People in Nairobi on Sunday gave a muted and measured response to US President Barack Obama’s firm support for gay rights during his visit to Kenya.
Standing alongside President Uhuru Kenyatta outside State House on Saturday, Obama answered a journalist’s question on gay rights by drawing equivalence between homophobia and racism.
“As an African-American in the United States I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently under the law,” Obama said.
The comparison is particularly stinging in Kenya, which, like other African countries, has a proud history of resisting and overcoming colonial rule by white foreigners.
“When you start treating people differently –- because they’re different –- that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode, and bad things happen,” said Obama, adding that treating people differently “because of who they love is wrong, full stop.”
“I’ve been consistent all across Africa on this,” said Obama, who previously spoke in support of gay rights during a visit to Senegal in 2013.
Then, President Macky Sall replied that his country was “not ready” to decriminalise homosexuality, which is illegal in 35 African countries and carries the death penalty in four, according to campaign group Amnesty International.
On Saturday, Kenyatta repeated his argument that, for Kenyans, gay rights is “really a non-issue”. He said it was an area of disagreement for Kenya and the US.
“There are some things we don’t share, that our society, our culture, don’t accept,” Kenyatta said.
Spirit of gayism
Edna Kendi, a 29-year old software developer was unimpressed by Obama publicly advocating gay rights. “He has to respect our culture,” she said. “People can be gay but they should do so in private and quietly.”
Kendi urged Obama to “stick to issues that are pertinent to the visit,” for her, corruption and trade.
Moses Abok, a 49-year old motorbike taxi driver waiting for customers beneath a shady jacaranda tree, echoed Kenyatta’s view.
“To me, it doesn’t matter. The spirit of gayism is inside just a few people,” he said using a common Kenyan term for homosexuality. “It’s not a big deal for us.”
But Abok also welcomed Obama’s words. “What he said is we should value all people, we shouldn’t alienate or eliminate those people, because they are part of us, they are human beings,” he said.
Ruo Maina, a 50-year old businessman in the manufacturing industry who had popped out to buy the Sunday papers, said what you do at home is nobody’s business.
“As long as you do it in private, we don’t care,” he said. Maina was not interested in public debates on gay rights, but added that Kenya’s vocal anti-gay extremists are equally indulging in unnecessary “provocation”.
“We don’t need to be saying it is deviant,” he said.
Deputy President William Ruto periodically addresses evangelical Christian churches to warn against homosexuality. There is “no room” for gays in Kenya he told worshippers in May, and in July railed against the US for allowing “gay relations and other dirty things.”
Anti-gay firebrand Irungu Kangata leads a cross-party caucus seeking to have the country’s existing anti-homosexuality laws –- which include a maximum 14-year sentence –- to be strictly applied and makes frequent media appearances to explain that “gayism” is a lifestyle choice that can and should be unmade.
Vincent Kadala, an aspiring politician whose Republican Liberty Party has no seats in parliament, threatened to rally 5,000 naked men and women in order to show Obama “the difference between a man and woman”.
The promised protest attracted a lot of media attention but was never held
During a press conference last Saturday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta rejected calls from Barack Obama to give greater attention to the homosexual agenda.
“We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for our people,” Kenyatta said in response to Obama’s comments about the matter. “This issue is not on the foremost mind of Kenya—and that is a fact.”
Some leaders in Kenya had urged Obama not to push advocacy for homosexuality on the country during his visit, with some threatening to protest his appearance if he did so.
“We want to warn Obama to steer clear of any comments on same-sex marriages during his visit,” Bishop Mark Kariuki told reporters earlier this week. “Any attempts will lead to a call for mass demonstrations across the country and disrupt his meeting.”
“Anybody who tries to come and preach to this country that they should allow homosexuality, I think he’s totally lost,” added lawmaker Jamleck Kamau. “And I would also like to add, our son from the U.S., Barack Obama, when he comes here, [should] simply avoid that topic completely because Kenyans will not be happy with him if he comes to bring the issue of homosexuality in this country.”
But Obama did speak about homosexuality during his visit to the country this weekend, discussing the issue during a joint press conference with Kenyatta at the Kenyan State House. He had been asked by a foreign reporter to expound on his beliefs about the matter.
“I’ve been consistent all across Africa on this. I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law and they are deserving of equal protection under the law,” Obama said. “When you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they’re doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen.”
“As an African-American in the U.S., I am painfully aware of the history when people are treated differently under the law,” he continued. “If somebody is a law abiding citizen who is going about their business and working in a job and obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things that good citizens are supposed to do and not harming anybody, the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong.”
Kenyatta, now having to respond to the matter, reiterated that Kenya is not interested in the subject and that homosexuality is largely rejected by its people.
“There are some things that we must admit we don’t share. It’s very difficult for us to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept,” he said. “This is why I say for Kenyans today the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue.”
Kenyatta made similar comments earlier this week when asked about the topic by reporters.
“That is a non-issue to the people of this country, and it is definitely not on our agenda at all,” Kenyatta told reporters. “We as a country, as a continent, are faced with much more serious issues which we would want to engage the U.S. and all our partners with.”