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Reformers of the past 20 years are losing the argument about freedom

Friday January 24 2014

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina has come out to say he is gay. Photo/EMMA NZIOKA

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina has come out to say he is gay. Photo/EMMA NZIOKA 

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As a historian and writer, I earn my money by being cynical. Fortunately, as I write mainly about politicians past and present, my cynicism is normally justified. This week is an exception.

Binyavanga Wainaina has already left his mark on Kenyan life. 

Through his writing and editorial work with Kwani?, he has become a key figure in world literature.

Few writers can match his blend of intellect, acerbic wit and creativity. But at a time when homophobic legislation is being introduced in different places across the continent, his announcement of his sexuality is courageous.

I’ll save readers from the hypocrisy of an attempt to preach how Kenya should follow Western countries in their liberal attitudes towards homosexuality.

This is a recent and shallow development.  I can easily remember the casual homophobia (and racism) of the schoolyard when growing up in the suburbs of London in the 1980s and 1990s.


Even in the past few days, a local councillor in my own county here in Britain blamed recent flooding on the decision by the government to legalise gay marriage. Binyavanga’s announcement would be brave anywhere in the world, never mind Kenya. 

I’ll also leave speculation about what Binyavanga’s announcement means for gay and lesbian Kenyans and Africans to more qualified commentators. Instead, I find Binyavanga an interesting exception to an apparent trend towards conservatism in Kenyan public life.

In 2002, Narc’s victory seemed to mark an end to the politics of conservatism.  Nyayo was no longer an attractive promise to voters. Instead, politicians ever since Kibaki’s victory have boasted of their abilities to deliver change.  We are constantly promised development, economic growth and political reform.

The country is, it seems, in a state of perpetual motion towards a bigger, better and bolder future. The President and his Cabinet secretaries promise radical change to the fabric of the economy and society. They deride their opponents as ‘analogue.’

But the rhetoric of the government sits uneasily with its policies, which are much more conservative than transformative. Much has already been said about the restrictions on the freedoms of the press and civil society. 

But we can also view Nyumba Kumi and its protection of the remnants of the most powerful conservative force in Kenyan political life, the Provincial Administration, as an example of the continued power of conservatism. 

The Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) is another such example. The decision by the board to ban The Wolf of Wall Street seems a particularly ridiculous and counterproductive measure. As other writers have noted, the ban has only helped increase interest in the film. But the decision itself was bizarre. 

A country that watched the Westgate burn on live television cannot apparently tolerate a few hundred curses and some graphic sex. This is, to take a line from Apocalypse Now out of context, ‘like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.’ 

These are petty examples of a broader and more serious trend in political life. The trend towards conservatism is pronounced and the reformers of the past 20 years are losing the argument about freedoms, rights and citizenship. 

And it is a brand of conservatism that seems to be based around the fear of change and of different sets of moral values.

Prof Branch teaches African history at Warwick University, UK [email protected]