Photo courtesy of the Nest Collective
Africa, like much of the world, is awash in homophobia, and Africa's most prominent anti-gay apostles have painted homosexuality as a Western construct and called homosexuals “un-African.” Earlier this year, Nigeria and Uganda passed anti-gay laws, and this summer, Kenya's Republican Liberty Party proposed "stone the gays" legislation. To dispel Kenya's myths about homosexuals, the Nairobi-based arts collective the Nest – including director Jim Chuchu, executive producer George Gachara, and screenwriter Njoki Ngumi – created Stories of Our Lives, an anthology of short films recently presented at the Toronto International Film Festival.
After collecting firsthand audio testimonials of LGBT Kenyans across the country, they adapted the recordings into fictional shorts that offer a compelling window into modern-day Kenya. In festival materials the filmmakers' names were not mentioned because they feared attacks from Kenyan homophobes, but on the day the film premiered, Chuchu, Gachara, and Ngumi revealed their identities to the world. While they were in Toronto, I sat down with them to discuss their movie, Kenya's prickly political climate, and how gay gym culture gets lost in translation.
VICE: The film tells several stories, including a narrative about a girl getting expelled because of her lesbian relationship and another about a man risking his safety to attend a clandestine gay club. How did these various storylines come together?
Jim Chuchu: About a year ago, we began a documentary project, going around the country collecting stories of queer people in anonymous audio interviews. We wanted to get a sense of the human experience of being queer in Kenya – not just in the capital [Nairobi], but around the country. After several months of collecting stories, we felt some were so interesting that we wanted to create visual accompaniments for them.
Why did you decide to reveal your identities on the day of the film’s premiere?
George Gachara: It’s been an evolving conversation – and an emotional one. We initially felt that anonymity would be helpful for many reasons, like protecting the cast and crew, but people trusted us with their stories, the actors trusted us by appearing on camera, so we needed to honor that bravery and reveal our identities. Ultimately, it would be more damaging to be anonymous, as people back home might interpret that as us being ashamed.
Are there any plans to screen the movie in Kenya or in neighboring countries like Uganda?
Chuchu: We’ve had several private screenings at home for friends and people involved, and the response helped us realise we needed to make it available to people.
Gachara: It’s really a film about how we as Kenyans express ourselves, how love feels, and how we struggle. It belongs to our people and communities, so it has to return to that place.
Given the country’s harsh anti-gay laws, could there be any consequences to screening it publicly?
Chuchu: I’m not entirely sure how Kenyans would react. So far, since revealing our identities, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback, but who knows. It’s an unpredictable space, so we’ve been preparing for every possible scenario.
In recent months, the press has pegged Kenya as the next battleground for gay rights. Is that a fair assessment?
Gachara: There’s very tough stuff happening in Uganda, Nigeria, North Africa, and Somalia, but people in Kenya are still living their lives. It’s tempting to rush to conclusions about queer life in Kenya based on headlines, but there’s also so much that gets lost with reductive, Africa-wide assumptions.
Do you find Western coverage of African countries’ LGBT issues to be accurate?
Chuchu: We sometimes get the sense that countries that are “over it” [the struggle for LGBT rights] get impatient with the rest of the world. It’s almost like a big brother who’s done with school and is standing next to you, screaming, “C’mon already!” The language developed in countries where they’ve already dealt with LGBT issues is now being imposed to us – already packaged – and I think there’s some resistance from people in our part of the world, who want to define things for themselves.
Gachara: To me, it goes back to this European ideal of an urbanised queer life – that my milestones should be pride, coming out, and the gym. I appreciate those – they play a role in the expression of gay life in a faraway place – but it has nothing to do with my life. Some people are transposing those assumptions to Kenya. We’re asked, “Are you guys gay because it’s an economic thing?” and “Are you doing this film to make money?” When my mom tries to understand me being queer, I have to remind her: “You know how much I earn, how I hate going to the gym, so why are you using this to understand who I am?”
How do you feel about the Christians who fly into countries like Uganda to woo the country’s top politicians and religious leaders?
Gachara: The recent rise of the Christian right is actually happening in Kenya as well, not just in Uganda. For the last 20 years, Kenya has tried to rid itself of its British-imposed constitution – we’ve always looked up to people who fought against oppression – but just when we had an opportunity to vote in a popular, locally-driven constitution, the American right starts to fund our conservative movement directly. These white [religous leaders] visit the country in the name of being “pro-family,” saying things that Kenyans can identify with. It’s unfortunate, because this global ideological war is happening on the bodies of black kids who just want to love.
Do you feel resentment towards the West for introducing anti-sodomy laws during colonial times?
Gachara: Every society has had mechanisms for dealing with difference, whether they’re cultural or legal. We know of grandfathers who were queer, but these stories were erased with the Christianising and moralising used to police people during colonialism.
Chuchu: There’s this interesting piece of history from Uganda. Back in 1885, King Mwanga II of Buganda had relations with men that would now be called homosexual, but the Christian missionaries couldn’t handle it, so they removed him from the throne. Now, [over] a century later, the British return and say, “Wow, you guys are so homophobic!”
For upcoming screenings of Stories of Our Lives, visit the film’s website.