Yesterday Michael Kimindu and I travelled west the 8 hours by coach from Nairobi to Kisumu on the shore of Lake Victoria, closer to the border with Uganda. The journey took us across the Great Rift Valley, past roads leading to the Masai Mara Game Reserve. We continued through one of Kenya’s major tea-growing areas, which changed to sugar cane as we dropped down to the Lake.
We were welcomed to Kisumu by Daniel Onyango, the Executive Director of NYAWEK, the Nyanza Western Kenya LGBTI Coalition. Over supper, he talked about the work of NYAWEK. The Coalition was not allowed to use LGBTI in the register, so adopted instead ‘Let Good Be Told In us (LGBTI) Coalition’. Daniel trained as a medical doctor, is 28 years old, and was inspired to form NYAWEK in 2009. The Coalition is formed in part from groups that had come together in rural areas having accessed sexual health services. The total number of LGBTI people connected with the Coalition is over 500.
Daniel is an Anglican. Totally open as a gay man, he has not experienced prejudice against himself. He is a remarkable leader, having sacrificed his own career to work in the capacity of a volunteer alongside other key volunteers. He is effectively the pastor to the 500 members, counselling and supporting them.
The group has set about capacity building in Kisumu, training staff at hotels, taxi and bus drivers, to be aware of the identity of LGBTI people in the community. At the same time, he advises LGBTI people to be wise in their own behaviour and not act in ways which others might find provocative.
He has had to counter, of course, the myth spread by the churches that homosexuality un un-African, not known among us, as Anglican conservatives repeatedly claim, something introduced by Westerners. He presents himself as someone they can meet, talk with and learn from, and this morning he is coming with us to meet the Bishop Francis of Maseno South and some 25 of his clergy for a seminar in the cathedral. I’m expecting a more positive reception than we received from Bishop James in Machakos.
Tribal differences mean that LGBTI people construct their lives in very different ways in different areas of Kenya. In the Western Region, where we are now, same-sex relationships between women are part of the culture. Because of this, the LGBTI group consists mostly of gay men, lesbians fearing that association with the men will compromise the privacy and security of their existing relationships.
There are bad-news stories here as everywhere in Africa, resulting from the homophobic culture and prejudiced attitude of the Church. A well-known local pastor, leader of the Coptic Church (which has nothing to do with the Egyptian or Ethiopian Coptic Church – it’s another independent African invention) is single and has been repeatedly accused of being gay, which indeed he clearly is, seducing young men repeatedly. He is a friend of the President, however, and this connection plus his wealth enables him to deny the accusations and threaten accusers that he will take them to court.
GALCK in Nairobi was formed in 2007, NYAWEK in Kisumu in 2009. There is a network I have yet to meet in Mombasa. The majority of LGBTI people involved with these groups are active Christians. The Government of Kenya is supportive and here in Kisumu, sexual health services are available to LGBTI people without discrimination or prejudice.
Christianity is the stumbling block for LGBTI people in Africa. I’ve known that this is the stumbling block since the launch of the Global South campaign against homosexuality at the Kuala Lumpur conference in 1997, prior to the 1998 Lambeth Conference which resulted in Lambeth 1.10.