iIn March 2023, a group of climbers ascended up Mt Kenya and planted the rainbow flag. In the eyes of some, this group affirmed Kenya’s queer community by planting a flag in the mountain that gave Kenya her name. In this way, they claimed their piece of the “Kenyan dream” and asserted their right to so do. Conversely, in the eyes of others, this group desecrated a holy site by deigning to “infect” the proverbial mountain of mystery with their queerness.
This feeling motivated another group of climbers, under the banner of Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu, to bring down the flag. Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu, loosely translated to ‘the gathering for Kikuyu morality’, spent a month raising money for the expedition. In early April 2023, they successfully climbed Mt. Kenya and brought the flag down, whereupon it was burned and the mountain “cleansed”. The ashes were tossed in a river that would, eventually flow into the Indian Ocean.
As I watched this series of events play out, I couldn’t help but reflect on what it meant. What drove the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu to act as they did?
An act of protection
According to Ngarau Njonjo, a member of the group, it was an act of protection. They were attempting to safeguard Kikuyu Cultural Heritage. Speaking after the takedown, Njonjo said that the expedition and cleansing rites send a stern message that the Kikuyu community will not be used as a doormat for ‘all manner of alien practices.’
Yet, not all manner of “alien practices” were rebuked that day. Only queer sexualities. As a result, this act takes on a deeper, far more harmful, significance: one that suggests that the inspiration for this act was not protection, but rejection. By taking the flag down from Mt Kenya, the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu sought to affirm the myth that queerness is alien to pre-colonial African societies. They declared that queer Kenyans, in general, and queer Kikuyus, specifically, have no place in our society. It was therefore a proclamation that they are to be excised from our borders, much like the ashes of the flag that represents them.
As soon as I had explored the significance of the act, I also behan to wonder what justified it. Was their interpretation of Agikuyu culture borne from common-understanding, or personal interpretation? Why did they, in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society, feel that their claim to Mt Kenya trumped the climber who planted the pride flag? Why did they feel empowered to proscribe a conceptualisation of Kikuyu culture for the over six million Kikuyus in the country.
Put simply, where did they get the audacity?
To answer this question, we must first situate Mt Kenya (Kirinyaga) within Kikuyu culture and investigate the treatment of queerness in pre-colonial Agikuyu society. Starting with the former, Mt Kenya is our home; literally and spiritually. According to local legend, the mountain was forged after a star (riuki) fell to Earth. As it tore through the earth, magma, “gicurucuru,” and volcanic ash, “uumbi,” seeped out of the fissures of its path. Eventually, the mountain sprung forth, and Ngai (God) chose it to be his home.
It was on the mountain, that Ngai first instructed Gikuyu (our Adam figure), rewarding and punishing him in equal measure. It was on the mountain that Gikuyu found Mumbi (our Eve figure), and thus the Agīkūyu were born. It was the mountain that bound the disparate clans together when every Kikuyu would turn to Kirinyaga in prayer, supplication and praise. For many Kikuyu across the nation, Mt Kenya is ours. Ours to protect. Ours to pray to. Ours to control?
Yet, does the centrality of the mountain in our cosmology grant us the right to monopolise the Mountain’s meaning in a multi-ethnic and multicultural Kenyan state? Does this give us the right to dictate what counts as legitimate use? The Mountain does not belong to the Kikuyu alone. The Meru also pray to the mountain. While the Meru are often folded into the Kikuyu for political reasons, they are a separate ethnic group with their own cosmologies and morality.
This is significant, because historically among the Meru, queer identities were embraced. The scholar Needham has described a religious leadership role called mugawe among the Meru. The mugawe were men who wore women’s clothes and hairstyles, engaged in homosexuality, and were sometimes married to a man. Similarly, there are records of, what would today be considered queer sexual behaviours among the Agikuyu in the pre-colonial period – in particular female husbandry. What right, then, did the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu have to overwrite this history and morality with their own?
If they were to argue that the mugawe are no longer culturally relevant and, therefore, no longer significant in the moral equation, then I would ask how they can acknowledge changes in the cultural outlooks of others, while subscribing to an essentialist view of their own? Put another way, how they can acknowledge the dynamism of others culture, while failing to update their own?
Yes, Mt Kenya is where Ngai lives. But very few Kikuyu practice pre-colonial religious traditions. In fact, 85% of us – over 5 million people – are Christians. In Christianity, God does not live on Mount Kenya. Therefore, Kikuyus no longer turn, en masse, to the mountain in prayer and supplication. This suggests that the Mountain may play a different role in our cosmologies today; it is not a moral agent in the present, but rather a historical force that stands in tension with the dynamism of contemporary culture.
The dynamism of culture
As Bhiku Parekh argues, “A culture is not static and contains both the residues of its largely dormant past beliefs and prefigurations of the newly-emergent ones. In short, every culture is too multistranded, fluid and open-ended to have ‘fixed terms’ in which to evaluate it.” Put simply, culture has no essence. It has changed, and will continue to do so. The only responsibility we have to our culture is not to keep it static, but to keep it relevant and reflective of those living in the present so that it may retain its’ primary function as a binding agent. Therefore, we must not only ask how rejecting community members binds people to Kikuyu culture, but also what the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu would like to bind us to.
It is clear that they want to retain a specific version of Kikuyu culture – one that acknowledges and embraces a pre-colonial understanding of wrongdoing, punishment and salvation. In this conceptualisation, some authors suggest that queer sexual expression was a thahu, or “sin.” Yet, the same class of “sin” – sexual perversions – at the time included sex in anything but the missionary position.
Do all the members of Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu really wish us to believe that none of them have ever broken this rule? Would they feel the need to cleanse the mountain should someone plant a flag celebrating the pleasure of cunnilingus? Or do they only take issue with non-heteronormative relationships? In fact, in their attempt to reject all manner of alien practices, they seem to have overlooked the creation of the Kikuyu tribe. This was itself in part the product of an “alien practice.” As Patrick Gathara argues for The Elephant:
“… the colonial period was marked “by systematic inventions of African traditions – ethnicity, customary law, ‘traditional’ religion. Before colonialism Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after its African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were all bounded by the rigidities of invented tradition.”
It is therefore reasonable to ask why the elders drew the line at queer sexual expression and did not condemn all acts associated with this class of “sin” (thahu)? Why did they stop at characterising queer sexualities as “alien” when our current understanding of Kikuyu culture may, itself, be alien?
Returning to the beginning
This question returns us to where we began. What exactly are the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu protecting? Is it possible that they misconstrued the motivation that animated their actions? It seems possible that the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu were in fact acting out of a sense of loyalty. As Parekh maintains: “Loyalty to a culture also involves a duty to explore, deepen and enrich its resources and remove its defects.” It is not about preserving the ideals, but about safeguarding the community of men and women built around these ideals. This loyalty manifests itself in a duty to defend our culture against mischievous misrepresentations and not to allow it to be used by others for such purposes.
But if this is the case, we need to ask the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu whether they have seriously considered the possibility that the “disfiguring practice” is not queer sexual expression, but our response to it? Our inclination to shame, reject and dismiss our loved ones? Our desire to see them punished for who they are and who they love?
More importantly, we need to ask why the Booi wa Kirira Kia Mugikuyu are demonstrating loyalty not to the present, or to the real past, but to an assumed past that never actually existed. Ultimately, while it is unclear what they were protecting, it is clear what they were rejecting. They were not just excising sin from the Kikuyu culture, but queerness, to the detriment of members of their own community and the country as a whole.
Aileen Kimuhu is a writer, consultant and podcast host (@utajuahujui.pod) interested in the intersection between history, identity and politics.