Summary: This interview was conducted in response horrific murder of Kenyan LGBTQ activist Edwin Chiloba. Ndindi Kitonga and Afrika discuss the East African response to Chiloba’s murder, queerphobia in our communities, the creative organizing work of queer feminists across Kenya, and what international solidarity with queer organizers in Africa could mean – Editors
The interviewer, Ndindi Kitonga is a Kenyan American revolutionary educator, long-time organizer, and activist in Los Angeles who has written on revolutionary critical pedagogy and democratic education. She is the co-founder of Angeles Workshop School, a revolutionary micro-school, and the co-founder of PUMA, a network of care in solidarity and support of houseless people across LA.
The interview is done with Afrika, an organizer with the Kisumu feminists society. Afrika is a lesbian, radical feminist, community organizer, writer & storyteller from Kisumu.
JUSTICE FOR EDWIN CHILOBA, SAFETY, AND THE LAW
NK: My name is Ndindi. I’m an educator, Kenyan, based here in the US, queer feminist and I’m so excited that you’re here with us. The circumstances under which we are doing this interview are difficult. Also, I don’t think many people know about Edwin’s murder at least on the side of the globe where I live. So can you maybe just start by telling us about the work that you do with a Kisumu feminists society?
Afrika: I am the current coordinator of Kisumu feminist society, which is a feminist organization that works with women, trans, and gender non-conforming persons in Western Kenya. And also, in addition to that, I do a lot of feminist movement-building work. And I do this through organizing feminist convenings, and also marches, and protests. And recently, I ventured into feminist & queer events, with our upcoming event being a feminist festival called Noir Feminist Festival
NK: I grew up in Kenya, but I’m 41. And I read and witness new & different forms of feminist organizing than those of the 90s when I was growing up. My question is, how did you find your way into your queer feminism?
Afrika: I think I just acknowledge people who held my hand through the whole journey. I discovered my sexuality very late, around 2015 because f compulsory heterosexuality. So when I actually got in touch with queer organizers, from Kisumu, back then in 2015 and 16, they were a bit low-key, but they were also willing to open doors for me and like, invite me to meetings and like, hold my hand through so many things. And they were willing to, like, answer my questions. And I had a lot of, like, I was discovering myself, I was like, so you do this, and you do that, and women do this, it was so confusing, but I always credit them being able to give me this voice because through them pushing me into the spaces that I went to, I was actually able to, like, find my voice and find my footing. And, you know, like, as I grew older, I started understanding that I could be both queer and feminist back then I used to feel like I had to choose, am I queer or am I a feminist? As my journey progressed, in my early 20s, I was able to be in spaces that allowed me to be creative. I do give credit to the friends that created that space for me back when there wasn’t a lot of discourse around queer issues, especially in Western Kenya.
NK: Can you give us somewhat of a basic explanation of what happened to Edwin Chiloba from your perspective? We’ve seen reports and explanations from all of the legacy media but I’m curious as someone from kind of this shared community also within those borders, what happened here?
Afrika: *TW (trigger warning in this section)*: So I actually got news about Edwin Chiloba’s death on January 2023. I remember it’s not online the whole day. And then I go on Facebook. I’m a bit I’m like extremely vocal on Facebook compared to my Twitter, and then someone you know, like, because I talk about queer issues a lot. So when something happens in the queer community, people feel the need to like, tell me. So someone came to my DM and they’re like, have you seen the queer stylist who was murdered? And I was like, No, who’s that? I actually don’t know them. And they sent me a picture and my heart literally dropped. Like, it was like my worst nightmare had come true because I had not met Chiloba personally, but we were Instagram mutual’s, like, you know, we just gassed each other up, and the comments like, “YAS. Looking good!”
So I wanted to do my due diligence, and I went to his Instagram page. I couldn’t find anything. And then I went to Facebook to the page of an organization that handles a lot of LGBT issues in Kenya. And I saw they had posted that Chiloba’s body had been dumped somewhere in Eldoret in a metallic box and the police had officially confirmed that it was his body. It really broke me. I remember me and my girlfriend just sitting and we said, “Not this again. Not this again. Not this again.” because less than one year, someone who had been with my Instagram, was Sheila Lumumba, a non-binary lesbian who was brutally murdered in their home in Caratina, and their case has never been heard up to date in the court because the Kenyan legal system is just so shitty. So when we saw this happened to Chiloba, again, who was another young person under 30, we were so shocked. I was just like, Oh, my God, I’m back to having the same nightmares I used to have, watching my back. Because when Sheila died, I was all over the place. I would double-check my doors, to make sure my door was locked, and then I would wake up again, to check my door was locked. So you know, when I saw Chiloba’s death, I thought I’m back to this. And this was someone who was so full of life.
So we took to Twitter and said #justiceforchiloba. We are tired of queer people being murdered like this. And we got a lot of backlash.
I think our worst nightmare actually began when articles are published that the alleged killer of Chiloba was, someone who was allegedly their lover. Until then the media houses sensationalized the issue. All of a sudden it stopped. It was so horrific on two levels in that the LBGTQ+ community is actually demanding justice and that one of them had actually killed the other. And I feel like it kind of derailed the conversation completely because now we have stopped even seeking justice for Chiloba. And we were fighting so hard to ensure that even he was dignified because there were there was a lot of speculation. The alleged killer boyfriend was arrested. I’m saying allegedly because we are not sure if he was a boyfriend or not. And I think that that was a bit scary for us. Because given the history, we have with like Sheila’s case not being taken seriously.
With Chiloba’s murder, some of our politicians have shamelessly hopped on to this case to ensure that, they spread the message of hate. There are so many hateful comments coming from public figures. There was a clip that resurfaced about President saying in Swahili queer people don’t have a space in Kenya. And there’s like, a lot of fear around and that may be being an excuse to harm people. And most of the shameful hateful messages translate to: you can harm queer people. It’s our culture.
NK: I’m also wondering about the sense of safety for all of you there. We understand that queerphobia kills and that includes internalized queerphobia kills which comes into play when we’re thinking about intimate partner violence in our communities. I’m curious about the laws in Kenya, (knowing that having legal rights in themselves doesn’t equal safety) how they’re being enforced, and the safety you all are feeling right now.
Afrika: I actually realized that a lot of people, and that adds to the heartbreak that I have, a lot of people, even the ones who have a deeper understanding of violence, proved to me that they only understand violence when it happens in a heterosexual context. Because people that I knew who identify, as feminists suddenly had some passive-aggressive posts talking about how Chiloba was murdered, with comments like “he should have known better”, or “if he was facing violence, we should have reported”, or “why did the queer community rush say this was a hate crime”.
[Those feminists] can easily say they do not victim shame, but when it comes to queer relationships, all of a sudden, we are victim blaming a 25-year-old who’s already dead, who was murdered in the most dehumanizing way, a 25-year-old, who, if he had chosen to speak up about his abusive and violent relationship, because there are rumors that the partner used to be so violent, the same system that he expected to protect him would have been the same system that would have hurt him further.
There have been cases of police officers, using that as evidence to prove that people are queer because you can not be prosecuted if they don’t have evidence that you’re queer. Once you report that your partner beat up, you’ve already confirmed to them that you are, which puts you in a position where li you can be harmed further. And yet, a lot of people who identify as feminists will not understand this, and I think that was hurting me the most.
But then again, I came to understand that not so many people are aware or are familiar with how intersectionality works, and they think most of us just face oppression, independently, like, you know, at this moment, I’m being oppressed for being a woman and that feeds anything else is not that and at this moment, I’m been oppressed for being a lesbian. And that’s it. And I don’t think that’s the case.
So for me, I think our feminist response as a country and as a community should have happened months ago, in fact, it should have happened as early as last year when we first called for “Protect Queer Kenyans” after Sheila was found dead in the house in Nyeri County. And this for us, you then should have looked like repealing sections 162 A, C, and 165 of the penal code which criminalizes consensual sexual conduct between two adults of the same sex. And you find even when the petition was taken to court, the reason why it was dismissed was because of a saying there’s no evidence, which to me was really sad because what I know is we have documented each and every case of violence for who we are, for how we choose to dress, for how we choose to identify, which further proves to us that the country really thrives on, constantly harming and shaming queer people.
I think our feminist response and something we should constantly push for and call for is repealing the sections of the penal code that actually criminalize, non-heterosexual conduct between two consenting adults.
QUEER COMMUNITIES IN KENYA
NK: What does it mean to be queer, LGBTQ+ in East Africa? Can you share the kind of what communities of resistance look like? What are the struggles? You’ve talked about repealing 162. Is there an attempt to do other work? Are there attempts to work for social-cultural changes in educating people for critical consciousness?
Afrika: Being a queer person in East Africa, and I’ll speak for myself because I identify as a lesbian, it’s, it’s very layered. It’s very complicated. To me, I look at it as something that causes me so much joy, and as much of it causes me so much pain. I am 26 and you know, when you’re 26, you have a lot of hopes and dreams and think when I’m 30, I want to do this, and I’m 40 I want to live here, I want to do this or the other. But all of a sudden, young people who are similar to your age are dying so fast, and within a span of less than one year, because when Sheila was killed, they were 25. And I was 25 at that time, and that really scared me in as much as there’s been violence around that really, that really hit home because, you know, you have to live in the perpetual fear. But you can die as a result of femicide, especially in Kenya, because, you know, like, women are just dehumanized from the word “GO”. And then you add the fact that you’re a lesbian, and you know someone that is brutally murdered, and nothing happens. And then all of a sudden, again, Chiloba, who’s again, 25 is brutally murdered.
So we’re having this conversation with my girlfriend because we are like the same age and we’re asking ourselves, what do you think you need to do for us to safely reach 30? Because I don’t want to die when 26, 27, 28, 29, you know, it becomes so scary. And it became a reality for us. So I think for us, or rather, for me, being queer in Afrika or other East Afrika, constantly reminds me that the same culture, that I’m happy about the same culture that I’m proud of because I’m Luo, is the same culture that will be used against me when it harms me. Meanwhile, I’m sure that queer people have existed since time immemorial.
And also, being queer in East Africa is also about being unapologetically yourself. People may hate you for how you present or who you choose to love. But at the end of the day, you’ll give them a middle finger and keep doing what you’re doing. And I’m saying that because when I was younger, I used to be so afraid about being open about my sexuality. And as I grow older, the constant question that I asked myself is until when. I will hide until when? This why I took to my Twitter to be very vocal about these issues that affect the queer community. And when I first broke the silence about Sheila, I received so many rape and death threats. And it scared me but then again, I said I can’t sleep in fear constantly. So I think what has helped me in regard to our communities of care is knowing that there are organizations that make things work for us.
So for us, communities of care look like knowing things we just can’t afford to do alone. Like, for starters, I know, I cannot go to the club on my own. Because my safety is not guaranteed. And also another thing that we constantly do when we organize a lot of monthly feminist meetings is check in with each other. Because it’s so easy for someone to, suffer in silence. Many of us didn’t know Chiloba was in a violent relationship and the fact that he couldn’t, openly talk about it is something that is still challenging us to be more intentional about our communities and what we want them to look like. So we are trying.
ON ADDRESSING BOTH INTERPERSONAL AND STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
NK: I have a lot of admiration for the work that you all are doing under present conditions. And as you know we have to address inter-community violence. Are there resources to address interpersonal violence?
Afrika: So it’s an idea of how to help break the silence further, while also ensuring we don’t harm survivors in the process because violence in heterosexual relationships tends to be looked at from very black-and-white terms. Like if your husband beat you up, you’re going to the police. That’s it period. But what happens when someone genuinely wants to hold the partner accountable for abuse, but they also don’t want to out them? Then the person wonders, “what if I subject them to, more violence”. I feel like this sort of thinking has made abusers in our communities thrive so much. We actually had someone who was abusive to their partner accountable but then there was so much backlash from the community. And that’s when I came to realize that handling cases of abuse or violence in the queer community were not as black-and-white as most of us think. But also it doesn’t mean that we sit down and then negotiate with abusers.
We are trying to revive these conversations, again, in our monthly feminist meetings where we want to make our check-ins as standard as possible. And we actually stopped them because we didn’t have funding but again, we noticed we cannot organize only when there’s funding and as much as we need resources to be able to operate, we were thinking we can have this year in small sessions in very small relaxed sessions. We need to sit together and think through things. We want to create systems that work for us because the systems that exist do not.
NK: Thank you for naming that difficulty.
What does solidarity look like for you for those of us who live in the Global North, in the imperial core? How can we work together? What would international solidarity mean to you?
Afrika: I think those with a platform should offer and those in the diaspora should lend their voices when we make calls for justice. What we need is to have as much pressure as possible, maybe on the government or to have as much support as possible from other people. And then as much as this tends to fade out quickly, like you know, in a queer person is brutally murdered in Kenya, the first 1-2 weeks or so, you know like everyone is looking at me an interview can you do this? And then after that, they stop covering it. So I feel like solidarity will be to lend a voice not just when these killings happen. But way beyond that, constantly asking questions because so many stories just disappear. The saddest thing is almost a year later I’m pretty sure other people don’t even remember what happened to Sheila for example, but you see people like us are still angry and feel like nothing is happening later. We have to make sure no one is silenced.
Also donating to queer causes is key for example supporting the families of the bereaved, and supporting our campaigns, events, and initiatives.
I think we also need to link people with resources and information on how to seek asylum and also how to just get paid opportunities and jobs where queer people are isolated from the traditional workforce. But there’s a lot of shame around people who want to seek asylum, especially from Kenya, because there’s this assumption that Kenya is much safer compared to Ghana and Tanzania and Rwanda, and other West Afrikan countries. Being in solidarity also means not trivializing the issues that Kenyan queer folks face. Because even personally for me, there’s a lot of homophobia that I face on a daily. People have to remind me that I’m queer and I don’t belong here, like each and every day and sometimes I’m tired. We have to fight constantly for young people and sometimes those who don’t live in Kenya tend to trivialize our issues. That should change.
My partner and I doing fine financially, and maybe we could move to Nairobi to be safer. As we keep on saying we live and die in Afrika, we might literally die in Afrika before our time comes. The irony in Chiloba’s last video was him dancing to the Sauti Sol song “live and die in Afrika”. And I thought I will live and die in Afrika in that same way. But even living with homophobia in Afrika, as a queer person, I cannot get away from the many systems of oppression out there. Also, you have one life you live and I don’t think moving is for me. This is my home.
NK: What makes a community to you, and what does it mean to be in community together with others?
Afrika: I feel like my last thoughts are just me thinking about what community looks like to me as a queer person because I also cannot lie that the queer community in Kenya has been that united. I feel like even for Chiloba to not be able to speak about the violence that he was facing even with other friends means he was not even safe in the community that was created. And just like every other place, each and every place that has systems of power also has misuse of power.
The other day I posted a quote from bell hooks, “when we drop fear we can draw nearer to people. We can draw nearer to the earth we can draw nearer to all the Heavenly Creatures that surround us” I think that to me, it resonated so much because I first started as started wrapping my head around the fact that I am not in community with people can be vulnerable around and oftentimes being vulnerable doesn’t only mean when you’re the victim, but also it means when you’re actively harming people because even in like the LGBTQ+ space, we talk about holding abusers accountable, and all that and it gets so difficult when you want to hold someone who doesn’t share the same beliefs as you’re accountable.
I think community for me looks like being in a space where I can be vulnerable, and I can trust myself to be applauded, and also called out if need be, because I also do not want people who will only celebrate me and say, “Oh, you’re doing amazing, I need people to tell me you are not doing this right”. Because the truth is, so many queer folks in Kenya operate from a space of trauma. We all have some form of trauma, including organizers who come into this movement angry, but at some point, that anger can build and build and sometimes you have to go and just sit with that heart and choose something different in community.
I think for me that it was community is somewhere where I can be vulnerable and somewhere where I can be comfortable enough to show the good and the bad. I can show the good and the bad and trust people around me to create that space for me to just talk, grow and learn and vice versa. We’re hoping to build that in 2023.
On February 24, 2023, “The Supreme Court of Kenya Friday declared discrimination against the LGBTQ community unconstitutional and affirmed their right to association after a 10-year legal battle. In a 3-2 majority decision, the court ruled that article 27 of Kenya’s Constitution—which protects every person from discrimination with an open-ended list of grounds—protects sexual minorities as well.”
Kamba- An ethnic group native to Eastern Kenya. Ndindi is a Kamba woman who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and lives in Los Angeles, USA.
Luo-An ethnic group native to Western Kenya. Afrika is a Luo woman who lives in Kisumu in Western Kenya.
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