Raila Re-Defines Kenyan-ness

Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, has decided to join his fellow African leaders on the homophobia-gets-votes campaign.

Invoking a non-existent law, Raila said that gay couples should be arrested as the “behaviour” is “unnatural.” As reported in the Sunday Nation:

“If found the homosexuals should be arrested and taken to relevant authorities,” Mr Odinga said.

The PM thrilled the crowd when he asserted that the recent census showed there were more women than men and there was no need for same sex relationships.

He said it was madness for a man to fall in love with another man while there were plenty of women and added that there was no need for women to engage in lesbianism yet they can bear children.

These statements matter. Not only because Raila is the prime minister, but also because they invoke longstanding and still unfolding histories about gender and sexuality.

Embedded within local and translocal paradigms, national and transnational ones, they register not only a politically expedient homophobia, but also a homophobia sanctioned by Kenyan lawmakers and UN bodies. It is no coincidence that Raila issues these statements after the UN fails to recognize anti-gay violence as violence.

But I get ahead of myself.

Raila offers an instance of what I have taken to calling hetero-nationalism: the suturing of hetero-reproductivity to national(ist) duty. At its most basic, hetero-nationalism argues that hetero-reproduction is a national duty. To privilege duty, it abolishes desire. Within a hetero-nationalist framework, it does not matter how one feels or what one desires. Duty always trumps desire.

For Raila, women are baby-making factories. It is their role. It is their duty. Whether or not they want to. Similarly, men are baby-injecting machines. It is their role. It is their duty. Whether or not they want to.

As a side note, as someone who studies the black diaspora, the thought of women being required to produce babies and men being required to impregnate women is beyond repugnant.

But this sense of duty trumping desire runs through the archives of the black diaspora and of African nationalism—one can trace an uneven line from Blyden to Kenyatta to Mbiti and now to Raila, though there are other steps along the way. From anti-racist pro-imperialism (Blyden) to anti-colonial ethno-nationalist (Kenyatta) to Christian pan-Africanism (Mbiti) to whatever it is Raila thinks he’s doing.

Yet, Raila acts in the shadow of two powerful organizations. The African Union, which has remained silent over sexual orientation issues, essentially allowing member states to pursue their own policies, and the UN, which, in vote after vote, has been unable to agree that sexual and gender minorities have rights and require protection, recent gains notwithstanding. It does not help, of course, that many of the nations “supporting” such rights have contradictory domestic policies—U.S., I am looking at you.

In pointing to longer and more recent histories of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, nationalism, pan-Africanism, and universality, I want to emphasize that Raila’s statements inhabit a rich historical matrix. In so doing, I hope to avoid the truncated reading that his statements demonstrate his own homophobia. They may. But that is ancillary to the broader argument about the histories that converge in what he says.

More locally, at a moment when Kenya is struggling to develop strategies to apprehend and try those responsible for inciting ethnic-based violence, it is surprising that Raila feels emboldened to incite gender- and sexuality-based violence. In a country where “policing” is often understood as a community affair, the call to “arrest” gay couples licenses discrimination and violence. Raila might as well have signed death warrants—metaphorically and literally.

Even more troubling, the prime minister of Kenya has implicitly suggested that there are different standards for citizenship, and that sexuality is one of those standards. Good Kenyans embrace hetero-nationalism, their bodies bound to serve the nation. They are ready to perform their hetero-reproductive duties. Homosexuals, on the other hand, cannot qualify for full or proper citizenship. They are criminals, because their fail to fulfill their hetero-reproductive duties.

Ironically, Raila made his statements while boasting that Kenya has “the most progressive constitution in the world.” A constitution that LGBTI activists have suggested may provide room for rights to be negotiated and recognized. I am wary about this (cruel) optimism, even as I continue to learn from Lauren Berlant that all optimism might be cruel.

We need to be clear about what is at stake here: it is irrelevant whether or not one cares about homosexuals and homosexuality.

We should all care about extra-constitutional definitions of citizenship. We should all care about the claims governments can impose on our bodies and our lives. We should all care about our rights and duties as citizens. We should all care when any of our elected officials incite violence against fellow citizens.

If we cannot care about any of these, we have already lost whatever it is we claim to have been working toward.

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