Telling our Stories – A review of Invisible: Stories from Kenya’s Queer Community

Image: Daily Maverick, By Kevin Mwachiro• 27 June 2018 Women participate in the Joburg Gay Pride parade.

By: Kampire Bahana

This petite and easy read is a testament to the importance of telling our own stories. We usually talk about this in reference to being African; outsiders have been telling our stories since before the days of Heart of Darkness, a book published more than a hundred years ago that continues to define the continent in the minds of many. Today we have movie stars like George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck, testifying in front of American Congress or on CNN as “African experts”. It is no wonder that we continue to feel misrepresented or invisible, that millions of dollars are spent annually on aid programs that are later found to not work.

Telling our own stories becomes even more important in the case of dual minorities; those who are African and queer. As a cultural war, African homosexuality is a frontier that is being fought upon most fiercely by those who are not African or not homosexual. Culturally conservative American evangelists, Western donors and LGBTI groups, African religious and political forces have all made their moves on the battlefield that is the bodies of queer Africans. While outside parties pass laws and withhold funding, it is “kuchus” who are being prosecuted in Ugandan courtrooms, and South African “dykes” who are being raped as a “corrective” measure.

Some individuals hold legal and political means, or the power to give or deny monetary aid, but sometimes the only power many queer Africans have is their stories. This is what is implied in one of the anonymous quotes in the book: “The media in Kenya has hijacked our narrative. If we don’t define ourselves,other people will define us”.

The people represented in this new publication are neither solely downtrodden, nor are they entirely evil, or purely good. They are not hapless victims to be saved, nor monsters that our children must be saved from. The stories told are of ordinary people, with anxieties, triumphs, dreams and misunderstandings like anyone else. For example, A who dreams of marriage and giving his parents grandchildren, “Just think how the debate on dowry would go; who would pay? What fun.” 

Or Anonymous who asks her church family to pray not just for her and her daughter, but for her partner as well. Some, like Rena Otieno are defiant and confident despite their status as pariah in society

The people in these stories struggle with their identities. Some of them marry opposite-sex partners because they think it will make their lives easier and then divorce and disappoint their spouses when they find that it does not make their homosexuality go away. “I married her to ‘cure’ myself. I felt my attraction for men was a sickness that would be cured by marriage. How wrong I was!”

Another theme that the book illuminates is the profound isolation many LGBTI Africans feel as they struggle with their sexual identities. Sexuality in general is shrouded in silence in African cultures; homosexuality even more so because it is considered perverse and foreign. Many young gay and transgender Africans have nowhere to go with their questions and concerns.

“To fight my sexuality, these feelings that I didn’t understand, I had lots of questions to ask but I had no one to ask and I was scared of the answers.”

“I wish, I wish I had someone who was 18 to tell me I was ok. That I was no freak”

The stories in the book reiterate, again and again that homosexuality is not a Western import as is often claimed by its loudest African opponents. The storytellers within struggle with proto-sexual urges towards members of the same sex from a young age. In one story, the writer tells of not knowing the word lesbian existed to describe her until after college. In another, a young Turkana man, growing up in a rural and very traditional society must deal with his feelings with almost no support, let alone ‘nefarious influence’ from the West. When he confides his feelings to a woman friend she asks him who had “taught” him these things if he had never been to Nairobi.

These are the misconceptions that this book discredits, that homosexuality is foreign, that men who love men, or lesbians or the transgender are somehow deviant rather than ordinary human beings with the same struggles we all have. It places, in poignant ordinary language, the fact that homosexuality cannot be reduced simply to the sexual act, which anti-homosexuality campaigners are, for whatever reason, entirely obsessed with. Those who seek out same-sex partners have the same desires for companionship, camaraderie, and intimacy that appear to be embedded in what it means to be human. The sad part is that those who are most vocally anti-gay, those that campaign the most vigorously against our homosexual, intersex and transgender brothers and sisters will never read this book. Our tendency to seek out information that confirms our biases, that supports our prejudices and conclusions means that it is unlikely they will be exposed to it. Even worse, the passing of Uganda’s Anti Homosexuality Bill means that many potential allies will shy away from anything that can be construed as “promoting homosexuality” for fear of being de-registered as an organisation, subject to a fine or even seven years imprisonment. I could be liable for the same for penning this review.

Regardless of which side of the argument you sit on, I encourage you to read this book. Allow queer Africans to tell you their stories, in their own words.

*Invisible is a publication of Contact Zones, a book series published in Nairobi by Goethe-Institut Kenya and Native Intelligence.”