by Robert Munuku
It is expected for governments to be corrupt. This is a reality, not a vindication – of course corruption is wrong. But at the very least no one gets a heart-attack from surprise upon hearing that government is corrupt.
The most injurious things are those that are an unexpected, because they go unseen then untreated as they operate from the shadows. Corruption in Kenya is not a government phenomenon, but a nationwide one, pervasive in social life and hence all institutions. To deal with corruption we have to deal with many things, preferably at a micro-sociological level. To attempt to deal with it (as we are now) at a macro-level would be futile because at the macro-economic/political levels, corruption is guarded by the very same people/institutions with the power to do something about it. It’s like going to a Kenyan police station to report police brutality and expect results
We as the Kenyan population are also not organized enough, willing enough & politically neutral enough to unite and mobilize towards a fight to end corruption. The middle-class is busy trying to get richer so that they can join the elite upper class, so any malcontent with corruption is often a front to show they care, when they really only care about upward social mobility. Likewise, the elite is more concerned with protecting their already acquired wealth.
Once we accept that corruption in Kenya is not unique to government, we also need to remember that the institutions that traditionally had more muscle than the individual to fight corruption are themselves corrupt – this is what some call the civil society. Civil society in Kenya has been tainted by the commercialization of activism. It is marred with self-interest often hinging on foreign funding. Cartels now too exist in civil society because they need to keep securing funds to keep their NGOs functional, and what better way than to ensure that there’s a constant state of chaos?
Civil society may come in to support a fight against corruption, but this is because their interests shift with the tide that pays their bills. Today it’s climate change, tomorrow it’s the girl-child, the next day it’s water and sanitation, and the next week its poverty reduction. Those who fund civil society from outside the country don’t do so because they love Kenya so much, but because they too want to front foreign agenda to African states like ours, which is a form of neo-colonialism.
The media have one of the most powerful tools – voice, and distribution channels of the same. However, journalists often also fall victim to corruption themselves, being paid off to steer conversations in a certain way (brown envelopes) or to outright kill stories. This is not surprising, because the media houses are owned by individuals who are often politically aligned. Perhaps non-mainstream media & independent journalists are the ones we can count on
Religious institutions are also participants and beneficiaries, because political leaders are usually aligned with one (or more) of the religious denominations in the country, leading them to shy away from harsh criticism.
I believe that the fight against corruption is a one we all need to deal with at first as individuals. But that can only happen if we truly believe it’s wrong. But do we? Or do we wish we were privy to the same wealth that it brings, and only fight it out of spite?
Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent. Follow him on Twitter @robertmunuku
I do not want to write this.
I do not want to open myself to criticism, my church to criticism; I am, thankfully, not worried about my God – He can take care of himself. I do not want to write this because I am always so scared of having imagined it, of being too sensitive, of being hysterical, of having ‘issues’. I do not want to write this because I am so much more than the words a white man said to me and I am not a victim. I do not want to write this because there is no way to write this without acknowledging, super publicly, that this hurt me. I do not want to write this because I know that race and gender played a part in it and my Church does not talk about these things because ‘we are one’ ,because privilege does not travel across oceans along with your idealism and your desire to help. Because you are not subject to a strange new privilege here in Nairobi. Because my time as an immigrant was not supposed to make me aware of the privilege of being an expatriate.
I do not want to write this because intersectionality does not appear once in the Bible, I checked.
I do not want to write this because I want to stay friends. I do not want to write this because I love Jesus and I like church most of the time and I do not want to hate on either of those things. I do not want to write this because I chose to attend a multicultural church in the city I grew up in when there are plenty of other options for the university abroad returnee Kenyan all within easy driving distance of my home. I do not want to write this because it is a story about Karen people and their rich people problems. I do not want to write this because ‘to be fair’. I start the sentence ‘to be fair’ and I have no idea what comes after. His rage was evident, as was his hurt; I do not know his history. I do not know what a demanding young black woman triggered in him. I have no idea what was behind those words so I really cannot be fair to him.
It had been a tough year for our leadership team. Our church is transient. I have loved serving in the post- childhood pre middle age adulthood ministry but I have needed help and it has not been easy to get. I have been pretty vocal asking, insisting even demanding that help from members of our team. My mum joked that I have been dragging reluctant white men to the podium to make announcements with me all year. The pastor insists that our announcements be ‘representative’ that means a man and a woman. He never called the men to tell them this. He never called at all. His assistant passed on the message laughing apologetically as she did. I tried to insist on answered emails, on stupid representative announcements, on joint prayer, on communication, on commitment. I insisted, especially, that we made our events accessible (meaning: maybe not 2000 bob sushi). I may have insisted too hard.
But we put together some great events and here we are, sitting around a table for our end of year meeting. As we sit to eat, I decide that the knot I felt in my stomach driving over was silly. Then the conversation moves to Zwarte Piet and people’s overreaction to perceived racism. Most of the people at the table agree that it is ridiculous. The implication is that ‘real’ racism no longer exists. I challenge this idea highlighting why I think Zwarte Piet is offensive and why blackface is not just an American problem, stopping just short of explaining why racism still exists and what forms it exists in. One of our hosts (one of the reluctant white men) expresses that he does not feel connected to the ministry anymore and is called in a different direction. I am pleased for him; not only because he sounds so passionate about his calling but because it is so much easier to work with a smaller but more committed team. I have been conflicted about further involvement all year but sitting around the table it feels like we may turn a corner and I decide that I am in and commit to another year. The dinner is finished and we are setting a date for a January meeting. Someone proposes a date- it is not convenient for the host who just quit.
‘Will you still be attending meetings?’ I ask to clarify.
This is what sets him off.
I do not want to embellish so I will just write down the most memorable sections of his rant.
….’Watch your mouth in other people’s houses’…..
…’You are so critical and it has made me feel so bad this year’….
….. ‘You have been so horrible to me’…..
…..’You have the privilege and the curse of being a Kenyan working in Kenya’….
….’You do not know what I have been going through. I am very busy. Sometimes I can’t reply to an email because I am waiting for a work email.’…
….’You ask us about the future and we do not know where we will be next year’…
….’You need to extend Grace’…. (This little bit of Christianese ENRAGED me)
There was more stuff but I do not remember it specifically.
I am stunned during this outburst but I do look up long enough to see his wife nodding. I look back down at the table immediately but it registers to me as agreement by the whole table. Suddenly I am completely surrounded. I am the only Kenyan on the table but my friend sitting next to me is Ugandan. I cannot look at her. If she is nodding I will fall apart. I continue to look at the table.
He finishes and I am faced with a choice- angry or dignified. I could react the way I want to react which is to point out that I have a full time job, that waiting for emails is not like waiting for a phone call you can answer an email while a new one comes in, that the inherent bigotry of his ‘privilege and curse’ comment is blowing my mind, that I wish he would just call me a bitch (which is what the hate, anger and hurt in his eyes are communicating) rather than disguise his ugly thoughts in Christianese, that this is no way to treat a guest and my privileged and cursed ass knows this at least. I would finish by flipping them all the bird, storming out and slamming the door behind me as hard as I could. I would deal with the consequences later.
I could play the dignified black woman. Stoic and proud. Above offence and pain. Focused on the greater good. I could apologize for unintended hurt and pain and clarify my intentions.
I choose option 2 because I know how quickly a room turns when a woman, a black woman, gets angry. I apologize. I make it through the closing prayer as best as I can. Then I get the fuck out of there.
The one option I never had around that table was hurt. I couldn’t express my pain. Once in the car I extend myself some grace and I cry. I cry all the way home. I cry because I was invisible and because, not for the first time in my life, I chose the feelings of someone who hurt me over the truth. I cry because it didn’t even feel like a choice. I am up all night praying and pleading. Asking God if there is any truth to what was said. If I am wrong. I ask his forgiveness for reacting so dishonestly. I ask if he sees me when so many people cannot. I ask if I am all wrong in his eyes. I know the answers but he is happy to tell me as many times as I need; that he knows me, that he loves me, that every hair on my head is known to him, that I am precious. I finally fall asleep at 3am. I am up 3 hours later and already late for work. I compose an email saying that I will be stepping back from leadership in the New Year. The voice in my head saying that I am weak and small for quitting and that I should hold on to this thing that I love so much is silenced. I send the email. I take a deep breath and head off to work hoping that I won’t be late for court.
The fallout from this is still unclear but I am at peace. I hope that my church will learn to talk about class, race, culture and gender. I hope that white people coming to ‘Africa’ will take some time to contend with their whiteness and think about their privilege before they leave home. I hope the black people who attend my Church will stop seeing ‘not like the others’ as a compliment. I know that I will be honest the next time something happens- that I do not know what was going on with him but I know how I felt and that shit hurt. I will learn that pain is nothing to be ashamed of. I will not douse my anger in shame but let it educate me. I will allow my anger to tell me where I was violated, I will let it draw a map of my boundaries, I will let my anger point a way out, I will let my anger spur me to defend myself and my values.
Aisha doesn’t attend church regularly anymore, she is more interested in imagining a more shareable here and now than waiting on the sweet hereafter.
Where are those songs
my mother and yours
to the whole
vast span of life?
What song was it?
What do you remember?
~ Micere Githae Mugo ‘Where are those Songs’ 1972
I just rinsed my nixtamalized maize out in the sink, and as I did so, I thought about indigenous knowledge, revival of traditions, and decolonisation. I thought back to a meeting of elders from various Kenyan communities that I attended a few weeks back- one of a series intended to enable the revitalisation of culture and traditions.
But first let’s talk about the maize.
Maize has its origin in Latin America: Mexico to be specific, where it was/still is a staple. Many East and Southern African countries have maize as their staple food, at the expense of indigenous and more drought resistant crops such as varieties of sorghum and millet (maize is drought-prone because it has a shallow root system).
It was brought to these parts (and other continents of the world) thanks to the 16th century Spanish conquests of North and South America. But one thing that the Spanish did not carry with them was the indigenous knowledge of how to process maize in order to make it more nutritious. The process is known as nixtamalization. Maize is boiled and left to soak in an alkaline solution that dissolves/weakens the pericarp, and alters the seeds’ chemistry to make amino acids vital B vitamins more available. Nowadays you can use store-bought cal (calcium oxide) to nixtamalize maize, but the traditional process uses ashes mixed with water (which forms potassium hydroxide, hello high school Chemistry).
But in the 16th century, wherever maize went and was adopted as a staple (due to its high calorific value), strange diseases sprouted. Now we know them as pellagra (flaky skin, diarrhea, and dementia) and kwashiorkor (distended belly caused by protein deficiency) but then, they were mysterious illnesses, which often led to death.
Nixtamalization not only makes maize more nutritious, it also enhances its flavour (we all know plain ugali does not have much flavour), and reduces aflatoxin growth. Recently, in fact, Kenyan officials were on a mission in Mexico to learn just how to nixtamalize maize with the possibility of introducing the technology here. Quite importantly too, this process makes it possible to form a dough out of maize, without which tortillas could not be made. So when I decided to experiment in the kitchen and nixtamalize maize the traditional way I had multiple incentives. This post provided a recipe, my mum provided maize from her farm, and other experiments provided ash.
When I told my mum what I was going to do, she mentioned that her mum used to process maize in a similar way for muthoko. We know it as a staple of the Akamba people and its signature is that the maize in the maize-bean mixture is hulled. Today you can get machine hulled maize but I wonder if this is how everyone processed maize then. If so, were there ever any cases of kwashiorkor in Kambaland before posho mills arrived?
I am strange here, they don’t know me.
The mountains breathe the secrets of old,
But I don’t grasp the twists and turns,
The lilts and sighs of their tongue.
Land of my ancestors, you don’t know me,
But will you know me? Will you teach me if I ask you?
Perhaps I need new ears, perhaps new eyes
Maybe a new heart- but I am ready to learn.
~ Wangũi Kamonji
This experiment to me represents knowledge revival in two senses. Reviving my grandmother’s knowledge: she herself couldn’t tell me how she processed maize in this way, being bodily gone from this world; but at least I know that she did. In a second sense, this is knowledge rebirth – using beneficial indigenous knowledge from a different place (Mexico) where I am (Kenya).
This is the kind of knowledge rebirth or revival I became interested in as I travelled in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, and studied Latin America and the Caribbean more broadly. All these being places that have been influenced in some way by the African continent, and places with an indigenous movement that is alive.
After meeting with and interacting with young people doing things in their communities through my travels, I believe that one must first feel rooted somewhere in order to do activist work. My host brother in Brazil says “those ‘You Have Tos’ that people give you can be dangerous. You have to first find and know yourself before you can do this.” He was a practitioner of Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion that has its roots in West African religious traditions. His sister, also an organiser in their neighbourhood, had a similar sense of rootedness and responsibility to her community. In Mexico City, I met a young bright woman, Lupita, who ran a coffee bar in a community centre. She also taught single mothers how to roast coffee through a cooperative she started, all while writing her thesis on indigenous Mexican dancing. The dance is art, prayer and history in movement. She too felt a strong connection to indigenous Mexican traditions, and her other work in the arts was a testament to this.
In the words of Jennings school district superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, ‘This work [of making a difference] is faith-filled work. … Whether you wrap that in Christianity or not.”
I feel like drought cracked earth,
Riven in places, dry, forgotten,
But slowly, the rain clouds gather,
And the drops begin to fall.
One, two… they seep into the cracks,
To quench the thirst
And heal the cracks.
~ Wangũi Kamonji
The meeting of elders I mentioned in the beginning was a similar avenue for indigenous knowledge revival. The African Biodiversity Network (ABN) regularly convenes meetings of community elders and knowledge bearers from a few communities in order to discuss progress on key issues. All items on the agenda have something to do with research into traditional values and practices and how they relate to aspects of environment and cultural sustainability today. The meeting I attended, for example, began with reports on origin stories of the various communities then led into a discussion on traditional values and practices surrounding water.
The discussions were fruitful and beautiful, as such a collection of varied wisdom and knowledge in one place is not easy to come by today (more on this later). Each morning began with traditional prayers to set the tone, and with the elders in traditional clothing, before we set to the day’s conversations. Alongside the elders’ discussions were also the discussions of the Earth Jurisprudence group, convened to consider how natural law and indigenous traditions might be integrated into the world today.
I greatly enjoyed, and was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the meeting. In our world today – urbanized, disconnected, rootless, colonized – it is difficult, if not completely impossible, to find the indigenous knowledge I was exposed to during that week. Even where there is a will, the way is often unclear. One doesn’t know whom to ask, where to go, how to go, how to be told; to sit and learn and discover.
And then there are the majority that either don’t care for that knowledge (viewing it as not-knowledge and backward) or worse, who think of it as witchcraft, if not satanic. I won’t go into the whys of all of that now, but suffice it to say that such space was a welcome breath of fresh air for me. I had been seeking and seeking, but never finding in my own land. The ABN meeting was a small place to find those narratives, stories, songs and dances that used to be. That I had been wanting to hear, and been looking for, but thinking I couldn’t find in Kenya. (Perhaps it is so difficult to find in Kenya because of the previously mentioned misconceptions and prejudices Kenyans hold towards their cultural practices).
“Who will hear the stories that we tell around the fire?”
~ Eric Wainaina ‘Sir, me sir!’ unreleased song
But even such a space with all its positives had some things that made me stop and shake my head. In a word, misogyny. As a disclaimer, I respect that in some traditions in the past and therefore for some elders, the participation of women in particular activities, especially those of a religious or spiritual nature was not practised. But I find it hard to accept that today. Now the meeting was actually out of the ordinary; women were present during morning prayers (done the traditional way facing Nyandarua [Mt Kenya]); although we were asked to stand some distance apart from the men, and wear skirts or dresses. At other instances, however, I was made to feel less than welcome as woman. Such as when a (well educated) colleague asserted that as women, we should know that our place was not at sacred sites of prayer and all we must do is “peep from afar”. Or when others asserted that ‘African traditions’ do not allow women to participate in religious and spiritual activities, presenting this myth as truth. I cannot accept that because I was born a woman, I am to not participate in cultural activities of spiritual import. First, simply because I am a ‘hard-headed’ woman, second because of all that came before.
The situation of my generation is one of removed-ness, of loss and lostness, of apathy, of rootlessness. We talk a lot about decolonising the mind, but if we expect that it is a task to be carried out by men alone, we have already lost.
There are such few who are interested in reviving traditions before they are completely lost to us, and to the future that if the gatekeepers lock out women, simply for being women, it’s a lost cause. This is often what I think of as a dilemma of the spirit versus the letter of traditions. What is more important? For the wisdom of traditions to remain for future generations, or for them to be performed by exactly the same people who performed them for a certain number of years?
I think one of these is a sure recipe for the death of those same traditions. We are quick to forget that culture is formed and re-formed by living people, and is made to suit the times. It is for the people, rather than the people for it (see the Biblical the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath). In my travels I participated in traditions that did not exclude women. On the contrary, they upheld women, at times as the ones to commune with the divine. There were often distinct roles and tasks for men and women, but nonetheless, both participated. This is also present on the continent, in the traditions of the Dagara, of various South African communities and so on (hence why that ‘African traditions do not allow women bla bla bla’ is a myth).
We cannot go back to the past. Simply because we cannot recreate that time, and simultaneously, empty ourselves of all we have known and come to be since then. Adaptation is key here. If cultures do not adapt to changes (while maintaining their spirit), they die out.
A blend of the past and the present to form a future we want is what we need to aim towards. And reviving our traditions and indigenous knowledges is a core way in which we learn from the past to inform our present and future. The downside of our times is that after feeling rootless and searching without clarity on where to go to find such knowledge, you get there and find the gates closed.
But the upside of our times is that through travel and the internet, we can find out things, if not from our own traditions, from the wisdom of other traditions (for example, nixtamalizing maize). Thanks to this I am able to drink at the fount, while I figure out ways to make my own more open to others like me.
I like to take Micere Mugo’s advice to sing in the moment. And hope that it is in the singing now that we remember the songs of old.
This I remember:
Mother always said
sing child sing
make a song
beat out your own rhythms
the rhythms of your life
but make the song soulful
and make life
~ Micere Githae Mugo ‘Where are those Songs’ 1972
Wangũi Kamonji is an independent researcher and Wellesley College graduate of environmental studies and urban studies. She blogs about her encounters in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam.
“Please listen to Sauti Sol’s latest song Nerea. So done with it.” A close friend sent this message to me on Tuesday morning last week. Later in the evening, I watched the video with yet another friend. We were both irritated, and it has taken me a week to decide why.
The song is from a man to a woman he impregnated called Nerea. He is imploring her not to abort her pregnancy, citing that when a child is born, God also brings “his/her plate”, meaning that God provides, and that should she not want to raise the child, she can give it to him to raise it instead. They also provide a list of the people the child could grow up to be like, such as Lupita Nyong’o, Raila Odinga, Miriam Makeba, Barack Obama among others.
This makes it easy to write off the song, as it is based on a series of bad arguments. I was convinced that someone had paid them to sing this song, or, that they were doing it to go viral.
Sure, the child could grow up to be great, or he/she could become Hitler, Idd Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, or Bloody Mary. Appeals to God are also not a good place to start, seeing as everyone has their own views on God – religion is a poor base for an argument that is supposed to be universal. The idea that the only reason women get abortions is to avoid raising the children or because of lack of support from the father is incomplete. Yes, in some cases, this is true; however, the costs even before birth are astounding. The cost of delivering a child at many hospitals in Kenya exceeds KES 100,000, and this does not include the numerous tests and checks that happen beforehand. Delivery at public hospitals may be free, but the quality of those services leaves a lot to be desired. It is expensive to carry around another human being for nine months: if one is young and unmarried, it leads to shunning and shaming, as well as the potential for abuse from partners. The woman’s mobility and ability to work and earn are also reduced. It is also likely that she could die while giving birth. Giving the child up to the father after birth, or for adoption, does not solve these issues.
It may be argued that the song is merely the opinion of six men, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if we don’t like it we should just accept and move on, or ignore it. Unfortunately, the song has become the basis of a timely debate in Kenya over pro-choice vs pro-life arguments, reproductive health, and the rights of women over their bodies. As much as I would love to ignore this song and pretend it never happened, it did. I also believe that people are not entitled to their opinions – they are entitled to informed opinions, which should be challenged if they get in the way of other people’s lives and well-being.
The topic of abortion is emotive, and rightly so, because it cuts across several human phenomena: religion, sexual intercourse, gender/sexuality and policy. Several conversations have been had about women and the rights over their bodies, the rightness/wrongness of abortion, whether it should be legalized, the rights of the man in case of a pregnancy, and how these interact with religious views. However, one conversation that we are not having enough, which I feel is the most important one, is on reproductive health. What about Nerea? Sure, we know she wants to abort her pregnancy. But do we know why?
As at 2012, it was estimated that over 450,000 women terminate pregnancies each year in Kenya. In 2012, nearly 120,000 women sought medical assistance due to post-abortion complications. Almost all of these abortions are carried out in very unsafe conditions. More than 70% of the women who seek post-abortion care are not using any method of contraception prior to becoming pregnant. Among the women who sought post-abortion care in health facilities, 64% were married or living with a partner, 27.8% had never been married, and 7.5% were divorced. 16.5% were girls aged 10 – 19 and 31.7% were aged 20 – 24. Unsafe abortions contribute to 35% of all maternal deaths. 43% of births in the preceding five years were also reported by women to be unwanted or poorly timed.
Why are so many women finding themselves with unintended pregnancies?
I believe that our poor reproductive health practices are to blame. Women are either ignorant of their options, or lack access to contraceptives. Indeed, contraceptives only have a 46% prevalence rate in Kenya, and unmet need ranges from 26 – 78% in many parts. This can largely be attributed to misinformation: many people believe that contraceptives lead to deformed babies, drastically reduced sex drive and promiscuity. Despite major efforts towards family planning education, these myths still prevail, and lead to women and their partners making poor choices, or no choices at all, regarding their reproductive health. Over 30% of women have never discussed fertility issues with their partners.
I believe that we have been focusing our efforts on the wrong conversation. See, once a woman is pregnant, the zygote/foetus is in her body, and no matter the man’s or society’s view, she alone makes the ultimate decision since the zygote/foetus resides in her body, and directly affects her health, well-being and livelihood. It goes without question: a woman’s body is her own, regardless of the circumstances. A person’s body is all they can actually call their own on this planet, hence the concept of bodily integrity.
Even when someone is dying from the loss of blood or a failing kidney, the people who can donate blood or a kidney have to consent to doing so, even when it is a life or death situation. No one can force them to do it, no matter what we think is right. In the same vein, organs from a dead body cannot be taken without the person’s consent while he/she was alive. Even corpses have bodily integrity. It therefore follows that ultimately, no matter what we say or do, pregnant women will have the final decision, and no amount of burying our heads in the sand can change that. This is why this argument is called pro-choice, and not pro-abortion. One does not have to agree with abortion, one simply has to recognize that the choice belongs to the woman in question, and that they simply have no control over it.
If people want to stop abortion, it would be wise to turn to methods that actually work. Rather than wait until we get to the stage of reproduction where all we do is fight based on pro-life vs pro-choice, religion, among other arguments, we should focus our energies on ensuring that women do not have to make this decision.
The biggest problem in Kenya when it comes to reproductive health is an information problem, followed by access to contraceptives, as illustrated by the statistics above. We should ensure that we teach people from a very young age about safe sex, and provide affordable contraceptives for those who are sexually active. Many young people are sexually active, and ill-equipped to handle it, with very little sex education beyond what is touched upon in biology classes. This leads to many unwanted teen pregnancies. We also cannot continue to castigate women who abort while railing against contraceptives and opposing sex education for the young, especially through our religious institutions.
Religious institutions often claim that their opposition to contraceptive usage is rooted in the belief that sex is for marriage, and that people who are married should be able to enjoy the “full benefits” of sex without using contraceptives. This creates a rather idyllic view of marriage and the sexual environment within it, which we know to be false: 64% of the women seeking post-abortion care are married or living with a partner. This echoes the HIV/AIDS statistics that have the highest rate of new infections in Kenya among married people. Why are the marriages that these institutions so strongly root for as a safe sexual environment so unsafe? Is it because of false expectations and misinformation? Is it because of the demonization of sexual pleasure? Deep introspection on this, beyond cries of “We are living in the end times!” may prove to be a better endeavour for religious institutions.
It is clear that laws against abortion, which Kenya has, do not stop abortion. They simply make it illegal, thus more unsafe for women, leading to many deaths, and in the case of survivors, many injuries, because of resorting to dangerous and painful methods to end their pregnancies. The quality of these services is usually poor due to the lack of regulation, and even when women experience abuse during the procedure, they cannot report it because it is illegal. The number of abortions is not lowered by this stance – the only thing that happens is that more women die because of it. It would be far better to decriminalize it (note that this is different from legalization; it simply means that the criminal penalties attributed to an act are no longer in effect). In countries where abortion has been decriminalized and contraceptive use is steady/rising, abortion rates reduce dramatically, and the injuries/deaths resulting from it drop as a result of regulation.
It is important to have women’s voices at the front and centre of this debate, as it primarily concerns them. Yes, it is important that other voices get heard, and yes, we may not like what they have to say, but to fail to put “Nerea’s voice” at the centre of this debate is akin to white people calling a conference to discuss black people’s issues but not having any black people speaking. It is preposterous.
Sauti Sol and Amos & Josh did not set out to sing a song about safe sex and reproductive health, but perhaps such a song is much more needed in Kenya at this point.
There comes a time when one is called to great things. One of those things is being Kenyan. How does one become Kenyan, you ask? You have come to the right place.
Religion: Praise God? Amen! It does not matter where you are, who you are with, or what their religious beliefs are, discussions about the wonders and glory of God are always welcome, especially since Kenya is a Christian nation. In a country as confusing as this one, where each day does its best to drive you mad, the only thing that can keep you sane is carrying your burdens to a “higher power”. Go to church every Sunday, even during the week when you can. Tithe as much as half of your salary, even though it means you may have no savings or emergency money. Watch as your tithe buys your pastor a new car each year and builds him and his wife a house in Karen or Runda. You should have no problem with this, because God blesses those who give. Never wonder about how the God they tell you about is all about prosperity and never about sacrifice, because you know the day is about to come when you too will be prosperous. You just aren’t praying hard enough. Remember to blame the devil and the bad wishes of your enemies whenever something goes wrong in your life.
Politics: Be obsessed with politics. The only thing more important than politics is God. Be in a permanent state of election fever. After an election, immediately start preparing for the next one. Five years is a short time. Except when the new regime is being asked why they are yet to achieve results – in this case, five years is an extremely long time, and you should only ask them about this six months to the next election. To be a political leader in Kenya is to be in paradise – it is to have unlimited power with no accountability, which is a thing all Kenyans aspire to. You must vote for leaders who are from your tribe to lead your constituency/county. A Kenyan is always loyal. These leaders must also be endorsed by your local kingpin. Development agendas and plans mean nothing. When these leaders fail to deliver, wonder how this could have happened, and complain ceaselessly. Fail to see the connection between your voting patterns and the terrible leadership. When your favourite politician is criticized or accused of corruption, insist that your tribe is being targeted, and back this up by pointing out the critic’s surname, which will likely be from another tribe. Should this person be from your tribe, accuse them of letting your people down. Be prepared to fight to the death for your leaders – it’s your tribe against the other tribes. After all, the other tribes you are fighting are the reason you are so poor.
Money: Almost everything is acceptable as long as it was done “for the hustle”. Whenever you can, steal from your place of work. Do you work at a bank? Steal from your customers. Are you a contractor? Skim. Once you are rich, no one will care how you got your money. They will love you, and pester you with questions on Twitter all day on how they can be like you. Fatten your chicken with ARVs. Use carcinogens to ripen your fruits faster. This same formula can be applied to any business. Brake fluid? Dilute it. Alcohol? A little methanol and formalin don’t hurt. Are you a matatu driver? Drive over kerbs, on pavements and through petrol stations. Some people might die…but that’s none of your business, right?
Women: You simply must have an opinion on all matters women, especially when you are not one. Define what wife material is; do it often. Your ideal woman is one who is intelligent but not smarter than you, does not wear weaves, wears just enough makeup, cooks chapattis; one who wears high heels and never, ever stumbles in them, one who believes in God and goes to Church every Sunday but still parties with you on Friday and Saturday and has sex with you on demand. (However, you should prefer a virgin for marriage). She must also be light skinned, but not have bleached herself, this is a no-no. She must have a job but not earn more than you, and like sports but not out-talk you when you are with your boys. She should not drink Guinness, Pilsner, whisky or rum, otherwise you might as well go ahead and date a man, right?
Men: Kenyan men are mostly perfect.
Time-keeping: What is that? When you are invited to an event and it says 2 pm, recall that this is only a suggestion, and no one will be there before 4 pm anyway. Upon arrival, it is unnecessary to apologize for being late – everyone knows that there was traffic jam on the roads. There is nothing wrong with saying you are walking towards 20th Century Plaza from Jevanjee Gardens when you are stuck in traffic jam in a matatu in Westlands. Also remember that deadlines are mere suggestions as to when work should be turned in. As long as it is within two weeks of the deadline, you shouldn’t see a problem with it.
Sex: Do not speak about sex publicly. It is unAfrican and unChristian. However, feel free to call your favourite radio station at 7.30 am to tell them about how your husband’s small penis does not satisfy you, or how you are cheating on your wife with three women, one of whom has threatened to tell her and now you don’t know what to do. Should you hear such a story in the matatu, smile or laugh knowingly and start an unsolicited conversation with your seat-mate about “these men” or “these women”. Never mind what she says about not wanting to talk about it, keep talking anyway. Upon reaching your office, turn on your computer and visit your favourite gossip blog. Wonder aloud about what happened to “the children of nowadays”. Why are they twerking and becoming socialites? Why can’t they just go to church and praise God? Make a mental note to say a prayer for them on Sunday.
LGBTQI: 404: Page not found.
Seriously though, why are there lesbians? It is because they still haven’t had sex with you. If only they had some good sex with a man, they’d know what they were missing. They’d hop right onto the dick bandwagon. And gay men? What the hell is wrong with gay men? How can a man let another man put a penis in his anus? (Sidenote: it is totally okay when you want to put your penis in your girlfriend’s/wife’s anus. Anuses may be the same structurally, but it’s the thought that counts). Be obsessed with anal sex, because gay people are not capable of falling in love and seeking companionship. LGBTQI relationships are only about sex, unlike straight relationships. Gay people also don’t pray hard enough, obviously, because if they did, this “disease” called gayism would leave them and they would be straight, right? Isn’t it cool how we can invent completely new words, like gayism?
Death: The most rewarding Kenyan experience is that of death. (The second most rewarding is that of old age, because no matter how much of a scumbag you are
Moi and his friends people suddenly can’t speak ill of you, they must “respect” you because you are an elder – all the property you stole and people you had killed? Forgiven and forgotten!) Death magically wipes away everything you ever did wrong, and you are guaranteed that the pastor/priest will say “He was such a good man…” and cite the time you bought him a pair of shoes for Christmas and made a donation to the church for benches as evidence. All of a sudden, people will have nothing but nice things to say about you, and the RIP messages on Twitter and Facebook will confirm the age old saying: “Death is the best career move”.
Poverty: Poor people are poor because they are lazy. If only they worked hard enough, they might escape poverty. When driving past a slum and someone in your car mentions the squalor, sigh and say “But I guess they are used”. When you notice that your salary can afford you less and less each month because of unreasonable power bills and ridiculous taxation, do not protest against the government. Resolve to work harder and make more money (see above: Money).
Matatus: Allow yourself to be driven (quite possibly to your death) by a maniac who may even use the opposite side of the road regardless of oncoming traffic to get to the CBD just five minutes earlier. Pay no attention to the fact that the door keeps falling off and that there is a hole in the floor of the matatu, all you care about is that you get to town, who cares if the vehicle is falling apart? Notice the loud music that threatens to make you deaf before you are 40, but do not ask the driver to turn it down. Take the seat next to the window and refuse to open it under any circumstances. Ventilation is for sissies. Occasionally peep at your seat-mate’s phone screen to see what they are typing, you can never be too sure with all this terrorism happening. Feel free to pull your seat-mate into whatever discussion you feel like having. If your seat-mate is a woman, even better! She may be your future wife, so hit on her because in life, you only get one shot. If you are hungry and you have some chips and chicken/fish with you, just start eating in the matatu. Pay no attention to the scowls on people’s faces because of your smelly food, you’re hungry and that’s all that matters. When the matatu is full, board anyway and force some unwilling person to share the seat with you. If they protest, squeeze them until you occupy half the seat. Once you do, abuse them for being so unkind and ask them why they don’t have their own vehicle, since they are so stuck up. Proceed to pay the full fare for half a seat.
Bribes: That is such a strong word! How about chai, or kitu kidogo? It’s good to bribe – it saves you time and the hassle of doing what you are supposed to do. Now, when it comes to the police, kitu kidogo is usually 10% of whatever fine you will have to pay if you are taken to court. Caught taking a wrong turn? The fine is Sh. 50,000, but freedom can be yours if you pay the cop Sh. 5,000. You also save time while you’re at it. Buy your way out of any unpleasant situation. Have a driving test? Who cares if you can drive, just make sure that your driving school has paid the cops and you should have your license in no time. Don’t want to queue at KRA to file your returns or get your PIN? Pay someone to do it for you. Need a search done at the Lands office? You know what to do. Never mind that you have already paid for most of these things with your taxes, bribe anyway, for this is the Kenyan way.
The Police: Dealing with the Kenyan police is both an art and a science. Cool, right? The first step in dealing with the police is hoping and praying that you do not encounter them. Should you encounter them, instantly smile and greet them “Habari afande!” If you are a woman, use your sweetest voice to talk yourself out of whatever pickle you find yourself in. If you are a man, immediately find common ground. “Unajua sisi wanaume….” Many times, they will attempt to arrest you for a crime that you have not committed. Perhaps you were crossing Mpaka Road on your way to your favourite club at 12 am, and they arrest you and charge you with loitering, or public indecency. Do not argue. Offer to pay the bribe and get out of there as soon as possible. If you are going to report a crime, be prepared for anything. They may not have the book in which to make your report. They may blame you for walking at night when you were mugged. They may ask where your husband was when your house was being robbed. What? You don’t have a husband? Why don’t you have a husband? And if you were raped, they may tell you to go take a shower. Should they catch your rapists, they may ask them to slash grass. Ah, these things. We just pray to God.
Editor’s Note: This piece is satire, in case you didn’t notice.
“The Country chose its prey. Seduced them, made them believe they owned it and then gobbled them down, often in the most tender of ways—like a python.”
“Kenya is treacherous.”
The above are excerpts from Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel “Dust”. Though they form part of a fictional story, for many in Kenya, these sentiments currently reflect reality.
Over the last two months the Kenyan Government has launched an exercise aimed at tackling the dark cloud of terrorism hovering above the country, an exercise which has inadvertently highlighted the many ills in society today, for in fighting one threat, others have been fuelled, particularly corruption and xenophobia.
As part of Operation Usalama Watch, raids targeted at identifying those illegally in Kenya have been sanctioned. The government has denied that any specific nationalities or ethnic groups are being targeted, yes there have been reports of individuals from Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda being arrested and screened, however, there is overwhelming evidence that the Somalis in Kenya have borne the brunt of this crackdown.
Many have defended the actions of the state as being in the interest of the people and not singling out any one community. Well, denial is often nirvana.
As a 35 year old woman from Eastleigh said to me, “The attitude of the Kenyan Government towards us is that of a landlord trying to get rid of his tenants. He cannot tell them to leave so he goes out of his way to make the house as unlivable as possible so that they will leave.”
Be it Somali refugees, Somali migrants or those who hail from North Eastern Province, I found one striking similarity in the views of those I spoke to: they all felt like they live on the cusp of a forced exodus from the Kenyan identity they possess.
Due to the long silences of the mainstream media (bar a few articles on this matter) it is very easy to be oblivious to exactly what reality is like for Somalis in Kenya, particularly Nairobi, at this moment.
As should be public knowledge, thousands of people are currently being screened at Kasarani Stadium in order for the authorities to determine their status.
Officials say that those held at what has been branded “Kasarani Concentration Camp” are being treated well and their human rights are being respected. Why then have no media organizations, aid agencies or local NGOs been allowed in to inspect conditions?
Some of those that shared their experiences of being held in Kasarani said the following: “It was cramped and dirty. The worst was what to do with our children who were frustrated, when we would ask the police how long we were to be kept for they would not answer.” Meanwhile, Fartun, a mother of two, stated, “Due to how cold it would get in there my daughter fell ill. I expected the police to help but they did not pay attention. Only after I paid a bribe did they go and get me some medicine. Most people that came in had been held in other police stations where they had been mistreated, and some ladies shared that they had been touched inappropriately by some male police.”
Shop owner Omar shared his story, “The police entered my home at around 2 am, and the noise woke up our 4 children, all of whom were very scared. We were then taken to Kasarani and split apart. My wife is pregnant and suffering from morning sickness – there were no decent facilities for her to even be sick in.” Upon release the family returned to Eastleigh. “As my phone was taken from me when I arrived at Kasarani, I had no way to let my staff know what was going on, so my electronics shop has suffered much loss. Because of all this trouble many of my neighbours have vacated their premises and gone. The Somalis who would come to the shop now do not because they know the police are always patrolling the streets looking for bribes. Unfortunately they have visited my home twice since we left Kasarani and demanded money even though we have IDs. This constant paying of bribes and slow business has put much financial strain on us, but the police know Somalis are economically successful and are vulnerable with no one to speak for them.”
Cramped cells, no access to food or lawyers and being asked for bribes are common experiences among those Somalis who have been arrested and held at Kasarani or police stations across Nairobi. Shrouded in mystery are the stories of those that have not been deported, but been sent to refugee camps in other parts of the country, often separate from their families.
Life, however, is not much better for those from the Somali community that are apparently “free” and not in police custody. One young man said, “My ancestors hail from Wajir, I have lived in Nairobi my whole life, I am Kenyan and all of a sudden people are getting off matatus when I board or telling me to go back to where I came from? I have no connections with Somalia, where exactly do they expect me to go? Kenyans are not like this, and it may be a one off, but it is very telling.”
I interviewed a gentleman living in Eastleigh who told me that the police try to target elderly Somalis because they are vulnerable and often do not speak much Kiswahili, so they are more likely to pay bribes out of fear, and to avoid being hassled. He mentioned that the police have visited his neighbour, who is an elderly man with a young family. Despite his having identification and a passport, they threaten to take him to the station knowing full well that because of his age the family will pay to stop this from happening. For this reason, they keep visiting his home, posing the same threat and increasing the amount of money they want every time.
In another case, a 60 year old diabetic man was arrested despite having a copy of his British passport, the original of which was away for renewal. He was taken to the Police Station at 6pm and his phone and documents confiscated while his family had no idea of his whereabouts. The following morning his family traced his location and the Police demanded KES 30,000 to release him, stating that otherwise, they would keep him in for another five days. Knowing his age and health condition would garner success, they received KES 26,000.
Other stories include trying to scare individuals into paying bribes by threatening to take them to the station with no intention to do so, threatening young women with rape, and destroying or confiscating Identification Cards or papers. The most bizarre story yet is of a man showing a police officer his Kenyan passport and the officer saying, “But where is your Kenyan visa?”
Destruction of property, breaking gates of homes and asking for bribes and using threatening language in front of children are all common. Police now frequent the same areas of Eastleigh every night, extracting more and more money from innocent people who just want to be left in peace. Many officers allegedly go to the area after their shift is finished (ironically, they are also making a huge profit out of those who do not have IDs or papers to be in Kenya, so if there are any potential terrorists around, they too are able to pay their way out of arrest). In an attempt to fight one problem another has been fuelled: corruption.
Somalis in Kenya not only live in fear of terrorists like the rest of the country, they also live in fear of those very agencies meant to protect them. Through “legal looting”, men and women who work hard to feed their families, run businesses which aid the Kenyan economy and largely mind their own business are being exploited. As if this is not enough, they then experience humiliation in police stations, in their homes and on the streets only to find that when they speak out, no one is listening. How many media houses have continuously reported on this? How many public figures came forward to clarify to people what their rights are?
As a 20 year old Somali-Kenyan student said, “The media are of no help, in fact sometimes their reporting on Somalis and Muslims in general has stereotyped us and led to us being held out as scapegoats. The media are supposed to speak against injustice but they have been mainly silent or quietly taken part.”
Terrorism is a very real threat to Kenya and urgency is required in tackling it, however these tactics are simply encouraging alienation which in itself is the cause of much dissatisfaction. A culture of police impunity is not the solution to terrorism, nor is targeting and marginalizing a particular community or racial profiling. Screening for those in the country illegally is important, however, locking individuals and families up without legal basis or using them as ATM machines does not read as a legitimate strategy, and it reinforces the view that the police are above the law they are meant to exercise and protect.
At a time when social cohesion and a feeling of “being Kenyan” and being valued should be encouraged the exact opposite is taking place.
As Nairobi born and bred 26 year old Abdi Sheikh said, “I will never be Kenyan, always Somali Kenyan and that translates to not Kenyan enough. We keep one foot out the door, not because we want to, but because we don’t know when the foot inside Kenya will be chopped off, forcing us to run.”
by Innocent Gitoho*
I am a Kenyan man and I am gay. Yes, to the uninitiated, I am attracted to men, on occasion I have had sex with those men and I have pursued love and intimacy just like any heterosexual man and woman. But this is not the ‘Be all! End all!’ of who I am. I am many things. A son, a brother, a college graduate, budding writer and a Liverpool enthusiast.
I wrote this article following a question a friend of mine asked me once: Can I reconcile my Christianity with my homosexuality? Well, the most prompt dismissal of such an intrusion would have simply been: Yes or No. Unfortunately, I am not a one-dimensional China doll. I am human. So ‘Yes and No’ suffices as an answer.
I like conjunctions, they make for great dinner conversations. However, beyond the bold and unapologetic admission, the truth of the matter is that religion and sexual orientation are old positions that are greyer than distinct. If I were an Azande boy living in pre-colonial Congo, my sexual dalliances would have not raised any eyebrows. They would be just part of growing up and the ordinary pace of becoming a man. So in my endeavour to tell my story, I will apologize for those who expect a Saint Augustine Confession. This story is not, and further I am not sorry for who I am. Neither do I want to lobby, convert or coerce you into my position.
I discovered I was gay on the eleventh cycle of my life on this earth. The outing was a hallmark; When I look on it now, it lacked the usual fireworks that come with such occasions. It was filled with boyhood charm, innocence and the allure of experimentation. What it lacked, in hindsight, was an allusion to identity. That I was indeed a homosexual. The word – with all its connotations – did not occupy my space until later on.
At that age, I was simply a boy overtaken by hormones, exploring my sexuality. Unfortunately, the object of such heightened awakening was lured to other provinces than those popularly deemed appropriate. Teenage girls for all their romance failed to do anything for me.
My heart and hormones were set on bolder roads.
Despite this awakening, I knew well enough of social convention to toe the line. Leviticus 18:22 had been drilled into me early on and those GHC (Geography, History and Christian Religious Education) classes which morphed my gayness with the ills of tourism were always a good reference point. So to think for a minute that I was going against the grain was bold enough, even audacious, but to attempt to openly flaunt it was suicidal.
So, like a good Christian boy, I played along. I was a darling of the teachers and the model for other students to pursue. When the classes were done and the sermons given, the enveloping loneliness was frighteningly cold. I was suddenly alone – I could not talk about it, could not reciprocate my feelings and worse, pretense became a model of living. Not living as such but existing. Actually, looking back I see this episode as one of the reasons I have always enjoyed drama and film. Creating a make-believe world.
Just as every village has an idiot, I firmly believe that every hamlet has its own share of sexual deviants. I was one of them and there was the possibility there were others like me out there. So it was in one of this hard moments that my neighbourhood friend did the unthinkable: kiss me. A soft, gentle peck on the lips with such depth and warmth that I was floating on my toes. The solitude had suddenly become extinguished in a matter of seconds. I was enthralled. It was a simple act of liberation. I had become acquainted with something new and even years after many similar replications, I still consider it as my first love story. It became a summer fling that lasted 3 years without the perks of calling it a relationship. Time has passed, the neighbourhoods and people have changed but the memories remain: silent phantoms paying ode to the past.
Ignorance, while being bliss, is a fleeting occupation. It marries you for a season then absconds with the family jewels once the flames die out. And so was my innocence. Delightfully naive at the beginning, I soon came to detest who I was and what I had done. On entering high school, I had promptly forsaken my homosexual proclivities and buried the past as boyhood ventures not fit for polite conversations. The Homosexual or Shoga (the Swahili pejorative equivalent) had gained footing as an idea. In it I found contempt, fear and malice. So for the most part, I learned to hate myself.
Like any good teenager, I would weave my story of manhood on the acquisition of status and popularity. A clean break from the past. Hence in my attempt, I had chosen as one of my principal acquisitions a girlfriend befitting my second coming out. However, I must caution that these acts in themselves do not lend to that often misrepresentation of gay life; reducing it to merely a chosen fad or a passing phase. My choices for all their error were informed by my fear, prejudice and coming to terms with myself.
The series of girlfriends were different, enticing and, for a period, played their role. Unfortunately they did not last or fully provide the reprieve. By my third year in high school, I was tormented, lonely and borderline suicidal. I had done such a good job running away from who I was that I had easily and conveniently shackled myself to suffering. Things needed to change and so began the process of acceptance, which as any LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer and Intersex) person will tell you, is not a refined process. There a lot of bumps along the way and a lifetime of negotiation. But for all its worth I am much happier in my own skin than I was in someone else’s.
As for my Christianity, it is a bit longer in time line, less tumultuous and more appropriate to those who cannot stomach my first story. It is not all about hymns and Sunday luncheons nor liturgical rites nestled in Catholic traditions and rumours. It does merit its own audience of flare although much on the spiritual side.
I was christened as a Catholic three months into my early life. What I can faithfully recall of my early Christian education consisted mostly of inconsistent church attendance, rote learning of the Bible and a plethora of motherly advice that was often sprinkled with Christian admonitions, exigencies and penalties when I was less than righteous. You know what I am talking about. The belt or smack down when thou fails to honour thy parent or even the more infamous one of “spare the rod spoil the child”. As such, for a better part of my childhood I was made clearly aware of two things: there was a rule to all Christian endeavours and hell was not an idea after death. It was an everyday experience manifested in ordinary living lest the child lose his way.
Therefore, without pretense or praise, I was a Christian. I read my Christian stories, told others about them and dutifully appeared in church every Sunday. For any child, your reality with religion is really merited by the social manifestations you come into contact with. Yes, the stories of Moses, Samson and Esther are awe-inspiring in the beginning but the more you begin to come into your own, the more differences you see. Good and Evil are no longer abstract constructs narrowed to Christ and the devil, they are real things lived through real people. And it was with this experience of living that I began to doubt. I saw my Christian neighbours burn a thief in their committal to mob justice. I saw the endless injustices of being set upon by bullies and alas, I felt my own inadequacy to truly merit Christian charity.
But doubt did not completely overwhelm me.
There were still good men and women out there doing great things, unpraised and unpaid. My mum was such a person. She had protected me from such bullies early on. As a confession, I was not always this ‘manly’ man that I am today. These traits have come from years of willful training and conformity. When I was younger, I was more effeminate. My gestures were often construed to be girly and, as any bully’s victim will tell you, they are a sure way of getting a beat down. In spite of this, my years on the crucible have made me into a solid man who can give as good as he can get.
So I am not entirely wronged by such experiences.
It was in high school that the concept of homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christianity was laid on thick. Every religion class, was a day in the life of why God hates gays and why we will all burn in hell. I now know why Pope Francis admonishes his constituents for being over-obsessed with homosexuals. The imagery was not nuanced. It was vivid and terrifying. Catholicism has had two millennia to develop a good system of indoctrination.
The challenge of course lay on the ideological aspects. The impressionable fideist had gained a bit of mental acuity on leaving childhood. So Leviticus 18:22 read and still reads like those other parts of the Bible that sanction slavery, misogyny and hate. Parts which I came to detest and completely disagree with. But as I had become radicalized in my position, so did I also question whether I could stomach Christianity or any other religion whose words and actions were often inconsistent. Whose so-called adherents were more tyrannical and vicious than their so-called opponents. I had firmly established myself as a heretic, at least in the eyes of my religious educator.
In spite of it, I still loved Christ. He was the only good hero who had not managed disappoint me even when I considered his Father to be bipolar. Could I really turn my hurt and injuries against God for making me the way I am, or in the least allowing such bigots to exist?
On leaving high school, I met other gay men and women who felt the same. They felt abandoned by their churches and ‘Christian’ families, injured by years of hate piled on and dismayed by the ever flirtation of religion with hypocrisy. They had taken a position of rebellion and hostility, and as such had fallen into the camps of agnosticism and atheism. The only irony is that a prayer would always leave their lips in their time of most need. So I stayed a while in the pleading zone of Christian and non-Christian. Diplomatically negotiating both spaces. Even for a time, I thought of testing the waters of other religions only to run back to my Christian roots. Atheism and its shade Agnosticism were never really palatable. My philosophy and intuition had bound me firmly to religion. To accept the former was to lose myself. So I stayed on.
Accordingly, I am a child of both worlds. Living in the moderate provinces that my feet are planted on and my heart and soul opened up to. Christianity and my gayness have become essential to my existence. The former a merit of my nurturing and the latter of my nature. Christ taught me virtue and the purpose of living. He gives me hope even when the world is a contradictory shell of His message.
At no one point did he condemn me, but openly invited me to his table. I know I am not perfect, I err in many things. I struggle each day to live a good and happy life. Nevertheless, I am contented in His love. And as for my gayness, it informs the world and myself who I am attracted to but not who I am. This is the sole reserve of my choices. I hope to someday meet that amazing partner, fall in love, raise a family and spend our yesteryears in each other’s company.
My patron Saint – Thomas More – dealt with his own tribulations towards the end and had this to say:
“More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.”
*The name of the author has been changed to protect his identity.
To write is to give meaning to life. To live is to give meaning to existence. I endeavour to do both.
To contact the author, please email: email@example.com or comment below.
I was heading to Ngumo from South B sometime last month, and Route 33 matatus were charging Sh. 50, up from the usual Sh. 30. The makanga said it was because of the traffic jam on the South C route; they were going to have to use Mombasa Road. This is more expensive as they have to bribe the police so as not to get arrested for using the wrong route. They also add a little extra for the “added convenience”.
People were visibly shocked; some complained loudly, others sighed and many refused to board the matatu. Being in a terrible hurry, I boarded because waiting for another matatu to come would take ages, and it would probably also be charging Sh. 50. The extortion didn’t sit well with me, but, having agreed to the terms of the agreement, I held my peace.
The man seated next to me started complaining loudly to himself, and the lady in front of me joined him. They talked about how hard things are in the country, and how they only seem to get harder. The poor keep getting poorer, the rich keep getting richer – the usual Kenyan talk. Then came the clincher – the man sighed and said “Mungu tu ndio atatusaidia.” (Only God will help us.)
I turned to him and said, “Kila kitu sio Mungu atatusaidia! Vitu zingine lazima tujisaidie wenyewe! Shida zote zenye tuko nazo Kenya, Mungu atamaliza kutusaidia lini? Lazima tuache hii maneno ya Mungu atatusaidia na tuanze kujisaidia wenyewe!” (You can’t say ‘God will help us’ to everything. When it comes to some matters, we must also help ourselves. With all the problems we have in Kenya, when would God be done helping us? We must stop waiting for God to help us and start helping ourselves.)
I have grown to despise this statement, despite believing in God’s omnipotence. It is used as a crutch in our nation, alongside “Tunaomba serikali itusaidie.” (We beg the government to help us). We leave the responsibility for our well-being in the hands of God and our government. Our government has constantly proven to be unreliable; as for God, we know not how long he will take to help us (or if he will help us at all).
Only God can save us from rogue pastors
Recently, a pastor was discovered to have been asking his congregation to “plant a seed” of Sh. 310/777 to receive prayers from him – prayers for healing and for those in need of other heavenly assistance. This really can’t be news, as we have known for the longest time that a majority of these evangelical ministers are in it for the money. Maybe we just needed a reminder.
Everyone was outraged. How can a man of God use God’s word to swindle innocent Kenyans? “Ah, only God can save us from such pastors.” You have to save yourself, God will not save you. For those who believe, the Bible is very clear in its markers of false prophets. Why then would you pay a rogue pastor to pray for you when you can pray for yourself? Why give your hard earned money to a man going to spend it on a lavish lifestyle when you barely have enough to feed your family?
In the same vein, we must ask, what is it that creates a society where people are pushed to a level of desperation that would have them believe that giving the pastor money to buy a Mercedes Benz will make them rich? Everyday these pastors come up. They take home truckload after truckload of our country’s wealth. The news media keep making features, yet still they thrive.
How then, can God save us, if we don’t save ourselves?
Only God can save us from international embarrassments like the JKIA Fire
There are some calamities that we cannot avoid no matter how hard we try. We have no control over earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. We can warn people in advance so that they can move out of the disaster prone area, but we cannot stop the natural disaster. Fire at the airport, on the other hand, is something entirely within our control.
The fire at the airport could easily have been put out when it started, it was said to have been small when it was first noticed. Somehow, no one felt the need to put it out. By the time the fire decided to assert itself, we were unable to avert the disaster. It took half an hour for the first fire engine to begin working. The required international standard is three minutes. Water hydrants at the airport were out of function, and police could be seen in pictures from that day attempting to put out the fire with water buckets. At an international airport, which also happens to be a regional hub.
We heard the news and many people, as expected, said only God can save us from such disasters. How? We have created a culture in which we do the bare minimum that is expected of us, and many of us do not accord our work the duty of care it deserves. That is why at an airport like JKIA, hydrants can be out of order and we are none the wiser. That is how airport employees could see a fire but feel no need to put it out. That is why the end result was millions of shillings worth of damage and six hours used to put out the fire, as opposed to less than half an hour had the fire been put out when it was noticed.
Many of us transit through that airport regularly, and complain about it no doubt. When compared to airports in many other countries, including developing countries like Brazil and India, ours feels like a village bus station. Do we hold our government accountable for its state? Do we make noise until they hear us? We wait until something bad happens and then we lament about it. When something bad happens, do we demand relentlessly that those responsible immediately lose their jobs for negligence and institutional failure? No.
How is God supposed to change this attitude towards our responsibilities?
Only God can save us from road accidents
According to a 2004 estimate, Kenya has the highest rate of road accidents in the world, with 510 fatal accidents per 100,000 vehicles. These accidents are caused by speeding, obstruction, poor vehicular condition, incompetent drivers, poor roads and overloading. The only thing God can possibly be held accountable for when it comes to road accidents is weather, and if drivers were competent, this would not be a big problem.
Why then is one of the most common reactions when we hear about road carnage to sigh, shake our heads and say “Mungu tu ndio anaweza kutusaidia”? We feel that we have done our part by making draconian traffic laws and instituting heavy fines. We are happy about the constant police crackdowns, and while these have had some impact, things cannot change radically until we do our part.
How often do we board matatus when they are already full, or alight where there is no designated bus stop – obstructing other drivers and forcing them to blindly overtake because they can’t see oncoming traffic? We are quick to complain when PSVs speed and overlap, but when we do this ourselves, why is it not considered a problem?
We give the policeman that Sh. 1,000 bribe to avoid paying the Sh. 10,000 fine for a traffic offence we probably have committed so that we “don’t waste time”, then we complain when matatus do the same, yet we have already set the standard. When matatus break the law and we are on board, do we ever protest or alight? What is the value of your life vis a vis the value of getting to town 5 minutes earlier? The examples are many, and most of us are guilty of at least one of the above.
Until we are ready to sacrifice comfort and convenience for long term change, we will continue to suffer and cry “Mungu atatusaidia”. Waiting for another matatu may be an inconvenience, but if enough of us do it, it sends a message and probably saves our lives. Going to the police station to pay a fine may be a long and tedious process (made so by the police so that paying a bribe is a more convenient option) but we must begin to take the high road. Speaking up and boycotting places that do not meet the standards and values we hold dear must become the norm. We must first help ourselves before we cry out that God should help us. We must do all we can do before looking to God to ask him to do the rest.
After all, God helps those who help themselves. At least that’s what I was told by my Sunday School teacher.
One of the few things we can agree on about Kenya is that we are a deeply religious nation. Kenya is listed among the world’s top 10 religious countries, with 88% of its people ascribing to religious teachings. 47% are Protestants while 23.5% are Roman Catholics, meaning that 80% of Kenya’s religious population is Christian. Many of our beliefs as a people are anchored in religion.
We are also keen on our traditions, and we mainly identify with our ethnic groups. Many traditional practices within these ethnic groups are still practised, like payment of dowry, circumcision, marriage and funeral ceremonies. We also have people who believe in witchcraft, which partly stems from our ancient traditions. We are proud of our culture(s), and many times frown upon things thought to be contrary to it. We label them as “against our traditions” or “unAfrican”.
Homosexuality is one such thing – labelled as against God and unAfrican.
Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) are known to be intolerant to homosexuality. The Judeo-Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin is rooted in several Bible verses, and this is one of the most quoted reasons in Kenya on why we collectively hate gay people. Leviticus 18:22 says: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.” This verse is clearly about homosexual intercourse, not the orientation.
Homosexuality, just like heterosexuality, is an orientation. It means that one is attracted to members of the same sex, as opposed to members of the opposite sex. Sexual intercourse is when we act on this orientation. This may be compared to temptation. Being tempted is wanting to do something that is considered wrong by one’s religion. Temptation itself is not a sin, as one has not acted upon the temptation. The sin is born when one acts upon the temptation.
In the same way, one’s orientation is not a sin. It is not sinful when a man is attracted to a woman or a woman to a man. It is merely attraction. It is a predisposition. So why is it sinful when a man is attracted to a man, or a woman to a woman? It is still merely attraction. The sin comes in when the sexual act happens, and are we ever 100% sure that the gay people we castigate are sexually active? I think not. Even then, as a Christian, I know that we are also called not to judge others, or we shall also be judged – I don’t see why homosexuality should fall outside the “do-not-judge” umbrella.
The Pope, believed to be infallible, recently declared that he was none to judge gay people. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He even added that the tendency to homosexuality was not the problem (he felt that the lobbying around it was).
We must remember that fornication and adultery (where pre-marital sex and mpango wa kando fall) are also sins according to the Bible. We must also consider what the same Bible says about other sins, many of which we are definitely guilty of committing. 1st Corinthians 6:9-10 says: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
So much for being self-righteous.
Saying that homosexuality is “unAfrican” implies that it was introduced to us by external parties. European colonialists are normally blamed in this argument. Homosexuality is felt to be incongruent to several cultures’ belief in the continuity of the family and clan through the birth of children. If we allow homosexuality, therefore, there will be groups of people who will not procreate and their lineages will meet a dead end. They will have nothing to be remembered by. It is thought of as a direct assault on the traditional family unit.
However, the claim that homosexuality is unAfrican is laughable. Firstly, there are gay people who are African. To say that homosexuality is unAfrican would be to deny their entire existence, their lives and ultimately, their humanity. The insistence that it is unAfrican means that determining what qualifies as “African” is the preserve of a privileged few. The folly of this type of argument has previously been discussed here.
There are also several documented cases of homosexuality in Africa (and Kenya) pre-colonialism. Some cultures even allowed men to have “boy-wives” when women were not available. In Lesotho, relationships between married mpho women were not forbidden by their husbands. They were rather commonplace, and their existence continues to this date.
If anything, it was the European and Arab colonialists who introduced homophobia to Africa in the form of Abrahamic religions and homophobic laws. In Rhodesia, for example, the 1914 Immigration Act forbade anyone practising homosexuality and prostitution from entering the colony. This clause existed until 1980. Portuguese penal codes criminalized homosexuality in Angola. Before then, gay men known as chibadi were free to practice their sexuality.
If this logic is to be followed, then we should also protest against a majority of the religions in Kenya. After all, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are as unAfrican as it gets. Kenya is also steadily on the road to overpopulation – would it be a bad thing if fewer people had children? Our food security and poverty levels are bad enough as it is, if we keep reproducing at our current rate, we will not be able to feed ourselves. Perhaps a subset of people not procreating is not such a bad thing.
I feel that the real reason that homophobia thrives in Kenya, and in other parts of the world, is an innate fear of rejection. We cannot accept that others do not like the same things we like. That they do not think the way we think; that they are different from us. This makes us feel rejected. They have refused to be like us. Why have they refused to be like us? Is it that they think they are better than us? No way. We are the best. And we will show them.
“Rejection, though–it could make the loss of someone you weren’t even that crazy about feel gut wrenching and world ending.”
– Deb Calletti
The fact that someone else does not find attractive what you find attractive means that they reject a key part of your being. “How can this man not find a woman sexually attractive? What is wrong with him? Wait, does he find me attractive?” Instantly, a problem arises. This, I feel, is what leads straight men to lash out at gay men.
Another fear is that the gay man finds you attractive and wants to have sex with you. This is the height of self-absorption. In thinking thus, one fails to even consider that the gay man in question may not even find you sexually attractive. In the homophobe’s mind, a gay man finds men attractive, thus the said gay man must find him attractive because, I mean, how can he not? Can’t he see how attractive the straight man is?
This is a double edged sword.
It is what leads to the embracing of lesbianism by straight men. “Two women having sex? I wouldn’t mind being in that mix!” The man assumes that part of the reason the women are lesbian is because they haven’t had a piece of him. The other men they messed around with before “becoming” lesbians were nothing. He is the messiah, the best they will ever have, and once they do, there’s no going back. Once again, the self-absorption rears its head. In the man’s mind, of course the lesbians are going to let him in on the action, or at least let him watch. They must. Can’t they see how attractive he is?
Beneath these two scenarios, there is a failure to recognize that maybe gay men and lesbians simply do not want a piece of you, or that they do not want what you want. Sometimes, when this recognition is made, there are disastrous consequences. Lashing out occurs in the form of corrective rape and acts of violence against homosexuals.
In the recent past, there have been reports on increasing violence against homosexuals in Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi. Gay men have been slashed with pangas and beaten with hammers, and at least one person has died from these attacks. There have been cases of corrective rape of lesbians. This is rooted in the misguided thought that once the woman has sex with the said man, she will know what she’s been missing. In the case of the rape of men, the logic goes something like this: “You want to behave like a woman? I/we will make you a woman then.” Most male rapes are committed by men who self-identify as heterosexual. Why?
Sometimes, homophobia is a cover for other conflicted feelings bubbling under the surface. The men or women in question may have homosexual feelings themselves and not know how to deal with them, leading to them lashing out at gay people. “How dare you make me find you attractive?” They may not want to accept these homosexual feelings because they are generally frowned upon. As such, conflicted men who self-identify as heterosexual may engage in violence against gay men or male rape in order to make themselves feel better.
Female rape, male rape and gender violence have one thing in common: they are not about sex. They are about power. They are about bringing the victim to your level because (in the abuser’s mind) the victim feels like they are above you; like they are too good for you. It is up to the abuser to show them that they are not. The abuser already feels rejected, unwanted. Thus, he/she lashes out and corrects the situation.
Homophobes may not be exactly sure what being a straight man/woman means or doesn’t mean – yet there is this person in front of them who is extremely sure of their sexuality. This may make them uncomfortable, or angry. The idea of sexuality may also be taboo, and having it openly displayed in front of them, especially in a fashion that is not “normal” to them, may create fear.
In our straitjacketing of sexuality, we create such dire situations. This drama is entirely avoidable. We, as individuals, need to accept that we are not the standard for the perfect human being, or the perfect Kenyan. We need to accept, in the same way that we know not everyone will like us, that not everyone wants what we want. Not everyone finds us attractive. Not everyone wants us, and that’s okay.