Re-thinking “African Homophobia”

a note on this writing

I started thinking about prison homosexuality around 2010. I had been familiar with Dennis Brutus’s work since the 1990s, but it was encountering Maina wa Kinyatti’s book during a 2008 trip to Kenya that led me to explore how prisons feature in African homo-imaginations. I first presented this work at the University of Maryland around 2011, I think. And then, subsequently, at two conferences. Two efforts to publish it failed, because, well, that happens. And then a collaborator plagiarized my frames and published on Kenyan prison homosexuality. Shit happens. I’m opting to post this very long version here, unrevised from 2016, because, why not? It was one attempt to think African sexualities based on texts written by Africans.

Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ’s Kenya: A Prison Notebook opens on a chilling scene:

The conditions that prisoners in Kenya endure are extremely barbaric. Every morning at 5 a.m., male prisoners are ordered out of the cells stark naked for internal body searches. The guards search their mouths and armpits, ears and nostrils. They pull, twist, and squeeze their genitals. They order the prisoners to face the walls with their legs spread apart to examine their anuses for concealed weapons, money and other contraband. They use sharp sticks to probe the prisoners’ rectums. In a sense, the guards are more interested in prisoners’ buttocks than in the search. They make sexual remarks: “Look at this one, his buttocks are two mountains, it is difficult to mount him . . . and look at this one, his arsehole is shaped like a woman’s cunt . . . This one has a soft arse like his mother . . .” This monstrous drama is repeated every morning. It is a humiliating and degrading experience. (Kenya: A Prison Notebook, i)

In beginning with this scene, Kĩnyattĩ, a renowned political historian and activist, weds political repression to sexual humiliation, a trope common in prison writing. While the guards emphasize their power over the prisoners by probing them with “sticks,” simulating anal rape, Kĩnyattĩ attempts to undermine the guards’ authority by implying they are driven by homosexual desire: prisoners may be sexually humiliated but the guards’ desire is contemptible. Kĩnyattĩ demonstrates the vexed position of homosexual desires and practices in Kenyan prisons. Those subjected to such acts may be emasculated, but those who desire to perform such acts are morally and ideologically suspect. Kĩnyattĩ’s evaluation that these practices are “humiliating and degrading” applies as much to the guards as it does to the prisoners.

Until recently scholars have not considered the prison a significant site for investigating histories and theories of homophobia and homosexuality. In his foundational scholarship, leading sex researcher Havelock Ellis claims, “we have recognized that there is a tendency for homosexuality to arise in persons of normal tendency who are placed under conditions (as on board ship or in prison) where the exercise of normal sexuality is impossible” (Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion, 83) In claiming that the “exercise of normal sexuality” can only take place under conditions of freedom, Ellis tethers freedom to gendered binaries: a free situation must include men and women. Implicitly, he argues that “the exercise of normal sexuality” is determined by the spatio-temporal conditions of what Jack Halberstam describes as “generational time”: “those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (In a Queer Time and Place, 5, 2). The freedom to choose, one denied to prisoners, is as much about the space they inhabit as the time they fail to inhabit, one governed by the norms of hetero-reproductive imperatives.

Because the markers we use to measure time—kinship lineages, the transfer of property across generations, cultural shifts related to the movement of capital across space, migration as settlement rather than transience, social revolutions that change norms—are absent from prisons, prisons practices, especially those around gender and sexuality, “can seem peculiarly, even obstinately, ahistorical” (Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy, 4). However, scholarship by South African activist Zackie Achmat and U.S. historian Regina Kunzel has urged us to examine how prisons produce and distribute sexual cultures. Instead of depicting prison intimacies as ahistorical scenes of humiliation, Achmat draws on autobiography, history, and ethnography to argue that same-sex intimacies between prisoners in South Africa build and sustain affective and political communities. Achmat describes how in the late 1970s imprisoned members of the “28 Gang” compelled members to “reject their religious and ethnic ties” and to build new modes of affiliation; same-sex intimacies were central to this endeavor. Members of the “28 Gang” understood their practices of pleasure as forms of resistance to apartheid-era structures (“Apostles of Civilized Vice,” 92-95). Whereas Achmat reclaims prison intimacies for anti-apartheid and, more broadly, African liberation struggles, Kunzel reclaims prisons for queer history and analysis. She writes, “prison sexualities refuse normative categories—of heterosexuality, certainly, but of homosexuality as well.” Consequently, prisons “unsettle notions of ‘true’ sexuality in all its forms” (Criminal Intimacy, 8) Instead of considering prison an exceptional space removed from what Ellis would term “normal” life, Kunzel foregrounds prison as a porous space: concepts and practices of intimacy circulate in and out of the prison, providing affective, ideological, and material strategies for understanding intimate relations among prison and non-prison populations. This article builds on Achmat’s and Kunzel’s scholarship to consider how African prison writing provides an archive for tracing genealogies of African homophobia and African homosexuality. I turn to prison writing because within post-independent Africa the prison has been a privileged site in producing knowledge of and affect around male same-sex intimacies, and prison narratives contain the most extensive archive on male same-sex intimacies.

Scholarship on queer African has privileged the 1990s as the period that deepened the cleavage between an ostensibly homophilic and homophobic Africa. In 1995, Robert Mugabe banned the activist organization Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) from participating in the Harare book fair, describing gays and lesbians as “sodomists” and “sexual perverts.” This moment has been taken to inaugurate modern political homophobia (Hoad, 2007; Currier, 2010; Livermon, 2012). Mugabe’s comments are often paired with similar ones by Kenya’s then-president Daniel arap Moi and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. Thus, homophobia is conveniently wed to political repression. This relationship between political repression and homophobia is further emphasized when an ostensibly homophilic South Africa is introduced into the mix. South Africa’s 1996 Constitution was the first in Africa—and the world—to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As Brenna Munro argues, the figure of the liberated gay came to incarnate South Africa’s progressive politics (Dream of Love, vii-ix). Recent attempts to pass anti-homosexual bills in Nigeria and Uganda and the passage of a marriage bill in Kenya that restricts marriage to heterosexuals have only further consolidated this divide between a homophobic and a homophilic Africa. I would like to complicate this alignment between political repression and homophobia by examining how progressive African activists deploy homophobia within liberation narratives.

I trace homo-themed discourses within African-authored, post-independent-era prison narratives from the early 1960s through the early 1990s to offer a longer genealogy for what Tom Boellstorff and Ashley Currier have, separately, termed “political homophobia.” I am interested in how African-authored works that emerge from struggles against authoritarian rule—be that apartheid in South Africa or tyranny in Moi-era Kenya—frame same-sex intimacies not only within the nationalist projects associated with anti-colonial activism, but, more broadly, within pan-African struggles toward liberation. I examine how discourses on homophobia and homosexuality become African, and not simply ethnic, regional, or national, even as they are routed through local paradigms. While indebted to Gaurav Desai’s recommendation that research on African same-sex practices should be rooted in local specificities of ethnicity and region, this specificity always exists in a complex dialectic with the trans-ethnic and trans-regional. Thus, we cannot speak of, say, a Gikuyu sexuality that is not already in conversation or tension with a Kiswahili or Maasai one, or even a Kenyan sexuality that is distinct from one in Nigeria or Malawi. Though I focus on South Africa and Kenya, I will be suggesting that the transnational circuit of texts within Africa, enabled by pan-African and pan-liberationist discourses, and increasingly by vibrant, transnational LGBTI organizations, has helped to invent a contemporary idea of Africa that is subtended by discourses of sexuality. As Hoad argues, “homosexuality” is “one of the many imaginary contents, fantasies, or significations . . . that circulate in the production of African sovereignties and identities in their representation by Africans and others” (African Intimacies, xvi). I extend his insight by tracking the national and transnational circulation of homo discourses within African prison narratives. Given the absence of pro-queer African-authored narratives about same-sex activity from the 1950s through the 1980s, prison narratives have dominated African imaginaries on homophobia and homosexuality.

My argument unfolds in separate stages. Following a very brief description about the political and social importance of African prison narratives, I turn to South African Dennis Brutus’s sequence of poems “Letters to Martha.” While not the first prison narrative to emerge from Africa, it is the most explicit about homo-sex acts within prisons. Brutus’s status as a political prisoner in apartheid-era South Africa authorizes his text, which circulated widely, to create a relationship between prison homo-sex and political repression. From South Africa, I return to Kĩnyattĩ’s Kenya-based narrative. Set in the early-to-mid 1980s, Kĩnyattĩ’s narrative embeds knowledge about same-sex acts within the context of neo-colonial oppression. His narrative extends Brutus’s claim that same-sex prison acts are complicit in retarding African political progress and also offers an extended look at prison ecology. Combined, Brutus and Kĩnyattĩ elaborate a vocabulary that frames homosexuality in relation to progressive African politics. Finally, I turn from political prisoners to a common-law prisoner, John Kiriamiti, a popular Kenyan writer. Focusing on his autobiographical narrative, My Life in Prison, I detail how his work intersects with those by political prisoners, and also track his unique take on how same-sex desire emerges and circulates, paying especial attention to the ambivalence that marks his text. In turning from the overtly political to the popular, I hope to elaborate the porousness between these two genres and to suggest how discourses of homophobia move across genres and spaces, shaping affective reactions across diverse populations, including political radicals, intellectuals, and readers of popular novels. I do not provide a full accounting of African homophobia, a task that would be impossible. Rather, I highlight the prison as a vitally important space in the creation and circulation of homo-related discourses in Africa.

Creating An African Prison Grammar

Prisons in Africa are a colonial-era invention. While spaces of confinement had been part of Europe’s initial encounters with Africa, especially in the form of slave-holding fortresses, colonialism sutured the relation between punitive confinement and criminality. Most significantly for my argument, prisons were used to quell political resistance and, in turn, became schools for anti-colonial, nationalist thought and action. From the end of World War II through the late 1960s, imprisoned figures including Jomo Kenyatta, Kenneth Kaunda, and Kwame Nkrumah became nodal points around whom anti-colonial sentiments clustered and intensified. Their imprisonments played a central role in the stories they told about themselves and their emerging nations, in autobiographies such as Nkrumah’s Ghana (1957) and Kaunda’s Zambia Shall be Free (1962). Imprisonment also authorized earlier writing. For instance, Kenyatta’s ethnography Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu, first published in 1938, was republished in 1952 when he was tried and detained by the British for his anti-colonial activism. At this moment, Kenyatta’s ethno-regional work on the Gikuyu entered Kenyan—and world—history as an ethno-nationalist text: a Kenyan story framed through the Gikuyu. This point is especially significant for a history of Kenyan homosexuality as Kenyatta argues homosexuality did not exist among the Gikuyu, a statement routinely invoked by Kenyan conservatives to dismiss the existence of homosexuality in Kenya and Africa. 

Whereas Kenyatta erases homosexuality from pre-colonial Kenya, Kaunda dismisses homosexuals from anti-colonial efforts within a newly available space of African letters: Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS). Started in 1962, under the general editorship of Chinua Achebe, AWS quickly became the most important venue for publishing and disseminating African writing within the continent. Heinemann established offices in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, and a transnational canon begin to take shape. Writing on the founding of the series, James Currey notes its editors’ ambitions: “they wanted students in African schools and universities to be able to read imaginative works by Africans; and they were determined to introduce African writers to an international literary audience” (Africa Writes Back, xv). The African Writers Series “invented” African literature and hailed into being the literate, modern post-independent African. Kaunda’s Zambia Shall be Free was published in the series in the same year as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and while the latter has become the metonym for African literature and Kaunda’s book is out of print, I invoke this pairing to suggest the weight Kaunda’s book assumed. This weight is reflected, in part, by the success of Kaunda’s book, which, according to Currey, was an “outstanding seller with sales in its first 20 years of over 500,000 copies” (Africa Writes Back, 252) Whereas Achebe’s work described the imposition of colonial rule, Kaunda’s anticipated post-colonial freedom. Combined, the books created a narrative arc that moved from colonialism to independence.

Kaunda was arrested for his anticolonial activism in March 1959 and was released the following January. Strictly speaking, his book is not a prison narrative as the experience he describes takes place in one brief chapter. However, he sets up key distinctions that subsequent prison narratives replicate. The chief distinction is between political prisoners and what he describes as “incorrigible criminals”: “I cannot understand any reason why political prisoners should be made to mix with incorrigible prisoners,” because “[g]oing to prison for one’s convictions means going there for a purpose” Zambia Shall be Free, 133). “Incorrigible prisoners” lack purpose. Framed within Kaunda’s own anti-colonial activism, incorrigible prisoners are indifferent or inimical to liberation struggles. And this indifference (or hostility) is demonstrated, most vividly, through their sexual practices. Kaunda offers an extended description of the prison’s sexual ecology:

I have said that prison is the headquarters of the underworld. During the few months I was in Salisbury Prison, I had the terrible experience of seeing young boys of between fifteen and twenty come in as first offenders for a few weeks and by the time they went out they had graduated so well they came back a few days after their first release for longer periods. How did this happen? When these poor boys come in for the first time they are so scared they respond very quickly to anyone offering them protection and in many cases they will need it. But then those who offer them this protection do so with terrible motives. If a boy tries to resist, the so-called protector arranges with others to thrash him so that by coming to the boy’s protection at the right moment he will submit to his unnatural desires. . . . From this time, the boy is treated like a ‘housewife.’ (133)

While the terms “homosexual” or “sodomy” occur nowhere in this passage, the figure of the homosexual takes shape within anti-colonial activism and African politics more broadly. “Unnatural desires” and the gender-confounding practices they spawn—where “boys” are transformed into “housewives”—become the mark of “the underworld” and “incorrigible” prisoners. Whereas political prisoners seek to recruit members to build a nation, “incorrigible” prisoners seek to seduce “boys” for gender-confounding practices in the “underworld.” Political prisoners embody stable hetero-masculinity, which is central to anti-colonial activism, and “incorrigible” prisoners incarnate gender confusion and criminal indifference to liberatory politics.

More troubling for Kaunda, the anti-liberatory recruitment practices of the “underworld” succeed by implanting “unnatural desires” in “young boys,” whose rates of recidivism are as much about their desires to be part of an organized underworld as they are about desiring gender-confounding roles and, implicitly, prison homo-sex. The criminal underworld thus becomes an apolitical, if not anti-political, prison space, whose chief feature is its cultivation of unnatural gender and sexual practices. Although Kaunda’s use of the term “unnatural” gestures toward religious and medical frameworks, he embeds the term within an anti-colonial paradigm, where it assumes new importance within African letters and, more broadly, African politics. That is, Kaunda makes “unnatural desires,” understood as sodomy or homosexuality, legible within a broadly shared African political project. The unnamed sodomite opposes African anti-colonial activism.

In the post-independence period, prisons continued to be associated with political radicalism, now directed against South Africa’s apartheid regime and also against increasingly autocratic African regimes. As in the colonial period, those associated with prisons—Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, Jack Mapanje in Malawi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Kenya, Nawaal El Saadawi in Egypt—acquired a symbolic and material political force. Simultaneously, during this period, homophobia and homosexuality became objects of representation in African literature in works including Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965) and Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence (1968). By far the most significant representation of homosexuality was in Dennis Brutus’s “Letters to Martha” (1968), a sequence of 18 poems dedicated to his sister in law that documented his experiences on South Africa’s Robben Island. Brutus was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 months in 1962 for breaking a ban that forbade him from writing. While there, he shared a cell next to Mandela. Following this experience, he published Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison. “Letters to Martha” is an intimate portrait of prison life, detailing its affective and intellectual privations as well as its material and ideological violence, and it has had a significant influence on subsequent South African and, arguably, African prison writing. According to Munro, Brutus’s work is “foundational” in mapping the relationship between South African prison writing and same-sex acts.

Brutus’s “Letters to Martha” enters African—and global—letters at the confluence of publishing and political networks. His first collection of poems, Sirens Knuckles Boots (1963), was published in Nigeria by Mbari Publications, an indigenous firm that also published Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo. This earlier publication helped to establish him within a transnational network of African writers. Subsequently, Letters to Martha appeared in the African Writers Series and received further publicity through Brutus’s global activism. James Currey offers a brief glimpse of this period: “By the time of the publication of Letters to Martha in 1968 [Brutus] had been active in setting up SAN-ROC (the South African Non-Racial Open Committee for Olympic Sports]. He was already jetting around the globe pursing the cause of non-racial sport and wowing them with his poetry about Robben Island.” Excerpts from “Letters to Martha” appeared in anthologies of African poetry—where I first encountered the poem—that were marketed to African secondary schools. “Letters to Martha” traveled across Africa and the globe, within international anti-racist contexts and in African schools, helping to create a shared socio-political framework.

Although homosexuality had been treated in African literature prior to “Letters to Martha,” Brutus weds political repression to homosexuality and highlights the prison as the space within which this perverse ritual takes place. Whereas Kaunda had linked homo-sex practices to a criminal underworld indifferent to politics, especially by distinguishing between political and apolitical prisoners, Brutus does not assume an a priori distinction between the two groups. Rather, as I will demonstrate, he explores how political hetero-masculinity emerges from within the space of the prison through one’s relationship to homo-sex. “Letters to Martha” can be read as a training manual that teaches political prisoners their affective potential and grounds their self-affirmation in resisting the perversion-creating space of prison, be that perversion indulgence in imagined pornography or submission to coercive and seductive sodomy.

Throughout the poem sequence, Brutus traces the psycho-social effects of imprisonment, how it shapes prisoners, directs their desires, and impinges on their imaginations. He is especially attentive to the growth and proliferation of what he describes as “love, strange love.” Poem 3 in the sequence asks,

why did this man stab this man for that man?
what was the nature of the emotion?
and how did it grow?
was this the reason for a warden’s unmotivated senseless brutality?
by what shrewdness was it instigated?
 . . . can it – strange, most strange – be love, strange love?
and from what human hunger was it born?

The speaker in this poem veers between reason and passion as he struggles to explain activity within the prison. The simple “why” that opens this section, one that presumes a logical answer might be possible, quickly gives way to a musing on “emotion,” a quality understood to be organic and temporal, as something that grows. Although Brutus echoes earlier sexological discourses that demarcated between congenital and situational homosexuality, he also confounds the distinction by using an organic metaphor. The poem imagines prison-based desires, passions, and intimacies as weeds, nascent in all humans and ready to flourish under the right circumstances. Prison becomes the garden that feeds “strange love” and elicits unfathomable “human hunger.” In turning to this weed metaphor, Brutus makes explicit what Kaunda had implied: the taste for homo-sex lay nascent within all male prisoners. Simultaneously, Brutus, like Kĩnyattĩ, indicates that libidinal desires flow in multiple directions, between prisoners, between guards and prisoners, and, possibly, between guards themselves. South Africa’s apartheid regime used “homosexual rape to terrorise political opponents” (GALZ 83). While implicitly acknowledging this violent use of homosexual rape, Brutus offers a far more nuanced image of the unpredictability of libidinal desire and sexual attachment. Even wardens can become sexually attracted to prisoners and act from jealousy.

Prison cultivates polymorphous perversity, fracturing the lines between pleasure and pain, kink and non-kink. Prison “love” is “strange love,” haunted by “whispers of horrors / that people the labyrinth of self.” These horrors include “Coprophilism; necrophilism; fellatio; / penis amputation,” all of which Brutus understands as intimately linked to “suicide, self-damnation” (6). Unlike forms of normal love, practices of “strange love” privilege the death-drive, an argument Brutus suggests through juxtaposition. In his syntax, “fellatio” sits between “necrophilism” and “penis amputation,” proximity to the undead and to un-manning. For Brutus, these life-destroying, death-affirming practices oppose the anti-apartheid, pro-democracy movement within which he strives. These sexual practices are unethical to the extent that they can have no political life, and retreat to an apolitical narcissism: one is engaged in eating one’s own shit, forgetting, in the process, the histories that produce that shit.

While the threat of prison rape is ever-present, sodomy in prison is more ideologically dangerous because it functions as a form of currency, allowing one to express desire, manage libidinal urges, and receive material goods. Sodomy straddles the twin economies of coercion and seduction, and inmates develop different strategies to manage these economies. In the sixth poem of the sequence, Brutus writes about “two men” with “enormously different” reactions to the threat and seduction of sodomy:

One simply gave up smoking
knowing he could be bribed
and hedged his mind with fantasies 
of beautiful marriageable girls. (7)

Fantasy becomes an escape from the corrupt materiality of coprophilia, necrophilia, and fellatio. Not simply the fantasy of heterosexual sex, but of heterosexual marriage. Heterosexual fantasy is not allowed to be pornographic; it must be rooted in the promise of marriage and futurity. A pornographic imagination might weaken one, leading one to seek sensation however it might happen. Fantasies of marriage ostensibly prevent this prisoner from embarking on the slippery slope of sensation.

As for the other prisoner, he cannot sustain the fantasy life of hetero-masculinity and, instead, seeks “escape / in fainting fits and asthmas,” finally fleeing “into insanity” (17). “Fainting fits” and “asthmas” conjures a range of “feminine,” sentimental and hysterical characters who suffer shock and swoon at the slightest provocation. Crucially, this “escape” into the “feminine,” this embrace of what sexologists labeled inversion, is understood as an escape from the demands of sodomy. One might be feminized by the space of prison, but one need not accede to the demands of sodomy. In fact, the escape into insanity might be considered a strategy of survival under the most desperate conditions.

These two early examples help to establish Brutus’s own normalcy, one rooted in the hetero-masculinity that the letters themselves perform, and one that, importantly, establishes a foundation for how to think about politically efficacious masculinity. In a trope available in Kaunda’s earlier work and that will recur in prison writing across Africa, Brutus weds sexual normativity to political masculinity. His rendering of other prisoners’ psychopathologies—the retreats into fantasy and escapes into insanity—position him as the ideal resistant prisoner, one who knows how to resist the coercions and seductions of the prison.

Brutus secures his affective normativity by describing, and implicitly distancing himself from, forms of affective complicity and failure, and nowhere as powerfully as in poem 7. I cite the first two stanzas:

Perhaps most terrible are those who beg for it,
Who beg for sexual assault
To what desperate limits are they driven
And what fierce agonies they have endured
That this, which they have resisted
Should seem to them preferable,
Even desirable. (8)

While the concept of resistance runs through the six poems prior to this one, it is here that the word “resisted” first appears, and while it appears to relate solely to sexual assault, it takes on a broader metonymic significance. Acceding to sodomy, which Brutus conflates with sexual assault, means that one’s resistance is gone. Sodomy breaks one: it is the ultimate act of submission and, thus, the negation of politically efficacious masculinity.

Brutus’s poems derive their power from being embedded within two existing discourses in Africa. Published during the era of so-called disillusionment literature that registered disappointment in post-independence governance and critiqued neo-colonial structures, Brutus’s aligning of “active” homosexuals with oppressive forces wed homosexuality to political repression. Given that his work was one of the few in an emerging body of African literature to discuss homosexuality, it acquired a metonymic authority, and the image of the homosexual as a politically oppressive force inimical to the goals of democracy continued to proliferate in African literature. For instance, Kenya’s Wahome Mutahi, a popular political satirist, represents political imprisonment as a rape by a Korean homosexual midget in the semi-autobiographical Three Days on the Cross, a fictionalized account of his encounters with Kenya’s repressive police force. The entire scene is worth reading:

Another nightmare would follow. A Korean homosexual midget was raping him. The man had walked through the wall and he stood there stroking his goatee. And there he was shrunk with fright . . . the Korean came closer, his eyes becoming more and more bloodshot . . . his face became menacing . . . other midgets, both male and female appeared . . . they began to make perverted love . . . Nakaru was powerless . . . the Korean was approaching . . . he started stroking him . . . Nakaru could not move his hands . . . he heard the Korean howl with laughter and excitement as he reached orgasm . . . Nakaru cried with anger, shame and pain . . . he woke up from the dream and saw that he was still in the cell.

In this scene, Mutahi satirizes the neo-colonial Kenyan state as a foreign imposition, grotesque in its appetites and practices. Strikingly, the repressive neo-colonial state is figured as homosexual, monstrous not only because it tortures prisoners by eliciting pain, but also because it provides unwanted pleasure: the prisoner Nakaru laments his loss of control, regrets his body’s betrayal as it achieves “orgasm.” Unlike the economy Brutus suggests that maps itself too neatly into either coercion or seduction, this dreamscape opens other possibilities: one’s psyche contemplates what one’s conscious mind disavows. While Nakaru rejects the state’s coercion, his psychic life betrays him.

Mutahi crystallizes the gestures Brutus had suggested, making explicit the foreignness of homosexuality, a “strange” growth in Brutus now rendered as exotically foreign, and emphasizing homosexuality’s complicity in repressive forms of governance. No longer simply physical, homosexuality in Mutahi’s rendering is a psychic mode of oppression, the nightmare that unmans political masculinity. If Brutus condemns those who participate in homosexuality, Mutahi chides those who fantasize about homosexual encounters. In doing so, they reveal their imprisonment within neo-colonial structures of oppression. Until his death in 2003, Mutahi was Kenya’s leading satirist and the author of a beloved newspaper column. A playwright and novelist, Mutahi’s work bridged the divide between popular writing and political critique. In representing homosexuality as grotesque and politically dangerous in Three Days on the Cross, Mutahi extends Brutus’s political critique into popular fiction, demonstrating how prison discourses on homosexuality by political prisoners impress themselves on the world outside of prison.

Post-Independence Repression: The Case of Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ 

In this section I return to Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ, the scholar and activist at the opening of this article. A historian by training, and a specialist in the Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau), Kĩnyattĩ was a founding member of the leftist group, the December Twelfth Movement, an underground resistance movement formed in the 1970s. At its founding, members consisted primarily of intellectuals, including university professors and students, and membership was an exclusive, secretive affair. The movement’s name changed in 1985 to Muungano wa Wazalendo wa Kuikomboa Kenya (Organization of Patriots to Redeem Kenya) Mwakenya (Kĩnyattĩ, 169). In June 1982, Kĩnyattĩ was arrested by the Kenyan police and subsequently charged with undermining the government. Following a prolonged detention at the Nairobi Remand Prison, during which time he was tortured, he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to six years in prison with hard labor at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.

Kĩnyattĩ’s prison diary is unique in Kenyan writing because it focuses on prison as a libidinal space whose privations are chiefly erotic. Throughout the narrative, he reflects on the absence of sex, as seen in the following diary extracts:

Sunday 8 [August 1982]: Despite these horrible conditions, my sexual desire continues to rise. I don’t know what to do. (30)
Thursday 21 [September 1982]: Hunger for sex . . . I spent the whole day thinking of sex. (41)
Saturday 27 [October 1984]: No woman. No sex. As months develop into years, the desire for sex becomes almost unendurable. The deprivation of sex, of a woman’s love, becomes the greatest sense of torment, next to the everpresent, anguished longing for freedom. (94)
Saturday 4 [January 1986]: Perhaps the most painful part of our incarceration is the denial of sex. The burning desire for sex keeps the majority of captives awake all night. (158)

Kĩnyattĩ believes that political prisoners must practice a form of self-discipline, what Foucault termed ascesis, to maintain their political heteromasculinity. Sexual discipline formed a part of Kenya’s anti-colonial movement; as a historian of that movement, Kĩnyattĩ embraces its tenets.

In ‘Mau Mau’ Detainee, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, a former member of the Mau Mau who became one of Kenya’s most beloved politicians, emphasizes the relationship between sexual practices and political masculinity. Early in his narrative, he records a secret oathing ceremony to join Mau Mau in which he pledges, “I shall never take away the woman of another man” and “I shall never walk with prostitutes” (57). Whereas the first pledge ensures homosocial bonding within a nationalist, anti-colonial movement, the second imposes a sexual discipline supposed to protect health, as prostitutes were associated with venereal disease. Soon after taking this oath, Kariuki is arrested by the colonial government and is confined to a series of detention camps: first at Kowop, near Lake Turkana in north western Kenya; then, via Langata in Nairobi, to Manyani, at Kenya’s Coast; then from Manyani to South Yatta, close to Thika in central Kenya; then from South Yatta to Saiyusi Island, close to Kisumu in western Kenya; and from Saiyusi Island to Athi River camps, in Kenya’s south east. These are not simply geographical movements; more crucially, they are networks through which ideas and practices circulate. As Kariuki moves across Kenya as a prisoner, he spreads ideas about political masculinity and anti-colonial resistance.

As he moves through various detention camps, Kariuki continues to embrace sexual temperance as a foundation for politically efficacious masculinity. Along with fellow prisoners who are designated “hard-core” because they refuse to negotiate with the colonial government, Kariuki abstains from mixing with local women: “Anyone who was found even talking words of love to a girl was sentenced by us as if his intention had been carried out. People were punished by being compelled to walk on their knees many times up and down the on the concrete floor of the hut” (112-113). Prostitutes are considered especially dangerous, as the colonial government can use them to soften prisoners: 

Prostitutes were brought into the camp to speak words of love and to dangle their legs before the detainees to remind them of some of the things they were missing . . . but such devices could never move the true nationalist. We say that the love of a woman cannot be compared with the love for one’s country: they are as different as earth and heaven. (159; my emphasis)

Curiously, this passage conflates prostitution and love, commercial sex and affectionate attachment, refusing to distinguish between prostitutes and lovers, prostitutes and girlfriends, prostitutes and wives. All women are rendered suspect and, if not suspect, subordinate to the claims of nation. The “true nationalist” will always choose “country” over “the love of a woman.” Sexual abstinence is the mark of the true nationalist.

Because Kariuki places such a high premium on sexual abstinence, he condemns prison homosexuality, and ejects those who participate in it from nationalist politics and political masculinity. Prison homosexuals have no place in nationalist endeavors; in fact, true nationalists distinguish themselves from prison homosexuals:

[‘Mau Mau convicts] had formed a separate group from the mahuru kanga, who were the ordinary criminals, thieves, and pickpockets and so on. Mahuru is the word for carrion crows and they were given this name because they could steal and quarrel, fight and commit sodomy with each other: they had no discipline and they were like the vultures who have no shame and eat the filth and the garbage and the flesh of dead things. The ‘Mau Mau’ convicts were a tight society, with high moral standards and stern discipline. (172)

Dedicated to a higher cause, political prisoners are distinguished from “petty criminals,” a distinction between those who seek to build a nation and those who are indifferent to nationalism. The implicit opposition is economic: nationalists want to give something to Kenya while “petty criminals,” incarnated as “thieves” and “pickpockets,” want to take something away: like colonialists, petty criminals extract value from Kenya. While political prisoners fight for rights and dignity, petty criminals scavenge like “carrion crows” and “vultures,” indifferent to the greater human struggle for freedom. Granted, Kariuki is describing “petty criminals,” and “sodomy” is only one of the acts they perform, not the main one, but the images of scavenging and rooting in “filth” invoke homophobic descriptions of same-sex practices. For Kariuki, sodomy is a practice associated with “petty criminals,” not true nationalists.

As Marshall S. Clough notes, ‘Mau Mau’ Detainee aimed to rehabilitate dominant images of Kenya’s guerilla army by transforming them from thugs and terrorists to freedom fighters. This rehabilitative project assumed a normative and disciplinary imperative:  Kariuki not only changed the image of the Mau Mau, but he also distinguished between true nationalists who embodied political masculinity and those who failed to meet the standards of political masculinity. Most tellingly, he sympathizes with African colonial guards, those who watched over political prisoners, arguing that he understands their labor and their principles. These men are also acting politically, acting, that is, as men. Notably, “petty criminals” do not receive any sympathy. They are excluded from the political, from the national, understood as blights. Arguably, when it comes to Kenyans in the text, the opposition is not between those who resisted colonialism and those who collaborated; instead, it is between the political and the apolitical, those who embrace political masculinity and those indifferent to it, between political masculinity and apolitical queerness. In Kariuki’s telling, those who participate in prison sodomy have no place in Kenya’s political imagination.

Building on and departing from Kariuki, Kĩnyattĩ outlines the libidinal economy of imprisonment, mapping its privations and depredations, and insisting, unlike Kariuki, that prison-enforced abstinence constitutes torture. He writes, “one of the most terrible things I suffer from, in prison, is the deprivation of sex,” adding, “Without sex, a penis loses its significance as an expression of love. It becomes like any other limb of the body. Its only function is to expel the body’s impurities” (107); “Perhaps the most painful part of incarceration is the denial of sex” (158). He refuses, also, to participate in the “only two sexual outlets” available, “masturbation and anal sex,” because he is determined to “protect” his “dignity as a political prisoner” (30). Implicitly, those who engage in “sex” in prison, whether through masturbation or anal sex, have no claims to political masculinity, and this point is most explicit in Kĩnyattĩ’s discussion of the “prisoner trusty.” The prisoner trusty is the  “most privileged prisoner”: he sleeps on a proper bed, as opposed to the floor other prisoners use; wears a clean uniform in contrast to the flea-ridden, torn rags issued to others; eats properly cooked food, unlike the half-cooked, contaminated food given to others, often filled with sand and other irritants; and is spared “brutal searches” and “beatings.” This prisoner, who sides with the prison authorities against other prisoners, “barter[s] food for anal sex” (55, 270). Kĩnyattĩ figures this prisoner trusty as a traitor to other prisoners, aligning him with Kenyans who collaborated with the British army to subdue anti-colonial efforts.

Kĩnyattĩ opposes the prison barter system, food and care for sex, because he envisions prison as a space for revolutionary pedagogy. When young university students are arrested following a failed coup attempt in August 1982, Kĩnyattĩ notes that they are “innocent” and have a “very basic” political understanding. Prison, however, will educate them: “[P]rison is a formidable school. It will harden their minds and make them better Kenyans. The dictatorship is not aware that from behind these mountain high walls will come impassioned revolutionaries, patriotic writers and committed historians” (39). A fellow political prisoner tells him, “Tũgũtua njeera ici thukuru cia ũteti na iharo cia mbaara ya wĩyathi [we will make these prisons political schools and battlefields for our freedom]” (25). Later, when he is transferred to Kamiti prison, interred with a range of prisoners, many of whom are not political, he tries to cultivate the political potential of prison inmates. Recognizing that some are jailed for “heinous crimes” and others “for crimes of ignorance and poverty,” he envisions training “the best cadres for the underground movement” and dedicates his “jail term to rais[ing] their political consciousness” (54). “Prison,” writes Kĩnyattĩ, “is a formidable school for revolutionaries. It hardens one’s courage and deepens intellectual discipline and commitment” (63).

While in Kamiti, Kĩnyattĩ forms a political alliance with two young prisoners, radicalized university students, and they establish a pact that opposes political heteromasculinity and prison homosociality to prison homosexuality. They vow to “instill political consciousness” in fellow prisoners and guards; to establish ongoing relationships with international human rights groups; to keep written records of their incarceration, with the aim of future publication; and to remain uncompromising in their political stance. They also agree not to “take part in sodomy” (62). If homosociality is defined by its dangerous proximity to homosexuality, this agreement between these men, and Kĩnyattĩ’s decision to record it, registers anxiety about the bonds formed between men in prison. In declaring their opposition to sodomy, these men attempt to distance their forms of intimacy from those practiced by prison sodomites. Simultaneously, they align themselves with heteromasculinist nationalist practices that understand the heteronormative family as the foundation and goal of political labor. 

For Kĩnyattĩ, sodomy is a metonym for political cowardice and collaboration with oppressive forces. In one revealing moment, he claims that were he to go against his “conscience,” “The police would have taken me to State House, fed me with milk and honey, and allowed me to sleep in the same bed with the dictator” (46). This metaphor of sharing the dictator’s bed clusters around the idea of sodomy: political betrayal is akin to engaging in sodomy with the government. In fact, Achille Mbembe has argued that the excesses of postcolonial dictators can be understood through sodomy metaphors. Commenting on images of vulgarity associated with colonial and neo-colonial governmentality, Mbembe argues, “the commandement [colonial and neo-colonial governmentality] derives its ‘aesthetics’ from its immoderate appetite and the immense pleasure that it encounters in plunging in ordure. The sodomite gesture readily goes hand in hand with the orgy and buffoonery [associated with political malfeasance]” (my emphasis). Mbembe’s metaphoric use of “sodomite gesture” to describe postcolonial political excess aligns political repression with homosexual sex; like Kariuki, Mbembe envisions sodomites as carrion crows and vultures, deriving sustenance and pleasure from “plunging in ordure.” To participate in political repression is to engage in a “sodomite gesture” that finds pleasure in cruelty and filth, an understanding that Kĩnyattĩ shares. Notably, Kĩnyattĩ does not distinguish between rape and consensual sex and, in fact, seems to suggest that consensual sex is far more damaging than rape. To be dominated against one’s will is an act of political resistance; to find pleasure in sodomy is to be politically complicit.

Whether forced or consensual, sodomy destroys the body, especially given the terrible prison conditions Kĩnyattĩ describes, in which medical care is perfunctory, at best. He writes, “Most of the men who play the female role here in prison here are diseased; they have abscesses in their anuses. Their rectums are like leaking toilets” (64). These choppy sentences illustrate Kĩnyattĩ’s distaste for the topic and also offer a fascinating anatomical map in which bodily interiors are exposed, acting, metaphorically, as souls, reflections of inner corruption. Kĩnyattĩ hints at this corruption through the use of the word “play,” an active verb that implies choice. Those who “play the female role” implicitly choose to have leaky rectums, as opposed to prisoners like Kĩnyattĩ, whose repeated bouts of diarrhea recur in the narrative (52, 54). Juxtaposing his own leaky rectum against those of “female” prisoners, Kĩnyattĩ suggests that those who choose to “play the female role” choose indignity; worse, they lack the capacity to distinguish between health and disease, good and bad, pleasure and suffering. Lacking the cognitive, affective, and ideological abilities to identify what counts as a good life, those who play the female role cannot be relied upon to participate in political life: they lack the will and ability to fight for what is right. Their leaky rectums signify their weak political resolve.

Cockroaches and Shit

Kĩnyattĩ provides a rich glossary of prison argot that helps to situate the compounded meanings that attach to same-sex male acts. Drawn mostly from Kiswahili and Gikuyu, these terms help to situate prison same-sex acts within rich Kenyan histories. Mostly metaphorical and descriptive as opposed to scientific, these terms provide a valuable insight into the ecology of same-sex acts that extends beyond the truncated meanings Kĩnyattĩ himself attaches to these acts, and act as valuable indices to the interface between prison and life outside.

Two key terms describe what might be termed “active” homosexuals, or tops: mende and ndingoing’o (272). Kĩnyattĩ claims that mende (cockroach) is the most common term for tops, and it describes both those who seduce young inmates with food and cigarettes and those who rape other prisoners. As mende conflates seduction and coercion, it registers the rich complexity of same-sex acts in prison at the same time as it collapses them into each other, implying that all same-sex acts are grounded in violence. The violence of same-sex acts is specified more in nding’oing’o, “a beetle which feeds on human excrement.” The human excrement in this case refers to prisoners, the “dregs” of society, and also those who, in Kĩnyattĩ’s paradigm, are too ideologically weak to resist sodomy. Richly allusive, these terms refer to men who use sodomy to create and reinforce prison hierarchies of power. These terms are implicitly contrasted with mfiraji and shoga, both of which Kĩnyattĩ glosses as faggot or homosexual, more identity-proximate terms.

Whereas Kĩnyattĩ ’s terms for active homosexuals (“sodomites”) are unapologetically negative, his terms for passive partners, those coerced or seduced, suggest sympathy, if not empathy. Passive homosexuals, those who “play the role of female in prison,” are referred to as mtoto (child), mwana (child), chokora (street child), and basha (pasha) (273). Denotatively and connotatively, “child” invokes innocence and vulnerability. However, these terms are not entirely redeeming. Although suggesting vulnerability, they also draw from homophobic frameworks that depict homosexuals as infantile and undeveloped. Kĩnyattĩ aligns this psycho-social underdevelopment with ideological weakness: the mwana and mtoto have little political potential to speak of. Too easily seduced or coerced into same-sex acts, they have no role to play in the future revolution.

The semantic and ideological complexity attached to prison sex is similarly apparent in the two groups of phrases used to describe the act: kumkula/kumuria, literally translates as to eat and kuhura mai/gutindika mai, which translate as to beat shit and to push shit, respectively (273). While the second set of terms invokes familiar U.S. pejoratives like fudge-packer, and is supposed to evoke disgust at anal sex, the first are more ideologically complex. Describing, in part, the scenes of gang rape that Kĩnyattĩ describes in which groups of “sodomites” take advantage of overcrowded prisons to prey on vulnerable inmates, including some who are mentally ill, kumkula (Kiswahili) and kumuria (Gikuyu) metonymically represent the worst experience of prison: one is eaten and digested by an inhumane system, and prison sex is a metonym for the violent ingestion of imprisonment. At the same time, these metaphors of eating suggest the power and pleasure of being overwhelmed, ranging from the simple act of rimming to more complex relations of submission and domination. In other words, prison vocabularies register ideological and affective complexities that Kĩnyattĩ ’s narrative is otherwise unwilling to grant.

Within Kĩnyattĩ ’s prison narrative, those who participate in prison sodomy, willingly or not, are divorced from the broader revolutionary movement for political change across Kenya. This point would be unremarkable were it not for the status granted to political prisoners. Given the association of imprisoned activists with transformative politics, prison narratives by political activists across Africa delimit the domain of the political: former and current political prisoners have the moral and political authority to describe, if not dictate, not only what gets to count as political, but also which figures and groups should be assigned political weight. In marking “sodomites” as anti-political, apolitical, and anti-revolutionary, by suggesting that those who participate in prison sodomy are ideologically weak, Kĩnyattĩ aligns prisoners with political traitors, rapacious creatures willing and ready to sell their country for comfort and ease.

The Politics of the Popular: John Kiriamiti 

John Kiriamiti is, arguably, the most popular author of criminal non-fiction in Kenya, and I turn to his work to trace how popular non-fiction envisions and depicts prison homosexuality. Raised in rural Kenya, Kiriamiti narrates his life across two books, My Life in Crime (1984) and My Life in Prison (2004), in which a young man is led astray by promises of easy wealth available through crime in urban centers, serves prison time, and later finds redemption. While Kĩnyattĩ commands the attention of intellectuals and radicals, Kiriamiti entertains the masses, and does it well. Consequently, his narrative provides a unique opportunity to examine how prison narratives of homosexuality are disseminated to a mass audience interested in popular non-fiction.

Part tell-all, part morality tale, My Life in Prison begins with then-20 year old Kiriamiti, pseudonym Jack Zollo, being sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in 1971. Kiriamiti attempts to escape prison twice, witnesses two prison massacres, and begins a peace movement in prison. He is released after 14 years, in 1984. Kiriamiti offers an invaluable account of how queer cultures function alongside other prison cultures, and the trajectory of his narrative, from the 1970s and into the early 1980s, demonstrates his own changing relationship to homo-desire. Kiriamiti’s account helps to position prison queer cultures within Kenya’s prison history while also providing insight into the constitution of prison politics.

As with Kĩnyattĩ, Kiriamiti describes prison as a space filled with performances of masculinity. During his first month as a prisoner, he continually attacks the prison guards and quickly gains a reputation as a violent prisoner. These attacks are not unprovoked: one prison guard demands that Kiriamiti demonstrate that he is “really circumcised,” an invitation to perform manliness through violence. Kiriamiti’s violence is not solely directed at prison guards. He also asserts his masculinity by beating a “queer” “professionally” until the queer loses consciousness. A queer prisoner named Muindi is attracted to a young, handsome man, who is friends with Kiriamiti’s friend, GG. To get close to the young man, Muindi, who has special privileges, arranges for GG to be relocated to a different cell. In his absence, Muindi attempts to seduce the young man, and Kiriamiti beats him up. This foundational moment in the autobiography anchors Kiriamiti’s structural comment: “That’s what makes prisons—queers and the opposites” (116).

This distinction between queers and their opposites anchors how Kiriamiti understands and participates in prison politics in what is, arguably, the turning point of the story. Several years into his jail sentence, when he has been transferred from Kamiti Prison to the more brutal Naivasha Maximum Security Prison, Kiriamiti decides to form a “prison syndicate” which, in contrast to “the primitive people whose only idea was to form a robbery gang of perverse homosexuals,” will dedicate itself to bringing “peace and love” in the prison (173). At this point, Kiriamiti has been so thoroughly acculturated into the distinctions between forms of male bonding that he defines his version of love against that of “perverse homosexuals.” 

In selecting members for this progressive group, Kiriamiti adjudicates among several different groups, and his process of selection offers an intimate portrait of prison politics. First, he considers the “educated people,” white-collar criminals he deems intellectual and political. “These people,” he writes, “kept away from homosexuals and hated them fiercely.” This description sutures intellect and politics with homophobia; he might well be describing Kĩnyattĩ. Ultimately, he decides not to go with this group because they are too “power hungry.” Next, he considers the “skilled robbers,” “those involved in big takes.” Unrepentant, this group spends its time planning future robberies, is “anti-homo,” and expels members who participate in same-sex acts. He also decides not to invite members from this group to join his syndicate. While the politicos and the robbers differ in their practices and goals, they are united by their shared antipathy toward homosexuals. Homophobia provides a social glue across different prison populations.

Kiriamiti briefly considers the “queer group,” which consists of “pansies and their bosses.” His description of them and the reason he gives for dismissing them merit scrutiny:

This [queer] group was the cause of most of the trouble here. But their group was divided. Some were learned figures who did not like exposing themselves and were rarely involved in any scuffles. There were also pansies of the same [lower] class. . . . To rely on such a group that could never stay two days without one taking the other to Duty Office over a sexual quarrel would only land you and the syndicate into trouble. (175)

Self-involved, narcissistic, petty, ideologically weak, and childish, the queers cannot engage in a politics that extends beyond their own domain. Loyal not even to each other, but to the pull of their desires, they continually fight over whose “‘kid’ was snatched from who by which queer” (175). Like Kariuki and Kĩnyattĩ, Kiriamiti cannot envision an ideologically strong, non-narcissistic queer. And while he does not state that he hates queers, as do the politicos and the bank robbers, he explains why queers might be hated by politicos and bank robbers: they are so ideologically weak and so untrustworthy that they would betray the plans hatched by politicos and bank robbers if such betrayals would help secure the objects of their desire.

Unlike Brutus and Kĩnyattĩ, who can only express sympathy or disgust for prison same-sex relations, Kiriamiti toward the end of his narrative expresses the intimate relation between desire and disavowal, making explicit what Kĩnyattĩ and Brutus deny: one cannot be left untouched by the homo-centered libidinal space of prison. In conversation with his friend, GG, Kiriamiti watches a “pansy” walk past:

A pansy walked nearby as we were talking He was short, fat, brown with even, white teeth, He was handsome, all right, this queer. He moved sexily in front of us, with slow calculated steps as if intending to impress us. The calves of his legs were fat and smooth, his whole body well washed and smeared with a sweet-smelling toilet soap, which could only be afforded by prison tycoons. He had protruding buttocks, which trembled with every step. A hyena would have followed him for miles expecting them to drop at any moment so that it could eat them. (196)

The “pansy” solicits and elicits Kiriamiti’s desire. Despite the obligatory condemnation that the pansy is a kept man, protected by “prison tycoons,” Kiriamiti’s extended blazon lingers lovingly on this “pansy,” not merely describing physical attributes, but registering their effects: the “pansy” smells good, looks appetizing, arouses appetite. To claim the “pansy” moves “sexily” is to confess that one recognizes the movement, one responds to it, one is ensnared by it. It is not difficult to imagine that the metaphoric hyena refers to Kiriamiti himself. Kiriamiti must manage this desire, and he does so by reaffirming a homosocial bond with his friend, GG, that is forged, in part through a shared, or at least, articulated distaste for the “pansy.” The “pansy” is a “picture,” a “fool,” a “sex maniac,” uninterested in politics or ethics, indifferent to others, obsessed with pleasure (196). Kiriamiti, the hypothetical hyena, curbs his appetite by displacing it onto the “pansy.”

Yet, the anxiety that accompanies this expression of desire requires an appropriate ending, a re-integration into heterosexual desire. Following his release from prison, Kiriamiti meets a former lover, Hellene, “a Greek millionaire’s daughter” (216). Then ensues a clichéd conversation about love and desire, commitment and obligation, in which Kiriamiti claims he taught Hellene how to love, “to cherish,” affirming his role not merely as a heterosexual man, but as an expert tutor in heterosexual love and desire (222). This encounter, the last in the text, erases or at least mitigates the desire that Kiriamiti has expressed toward men. Once out of prison’s “garden,” a garden that breeds “strange” love, Kiriamiti roots himself firmly within hetero-desire.

The figure of the ideologically and physically violent homosexual has continued to circulate in popular Kenyan literature, and is, in fact, one of the major plot elements in recent novels. In 2006, Onduko bw’Atebe won the Wahome Mutahi Literary Award, one of Kenya’s major literary prizes, for his novel Verdict of Death. In the final chapters of the novel, Moril, the dashingly handsome protagonist who has been falsely imprisoned, is attacked and raped by a brutal gang of men. The novel ends with Moril leaving prison after receiving a presidential pardon and planning his revenge on the men who raped him. Implicitly, bw’Atebe’s novel aligns prison rapists with homosexuals, and asks readers to sympathize with Moril’s decision to hunt and destroy prison rapists and homosexuals. The scarcity of Kenyan novels, plays, and poems with positive depictions of homosexuals means that negative depictions function through what Sara Ahmed describes as “problematic proximities.” As the prison rapist performs homosexual acts, those who perform homosexual acts in other situations are implicitly defined as rapists. The line between prison rapist and homosexual becomes obscured and all homosexuals are understood as potential prison rapists and, more generally, as men who rape other men. Popular Kenyan prison narratives thus participate in circulating homophobic views.


My goal in this writing has been to trace how homophobic sentiments circulate in post-independent era African literature and culture. I have argued that prison narratives are central to this circulation given the authority vested in political prisoners, on the one hand, and given the immense popularity of prison-themed narratives, on the other. Unflattering portraits of homosexual acts and actants accrue their power because of their wide, unchallenged circulation. In tracing this history, I join scholars who have challenged the idea that homophobia is transhistorical and inherent by emphasizing the circulation of sentiment and the intensification of feeling and action. Given that homophobic legislation is being debated and passed in African-run parliaments, that homophobic violence is meted by Africans against Africans, and that homophobic sentiments are uttered by Africans against Africans, it is unreasonable to persist in the theory that Europeans imported homophobia into Africa, not homosexuality, as suggested by anti-homophobic scholars and activists. Instead, we would be better served to trace genealogies of homophobic thought and feeling and to account for the intensification of violent utterances and actions across Africa, even as we mark significant anti-homophobic acts of resistance.

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