Education minister Mutula Kilonzo has threatened to ban a secondary school set book over claims it contained words and statements associated with gay relationships.
Although the government would not discriminate on grounds of sex or other orientation in line with the Constitution, Mr Kilonzo would not accept The Whale Rider to be taught and examined in secondary schools if it was found to contain same-sex nuances.
The Whale Rider, by New Zealand gay author Witi Ihimaera, was introduced in February last year.
It will be examined for the first time this year at the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education level.
It means the current Form Four class started studying the book last year. .“It is news to me that such a book was selected. I don’t care how intelligent the writer is, I will get it removed since Kenya is not ready for such a curriculum, at least not under my watch,” he said.
Set books, like all other books and teaching materials, are approved by the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) headed by Dr Lydia Nzomo.
Mr Kilonzo said there was enough sexual education in the curriculum, which was limited to holy books like the Koran, the Bible and the Hindu.
Representatives of parents called for the immediate ban of the book and asked the government to re-evaluate all the other set texts to “weed out sections corrupting the minds of children.”
“Any literature with any element of gayism or lesbianism should not be allowed in our schools,” said Musau Ndunda, Kenya National Association ofParents Secretary-General.
Kenya Episcopal Conference Secretary General Fr Vincent Wambugu asked the government to order the banning of the book and its withdrawal from all bookshops.
“We must guard our society now and in the future,” he said.
“Gay practices are against the dignity of human person and human life.”
The Whale Rider,a novel about the Maori culture in the wake of European colonialism, makes subtle references to homosexuality which critics say keen students will not miss.
Although it isn’t overtly gay like Ihimaera’s other works, the gay nuances in the story include the playful nickname given to one of the principle characters, Paka, which is a Maori corruption for “bugger”. The word connotes a gay man, having anal sex or having sex with animals.
At some point in the narrative, the heroine Kahu prattles on about how she is not the type of girl who “likes boys” without realising that, to her adult interlocutor, she could be saying she is lesbian.
This is just before a humorous scene in which Koro Apirana (aka “Paka”) mistakes his grandson, the narrator, for his wife Nani Flowers while the men share a bed at night, both having been turned away by their female partners.
All heterosexual relationships in the novel are presented as dysfunctional or ill-fated, including the relationship between the narrator and his girlfriend.
When the narrator goes to Sidney, Australia, he puts up with a Maori “cousin” until the narrator makes a male “ friend of his own”.
But defending the novel first published in 1987, KIE chief communications officer Sam Otieno said the panel which evaluated the book never saw any element of same sex relationships in it.
Of the gay-leaning author, Mr Otieno said the institute only took interest in the content of books and not the backgrounds of the writers.
“So long as the content is suitable for our children, the book is good to be recommended,” he said.
Ms Alice Salama Kairichi, an assistant director of education, said the book passed key considerations.
“We usually check against syllabus specifications, the national goals and values of education and such policy documents as the Vision 2030,” she said.
She said novel was selected from literature from the rest ofthe world based on the fact that it had issues similar to Kenya’s.
“We looked at themes like environmental degradation and the place of the girl child,” she said.
Teachers want diversity
Responding to questions about the fact that Ihimaera is a well-known gay activist, Ms Kairichi said the literary skills of a book superseded who its writer was.
“Learners may never know who Ihimaera is,” she said.
Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers Akello Misori also defended the book.
“This is not the era to ban critical books,” he said, adding “we should expose our children to all forms of literary texts including those on same sex relationships”.
Mr Kakai Karani, the managing director of Longman, which is the local publisher of the novel, defended the book.
“This is one of the best books to be selected as it imparts positive values on the child like environmental conservation and promoting the place of women in society,” he said.
Kenya Publishers Association chairman Lawrence Njagi said: “If indeedthe book is advocating gay relationships in one way or another, then it is not right.”
Prof Egara Kabaji of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology said the book should not be dismissed wholesomely.
“Literature classes are not Sunday schools where evangelicals can comment on St Luke or the Corinthians. If we omitted any sexual mention in books, then classics as we know them wouldn’t be there.”
Prof Evan Mwangi of Northwestern University in the US said the government should not police literature too much and the gay nuances in the novel shouldn’t be suppressed in class discussions.
“Let the kids giggle and snigger at the clever way writers cloak “dirty” meanings for the readers to decode,” he said.