Trying Sodomy

Sodomy is always presumed guilty in Kenya.

Last year, we discovered that sodomy debauches prisoners and this year we are discovering that sodomy debauches young street children. That it has similar effects on what are presumably two unlike populations speaks to its power as a corrupting force. In both instances, the discourse on sodomy produces a certain kind of Kenyan.

It is worth dwelling, for a moment, on the comparison between prisoners and rehabilitated street children, the targets of sodomy, for both might be said to occupy similar positions in one kind of social imagination. They are, for better or worse, neglected and negligible populations, populations whose value lies in their invisibility. Nairobi prides itself on “clearing away” street children, for instance.

What does it mean that neglected and negligible populations must be defended against sodomy? What does it mean that marginalized populations, those that occupy the edge of the social must be defended against sodomy, in parliament no less? How might we read this securing of borders against invasion?

What happens to sodomy in the absence of any pro-sodomy discourse? Who will defend sodomy?
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In his rich, and probably dated, glossary of prison terms, Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ offers the following definitions:

Mende/Mfiraji/Shoga/Nding’oing’o: All refer to those prisoners who sodomize other prisoners. “Mende” is probably the most popular and accepted name. A rich “mende” has a host of concubines. He feeds them, supplies them with cigarettes and provides them with security which is needed in prison. Those “mende”who are not rich rape other prisoners. Literally, “mende” means a cockroach and “nding’oing’o”means a beetle which feeds on human excrement. “Mfiraji” or “shoga” means a faggot or homosexual.

Kumkula/Kũmũrĩa: Means to sodomize another prisoner. Literally, “kula” or “kũrĩa” means to eat.

Kũhũra Mai/ Gũtindĩka Mai: To have anal sex, literally, “kũhũra mai” means to beat shit with penis and “ngũtindĩka mai” means to push shit with penis.

I have yet to think through these definitions, which are only one part of the rich homo-discourse in Kĩnyattĩ’s work. For now, only to note how rich the tonal shades of these descriptions. And to suggest that it might be possible to find interesting, ambivalent descriptions of sodomy in Kenya.
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But does sodomy need to be defended? By whom and for what reason? (Elsewhere, I have noted why it is important to discuss sodomy, not homosexuality.)
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To judge sodomy as guilty or proclaim its innocence misses the rich textures, shades, colors, and variations of sodomy. I write this aware of the rich way the term sodomy has functioned in history, to describe all non-reproductive sex acts. But I also write it in the context of the limited understandings that continually find sodomy guilty in Kenya.

We try sodomy without saying anything about trying sodomy.

I continue to believe that Kenyan discourses on sodomy are impoverished and truncated. Since we already know what “it” is we need not detail, see, talk about, discuss, debate “it” nor can we countenance any alternate stances, any differing viewpoints. And our fledgling queer rights activists are not yet convinced that erotic lives and practices are worth defending—to do so might be to compromise the emphasis on rights and dignity, and yet not to do so risks losing what is specifically queer.

Queer is bodily.

As long as we Kenyan queers remain silent and bashful about sodomy, we continue to enable the kind of framing in which sodomy is something to be tried and found either guilty and innocent. In this case, always guilty.
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What other ways might there be to frame and re-frame sodomy?

I return, as always, to Foucault’s invocation of bodies and pleasures. And I think about some of the effects of queer pornography on queer politics. Not simply pornography as titillation, but as a way to make visible and palpable what can be done and imagined with the body, as a way to make evident bodies and pleasures in all their ambivalent varieties. I continue to invoke ambivalence because we feel in complex ways about what we do: feeling “good” might not necessarily be the point.

I am not suggesting that multiplying discourses on sodomy will provide a new trial in which sodomy will be found innocent. (I am not convinced that innocent sodomy is any fun.) I am suggesting that multiplying discourses on sodomy, saying more about how “it” is less singular than imagined, more richly textured than envisioned may provide us with more interesting terrain than we now occupy.

5 thoughts on “Trying Sodomy

  1. Gukira,

    I think that the problem is more with the wording than it is with the act itself. The problem was that the Constitution of Kenya was written zillions of ages ago and sodomy was taken to mean any sexual act between men. They called it unnatural. But with time, we have come to realise, and rightly so, that the gay person is more than an act. He is a person with dignity, with feelings, with rights.

    Extensive research and deepening of Psychology and Human Development studies began to demystify ‘sodomy’ and brought out other definitions that seemed to cancel off sodomy or rather better explain ‘sodomy.’

    Many countries relived heavily on scientific studies and research when dealing with clauses that touched on sensitive matters e.g sexuality, family, religion e.t.c.

    The problem with Kenya, as with many African countries is that we are not up to date with all of this.

    I may throw this to TOMIK that they, instead of directly advocating for repel and change of laws just because we are gay, to instead bring evidence to back claims of homosexuality and prove to people, and I hope they believe, that being gay is holistic and not confined to penis meets anus.

    There is need for professionals in Psychology, Human Sexuality and Development and all those human studies to be fully involved when changing the Constitutions.

    Then instead of sodomy being illegal, sex between men, consentual and safe, can be inserted and recognised as a fundamental right to every man, well, every gay man!

  2. In a previous draft of this, I mentioned the Wolfenden report, which was released in 1957. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the U.K in 1967. Meanwhile, in 1969, John Mbiti writes that homosexuality is un-African, a refrain carried through the present. We cannot keep blaming the constitution for beliefs that are reinforced and circulated by many people who, presumably, do not get their feelings and ideas from the constitution.

    Sodomy is an ongoing, living entity, a construction that happens everyday, and this is why I write about it. I understand the urge to write about and advocate for rights and dignity, and even support it, but it is a risk to do so at the expense of the bodily desires and practices that are threatened. After all, individuals are entrapped while naked and libidinal in hotel rooms, not for standing around looking undignified.

    I will also add that the claim sodomy is un-African bears a weight that reports mainly produced outside of Africa might not be able to counteract. Un-African is a genius term. Totally genius. I wish I had coined it.

  3. If you’re at the Archives, check out a file (PC/COAST, don’t have the number in front of me) from prisons, titled “Sodomy.” Only three sheets, but quite interesting. Two prisoners found, early 1910s I believe, doing things under a sheet. The commissiner of prisons noted that, since they weren’t caught in the act, they couldn’t be charged with sodomy: apparently penetration had to be proved. But they were to be separated to prevent recurrence and the possibility of spreading the practice to other, presumably non-sodomite, prisoners.

  4. I did a very quick scan and noticed that early marriage laws were related to the status of slaves and former slaves. I should probably send you an email. Do you know anyone writing on Kenyan marriage who has focused on the importance of slaves in early legislation?

    I believe the sodomy stuff is a whole other project that is bright and shiny and tempting, and that I will put down so I can finish the book. All these bright, shiny projects are so tempting.

    1. Lots of stuff on slaves and ex-slaves in the archive, but I don’t think anyone has written on this in re marriage. Has been done elsewhere — work on Ghana, AOF — on colonial conflation of ‘female slave’ and ‘wife’. Let’s find a graduate student to put to work on it.

      In your tenure file: “While a fine teacher, excellent scholar, and active public intellectual, Dr. Keguro’s writing sometimes stretches the boundaries of scholarly dispassion. From his blog in July 2009: “I believe…sodomy…is bright and shiny and tempting…so tempting.”

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