout the article, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Northern Kenya, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Northern Kenya is the only part of Kenya you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her beautiful sun duned landscapes forests. If you are a woman, treat Northern Kenya as a man with huge tusks and disappears off into the sunset. Northern Kenya is to be pitied, worshipped or gifted with development. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important article, Northern Kenya is doomed.
In your memoir, write about the Somali man, the waria. Describe them, these waria, with their “…strange scripts in Arabic, or wrong bottles in the wrong box, or a slightly off-kilter brand name. Porchi. Poisone. Sold by thin thin men from Somalia. Dominos of nations tumble around Kenya and Somali work about, overstimulated, and thrust their faces into yours, dribbling chewed khat, eyes bleary, jacket open and say…Kssss, Kssss…Rolexxx…Xss…xxxsss…Seyko.” Don’t forget to mention that they walk around with their shirts untucked, these waria. After all, you wrote the satirical guide ‘How To Write About Africa’ and so you must be as accurate as possible.
Names are interchangeable, remember that. When you have to name a local politician, don’t be bothered by accuracy and such mundane concerns as truth. Bonaya Godana is Bonaya Godana, but he can also be Boyana Godana or Boyana Gonada or Bonaya Gonada or Bonada Goyana or Bonana Godaya or Boyada Gonana or Bodaye Gonaria or Bodana Gonaya or Bodana Goyana or Bonada Gonaya or Bonaiia Goyada. Bonavecture Godana is acceptable too, as is Abdi Godana. Everybody in Northern Kenya is called Abdi, after all.
Don’t forget to talk about the wild animals too. Ahmed the Elephant, first, but also the lions and the giraffes and the lions and hippopotami. The animals are complex characters. They whisper (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, dreams and flights of intellectualism. Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. Hippos are dignified proud gentlemen. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a Hippo. Big cats drink wine with their caviar. Hyenas are fair game and talk like warias. Give a shout out to the people doing the labour of saving the animals from all the banditry around them. Mention them, these conservancies. The conservancies are great because they are remote and away from civilisation. Mention them, these heroes who fell in love with the terrains of Africa and are now there to save them. Mention them, the heroes with the OBEs given to them by Her Majesty the Queen of the Colony for “services to conservation and security to communities in Kenya.” Decry the bandits who dare to enact violence upon the private landowners fighting to save the animals. Remember, conservation is good, and pastoralist, which is just another word for uncivilised bandit, is bad.
Don’t forget the camel. The camel is noble and patient, decking it out with all the banditry around it. Each of the bandits in this bandit-infested area owns a camel, or several, and they probably chew khat with their camels too. Make the camel a metaphor. Maybe a metaphor for the resistance of the soul. Maybe a metaphor for persistence in the face of hardship. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is a metaphor.
In your article, talk about the vastness of the landscapes. Say that it looks like a forgotten country, but don’t ask why that is so. Talk about the empty terrain you have to cover, the harshness of the abandoned lands. Mention that the land has been abandoned because of banditry. Don’t forget to add that here, even stray dogs look out of place. Announce to your readers the good news, that development is underway. The oil rigs, the mines, the wind power projects, the development that is coming to Northern Kenya. All the years of the residents failing to utilise their high-potential lands because their attentions are occupied by banditry is at an end: Development is here to save them.
Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the bandits laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about survival in the badlands of Northern Kenya. Mention that the land is chaotic and fractured, and that the bandits walk proudly with their guns, as one would with a pen in civilised Kenya. Make powerful statements with vague generalized statistics to the effect of everyone having guns, good numbers of livestock being carried away by the bandits, and most of the children being bandits on the sly. The guns, of course, are nothing more than rudimentary firearms. The bandits should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause. Remember, at the heart of it all, these people are bandits. Six or seven AK-47s on the cover of your article is an excellent choice.
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