Theorizing Modernities article

The Power of Kenyan, Christian, Queer Imagination

Contending Modernities is concerned with “exploring how religious and secular forces interact in the modern world.” Applying this to the subject of my book Kenyan, Christian, Queer, the innocent reader might assume that Christianity here is the religious force, and queerness a secular one, and that both forces are antagonistically opposed to each other in modern Kenya. After all, LGBT activism and queer politics have typically been understood, and often understand themselves, as secular projects, while contemporary Christianity in a country such as Kenya, like elsewhere in Africa, is frequently associated with a re-enchantment of the public sphere. I am grateful to the editors of Contending Modernities for facilitating this roundtable discussion which, in line with CM’s mission, demonstrates that such an oppositional and binary conceptualization of religious and secular forces is, at the very least, simplistic. Indeed, in relation to the subject matter of Kenyan, Christian, Queer, it appears that the religious and the secular are deeply entangled, with the boundaries between them being fluid, and their interactions complex and dynamic. How else can we conceptualize a context in which the semi-secular state presents Kenya as a Christian and heterosexual nation; a self-declared atheist gay writer engages in constructive black and queer religious thought; hip hop artists launch a Same Love music video with a Bible quotation and a theological statement about God; an LGBT church campaigns for the legal decriminalization of homosexuality; and queer subjects negotiate their sexuality and faith in multiple ways? I very much appreciate the contributors to this roundtable for their thoughtful engagement with my book and for initiating such a constructive conversation that helps to further unpack and understand the complex dynamics that I sought to unravel in Kenyan, Christian, Queer. In what follows, I will respond to some of the questions raised and criticisms made, in particular relating to the underlined need for greater attention to the political-economical and the institutional conditions and structures in which Christian and queer activism takes place in contemporary Kenya, and the reservations about cultural production as a viable and impactful strategy of transformation. Addressing these and other issues, I will make a case for creative imagination as a prophetic and politically significant practice.

Let’s begin with a recent event in Kenya. In August 2021, Ezekiel Mutua was reportedly forced to give up his position as Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), an official government body regulating the film sector. The official notification that Mutua has been sent on “terminal leave … pending of the expiry of his contract on 25th October, 2021” does not give any reason for the premature dismissal. Yet rumor has it that the step was taken after KFCB had become subject to an investigation by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission because of irregular payments of allowances and salaries. Whatever the reason, many Kenyan social media users, as well as people working in the film and creative industry, welcomed Mutua’s inglorious ousting. During his six years in office, Mutua had established a reputation as a “moral policeman” and even a “deputy Jesus,” because of the way in which he used his position to fight against, and where possible ban, anything he considered immoral, going far beyond the official KFCB remit. In my book Kenyan, Christian, Queer, I mention Mutua in relation to the official banning by KFCB of the Same Love music video (discussed in chapter 2) and the film Stories of Our Lives (chapter 3). Mutua’s particular concern with issues of homosexuality became a national laughing stock when, in 2017, he called for the immediate isolation of two “gay lions” that had been spotted mating in the Maasai Mara national park.

Rather than offering a political economy analysis of queer arts of resistance in Kenya, I was interested in queer arts of resistance as creative and critical practices of social, political, and religious (re)imagination.

I was reminded of Mutua’s dismissal when thinking about Ebenezer Obadare’s suggestion that in my book, I could (or should) have paid more attention to the workings of the state in policing issues of sexuality and in regulating and restricting the conditions under which “queer arts of resistance” can become socio-politically impactful and viable. Perhaps more than any other governmental body, Mutua’s KFCB, at the time of my research, represented these workings of the state. Yet Mutua’s recent dismissal also illustrates that his self-declared role as a moral watchdog of the nation is not uncontested, and that state power can turn against him (possibly also because Mutua did not refrain from criticizing national leaders for “obscenity in public”). The state is far from monolithic. Even at the highest political level, there is a discrepancy between the very public anti-gay rhetoric of the Kenyan Deputy President, William Ruto, and the much-more low-profile stance of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has publicly condemned the “witch hunts” against gay people while also stating that Kenya is “not yet ready” to decriminalize homosexuality. Of course, it is important to acknowledge these contradictions and ambivalences of the state, the government, and of political leaders, and to study them in-depth and in comparison to other countries on the continent and beyond. As some of the contributors (Obadare and Lado) to this roundtable suggest, the situation in Kenya appears to be quite different—that is, defined by a greater level of relative freedom—compared to countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast.

Yet the project of my book is a different one. Rather than offering a political economy analysis of queer arts of resistance in Kenya, I was interested in queer arts of resistance as creative and critical practices of social, political, and religious (re)imagination. Ludovic Lado rightly draws attention to the difficulties for such a queer reimagination of Christianity to find a space and affect change in major African church institutions. Without dismissing this concern—obviously the question of institutional, like political, change is an important one, and I salute progressive African clergy and theologians, such as Lado and Esther Mombo, for their important work in this regard—in my book I undertook an analysis of Christianity that is not primarily focused on the church as an institution but on public culture and creative arts. The arts, broadly defined, may have a greater ability to explore the potential of religion to contribute to a progressive, critical, and innovative vision for society, and thus to inspire social transformation. The arts can be conceptualized as the “interstitial spaces” that Sa’ed Atshan, following Homi Bhabha, associates with the potential for intervention that is critical to the decolonization of queer studies.

Although some critics might say that the selection of case studies in my book is “random,” the queer arts of resistance featured in each of these case studies constitute practices of resistance and reimagination that open up alternative possibilities—in this case, alternatives to institutionalized religious, as well as state-sponsored, homophobia. Even my ethnographic case study of a church—the Cosmopolitan Affirming Church in Nairobi—argues that this LGBT-affirming community presents a “space of possibility” with a prophetic significance, even if it does not bring about any (immediately visible) change in Kenya’s major Christian denominations or in the country’s political or legal structures. I am grateful to each of my interlocutors for acknowledging the validity, and indeed the importance, of this approach which recognizes cultural production as crucial for the development of counter-narratives to the hegemonic narratives of African and religious homophobia. I also appreciate why some interlocutors, especially those coming from a social scientific background, would have liked me to give a more critical assessment of the socio-economic and political viability of such emerging counter-narratives and of their long-term effects.

With reference to the Kenyan Christian queer counter-narratives that I document, Obadare asks: “What, really, are the chances of delegitimizing and upstaging Pentecostal demonology around homosexuality, never mind substituting it with an alternative notion of Christian love?” I understand where the question is coming from, and I have asked this question myself in the process of researching and writing my book. There is an abundance of studies of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity in Kenya and in Africa more broadly. Many of these foreground that Pentecostalism, in spite of its ambitions of radical moral regeneration and socio-political transformation, is an unstable religio-political project. Among other reasons, this is due to its internal fragmentation and pluralization and the resulting competition that follows. It is also because of the instability of religious authority in Pentecostalism. Obadare himself, in spite of the rather robust title of his book about Nigerian Pentecostalism and politics, Pentecostal Republic, acknowledges that Pentecostal Christianity’s “apparent political triumph is by no means irreversible.” In other words, we cannot assume that Pentecostalism in its current form will continue to be the dominant religious option on the African continent forever. Obviously, neither can we assume that the Christian landscape in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria will simply follow a trajectory of liberal progress, and that popular Christian movements which recently have come to profile themselves by a strong anti-LGBT stance, will be gradually taken over by progressive, queer-affirming ones. But I do suggest that religious, as well as social and political change, begins somewhere: with the emergence of prophetic, initially marginal, counter-narratives. Pentecostalism itself began like that, and its principle openness to new revelations from the Spirit present a potential for further transgressions and transformations. As Achille Mbembe has pointed out with reference to the history of slavery and the civil rights movement, “Struggle as a praxis of liberation has always drawn part of its imaginary resources from Christianity” (174). Underlining my earlier point, he adds to this that the Christianity in question is not foremost that of the institutional Church, but is instead “a space of truth” and “a be-coming, a futurity” (175).

The arts, broadly defined, may have a greater ability to explore the potential of religion to contribute to a progressive, critical, and innovative vision for society, and thus to inspire social transformation.

If the account presented in my book reflects a sense of optimism which some readers may find “jarring,” it is because the participants in my fieldwork, and the creative texts in my cultural analysis, themselves reflected a strong optimism. For instance, recent steps to decriminalize homosexuality in countries such as Mozambique and Botswana reinforced their belief that such a change might be possible in Kenya, too, without them necessarily being naïve about the struggle it would take. The queer arts of resistance centered in Kenyan, Christian, Queer present, in the words of Jose Esteban Munoz, a “forward-dawning futurity” (29) and therefore are inspired by—and simultaneously engender—hope. As these arts of resistance are not only queer, but also Christian, this hope, for my research participants, is fundamentally related to faith, that is, faith in God who, in the words of Mercy Oduyoye that serve as epigraph of my book, enables people with a spirituality of persistence to “make a way where there is no way.”

I am grateful to Sa’ed Atshan for observing a very similar dynamics among queer Palestinian Christians, and to Mujahid Osman for observing the same in the context of the Inner Circle mosque in Cape Town, and conceptualizing it, along similar lines, with Sa’diyya Shaikh’s notion of “future-thinking.” My own choice not to downplay or critically evaluate, but instead render explicitly visible and share the optimism of my participants is informed by two methodological decisions. First, my commitment to strive for “researching with,” rather than “researching about,” participants and their life-worlds. Performing what Osman describes as a “political ethic of care” toward my interlocutors, was also a way, as Mombo acknowledges, of addressing my own positionality and thinking about the embodied relationality between me and my participants. Second, my commitment to a postsecular approach acknowledges religion, as Osman puts it, as a possible “source of meaning-making and liberation.” I fully agree with Atshan that such a nuanced, critical yet constructive and empathetic engagement with religion can further contribute to the decolonization of queer studies in the global South because religious knowledge, symbol, and narrative are so important to the world-making of queer subjects in Africa and other global South contexts.

Finally, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his book Re-membering Africa, has pointed out that “creative imagination is one of the greatest remembering practices” (28) and thus has the potential to counter and overcome the effects of colonialism as a dis-membering practice through which African memory was supplanted by European knowledges. Such creative and imaginative re-membering can be applied to the memory of indigenous traditions of sexual diversity, which were supplanted by the introduction of Christianity in the colonial period and its related Victorian moral values and laws. Some African LGBT activists and thinkers—Binyavanga Wainaina, discussed in my book, is one of them—have therefore suggested to give up on Christianity altogether and instead reclaim indigenous spiritualties. Although understandable, this suggestion overlooks the long-standing presence of Christianity on the continent, which long-predates the history of European exploration and imperialism, and the ways in which Christianity has become deeply rooted in African societies and culture. In this context, it is important to acknowledge that some of the oldest narratives of same-sex intimacy in Africa relate to early Christian traditions, such as between Perpetua and Felicity, two second-century North African women martyrs, recognized by the Catholic Church as saints, and the seventeenth-century Ethiopian nun Walatta Petros, recognized as a saint by the Orthodox Church, and leader of a movement that drove out foreign missionaries. In other words, as much as the account of a creative imagination of Christianity and sexual diversity in Africa offered in my book has a strong present-day focus and is mostly concerned with contemporary Pentecostal Christian imaginaries, there is also potential for a remembering practice that engages with these queer African Christian memories of the past.

Adriaan van Klinken
Adriaan van Klinken is Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds. He serves as Director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. He also is Extraordinary Professor in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Utrecht University, the Netherlands (2011). 

Adriaan’s research focuses on religion, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Africa. His books include Transforming Masculinities in African Christianity: Gender Controversies in Times of AIDS (2013) and Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism and Arts of Resistance in Africa (2019). He recently co-authored with Ezra Chitando,Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa (2021), and with Johanna Stiebert, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson, Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible (2021).

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