Fighting Homophobia in Kenya Means Finding Common Ground—Over a Cup of Tea

A small gay rights group’s innovative approach has converted some surprising advocates to the cause.

From left: Pastor John Kambo of Kilifi County; Kenyan mosque; Father Thomas Apil, a hospital chaplin in Mombasa. (Photos: Sam Wolson)

By Jacob Kushner

MOMBASA, Kenya — It started in a barbershop. In January 2010, a man joked that he was planning to attend a gay wedding in the town of Mtwapa, about 10 miles up the coast from this bustling port city.

There was no gay wedding, but a rumor spread, fanned by local media. On Feb. 11, two of the area’s most prominent religious leaders — one Christian, one Muslim — held a joint press conference calling for a protest against what they said was an abomination of African culture, of Christianity, and of Islam.

The next day, a mob of 200 to 300 people descended on a Mtwapa government health clinic that treats HIV/AIDS patients. Violence erupted. “The mob beat senseless…[a] man who was approaching the health center and was about to set him on fire when the police arrived,” according to a report released in September by Human Rights Watch and the local gay rights group People Marginalized and Aggrieved. “A religious leader addressed the mob, saying all homosexuals should be driven out of Mtwapa, and another speaker encouraged the mob to not bother bringing homosexuals to the police but rather to take the law into its own hands.”

The following day, two more suspected gay men were attacked and beaten, as was another on Feb. 16. When it was all over, the police hadn’t apprehended a single suspect.

Since 2008, mobs in coastal Kenya have attacked LGBT individuals at least six times, according to the September report. Though police came to protect the victims, no perpetrators were arrested. “You do not expect to be protected when you engage in criminal and unacceptable behavior,” regional police commander Francis Wanjohi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation when asked about the report.

Homophobia is not unique to Kenya. Of Africa’s 54 countries, 37 criminalize homosexual acts. From Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, African leaders have fanned the flames of homophobia. Kenya’s leadership is no exception: Deputy President William Ruto has likened homosexuals to “dogs.” At a church service in May, he said, “There is no room for gays” in Kenya.

Such rhetoric provides cover and legitimacy for acts like one a prominent Kenyan gay rights group reported in 2013: In separate incidents, two gay men in Mombasa were attacked, their throats slit with machetes. One died. In February 2015, a gay man was reportedly stabbed in the street after photos of him with messages identifying him as a gay man were distributed widely without his permission. Death threats were left at his door. Instead of getting justice, the victim himself was arrested and put in jail, charged with committing unnatural acts. He is out on bond awaiting trial.

Another gay man who appeared in those images wrote in an email obtained by TakePart that one evening shortly after the leak appeared, he returned to his home to find a series of photocopied letters at his gate.

“They all read the same and in same handwriting: ‘We don’t want homosexuals in our village. We give you five days to vacate at the end of the five days if you will not have complied we will come for your head,” the man wrote. He fled to another town.

“There’s this fundamentalism in Mombasa. It’s not just the laws; it’s the moral codes of society,” says Jabu Pereira, founder and director of the South African gay rights group Iranti-org, who investigated the threats. “When the state becomes silent you give space for fundamentalist groups to step in. And you give them more power. We’ve seen that in Uganda, where the groundswell against LGBT rights comes through society — through the route of Christianity and Islamism.”

Now, in an attempt to counter the anti-LGBT fervor gaining hold on Kenya’s coast, one gay rights organization has developed a new approach. Rather than confronting the religious leaders behind it, it’s inviting them to tea.

This video by Human Rights Watch details abuses experienced by gay men and women in coastal Kenya.

On a hot afternoon in Mombasa, a man wearing black robes and glasses sits down in an air-conditioned café in an upscale shopping mall. Sheikh Ali Hussein is chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya here in Kilifi County. A Koranic scholar, he holds a master’s degree in Islamic law and is one of the best-known imams in the region.

He is also the man who, five years ago, directed hundreds of people to protest against the health clinic in Mtwapa that resulted in beatings of nearly half a dozen gay men.

When Hussein heard rumors that a wedding was to take place between two men in Mtwapa, “we decided we must be aggressive and kill them,” he says. “We didn’t think those people were worthy to live — not worthy to live anywhere in the world. The Koran condemns homosexuality; it’s a big crime. Islamic law says if the two [men] are together they should be killed. Even just saying the word is a sin.”

Hussein had long rejected homosexuality, but the rumor of the gay wedding spurred him to action. “The gays were so open, it was not good,” he says. “We mobilized people. We held a demonstration, a big protest. We decided that those people must be gotten rid of.”

The attacks that followed Hussein’s demonstration prompted a counterreaction.

Esther Adhiambo was horrified by the violent protests and attacks drummed up by area religious leaders against gays and lesbians in Mtwapa. A lesbian, she had recently moved from Nairobi to Mombasa and met some members of PEMA. Having seen how LGBT activists in Nairobi were organizing to defend their rights, she decided to become involved with the group and was soon appointed coordinator.

“The approach was so good. Nobody could have disagreed. From that time, I have never preached against homosexuality.”
- Pastor John Kambo

“Everyone [was] talking about how religious leaders are the cause of all these things,” Adhiambo explained in an interview with Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, which funds PEMA. That wasn’t just her perception: “Rhetoric vilifying LGBT people, much of it by religious leaders, is particularly pronounced on [Kenya’s] coast, and shapes public perceptions,” according to the September Human Rights Watch report.

Adhiambo and her team contemplated ways to help prevent such attacks as Hussein had incited. They decided on a strategy uncommon in the global LGBT rights movement: Rather than condemn and antagonize the religious leaders who stirred up so much hate against LGBT people here, they would make friends with them — and subtly attempt to convince them of the importance of respecting the human rights of all God’s people. Working with a doctor at a local health clinic that treated LGBT individuals, they devised a 12-week sensitization program, a series of carefully planned discussions meant to convert opponents of the LGBT community to supporters. They called it “Facing Fears.”

As a primary instigator of the 2010 protests, Hussein was a natural target for PEMA’s first seminar. Without mentioning homosexuality explicitly, organizers invited him to attend a series of classes on the importance of access to health care for people with HIV/AIDS and the rights of marginalized people to access that health care. Hussein says he attended because “HIV and AIDS affects everybody whether they are gay or not, and they need knowledge on how to prevent the spread.” Week by week, facilitators exposed Hussein and nearly a dozen other religious leaders to ideas about access to health care. But they soon went even further, transitioning from discussions about the right to health care to conversations about other basic human rights.

“We didn’t go there as lesbians or gays,” Adhiambo told AJWS. PEMA did not explicitly mention homosexuality. Instead, organizers talked about health and human rights in the general sense.

“The first lesson I picked up was that human beings have rights,” says an Anglican pastor, “Thomas,” who attended the program. He asked that his name be withheld out of fear of backlash from his superiors in the church. “What I don’t like in a person does not warrant me to break that person’s rights, period,” he says.

At first, attendees would occasionally disparage homosexuality offhandedly in their comments during the seminars. It wasn’t until the final week that “we told them that the people you’ve been condemning and talking about badly have just been sitting here with you for the last three months,” Adhiambo said to Messinger.

She found the religious leaders were taken aback to learn that the facilitators were gay. Adhiambo asked them, “Do you still think I should be beaten? They said, ‘Not you — not you, Essy.’ But I said, ‘I am the face of those other people.’ ”

The sensitization made an impression on Hussein. “The most important thing we learned is to listen before deciding,” he recalls of the conversations facilitated by PEMA. “You must be able to listen to the sinner before you decide to punish him. And one is supposed to be compassionate.”

In the weeks following, he even made amends with a gay cousin with whom he had been estranged for more than 20 years. “I used to speak ill of him, call him a bad person,” Hussein recalls. But after the sensitization with PEMA Hussein helped the man reunite with the rest of his family, who had also rejected him.

“He was all alone — there was no communication with the family. So I spoke with his family. I told them not to take action first but to listen,” Hussein says. “Now he is confident enough to talk to his whole family about it. And after that his family now accepts him.”

Hussein still believes homosexuality is wrong and can’t fathom how many Muslim leaders in the United States have come to accept it. “The Koran has not changed,” he says.

But five years after Hussein’s own words led to violence against a group of gays, he acknowledges his views don’t entitle him or any Muslim to violate the basic rights of LGBT people through violence or hateful speech.

“Me, I will never change,” Hussein says. “But I won’t say, ‘Beat them.’ ”

When asked whether other Muslim leaders here agree with his new outlook, Hussein shakes his head. “The ones who are thinking like me are very few. They say this thing should never be heard of. These people should just be killed.”

But maybe, says Hussein, “they could be sensitized, too, on this issue.”

That is precisely what PEMA is trying to do. With help from members of the first group of attendees, activists recruited other religious leaders to participate in a second program and then a third. Organizer Clifford Duncan says PEMA has now engaged with more than 130 religious leaders, 80 of whom have completed the 12-week program. He says the organization recently received funding to conduct seminars not only in Mombasa but also in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya.

Duncan doesn’t view Kenya’s religious leaders as bad people. He feels they have been taught homosexuality is sinful and become stuck in that manner of thinking. He describes how, during the seminars, PEMA uses simulations and role-playing to broaden their outlook. One of the most effective of these is the “shipwreck” exercise: A pastor, a teacher, a king, and a doctor, representing the range of sexual orientations, find themselves together on a sinking ship. The lifeboat can’t fit them all. Whom do you save?

“Each person was saying, ‘I would save the gay doctor’; ‘I want to save the lesbian teacher,’ ” Duncan says. He found it remarkable to watch participants realize that what matters most isn’t a person’s sexual orientation but what he or she contributes to society. It was a major breakthrough.

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