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Kenyan Senator hopeful David Kuria: 'There is nothing un-African about homosexuality'

The following is a transcript of a lecture by David Kuria Mbote, Independent candidate for the Kenya Senate.
University College London, 17 October 2012. 


It gives me great pleasure to be here today to give the second Kaleidoscope Leadership Forum lecture. It certainly a great honour and I cannot thank Kaleidoscope enough for the opportunity.


I guess one of the reasons why I was invited here today is because I happen to be running for office in Kenya. It so happens that Kenya will be holding its General elections on the 4th of March next year. These elections are important for us in a number of ways. You may remember that in 2007 at the time of the last elections, our country was tested in a very major way by a national crisis and very regrettable violence and bloodshed. It ended only after three or four months with the help of the international community.


Kenya is of strategic importance to the East Africa region and perhaps explains the second reason of being here. Being a gay person running for political office does create certain questions around same-sex sexuality in Africa - of exclusion, stigma and discrimination. Those questions extend beyond my own country.


I want to touch on why political leadership, and the support of those who have helped make it possible, matters. In this I am guided by looking at pro-democracy struggles in Africa. Today many economies in Africa are growing. Even though poverty remains such a huge problem there is hope that poverty in Africa can eventually become history. This has been in part because African states allowed the expansion of democratic spaces. Yet this was also because pressure was brought to bear by multilateral and bilateral donors to democratise - it had become clear that anti-poverty and health outcomes would never improve unless there was sufficient space for citizen participation in political life. But today I am pleased to say that citizens themselves are spearheading the building of democratic institutions.


Much work remains to be done, and there is always threat of relapse, but it would be a mistake not to appreciate the help we got just to get our feet in the door of democratic reforms. The lag in time between the pressure on African governments and the consequences in the form of our current democratic spaces and the resultant increase in the creativity and productivity of the people may strain our ability to ascribe causality. But I think it would be a mistake not to appreciate that we would not be where we are if change was not forced on the despotic regimes.


Those democratic spaces have not been open to all, however. For many gay and lesbian citizens of Africa life remains just as difficult. Moreover since they are a minority, their voices are at best ignored and at worst violently crushed. Yet there are many gallant voices like David Kato's and other Ugandan LGBT leaders - and indeed other leaders across the continent that we often do not hear of. Some of these leaders prefer to be known of as HIV or MSM (men who have sex with men) activists, although this does not seem to offer them any security as the recent murder of Maurice Mjomba of Tanzania has proved to us.


It should be clear that when you discriminate or exclude you miss out on the human potential of the people you exclude. In a continent like Africa, where it is only now we are beginning to benefit from the incredible potential of women - their leadership skills, their intellect and even multi-tasking abilities - one would imagine we have learnt that we all lose when we exclude. It is not good human resource management to exclude - and that is even more important if you are playing 'catch up' in terms of human and economic development.  While stigma and prejudice against sexual minorities limit our human potential we should also reflect on what that means for those living the experience of exclusion.


Often when we experience discrimination we may be tempted to retreat into our cocoons and remain within grounds where we can predict the outcome with relative certitude. But this way we as individuals never quite explore all that we could be. And everyone in society suffers because the growth in the human race generally tends to be the summation, perhaps even the product of the different inputs by various individuals.


We only need to look at this year's Nobel Prize winners in medicine to see this point. Although separated by almost a generation, Sir John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka were united by the desire to overcome their perceived personal limitations, or those imposed upon them, and they have contributed so much to science and human race. Sir John was told at his school that his ambition to be a scientist was "quite ridiculous". We should never allow others to limit our ambitions or tells us what we can or cannot achieve.


It is important to reflect on what that means for us as individuals. Are we living to our fullest potential? Are we realizing our dreams? What do we need to do for that to happen? Are we waiting for the society to change so that we can begin to live?


For me I refuse to wait. So when people tell me that an openly LGBT person could never win the people's trust and respect in Africa, I refuse to be discouraged.


It could be that life does not always turn out that dramatically, but we can never tell if we never try. 


Of course this is not to underestimate the hurdles and roadblocks placed by those who seek to make us live and think that only their perspectives of life are appropriate. For those who fall outside the mainstream, life often is just about hanging on. Trying to conform can actually be such a hard task that we may not have time to muse and wonder if we have lived out all we could be.


There are many people in my country, and perhaps elsewhere, who would like to keep me out of the mainstream. And I am sure this experience resonates with many here. They say that I should not be allowed to stand for an elective post. Part of me says "that's fine, I'm not even sure if I want to be part of the mainstream". If being mainstream means accepting the corruption and self-interest that has disfigured our politics and stopped us talking about the issues that really matter to the people I hope to represent in my home community of Kiambu, I'm frankly not interested.


If being mainstream means accepting the prejudices and barriers to participation that exclude so many people, not just LGBT people, from the political process, then no thank you.


In my case I am an outsider to the political establishment, and maybe that's what our politics needs if it is to start serving the people of Kenya and not just the politicians themselves. It is hard to accept that my personal experience or my sexuality should in any way deprive me of the rights to which every citizen is entitled. But my experience also enables me to stand hand in hand with others who have the same or similar feelings of exclusion.

By declaring myself a candidate I am standing up for those rights, not just for myself but also for everybody that the self-appointed mainstream would deny a voice.


Belonging to, or participating in the mainstream social life, need not require us to negate the reality of who we are. I know that my own cultural and national patriotic authenticity has been questioned. We hear a lot about homosexuality being 'un-African'. The short answer is easy. I'm African. I'm gay. Do I not exist? But there is a much deeper argument that touches everybody because it is fundamentally racist. Because the argument is founded on the Hegelian understanding of the African, or what he writing in the 19th century, called the Negro. Hegel said:


'The Negro exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state...There is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character...the copious and circumstantial accounts of missionaries completely confirm this...'


So the supposed 'un-Africanness' of homosexuality is nothing to do with any moral superiority or freedom from Western decadence, it is based on an acceptance of the assumption that Africans are 'wild and untamed', closer to 'natural man' or to use a term we may be more familiar with, 'primitive man'. The argument was used to denigrate gay people in the Western world as being even lesser than Africans. Same-sex sexuality is 'unnatural' because, so the argument goes, it is not even seen in the animal kingdom. So President Mugabe of Zimbabwe can call homosexuals "lower than pigs and dogs". We can be thankful to the scientists once again for showing now that homosexuality has, in fact, been observed in hundreds of species. Those in Africa who call homosexuality 'un-African' are denigrating themselves in the process although they don't realise it. At least I hope they don't. 


The argument that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity is also quite common. It is certainly used by Evangelicals and others who call themselves Christian.  Well I am a Christian too. At one time I hoped to become a priest. But I also believe in honesty. And an honest person will tell you that Christianity is, of course, an imported religion in Africa. You could say, therefore, that it is un-African. So I hope through the force of argument and persuasion we can get to a situation where we hear no more about gay people in Africa being called un-African or un-Christian.


The media response to me as the 'Gay Senate Candidate' could mean it will get harder for other gay people to run for office. In fact I hope it will get easier. I suspect the media will continue to call me the 'gay candidate' and there is not so much I can do about that. But the reality is that I am a candidate for the Senate who just happens to be gay - a good argument that applies to those like me thinking of running for any leadership position.


If people support me it won't be because of my sexuality, you can be sure of that. It will be because I talk about the things the people care about. These include education, the health system, including the challenge of HIV, the economy, and a fairer distribution of wealth. If my sexuality is of any relevance at all to my campaign it is because it gets me noticed. But once I have the people's attention I hope they will like what they hear because of what I say, not because of who I am.


That does not mean that I will avoid talking about issues around sexuality. If I were to do that I would not be being honest and I would be avoiding not only the important issue of human rights but also the enormous health challenge of HIV/AIDS. Same sex activity is still illegal in my country, although earlier this year the Kenya Human Rights Commission, an official government advisory body, recommended the decriminalisation of both homosexual acts and prostitution.


So when we make the case for decriminalisation, it is because it is right thing to do, but also because laws that stigmatise people on the grounds of their sexuality are also massive barriers to HIV treatment, care and prevention. Again this is an area where working with excluded communities helps the 'mainstream' community, if we must use that word. The latest figures show that 40% of men who have sex with men in my country also have had sex with women and 13% of them are still currently in heterosexual marriages. 'Mainstream' leaders ignore these facts because they are politically inconvenient to them. If political convenience costs lives, and it does, then I am sorry but they should be ashamed of themselves. We should point it out to them - and maybe even make them feel a bit guilty.


My heart however goes out to the many millions and millions of people who dare not try out anything other than where the outcome is known and known to be safe. As a society we are all the poorer because their talents are stifled. At a personal level these people really are rarely happy. We cannot force them to go out there and live life to the fullness of whom they are, but we can challenge them by our own examples of living our own lives to the fullest. Of course I am aware that in any human dream there will always be constraints - of time, resources, technology and human capacity.

In seeking a public office in Kenya I hope to create awareness about what is possible for our people if we seek to cast away the fear and the shackles of limitations placed on us by stigma and discrimination.


At an individual level I am interested not just in serving the LGBT community but the broader society. I have started to see how much hope this is inspiring in people within my extended family and village. I am even told there are guys who never used to want to be associated with me but who now tell others when they hear my voice on radio, "I know that guy...I even know a guy who has his phone number".


The point is this is changing people. It is changing the narrative of the human rights struggle in Africa. More importantly it is challenging the limits of human potential imposed on LGBT folks in Africa but perhaps also beyond Africa. But I need your support.


I am very grateful to Kaleidoscope for having given me the opportunity to be here.

Early this year after knocking on all possible doors and when I had just about given up someone from an LGBT group in Norway asked me whether I had asked Kaleidoscope for help. I found an email address for Bisi Alimi, Kaleidoscope's Africa Director, and the rest as they say is history - so here we are today. For all the publicity we have had very few people invest in this initiative. Indeed every single day we are sustained by hope that something is going to happen. This visit and talk is one such opportunity that has sustained our hope in the last few months.


Some of our volunteers asked me to call them once I am in London - it is kind of a big thing back in the village to receive an international call - even though we shall just talk about the rain! Of course I will give them hope of a possible breakthrough in our campaign efforts. It is important to give them hope because hope does indeed work wonders. But to keep going I need your help.


You won't be surprised to hear me say that we need money. My opponents from the old political system have plenty of it. My campaign has very little. For example we have printed 5000 pledge cards to give to the voters in Kiambu. It says here at the bottom 'My card, My promise'. We would like to give a card to every single voter in the constituency but we have one million voters in Kiambu - so help me reach them.


But more than that, I would like to invite you to journey with me through the next four months. There are times when the struggle can get really difficult - there are many times when am tempted to give up. It would be great to know that all this work means something to someone. So please feel welcome to make whatever difference you can make so that we realize this dream.


On the 5th of March, the day after the election, let us look back at what we have achieved, the stereotypes we shall have broken, the barriers we have overcome with pride and joy. 


Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity and welcome on board.