Kenya’s LGBTI community were last weekend (September 15 to 18) one of the star attractions at the Storymoja Hay Festival in Nairobi, East Africa’s largest literary event.
However, while the representation of the community was hailed as a milestone for gay visibility by some, not all participants felt the same way.
An incident involving a group of school children and their teacher a Catholic nun illustrated just how far the community has to go before gaining society’s full acceptance.
Gay Kenya chairman Elphas Naivasha recounted the incident saying, “A group of high school students approached the tent and immediately they were given a stern warning by a Catholic nun teacher that if anyone of them was seen around that tent, will be expelled from the school.”
This was not the first time that Gay Kenya and the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, Galck, have been a part of the festival. Last year, Gay Kenya hosted the Q Tent—where Kenyan gay and lesbian artistes (writers, poets, thinkers, etc.,) got a chance to interact with participants as well as showcase their works.
This year, Gay Kenya and Galck again had a tent in which they had a booth where they displayed their materials. Gay Kenya Chairman Elphas Naivasha said, “Let me say, I was impressed with the strategic position Storymoja publishers had allocated our tent. Maybe it was by coincidence, but it was actually just three tents from the only main entrance which meant that every person walking in would have to see our signboards. We had many visitors, high school students, mothers and fathers.”
He added, “Those who stopped by picked brochures from all the Galck’s member groups and wrote very positive comments on our guest book.”
On September 18, David Kuria, the Executive Director of Gay Kenya with panellists Monica Kareithi of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya Per Ludvig Magnus, who gave the introductory keynote address at the Gay Kenya tent, held a discussion on human rights and sexual minorities with members of public who gathered at the tent.
In his keynote address the ambassador said, “In Kenya and many other parts of the world, securing the rights of sexual and gender minorities is a sensitive issue, which gives all the more reason to discuss it openly in order to promote awareness and tolerance.”
Discussing the Kenyan context the Norwegian envoy drew reference to Kenya’s bill of rights saying, “The principle of universality of human rights is also the cornerstone of international law and international human rights law, and has been reiterated in numerous international conventions, declarations and resolutions.
“Freedom from discrimination on any grounds is likewise a cross-cutting principle in international human rights law. It constitutes a basic and general principle. These basic principles are also reflected in the Bill of Rights in the new Kenyan Constitution adopted last year.”
He added, “For example, article 27 in the Bill of Rights says that the State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground.”
The panel discussion proceeded to define human rights to which everyone was entitled. Common misconceptions were clarified in the discussion like their being no specific “gay rights” but that human rights were universal, without exception. The provision in Kenya constitution for this was drawn to the attention of the participants.
Some of the questions that came up included whether homosexuality is African. The participants were informed about the existence of same-sex marriage practices in some of the Kenya communities and evidence of the culture allowing same–sex marriages.
Participants were also taken through the Kenyan privacy law in which Article 31 protects the privacy of an individual from the state in invading or searching a person’s home, or seeking information of private affairs unnecessarily required or revealed. This was an eye opener especially for LGBTI people who have suffered extortion and blackmail.
This year’s festival featured several high profile guests such as Booker Prize winning novelist and poet, Ben Okri, British Book Award winner Hari Kunzru and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yousef Komunyakaa.
Storymoja is the brainchild of five Kenyan authors who formed Storymoja as a publishing venture to promote contemporary East African publishing and challenge the perception that the Kenyans do not read. Last year’s event attracted over 6,000 participants.
The event is associated with the UK’s Hay-on-Wye festival.