The Africanists

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A book on and by gays in Kenya

A fresh breeze is blowing through the gay community in Kenya since the beginning of this year. First, the famous Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina came out of the closet. And now a book is published with stories, letters and poetry by and about gay people in the country. Homosexuality is not illegal in Kenya, but there is a prison sentence of up to 14 years for sex between two men or two women.

Kevin Mwachiro is author of Invisible: stories from Kenya’s queer community.  He hopes to combat with his book ignorance about homosexuality, and especially show gay people that they are not alone. “It’s a very lonely time before you dare to come out of the closet. I certainly experienced it like that. But after all the stories I’ve heard over the past two years, I realize how smooth it actually was for me”, says the 40 -year-old gay activist and journalist.

The book has been produced with the support of amongst others the Goethe Institute, and the embassies of Germany and the Netherlands. According to the author the idea for the book came three years ago when the first gay film festival was organized in Kenya. The interest and turnout was overwhelming, and it has since become an annual event. Mwachiro, involved in the event organization, realized that there was not only a demand for festivals, but apparently also a great interest in life experiences of the gay community in Kenya.

It took him two years to collect the stories and write. “It was easy to find stories of gays in Nairobi but in the more conservative rural areas it proved to be a lot harder. But now I know that there are gay people living in all corners of the country”, he says in one of the trendy coffee bars in the Kenyan capital.

There has been more room in Kenya for gay people in the last ten years. They can for instance meet reasonably undisturbed in public places, especially in the towns. Yet Mwachiro finds that Kenya has an ostrich policy.  “Homosexuality, love between same sexes, is allowed only in words. However, lawmakers bury their heads in the sand like an ostrich when it comes to downright sex between lovers.”

Invisible

His family, friends and colleagues have long known of his sexual orientation. In his former and new office, the BBC and the Dutch development organization Hivos respectively, he does not need to hide that he is gay. Now that his face has been on TV and in newspaper and is associated with a book about gays, he feels somewhat uncertain. “I’m not worried about the government, but homophobia is present. I have changed my daily routine a bit and sometimes take alternative routes from home to work.”

Sex between two men or women is punishable in 31 African countries south of the Sahara. The penalties range from years of incarceration to the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan and under Islamic law in northern states of Nigeria to name a few. In South Africa, gay rights are enshrined in the Constitution. Mozambique and Botswana have banned any form of discrimination on sexual orientation.

In Nigeria the anti-gay laws were tightened earlier this year.  It is now an offence to provide services to gay people. Renting a house and even providing medications to homosexuals is in principle not allowed. In Cameroon, where gay men regularly disappear into the prison, a jailed man died after being convicted of homosexuality. He became ill in jail but received no medical care. Shortly after he was set free to get treatment, he died.

In Uganda a stricter version of the already existing anti-gay law was approved by President Yoweri Museveni. Some western countries have threatened to cut aid; an international tour operator already struck Uganda off the list of destinations.

Conversely Kevin Mwachiro tries to see the anti-gay attitudes in many African countries from a positive side. “The reports on all these stricter laws put homosexuality firmly on the map of Africa. The growing Western support for gay is important, but ultimately we need to step up the fight ourselves. We must follow the example of the combative Ugandan gays and stand up for our rights.”

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I have been since 1993 in Africa, first in South Africa and since 1996 based in Kenya. My work as an Africa correspondent for amongst others the Dutch daily Trouw, the German newspaper TAZ, several radio stations and magazines has brought me from the east to the west and from the south to the north of the continent. All aspects of Africa, be it politics, economics, culture or ecology has my interest. I have written a book on Kenya, which is a guide to get to know the country. Currently I also work as a trainer of mainly young African colleagues who want to do the best job in the world.

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