In the coastal town of Mtwapa in Kenya’s Kilifi district, media hysteria and outrage by clerics over a non-existent gay wedding whipped up mob violence that began on February 12, unleashing a house-to-house witch hunt by anti-gay vigilantes, street attacks targeting gay men, the sacking of an AIDS-fighting medical center, and a widening wave of ultra-homophobic national media coverage.
Many gay men have gone into hiding or fled the area.
From Nairobi, the nation’s capital, Denis Nzioka, a prominent 24-year-old gay activist, told Gay City News, "Ever since the outburst of violence in Mtwapa, gay people have had to fear for their lives. Vigilante groups are hunting down gay men, going door to door, and anyone who is overly flamboyant is attacked in the street."
According to an internal report jointly prepared by on-scene representatives of both the leading Kenyan queer group, the two-year-old Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a non-governmental organization formed two decades ago, the wave of anti-gay violence had Kafkaesque origins in a false rumor about a gay wedding supposedly planned for February 12.
"There is even a suggestion that it was a planted story," said the GALCK-KHRC report, adding, "In any case, the most repeated version is that about two weeks ago a well-known and popular gay man in the Mtwapa area went to a barbershop for a haircut. When one of the barbers commented that his hair looked really nice and asked him where was going, he responded jokingly that he was going to get married. However, the barber took it seriously and went to his local mosque and reported that there was a planned gay wedding set for Friday, February 12 in Mtwapa."
That mosque’s imam then announced the so-called "wedding" to his congregation and instructed his flock to begin monitoring any community gatherings to insure that no gay weddings could take place.
After this, "a local radio station, Kaya FM, picked up the story and started a series of programs on gays," according to the GALCK-KHRC report, which Nzioka told this reporter included phone-in talk shows filled with homophobic discourse and incitements to violence.
"Kaya FM presents in Swahili and many of the Minikenda languages, and therefore has a real grassroots reach," the report said, adding, "The main focus of the discussions was the impending ‘wedding’ of two men in Mtwapa. Other local radio stations also picked up the story, including Baraka FM, Rahma FM, and ultimately national radio stations including Kiss and Classic FM."
Five days before the date of the alleged wedding, "many of the muftis and imams discussed the impending wedding during Friday prayers and asked the community to be vigilant against homosexuals. They told their congregants to demonstrate and to flush out homosexuals from the midst of Mtwapa and to ensure that no gay wedding took place," the GALCK-KHRC report declared.
Nzioka told this reporter, "Mtwapa is predominantly Muslim, and the imams have a lot of power and influence there."
Some 60 percent of Kenya’s Muslim population lives in the coastal area where Mtwapa is located. Kenya is roughly 10 percent Muslim, 33 percent Roman Catholic, and 45 percent Protestant, according to the country’s entry in the CIA World Factbook.
As a harbinger of things to come, on the evening of the February 7, following anti-gay preachings in Muslim mosques, a group of young men invaded Kalifornia, the main gay club in Mtwapa, and while dancing warned in the form of a song, "Gays have no joy and this time round they will have no joy or happiness for them." In the days that followed, calls were heard from rioters to burn down Kalifornia.
On February 11, a homophobic press conference condemning the next day’s purported wedding was held by Sheikh Ali Hussein, regional coordinator of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), together with Bishop Lawrence Chai, regional representative of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK).
According to a story in the Daily Nation about the press conference, "The clerics claimed that a large number of youths were being recruited into gay clubs and warned that ‘God is about to punish the fastest growing town in the Coast region. Come night, come day, we shall not allow that marriage to be conducted in this town tomorrow. We shall stand firm to flush out gays who throng this town every weekend from all corners of this country,’ the religious leaders said."
The two clerics "said they had given the government seven days to close down night clubs they accused of fuelling homosexuality in the town," the Daily Nation reported, adding that the two "asked the government to ‘save the country from the shame of being used to conduct a marriage between people of the same sex.’ They also warned the owner of a building in the town, who was allegedly renting rooms only to homosexuals, to evict them or face their wrath. They gave him a seven-day ultimatum to throw out tenants."
The two clerics also denounced the Mtwapa clinic run by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), a large national organization with 750 staff members nationwide that runs a research program co-sponsored by Britain’s Oxford University. The clinic has an AIDS program for counseling and treating men who have sex with men.
Sheikh Hussein and Bishop Chai demanded that the government investigate the KEMRI clinic for providing services to homosexuals.
"How can a state institution be involved on the pretext of providing counseling to these criminals?," the two clerics said, according to the Daily Nation, and they added, "We ask that the government shut it down with immediate effect or we will descend on its officials."
The day after this inflammatory press conference, a well-organized mob of some 200 to 300 people armed with sticks, stones, and other weapons, and led by a vigilante leader named Faridi surrounded the KEMRI clinic, which was alleged to be the site of the non-existent wedding, and demanded that all the "shogas" come out of the building. "Shoga" is a Swahili word used as a pejorative against homosexuals — the equivalent of "faggot" — but also by women when referring to their close female friends.
Faridi, the vigilante leader, entered the clinic accompanied by police officers and confronted a staff member wearing a World AIDS Day T-shirt with a pink triangle that read "Condoms prevent AIDS" in Swahili. The vigilante is reported to have said, "This man is a shoga," and at his demand, the police arrested him. Another KEMRI staffer was arrested later, also at Faridi’s insistence.
Nzioka told Gay City News that the KEMRI clinic was subsequently sacked, with material including computers destroyed, and was forced to shut down. This disruption of the clinic’s work means that many HIV-positive people who access care and treatment there have not been able to get their medications for days, which has serious health consequences for them.
Later that same day, "after Friday prayers" in Mtwapa’s mosques, "mobs of individuals went to the homes of suspected homosexuals looking for them," said the GALCK-KHRC report, which also recounted speeches to a large mob that had gathered outside the local police station. Sheikh Hussein addressed the crowd in a manner "that was inciting, and he kept talking about Sodom and Gomorrah and the need to root out all homosexuals from the Mtwapa area," the report said.
A former member of Kenya’s parliament, Omar Masumbuko, was one of several politicians who also addressed the mob. "He said that homosexuality must be stopped and every means used to make that happen," according to the GALCK-KHRC report. "He told the crowd they should not even bother to bring the homosexuals they find to the police station but should take care of the issue themselves,"
Sodomy and sex "against the order of nature" are crimes in Kenya, punishable by ten years in prison, under a law inherited from the period of British colonial rule, which ended in 1963.
February 12 was punctuated by numerous attacks on gay people. At 8 that morning, before leading the mob attack on the KEMRI clinic, Faridi was joined by police in storming and ransacking the home of a gay man, who was arrested along with a friend who was visiting from abroad. While searching the guest’s luggage, they found jewelry that included some rings. Faridi immediately said that these were the rings for the intended wedding.
In a separate incident, a 23-year-old security guard was descending from a bus heading toward the center of Mtwapa when he was set upon by a mob that threatened him with death and beat him senseless. A female sex worker tried to protect him with her body and yelled at the crowd that they can’t kill people like that and that the man had not done anything, but the mob doused the man with kerosene, preparing to burn him alive. At this point the police arrived, but instead of arresting anyone in the mob, they arrested the man it had attacked. The bloodied, dazed man was incarcerated and denied medical attention.
The following day, a volunteer at the KEMRI clinic was attacked by a mob, which chanted that it was actually his wedding they had disrupted. The man was severely beaten and burnt with cigarette butts. As the mob prepared to douse the man with kerosene, he too was arrested. After his arrest, a mob attempted to attack the Mtwapa police station but was repulsed with tear gas.
In total, six men presumed to be gay were arrested, some of them forced to undergo medical examinations for evidence of sodomy, and all were scheduled for a court appearance on February 15. But Nzioka told this reporter that, after intervention by an attorney provided by KHRC, all six were released from custody, and have now fled the area.
Nzioka also said that the wave of anti-gay violence and protests in Mtwapa had received "huge" publicity in all the national media, particularly radio and television, but that "all of it was, sadly, very, very homophobic," and that the media had utterly failed to reach out to representatives of the gay community. Instead, he said, gay-baiting commentaries and reactions from imams and other religious and anti-gay leaders were featured.
Asked by Gay City News if the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was sending a staff member to Kenya from its branch office in Johannesburg, South Africa, the organization’s executive director, Cary Alan Johnson, replied in an e-mail, "We are not sending a staff member to Kenya at this point, as we have full confidence in the local LGBT movement, which is grouped together under the banner of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) to respond to the situation. Also, a number of national and local mainstream human rights partners, particularly the Kenya Human Rights Coalition, are engaging with the clear recognition that an attack on the rights of individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is an attack on the freedoms of all Kenyan citizens."
GALCK is not a membership organization but an alliance of five other groups — Ishtar, a health group for men who have sex with men; Gaykenya.com, a web site; Minority Women in Action, a lesbian group; the Gender Education and Advocacy Project (GEAP), a group for transgendered and intersex people; and The Other Man in Kenya (TOMIKI), a social network of gay professionals in the medical, legal, and other fields, most of whom, Nzioka said, are "very discreet."
The consciousness informing at least some in GALCK’s leadership has raised concerns. In a statement demanding government protection for gays published on the group’s website, its general manager, David Kuria, wrote, "We also call upon the religious leaders in Kenya to appreciate that compulsory heterosexuality is not the way to enforce their religion. GALCK members are willing to enter into dialogue with them, and if they truly have a cure for homosexuality, then we are most happy to take it, BUT NOT UNDER CONDITIONS OF DURESS."
Since the American Psychiatric Association and most of its Western peer groups have not only completely discredited the notion that there can be a "cure" for homosexuality, but also affirmed that attempting to inflict such a "cure" on those with a same-sex orientation can be extremely harmful psychologically, it is quite disturbing to see the leader of a gay group like GALCK say that his members would be "happy to take" such a so-called cure if available.
Kuria could not be reached for comment by press time.
GALCK has five paid staff members and, Nzioka told this reporter, receives the bulk of its funding from LLH, the Norwegian LGBT Association.
There is no immediate prospect of repeal of the anti-gay sodomy statute in Kenya. Nzioka told Gay City News that Kenya’s gay community has "copiously" inundated the experts drafting a new national constitution with documents supporting the repeal of anti-gay laws and the extension of human rights to LGBT people, but that the committee has turned a deaf ear, and "has even buckled under to homophobia by removing a section which said that ‘every person has a right to start a family,’ which was interpreted as giving gays the right to have or adopt children."
Moreover, said Nzioka, while there are a handful of friendly elected public officials and politicians with whom queer groups are in contact, "all are secretive, very discreet" about their support for gay rights and there is no organized evidence of that support in the national parliament.
Meanwhile, the Mtawapa witch-hunt shows no signs of letting up: at the beginning of this week, Sheikh Hussein launched radio appeals for a mass anti-gay demonstration in Mtawapa on February 19.
Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.