A gay couple living in Mombasa had agreed to meet us in the hotel following the meeting with the leaders of KEMNAC. Ishmael is 35, Martin is 30 and they have been partners for 6 years. Ishmael was born in Western Kenya, in a rural area in the region of Kisumu.
Martin became aware of his same-sex attraction at the age of 12 or 13, but felt shame and guilt about himself and his desires. He had no idea there might be other people like himself and was very isolated. He tried to commit suicide 3 times. On the first occasion he threw himself into a river intending to drown himself. He was taken a long way down the river until his neck was caught in the cleft of a forked branch. He hung there, looking around and decided he had been mistaken in thinking it was right to end his life.
Later, he decided a second time that his life was intolerable. He hid in bushes close to the road where buses passed at speed, intending to jump in front of a bus and be killed by the impact. A bus driver noticed movement in the bushes, thought it was an animal, stopped to investigate and discovered Ishmael. His suicide attempt was again thwarted.
On the third occasion he decided to take poison and bought rat poison. He mixed on portion, drank it and went to sleep. When he woke the next day and looked around, seeing familiar objects, he decided the after-life must have similarities with life on earth. He felt no after-effects from the poison, no pains, realised he was still alive and decided to abandon suicide and pursue life.
Later in his teens, in the company of his straight friend one weekend, drinking and pairing off with girls, he slept with a girl who became pregnant and gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The boy later died but Ishmael is still an active parent for his daughter. Martin also wanted to be a father and has a child, born more recently. They are effectively co-parenting both children.
Following his suicide attempts Ishmael decided to leave his home territory and moved to Mombasa where his confidence in himself as a gay man clearly developed. In 2004 he started a lesbian and gay support group in Mombasa. In 2008 the group acquired a formal identity as PEMA, meaning a safe place in Swahili, and as an acronym, People Most Aggrieved. Ishmael was the leader of PEMA for the first three years, eventually standing aside to allow others to take the group forward. I detected a degree of reluctance in him about having stepped back. There’s an inner conflict or feeling of frustration that he no longer directly involves himself.
He has been running a photographic business, is a counsellor and trains counsellors himself. Both he and Martin are out to their parents and accepted by them.
Ishmael was part of the training workshop in Likoni that was attacked about 5 weeks ago. In the press it was described as an attack by a homophobic religious group. Ishmael described what actually happened. Two separate workshops were taking place in close proximity, one for Intravenous drug users (IDU) and one for men who have sex with men (MSMs). Those attending the MSM workshop were being given significantly higher allowances for transport and food than the IDU group, who were jealous (and perhaps prejudiced as well).
It was the IDU group who informed other people in the area that the MSM workshop was taking place and who organised the attack. The photograph published in conjunction with the attack in fact dated from 2010 when a mob laid siege to the offices of in Mtwapa, and that takes me to Friday and a meeting at the offices of KEMRI, two hundred metres from the main road and the energy of shops, stalls, matutus, motorbikes and road chaos.