Sunday, 21 February 2010

Kenya: Mtwapa clerics want to 'eradicate gays', but human rights defenders are many

By Paul Canning

In the aftermath of the attempted anti-gay pogrom in Mtwapa, a small town near Mombasa, Kenya, the Daily Nation reports that the government's attempts to calm the situation are being rebuffed by clerics.

The government has set up a committee which aims to educate wananchi (the public) on the operations of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) centre - the focus of organised anti-gay rioting.

But Sheikh Ali Hussein, Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) Kikambala coordinator, and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK)'s Kilifi District representative, Bishop Laurence Chai, separately told the newspaper that they accepted to join the committee for the sole purpose of 'eradicating gay activities in Mtwapa'.

"We did not join to drum up support for Kemri, which is one of the factors behind this menace," said Sheikh Hussein. They threatened that some of the clinic's researchers must be removed.

Bishop Chai said the committee was also formed to ensure that residents have access to HIV/Aids and TB treatment offered at the Kemri station.

"Anything short of that is a clear indication that our concerns were ignored by the government and we shall pull out of the committee," he warned.

Media incitement

Muthoni Wanyeki, Kenya correspondent for The East African, and a executive member of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, speaking in a report on media coverage of homosexuality in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda for Radio France Internationale (RFI), says that the Mtwapa events were provoked by media reports that were completely unverified.
The reporter who broke the story never bothered to mention 'how could a wedding be taking place?' It's not possible under civil law, it's not possible under any of the religious or customary laws. He took a joke completely out of context leading to the situation, without any concern for facts.
The media has not corrected their reporting, she says.

Muthoni says gay men were not arrested (as widely reported), the police intervened "to their credit" to protect the people from a mob organised by the Muslim and Christian leadership.
The state has no interest in these cases until it's forced to appear to be doing something because of religious and popular sentiment of the kind that's stoked, unnecessarily, by bad media coverage.
Muthoni's comments are backed up by statements from local police to The Star. Coast deputy provincial police boss Henry Barmao said: "We are not holding any homosexual suspects. Police did not arrest anyone. They only rescued them from angry mobs. I do not know where they are now but I am certain they are not being held at any police station."

This angered Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa who said: "The police should say why they let the suspects go free. They should have taken them to court and let the courts make its decision based on the evidence produced and witness accounts."

Discussion: media coverage of homosexuality in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda

Hope for gays in Kenya

Daily Nation columnist Cabral Pinto, however, points out that: "What is comforting is that the voices of Mtwapa are not the only voices being heard on this issue in Kenya."

Pinto find those voices in thriving civil society organisations and the media. He cites Professor Makau Mutua of the non-governmental organisation Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) who gave a public lecture entitled 'Sexual Orientation and Human Rights: Homophobia on Trial' organised by Akiba Uhaki, a social justice organization, February 16 in Nairobi.
Prof Mutua made many persuasive arguments on the issue of gay rights. I point out the ones that are foundational.

He argued that the Kenyan Constitution and, indeed, the constitutional draft now being debated, protect the sexual orientation of heterosexuality and refuse to extend this protection to other sexual orientations.

Human rights activists, he suggested, should be bound by the normative obligation not to be selective in their protection and promotion of rights of all people.

Prof Mutua found the origins of homophobia from various sources, significant among them religious dogma.

He dismissed the often repeated notion that homosexuality is not African and urged the Committee of Experts [who are writing the new Kenyan constitution] not listen to what is popular, but defend the powerless from the powerful and the majority.
In a public debate on Nairobi following the lecture he was supported by Reverend Michael Keminchi, who has been an Anglican minister in Kenya for the past 30 years, and anthropologist Jasper Imungi of the University of Nairobi. Imungi said:
Nobody has a monopoly of knowledge, ideas and speech. Some people abrogate themselves to be the mouthpieces of others and constantly use words like Kenyans have, Kenyans don’t, Kenyans do. As an anthropologist, who gives you the moral authority to set the moral prefix?
Mutua has previously written that 'It is nonsense to assert that being gay is un-African'. In Uganda, speaking at a February 18 human rights forum, Mutua denounced a Ugandan Member of Parliament who said he would kill his son if he discovered he was gay.
"I am baffled by the kind of hatred you spew against gay people," Mutua said, "including your desire to be a hangman. Would you apply to be a hangman if the person to be hanged were your son?"

When [MP Otto] Odonga nodded yes, Mutua said, "There is something deeply wrong with you."

"It's important that we all try to expose ourselves to knowledge, to keep on growing. People who express extremist views are, in my view, always the ones who have read the least."
Mutua compared the MPs' arguments against human rights to comments made by slave owners in the American Civil War.
"The kind of speech you made against gay people was the kind of speech that white segregationists were making all over America. Those arguments are classic. They have been reproduced in every era by every segment of society. You didn't invent them."
He backed threats by some countries to withhold foreign aid if Uganda passed its 'kill-the-gays' bill. "There are consequences to being a member of the international community," he said.

During his Kenyan visit (Mutua is a Professor at Buffalo university) he spoke with Kenyan TV channel K24.

He reminds the interviewer that he is a Kenyan and says that he did not come easily to his support for gay rights, it was an "intellectual exercise, I began to ask questions about why I was homophobic."

Pinto cites Kenya's Citizen TV who have been running programmes on sexuality and human rights. Discussions on gay rights, he says are polarised but their presence shows the press' freedom in Kenya and that the issue is neither a taboo nor controversial.

In this latest report, Citizen TV includes the press conference by Mutua and comments by Dr. Nicholas Otieno, a program specialist for the World Council of Churches, who explains the research on the genetic basis of sexuality.

Many other Kenyan media outlets have produced reports. In this one from last June GhettoRadio visited the Umoja area of Nairobi and found many people in favour of gay rights including gay marriage.

Muthoni Wanyeki says that more and more Kenyan mainstream human rights and women's organisations are seeing the protection of gays as "part of their normative obligations".

She sees the main threats to gays coming from the evangelical Christian and "more radicalised" Muslim leadership.

Speaking in the RFI hosted discussion, both Timothy Kalyegira, editor of the Uganda Record, and Kondwani Munthali, a Malawi reporter at The Nation spoke out against the perception of the African debate on gays, as portrayed in the Western media.

Munthali said that increasing democracy, literacy and civil society in developing Africa meant that the debate was not happening in the same context as the West - but it was happening.



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