Professor Evan Mwangi finished reviewing Professor’s Mutongi’s new book, Matatu: a history of popular transportation in Nairobi, by remarking that; ‘matatus are as queer as the rest of Kenya, a country so queer that it should officially change its name to Quenya, if I were to write a book on matatus, it would be about how queer they are.’
He wrote this in the Saturday Nation on 31st January 2018. This was the last paragraph of the article, but when you read the entire article and you come down to the second last paragraph you get to understand that Evan Mwangi was using the word queer to refer to the gender-fluids, men and women identified as lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, inter-gender, and bi-curious.
Unfortunately, Mwangi was derogatory in his tone about the matatus as social conduits of queer culture, he also uses the word queer without sensing that it is a pejorative word that intents to demean the person being described, and also Mwangi makes sweeping generalization that the rest of Kenya is queer and hence it was better if it was called Quenya but not Kenya, Mwangi did not provide literary or statistical facts to prove that 40 million Kenyans are sexually non-conventional enough to befit the re-naming of their country as Quenya. Reasons as per why facts are not provided in support of such a socially sensitive argument are best known to Evan Mwangi himself.
It has been very encouraging to read Professor Evan Mwangi, especially in his recent writings where he has on several occasions appreciated queer literature as a perspective of post-modern culture, however Mwangi is intellectually obliged to research about LQBTI so that he can write from an informed angle, but not to make sweeping generalizations as if he is intellectually tired and fatigued. Mwangi should do so lest the realization of the fact that intellectual fatigue is the enemy of good scholarship.
I have been reading the articles by Evan Mwangi for the past five years, I am aware that he studied African literature as published by the African Writers Series (AWS) at his first two levels at the University of Nairobi, before he went ahead to do his doctoral research on David Maillu’s Broken Drum. Thus Evan Mwangi has not done thorough research on the literature, culture, organizations, language and gender identity preferences of the gender-fluids. Yes, there are several themes of homosexuality and love in David Maillu’s Broken Drum but this is not information enough to support Evan Mwangi’s good explanation of social matters related to gender-fluids and their culture.
During a session on Queer literature, music, art and poetry in Africa in the conference held at Makerere in 2015, it was resolved by all that were attending the session that people of homosexual orientation suffer several forms of brutality and violence, injustices ranging from police brutality, public distaste, political violence through unfair but populist legislation, harassment by the media, mistreatment by literature, forced silence as well as verbal violence in form of abusive and sarcastic words used by the people in mainstream sexuality to describe those that are the LQBTI were identified as the most dominant among other injustices.
Verbal violence was established as the most perpetrated form of violence on the gender-fluids, some of the derogative and violent words commonly used against the homosexuals either with intention or without intention to insult the person being referred to are words like queer, butchy, she-man, he-man, pervert and so forth.
In the sociology of literature and politics we learn that intentional use of such type of verbal violence is known as labeling, which means that those that are in advantageous position dictate the type of language to be used in describing the least advantaged. Hence the age-old English proverb: “Give a dog a bad name and hang it”. And truly, history can testify with audacity that white Americans call the black people in America as negroes, white Australians call the native black Australians as aborigines, Europeans in Canada call the locals Inuit and Inupiat as Eskimos, just the same way Europeans like Rudyard Kipling in India described the locals as coolies. All these naming is derogatory in intention and it is a loud overtone of a social process perfecting the evils of political and economic exclusion.
It is under this context that conventional societies use the word ‘queer,’ meaning un-usual and cruel to describe the gender-fluids without consulting the persons being described to find out if they are comfortable with the manner in which they are being described. My socialization with the queer men and women when I was researching for my short story Stowaways anthologized in the Queer Africa II, gave me an opportunity to discover that homosexually oriented people feel very offended when the word queer is used in describing their gender orientation.
Did someone say ontology of the queer culture? Yes, the reasons for and mode of existence of queer culture. I learned about it last year. During the entirety of last December in 2017, I was involved in a church-sponsored research that investigated the new variants of Indian ocean cultures by using Malindi sub-county as a study area. From this ethnographic venture, it was found out that the rampant commercial male homosexuality among the youths in Malindi emerged as one of the variants of the new cultures of the Indian ocean. It is one of the commercial interactions between the Italian cash-rich tourists and the local African cash-strapped young men.
Merciless capitalism, environmental pollution, meagre schooling, urban poverty and urban related anxieties among the youths in Malindi are some of the key factors that force the youths to entice male homosexuality in Malindi for no other reason but for urban and economic survival, just the same way Matatu queers in Nairobi are doing to survive the economic hardships that go with the city.
Thus such social challenges cannot be solved through visceral and irrational condemnation, but instead through responsible literature, effective social policy and policing, informed medical care, economic and political gender mainstreaming-cum-inclusion, good education as well as good mental healthcare.
Alexander Opicho is a bi-curious short story writer and literary critic from, Lodwar, Kenya.