A Powerful Portrait of Faith and Queer Activism: Review of the Film “Kenyan, Christian, Queer”

Ballet Brice Stephane Djedje was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and also holds a British passport. He completed a MA in Theology at the University of Gottingen, Germany, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University Autonomous of Madrid. His research interests include issues of homosexuality and LGBTIQ activism in Africa. In this contribution he reviews the documentary film Kenyan Christian Queer (2020).

The world has grown used to being presented with reports about “African homophobia” and about the challenges faced by African LGBTIQ communities. Less attention tends to be paid to the little victories and the considerable achievements by LGBTIQ activists on the continent. Against this background, the documentary film Kenyan Christian Queer (KCQ film) is a very welcome and timely correction to these one-sided media representations. I was delighted to watch this film offering such an intimate, powerful, and positive portrayal of the experiences of the LGBTIQ community in Kenya.

KCQ film showcases that there is hope for the Kenyan queer community. Their fight against homophobia is showing some positive results. It shows that the Kenyan queer community is resilient in front of the high level of oppression it is subjected to. Furthermore, it also demonstrates that Kenya is not totally a dark space for  LGBTIQ people, as there are possibilities for them to create a safe place where they can organise and empower themselves, celebrate their lives in spite of the challenges, and also a space to engage in dialogue with others.

Perhaps most striking about KCQ film is that it is about a church – a queer church, for that matter – which nuances the dominant idea that Christianity is a stumbling block towards LGBTIQ inclusion. Yes, the film does feature Christian leaders who advocate against the recognition of LGBTIQ rights and who campaign for the continued criminalisation of same-sex practices in Kenya. Yet at the centre of the film is a community where faith is celebrated by LGBTIQ people as a source of affirmation, joy, and strength. This church, called Cosmopolitan Affirming Community (CAC), is based in Nairobi. Its worship has an obvious Pentecostal-Charismatic flavour. This, again, is notable, given that Pentecostal churches in Kenya and in other parts of the African continent are the most vocal Christian organisation against homosexuality in the public sphere. By foregrounding this community of LGBTIQ Kenyan Christians, the film reinforces what I have always believed: that the best way to make progress in the fight against homophobia in Africa is to allow African queer communities themselves to lead the battles.

At a continental level, KCQ film could inspire queer communities who do not feel brave enough yet to start their own spiritual organization. They can learn from CAC’s strategies of how to start a spiritual organization and how to mobilise for change in the religious sector. Additionally, the film presents how African LGBTIQ communities could support each other, which is key to building regional and continental networks that are efficient in the fight against homophobia. The film shows how CAC offered support to LGBTIQ refugees from Uganda who in recent years moved to Kenya in search of safety. KCQ film is a powerful resource for African LGBTIQ community activists as it touches three important layers of society: religious, public, and legal. CAC leaders and members are able to take control of their spiritual destiny by creating a space where they can worship Jesus the way they are. Some members of CAC also present new ways of sharing the gospel in the public sphere, such as prophetess Jacinta who preaches a message of inclusion and love in Nairobi’s minibuses and on city squares. This is crucial for Kenya LGBTIQ experiences to become visible and heard by the mainstream of society. The prophetess embodies the courage and determination that are key to moving the fight forward. The film also presents how activists can use the music scene to bring their fight to the mainstream, such as when it features CAC founder George Barasa who in 2016 produced the music video Same Love (Remix) that went viral in Kenya. However, the film also underlines one of the difficult sides of activism, as it highlights the risks involved. We see Barasa now being a refugee in Canada after his life was put in danger in Kenya due to making same-sex love mainstream in the country. This is one of the painful realities of fighting homophobia in Africa. Therefore, activists must be fully aware of the advantages and risks of their engagements.

Although KCQ film rightly claims to portray the first queer church in Kenya, CAC is not the first church of this kind in Africa at large. In Nigeria, there was a similar initiative already in the early 2000s, House of Rainbow (HOR), founded by Reverend Jide Macaulay (who is briefly featured in KCQ film with footage of his visit to Kenya a few years ago). Unfortunately, HOR had to stop due to the violence the church, its founder, and the congregation were subjected to, although it still continues to operate from the diaspora. It would have been interesting – maybe in a future documentary – to compare CAC and HOR. What are the similarities and divergences in the way they present themselves and are received by society? Furthermore, where KCQ film mainly depicts Pentecostal-Charismatic spirituality, I would have hoped to hear a fragment on the position of African independent Churches toward homosexuality.

Kenya Christian Queer Film was directed and produced by Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian artist with 15 years of experience in the music and filmmaking industry. The executive producer is Adriaan van Klinken who is from the Netherlands and based in the UK, where he teaches at the University of Leeds, and to whose book Kenyan, Christian, Queer (2019) the film is linked. Furthermore, the production of KCQ film was sponsored by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, a UK-based academic research funding body. Based on this, one might think that the film could mirror the unequal power dynamic that exists between Africa and Europe. KCQ film has addressed this risk by involving CAC pastor, David Ochar, as co-executive producer, and by radically foregrounding the voices of CAC leaders and members in the narrative of the film. Ugandan queer studies scholar Stella Nyanzi has pointed out that her academic training in the West is not a source of shame but of pride, as it offered her an opportunity to take advantage of the resources available there and to become well equipped to expand her critical edge. Just like Nyanzi, in the case of KCQ I welcome the creative and financial support that CAC received to get their story out through this documentary film, in a way that recognises the agency of Kenyan queer activists.

I definitely recommend KCQ film to African LGBTIQ communities regardless of their location, and indeed to anyone who is interested in the fight against homophobia in Kenya in particular and Africa in general. The film depicts the experiences of Cosmopolitan Affirming Church in a positive light. Also, it shows that Africans who are LGBTIQ can also be spiritual. This would resonate with many African queers who find it difficult to reconcile their sexual orientation and their faith. Furthermore, KCQ is the result of great cooperation between the North and the South (a UK-based film-maker and academic, and the activists of CAC in Nairobi). To add, it also underlines the importance of South-South cooperation to tackle the issue of homophobia in Africa. Another point to stress is that KCQ film shows a diversity of LGBTIQ activists. Last but not least, the film exposes all the advantages and challenges activists could encounter during the exercise of their duties.

Written By: Ballet Brice Stephane Djedje

Kenyan Christian Queer documentary film (AiAi Studios, 2020). Director and Producer: Aiwan Obinyan. Executive Producer: Adriaan van Klinken. Co-executive Producer: David Ochar.

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