There was no sign of life at Jevanjee Gardens. There was, of course, the run of the mill life; people who were checking their phones or perusing newspapers, passers-by, or people in a stupor inundated by whatever troubled their souls, maybe alcohol or just life. It was not the kind of life I was looking for. There was no one with protest regalia, no one singing revolution songs, none at all with placards… there was nothing that suggested a protest march by the LGBTQIA+ community.
It all began with a possibly-not-so-well-thought-out moralistic statement by the Cabinet Secretary for education Professor George Magoha – who’s habituated to making contentious statements – who ruffled the feathers of human and queer rights activists when he said, “Right now, there are contemporary cases of children who are homosexual and lesbians, they must go to day schools close to their homes. Your responsibility should be for the greater majority and not a few individuals. Do not allow yourselves to be intimidated by children.”
The uproar was immediate. On social media, naysayers demanded that the Professor withdraw his remarks because it suggested that queer kids should be deprived of the right to (boarding school) education. Marylize Biubwa, a queer rights activist, took the fight out of social media to Magoha’s office by organising a protest march to the Ministry of Education offices.
My First Time at the Frontline
Until the material day, I had never been to a protest march (both as a journalist and a regular Kenyan). And the anticipation of it all was making me pretty nervous, unsure of what to expect – possibly anti-riot police tear gas Kenyan style. Not seeing anyone at Jevanjee Gardens – which was the protester’s assembly point – I got even more jittery. Maybe I was early. Maybe the protesters were a no show. But just as I was beginning to wallow in what ifs, I saw a lady waving at me.
“Are you here for the march?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said as she pulled her mask up, hiding her face. It was, perhaps, a reaction to how I was dressed – a baseball cap and a black mask, trying as much to be incognito, for no particular reason save for my introversy coupled with fear of the unknown as a rookie protest-covering-reporter.
Clad in a black shirt, inscribed, “we are all humans” written in rainbow colours, my new acquaintance’s braids were neatly tied in a redhead wrap, her Converse high-tops staying true to the cause with their rainbow-coloured laces. It was not protest regalia per se – it seemed like she’d dress this way on the daily – but in a country where queer people are stigmatised, boldly donning pride colours is akin to flipping the middle finger to naysayers.
“Are you Marylize?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, and hugged me. “I sat here to make it convenient for the ones who are coming. Because, you know, it’s closer to the gate.”
An Organiser’s Juggle
Marylize was busy on her phone. Not the snobbish-busy type. No, far from it. She was receiving calls, telling her callers where she was, that the procession had not started, all of this while she multitasked doing full-on interviews with journalists like myself. At some point Marylize pulled out a letter addressed to the Cabinet of Kenya and gave it to me.
“We are going to take this letter to Magoha,” Marylize says. “It has a list of our demands.”
“Magoha or the Ministry of Education?” I ask as I take a photo of the document.
“It is addressed to the Ministry of Education and by extension to Magoha,” she says.
Then I realized I didn’t need to take a pic of the document. Marylize had more copies of the same.
Much as the right to picket is enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the air at Jevanjee Gardens was palpably tense considering the frequency for Kenyan police to disperse most protests – no matter how peaceful, coupled with the idea that freedom to love whoever one wishes is still a hot potato in a largely conservative (or not?) society. Hardly do citizens take the side of law enforcement agencies save for the subtle unanimity when it comes to pigeonholing and condemning the queers. It is out of the foregoing that I was in awe of how Marylize had managed to get the regional police commander to acknowledge receipt of her notifying for the intended procession.
(Legally, all a citizen is required to do is notify the authorities of planned protests, though the police are known to side step such notifications and thus declare such gatherings illegal – feigning ignorance that they were notified.)
No Longer Lesser Citizens?
“Honestly, I do not know how I did it,” Marylize said when I inquired. “I just walked to their offices and told them we are planning this procession. I did not hide the agenda. I made sure I specified it was a procession by the queer community against the remarks made by Magoha.”
Even so, Marylize wasn’t very optimistic.
“I champion different causes,” Marylize said, “and so I have been to processions where the police became hostile despite it being a peaceful protest and despite having notified them. So, of course I am nervous, but not as nervous as I was when I went to get the letter.”
I hadn’t imagined Marylize would be nervous, yet her admission that she was did little to make me less nervous.
Profiled, then Persecuted
Soon enough, we had the company of Sandra, who came carrying a pink manilla paper, a.ka. protest regalia. Sandra was, unlike Marylize, visibly tense as we exchanged high school experiences of how teachers profiled students presumed to be queer.
“I was chased out of a Maths class for a month,” Sandra said. “The teacher heard my friend saying ‘fuck you’ to me.”
“What? Was the issue the expletive or what was it?” I asked.
“She said she cannot teach two girls who want to fuck each other,” Sandra explained. “And it was a perception she had towards me and my friend. What’s worse is that the whole class stopped talking to us. For a month.”
“So you know first hand how Magoha’s statement can affect students?” I ask.
Sandra looked at me. For the first time throughout the conversation, she made eye contact as if unbelieving that I could ask such a question – the answer was obvious. She nodded in the affirmative with such gusto that I knew the procession would be fueled with unheard stories of people whose high school lives were unbearable because of profiling followed by stigma.
One protestor said she was expelled from her school, taken to a catholic school, and disowned by her parents for being queer. Others narrated how it was customary for students presumed to be queer to be shamed in public during parades.
Brothers, Where Art Thou?
Marylize’s phone buzzed more and more as more protestors arrived. And with the increase in numbers came more manilla papers and pride flags and whistles. It wasn’t the signature regalia I had imagined in my excited nervousness – red berets, printed shirts, vuvuzelas or painted faces. Regardless, people had shown up to make a statement. The growing colourful numbers started attracting the attention of the run of the mill life in the public park. The desolate suddenly lost their stupor, and the busy-on-their-phones sat upright watching Marlylize and her growing orchestra.
And yet, as the numbers grew, it was conspicuous that male folk were missing in action save for two allies of the LGBTQIA+ community who I learnt that just as Marylize, they are champions of social justice who generally attend a lot of protests in a show of solidarity.
“Men never show up,” said Fahe Kerubo, one of the boldest demonstrators in the crowd who came wearing a mask with rainbow colours. “They don’t show up even to other processions which are not queer-related, because I have been to others and it is only women who mostly show up.”
“But they should show up,” Muyu Karani, yet another protestor, chipped in. “This is an issue of human rights and they should show up.”
Finding Joy in the Struggle
It was all mirth as people posed with flags, took selfies together, and exchanged pleasantries. They all seemed familiar with each other. But amid the merriment, you could feel their resolve as they wrote slogans and messages on the manilla papers.
“I want the one with the most provocative message,” said one of the demonstrators. “Hii imeandikwa aje? If Magoha cannot do his work, he must go. Nipee hio.”
“Guys, we have to leave but we cannot leave before the press arrives.” Marylize projected.
Inconspicuous in the assemblers was a white man who was among the first to arrive at Jevanjee Gardens. On arrival, he walked straight to Marylize, but after saying hello he kept some distance from the crowd, taking in everything that was happening. But as soon as Marylize said the group shouldn’t take to the streets before the press arrived, the Caucasian gentleman pulled out a camera from his bag. He was a journalist who made it on time.
In the end, it was mainly foreign press that showed up. Kenyan media was possibly abiding by the code of silence – don’t give them coverage, they’ll fizzle away.
“Down down with homophobia down!” chanted Said Athuman, one of the men in the crowd.
“Down!” The rest of the group chimed in, converging in a semicircle, with Marylize alongside Bold Network Africa CEO Chris Makena, leading from the front. Makena had discreetly joined the crowd earlier.
“Tumesoma katiba, tukaelewa na tunajua maandamano ni haki yetu,” the crowd sang. (we have read the constitution, and we know it’s our right to hold a demonstration.)
After the chants and near-generic revolutionary songs, Marylize gave a brief press statement speech, highlighting why she convened the procession.
“There were over fifty thousand students who were forced out of school because of unwanted pregnancies last year,” Marylize said. “But Magoha did not say anything. But now Magoha is coming out to assassinate children because of their sexuality and identity.”
Marylize read the letter addressed to the Cabinet of Kenya, outlining the demands therein – asking the Cabinet to repeal Section 162 of the penal code, which stipulates that it is a felony for any person to have “carnal knowledge of any other person against the order of nature” or permit “a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature. Therefore, it criminalises consensual sex between two adults of the same sex and provides a premise for queer people to be harassed by citizens and law enforcers.
Chris Makena voiced their support for the procession.
“We all know how hard it was to be in school as a gay child,” Makena said. “Now that we are outside here we will do what we need to do to make sure that we protect those children who are in boarding and that they are not sent away from school.”
Behind the press was a crowd of onlookers, curious to know if the protest was worth joining. To some, it was because by the time the procession was leaving Jevanjee Gardens, the bantam crowd that stood behind Makena and Marylize seemed to have grown.
“Homophobia, shuka shuka!”
The crowd roared as they joined Moi Avenue. It seemed that they were accustomed to this because everyone played what appeared to be their role well. The whistle-blower harmonised the chants, and soon as one chant leader was done with leading their slogan, another one chimed in.
Pedestrians and motorists stared at the crowd. Others squinted to read the inscriptions on the manilla papers. Some whispered amongst themselves, perhaps asking what was going on or giving their opinion on the matter.
Marylize, who was at the front, slowed down just before the unmistakable National Archives building, where the Tom Mboya monument is erected. Whether intentional or not, the juxtaposition of her with Tom Mboya’s was symbolic as Marylize stood to give a heartfelt speech about the cause she was championing.
“We will no longer stay in a system where a cabinet secretary can come up with a directive that sexualises children, we will die so that the next generation can stay alive!” she declaimed as the crowd behind her hummed in approval.
The press was not the only one recording the proceedings, because onlookers took out their phones to record the impassioned Marylize. I looked around, curious to know what onlookers thought. And so I talked to a stranger who was among the people recording the crowd.
“You know, these things are new to our culture,” the stranger said. “These are tendencies that have been brought to us by the Western world, so when Magoha said that, he was protecting us and the students from moral degradation.”
“So you don’t think they should be protesting?” I asked
“No, they are wasting our time. They are causing a traffic jam and delaying people who have other things to do.”
I took off to catch up with Marylize and her mates who had already reached Harambee Avenue by the time I was done getting the young lad’s sentiments. They stopped again for another interjection speech by Marylize. This time, it was not the commuters waiting for a bus nor the ones sitting on benches in town who were listening to her. It was the pedestrians who stood to listen to her.
I set eyes on the civilian clothed law enforcement officers following the crowd. It was their walkie talkies that gave them away, which I saw when I heard one of them explain (perhaps to the powers that be) what the procession was about and where the demonstrators were headed.
The Whole Nine Yards
Soon, we were outside the Ministry of Education offices at Jogoo House. The police officers at the gate waved the crowd away as Marylize tried to present her case amid the chants by the group.
“We are taking this letter to Magoha,” Marylize said to one of the police officers who stood out as the gaffer of the other cops clad in camouflaged helmets, bulletproof vests, and as if the gear was not enough show of power, they were flaunting Kalashnikovs.
“Na nyinyi ndio nani?” (Who are you?) the officer asked.
“We are the Queer Republic and the Bold Network Africa,” Marylize said.
The officer asked the procession leaders to ask the crowd to stand across the road, away from Jogoo House. They obliged and had a conversation with Marylize and Makena before escorting two representatives alongside Rachel Mwikali , a human rights activist and board member at Amnesty International’s Kenyan chapter into the premises. By the time the trio was leaving Jogoo House, they had made an appointment to have a sit down with the Cabinet Secretary for education.
In Marylize’s words, it was the first time she went the whole nine yards in a procession – doing the thing on the street and going all the way to present the petition to the relevant authorities, and secure room for further engagement. Much as the march might have seemed like a disturbance to the unknowing and unbothered, the Kenyan queer community had spoken and will hopefully be heard, so that kids can just be kids and not get discriminated against.