Last Friday afternoon, I visited the office of KEMRI, the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Mtwapa.
KEMRI is a national organisation researching the potential for an HIV vaccine in conjunction with IAVI, the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, of which KEMRI is a local branch. At the local level, KEMRI provides peer education and counselling and resources for sexual health and HIV/AIDS. It is also involved with KAVI, the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative. I’m somewhat confused now by the many different initiatives and acronyms I have encountered in Kenya.
Evans Ndungu Gichiru, who is, I think, the Executive Director, hosted us. He began by being shown a clip from the Channel 4 Dispatches programme about homophobia in Africa, which reported the attack on KEMRI’s offices in 2010 by a local mob who had become convinced a gay wedding was to take place there. The mob succeeded in breaking into the compound and terrifying the staff but police were called and order was gradually restored.
A Pentecostal bishop, a Moslem Imam and a Moslem man, all involved in the attack, were among those interviewed. The Moslem man, interviewed standing by Mtwapa creek, was threatening to murder any gay man, even it was a member of his family, including his son.
The KEMRI offices were closed for 2 weeks following the attack but the project was then able to reopen. Some of the peer counsellors (in UK terms, volunteers or service users) have never returned since the attack. KEMRI began patiently to put out feelers in the community, building relationships and awareness. They eventually received a grant to develop a 10 week workshop to engage with the key community leaders whose views were most deeply homophobic.
The workshop was very carefully structured, with none of the LGBTI participants coming out until several weeks into the programme, by which time, the other participants had got to know them as people first, and as individuals with a different sexuality second. The result has been real change in the attitudes of all participants, a reduction in prejudice and improved safety and security of LGBTI people in the area.
We were joined by Esther and Gregory from PEMA Kenya and by an Italian student undertaking PhD research on homophobia. She is based in Malindi, some distance to the north, where she thinks there is a high level of homophobia.
Pema Kenya – Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved – was formerly called the Mombasa Brotherhood but later came to include members from the full spectrum of LGBTI’s. PEMA Kenya was founded in June 2008 by Ishmael (whom I had met the previous day) after a gay man who was neglected by his family for being gay fell very sick and died. During his illness, the gay community came together and collected money to settle his hospital bill and pay for a piece of land at the cemetery for his burial. It was then deemed necessary to have an organization to support the gay community as many gay people in Mombasa were facing challenges in Mombasa Social Economic and Health issues.
I talked about the history of Changing Attitude and the need to integrate spirituality and sexuality and learnt more from Evans and Esther in particular, but even more so than with previous meetings, I wondered where other members of staff were, why I was meeting such a small group, and what the purpose was. I’m still wondering.
Nairobi lesbian double blessing
Michael Kimindu and I returned from Mombasa to Nairobi on Saturday and on Sunday morning, as I’ve already described, I visited a number of city-centre churches to experience African Christian worship at first hand.
In the afternoon, I had been invited by two lesbian couples to preside at a double blessing of their relationships at a nearby hotel. It was a very moving occasion for them and for the friends who joined them to celebrate. Michael Kimindu has a liturgy which we used, adding the lighting of individual candles which were then used to light a single candle for each couple to symbolize their union. Both couples have lived together for a number of years and represent the kind of faithful same-sex union which the African churches need to honour and bless. One day it will happen, but for the present, Sunday’s service was held in secrecy, although all present were willing to be photographed after the ceremony.