Kenya’s President William Ruto, despite the numerous questions about his own historical involvement in crimes against humanity and corruption, is currently invoking “culture” and “religion” to justify discriminating against the country’s Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community.
In particular, Mr. Ruto and Kenya’s anti-gay crowd are criticizing the Supreme Court of Kenya for ruling in favor of the country’s lesbian and gay community. In a majority decision, the Court of Kenya found that the Non-governmental Coordination Board had discriminated “and infringed on the (gay) community’s constitutional right to association by refusing to register any of six names proposed by the community’s representatives, among them the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Council.”
Ruto responded by clambering on top of his rickety soapbox to preach about culture and religion to justify his bigotry against members of a community that just wanted to be able to enjoy the legal right to organize in support of loving and marrying who they want.
This is not the only way that religion is being politicized and abused under the Ruto presidency. Many Kenyans are rightly unsettled that the president’s wife, First Lady Rachel Ruto, is now hosting monthly prayer meetings in his official residence. While the intentions of these meetings may be noble, they violate the principle of separation of church and state to which most credible democracies aspire.
By using their platform and religion to demonize homosexuality, Kenya’s First Couple, which wears its faith on its collective sleeve, is also casting aside some of the core tenets of that faith, most notably the call to love thy neighbor and leave judgment and vengeance against transgressions to the Lord.
How rich and hypocritical.
It is therefore critically important to put the president’s recent statements under due scrutiny. Exactly which “culture” and “religion” is it that William Ruto claims “does not allow same-sex marriage”?
Is homosexuality alien to Kenyan/African culture?
In a 2021 article (Did Europe Bring Homophobia to Africa?), Bright Alozie writes that “[S]everal instances in oral histories, critical texts, folklore, and ethnographic reports confirm that traditional Africa recognized same-sex relations. Thousands of years ago, evidence from rock paintings show the prevalence of anal sex between San men in present-day Zimbabwe.”
Another article, this one by University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Associate Professor of Education Thabo Msibi (“The Lies We’ve Been Told: On (Homo) Sexuality in Africa”), explains that in South Africa “men who felt sexually attracted to males did not need to fear that this feeling would compromise the socially-necessary performance of heterosexual virility.…..as they simply married.”
In other words, homosexuality and lesbianism have a history in the very (African) culture Ruto claims is free of either trait or behavior.
As Alozie, an assistant professor of Black Studies at Portland State University who specializes in the social and political history of Nigeria and gender and sexuality in West Africa, points out, same-sex relations are simply not “un-African”. He writes that Nigeria’s Hausa use the term “Yan Dauda” to describe “effeminate men and male wives.” South Africa’s Khoikho use “koetsire” to describe men who have sex with other men, and “adofuro” is a Yoruba euphemism that loosely describes a homosexual. These African terms, like the more widespread and Western “fag,” “faggot,” “homo,” “butch,” or Swahili “shoga,” are (now) more likely to be used in a derogatory way, but this is not how they started. Importantly, they prove that homosexuality and lesbianism are not foreign words or culture.
Is homosexuality alien to Kenyan/African religion?
On the religion front, I choose to avoid the rabbit hole that opportunists and demagogues such as President Ruto seek to dig at every turn. Instead, let me point out the role religion has played in perpetuating bigotry, xenophobia, and discrimination.
Noel Rae (How Christian Slaveholders Used the Bible to Justify Slavery) writes that the faithful (Christians) cited two scriptures to justify their participation in slavery. They cited Genesis 9:18-29 and Ephesians 6:5-7.
Genesis 9:18-29, also referred to as “The Curse of Ham” (Park 2021), “explores how modern notions of scientific racism were read into the (biblical) story as a de facto justification for the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery in the antebellum South.” In an article titled “The Blessing of Whiteness in the Curse of Ham”, Wongi Park adds that the verses “provided a biblical foil for circumscribing a racial hierarchy where whiteness was positioned as superior in the figure of Japheth.”
Several historians have also illustrated and reiterated the critical role religion (Christianity) and the Bible played in the colonization and neo-colonization of Africa, which is well brought out by a story popular with South African Christians, that goes:
“When the white man came to Africa, he held the Bible in his hand, and Africans held the land. The white man said to Africans, ‘Let us bow our heads in prayer’. When the Africans raised their heads, the white man had the land, and the Africans had the Bible.”
We must therefore be careful not to read the Bible in ways that lead to our own enslavement, or that of others.
That leads to an important question: why is William Ruto seeking to stoke a culture war against Kenya’s LBGTQ community? Is it just that he is ignorant of religious and cultural history? Or is it rather than he sees this as a useful opportunity to deflect attention away from the fact that he has not done what he promised during his election campaign, namely to improve the living conditions of ordinary Kenyans? Under Ruto, as under a number of other African leaders, the language of prejudice and division is being manipulated for political purposes.
All of us – whether straight or gay – have a vested interest in challenging this. After all, it will not stop with the LBGTQ community, and those currently going along with Ruto’s attacks on homosexual Kenyans may find that they themselves need defending in future.
Washington Osiro (@diasporaville) is an author and operations & quality management systems/quality systems regulation (QMS/QSR) professional in the medical device industry. He is a graduate student at Arizona State University where he is researching the intersection of technology and public policy.