By: EVAN MWANGI
I’m not the boot-licking type, but I can’t imagine myself disagreeing with Barrack Obama on anything, including the small ‘non-issue’ Kenyans didn’t want him to talk about when he came around to see us last week: Same-sex affairs.
President Uhuru Kenyatta described gay rights as a non-issue in Kenya, implying that we have more pressing problems than same-sex desires. This is an argument we have heard before elsewhere, before civilisation caught up with the societies that once held the belief.
Of course, our intractable problems include corruption in Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, megalomaniac land grabbing among his top-ranking government officials, tribalism in his appointments, and nepotism among people who wield power. Bribery almost everywhere you go for government service is bringing us to our knees.
The said non-issue is not likely to have publicly come up during Obama’s visit were it not for questions by western journalists, part of a clique that tries to impose Euro-American sexual categories on us.
They probably don’t even understand the danger in which they put the people they claim to be speaking on behalf of by raising non-issues and trying to paint us as homophobes, completely different from the paragons of freedom they want to paint themselves as.
These westerners should know that in Africa we don’t have “heterosexuals”, “homosexuals”, “gays” or “lesbians”; we only have fellow human beings. We don’t even have words corresponding to this particularly narrow-minded western manner of viewing fellow human beings.
NORMAL SEX LIFE
It is the West that has brought such sexual categories to the likes of Yoweri Museveni. Therefore, the West is responsible for the homophobia that their apartheid-like compartmentalisation of human beings has brought in its wake.
Although it is not in this context that President Kenyatta declared homosexuality a non-issue (which it should be in a civilised society), my experience is that denial of any fundamental rights to anyone in society fuels corruption, intolerance, and under-development.
There’s nothing foreign about same-sex desire. Unlike in the instances described in the Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, the Nigerian J.P. Clark-Bekederemo’s America, Their America or some of the mischievous essays by our own William Ochieng’, since I went to America over 10 years ago, I’ve never been propositioned by a gay man.
Maybe this is because I’m not cute.
But since I came to Kenya for my summer holidays in mid-June, I have been hit on by at least 10 male strangers on Nairobi streets, some of whom address me as “dude” (whatever that means) and saying they like my water bottle (I carry one these days).
I know some of these people are just petty thieves lurking in darkness around the Kenya National Archives in the evening, trying to make a quick buck out of a man who looks like an imbecile.
I’m also apprehensive that in a society where colonialists and the church have taught us to hate one another and ourselves, the bribe-collecting police can use perceived queerness to blackmail you. Could some of my aggressive admirers be like Frantz Fanon’s Makoume, Caribbean men who dressed like women but whom Fanon in a footnote in his Black Skin, White Masks believed to “lead a normal sex life”?
On a visit to my rural village, my father proudly revealed to me that he’s writing a book on the customs of my great and God-chosen tribe, drafts of which describe the “non-issue” as un-African and thahu (taboo). But I suspect my old man’s ideas are borrowed more from the Judea-Christian traditions of the Bible than the pre-colonial Kikuyu traditions he invokes.
Our dear old Jomo’s Facing Mount Kenya (1938) also described same-sex practices as taboo among his Kikuyu people. But the anti-colonial nationalist that Kenyatta was even defended female circumcision in the book probably because missionaries opposed this rite of passage.
In claiming the non-existence of same-sex affairs, Jomo Kenyatta only wanted to showcase his Kikuyu community as completely different from the degenerate colonising Europeans.
In the cosmopolitan spirit of Ubuntu (respect for all humanity) that admirable Africans like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have espoused, African societies are egalitarian enough not to care about what law-abiding citizens do with their genitals in the privacy of their bedroom with a consenting adult human partner.
You’re not likely to hear homophobic statements from self-respecting and transformative black leaders like Mandela, Tutu, or Obama. Such statements come from petty small-brained individuals who should not be anywhere near positions of power.
Obama is a great human being, a perceptive intellectual, and eloquent thinker. His Dreams from my Father ranks high among the best Kenyan literary works.
Obama’s book should be read alongside such classics as Grace Ogot’s Land Without Thunder and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat to help us understand our innate fears, collective frustrations, and aspirations. It is the work of a master stylist and a keen social commentator.
The leader of the free world is a voracious reader as well, and I hope his hosts gave him some Kenyan books to read, not just local booze.
But having not read any of these works themselves, most likely the only artistic thing our intellectually bankrupt elites who had access to Obama could offer him was to have the great man shake his groin to lipala music like a pervert, trying to lower him to their level of illiteracy and levity (no Swahili pun intended).
He probably wasn’t given Petals of Blood to draw his attention to the pitfalls of the “entrepreneurial” capitalist projects he is promoting in Africa.
Yet like Ngugi, Obama admires Mau Mau as an anti-colonial project that has been neglected by the post-independence political elites. The only street named in the movement’s honour is tucked away in a slum and leads to our notorious mental asylum.
Like the important street of freedom hidden in a seedy slum, the pleasure of a literary text lies in the non-issues it does not discuss fully, the topics it skirts around.
Books such as Mwangi Gicheru’s Across the Bridge and The Mixers have revolutionary sub-texts about same-sex desire, some even more radical than theories in Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures or Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.
One wouldn’t pick these meanings through the “surface reading” and “distant reading” methods now in vogue in western institutions.
These “new” ways of reading literature discourage digging for deeper meanings in the text. To them, psychoanalysis and other similar theories have misled us to look for non-existent meanings below the surface of a text. They claim meanings are largely literal and our duty is to describe texts, not interpret them.
Some theorists even imply that one does not need to dirty oneself with books, a proposal that would be very popular among the lazy. With “distant reading”, you can rely on summaries of the texts by publishers and other scholars.
In polite African society, our intimate activities are between the sheets. We also love hiding our meanings between the lines, especially when signaling our beliefs about non-normative sex, where censorship also demands that you talk about autocrats and land thieves in fables.
You can only appreciate the meanings of a Kenyan text by paying attention to the small noises the text makes behind its overt music (apologies to Jacques Attali), the contradictions and gaps in it, and the invisible inscriptions between the lines and in the empty margins.
It is because I believe in the rights of everyone and the importance of margins and the peripheries of texts that I support Obama on all non-issues. Regarding gay rights, therefore, I am with him 100 percent. We should not even be debating the non-issue in this day and age.