With strict anti-homosexual laws in Uganda, hundreds of Ugandan gays from Kampala and other major cities in the East African country are finding refuge in a rather not so gay-friendly neighbouring country, Kenya.
Although Kenya does not have direct strict anti-gay laws, the conservative nature of her society has made life a living hell for the gay community.
Discrimination, threats, blackmail, and abuse are common occurrences that Kenyan gays face in their day to day lives.
“It’s a common occurrence in Kenya for gays to be assaulted. The sad part is you cannot report to the police because they will just make things worse,” said Andrew Juma. “For you to survive as a gay in Kenya, you must operate secretly and live a secret life because that is the only way your security can be guaranteed.”
But unlike in Uganda, Kenya gay members do not face arbitrary arrests or detentions from security forces. This has given members of the Ugandan gay community running away from persecution reason to seek refuge in Kenya, where they are received and housed by their Kenyan counterparts.
For 31-year-old John Kirumiza, Kenya offered him a safe landing space after serving a three-year jail term in a Ugandan prison. He was found guilty of having married a person of the same gender against Ugandan laws.
“My friend set me up with the police who stormed into my house and arrested me together with my partner. Luckily, my partner managed to escape and fled the country,” he said from his house in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
“I was taken to court, never got a chance to defend myself, and the court slapped me with a three-year sentence”.
When he got out of prison after three years, Kirumiza arrived home to a hostile society that wanted to kill him. He had to quickly think of a way out, and that is when he fled to Kenya.
“My family was disappointed in me. They rejected me because, according to them, I had brought shame on them for being gay. I got some intelligence that a group of young men were planning to lynch me, and that forced me to run away from home,” he said.
Kirumiza had friends in Kenya who were also gay. They facilitated his escape from Uganda into Kenya through illegal means because he did not have the requisite papers.
He did not know that the safe space in Kenya was to come at a considerable cost. To secure his illegal stay in Kenya, he was forced to give in to sexual demands from a fellow Kenyan gay who helped him get into the country.
“One day, he came into my house in the company of two men, and they demanded sex from me. Finally, I had to reluctantly give in because they threatened to report me to the authorities,” said Kirumiza.
For the two years he has been staying in Kenya, Kirumiza has had to bribe people, including police officers and friends, give in to sexual demands, endure ridicule and harassment just because he is gay.
And just like Kirumiza, hundreds of his friends and countrymen from Uganda are in Kenya, where they came to seek refuge after receiving death threats in their home country.
Berron Walambisi, chairman of the Ugandan gays living in Kenya (a group operating secretly), says that they have at least 200 registered members in Kenya.
“We are many here in Kenya because although we face harassment and abuse, it’s safer here as opposed to Uganda.”
“We rather endure the harassment in Kenya than face jail terms and deaths in Uganda,” he said.
Walambisi says that the Kenya gay community is accommodating, understanding, caring, and friendly save for the society that is abusive towards gays.
“Our Kenyan gay counterparts are very accommodating people, and that is why they have facilitated the entry of hundreds of their colleagues from Uganda,” said Walambisi.
Life has, however, not been easy for Ugandan gays seeking refuge in Kenya. For instance, to secure a house, they are forced to pay double the amount paid by other Kenyans. In addition, some have faced evictions by landlords who establish that they are gay.
Edgar Mare, 29-year-old, was evicted from his one-bedroom house on the outskirts of Nairobi in the middle of the night after his landlord got wind that he was gay.
“I had no money at that time of eviction, and I could not dare go to the police station to record a report because that would have worsened things for me. So, I called a friend who accommodated me for a few days before I got a new house,” Mare said.
Walambisi adds that some members are forced to pay a ‘protection fee’ to their neighbours or get reported to authorities.
Kenyan police officers also take advantage of Ugandan gays by demanding bribes from them. Aggrey Ndimwa was arrested with his partner as they walked out of a bar in the capital city Nairobi. He had no valid documents for his stay in Kenya. To secure his release, he was forced to give the officers a $200 bribe.
Apart from being attacked by potential sex partners, gossiping neighbours, and police harassment, Uganda gays living in Kenya are also victims of extortion and blackmail from fellow Kenyan gays.
They lose money to conmen who defraud them in the name of helping them secure immigration documents to stay and work legally in Kenya.
Silvanus Njero lost $ 100,000 to a fellow Kenyan gay who was supposed to be assisting him in getting valid papers to live in the country. “He was a close friend, and I trusted him. But, unfortunately, he disappeared with the money, never to be heard again,” Silvanus said.
Many Ugandan gays have fallen victim to search schemes operated by some rogue Kenyan gays who take advantage of their precarious situation. While in Kenya, just like their Kenyan counterparts, Ugandan gays cannot have open relationships because Kenyan law does not allow same-sex relationships and marriages.
But despite all these challenges, Walambisi insists that Kenya is safer for them. They will, therefore, never return to Uganda unless things change.
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