Binyawanga Wainaina as a Queer Prophet

This is a paper I presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in a session on Protest, Performance, and Prophecy: Resisting Violence against Black Queer Bodies, hosted by the Afro-American Religious History Group, Queer Studies in Religion Group, Religion and Sexuality Group, and Religions, Social Conflict, and Peace Group, on 23 November 2015. A longer version of the paper is to be published as ‘A Kenyan Queer Prophet: Binyavanga Wainaina’s Public Contestation of Pentecostalism and Homophobia’, in Ezra Chitando and Adriaan van Klinken (eds.), Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa, Farnham: Ashgate 2016.

‘I am a homosexual, mum.’

Under this title, Kenyan writer and one of Africa’s leading literary figures, Binyavanga Wainaina, on 19 January 2014 published what he called ‘A lost chapter’ from his 2011 memoirs. As the title indicates, the chapter includes an intimate revelation: Binyavanga, in the weekend of his 43rd birthday, comes out as gay. He does so in a literary style, re-imagining the last days of his mother’s life and telling her, on her deathbed, the truth about his sexuality.
Not coincidentally, Wainaina’s public coming out followed shortly after the controversial passing of anti-homosexuality legislation through the Ugandan and Nigerian parliaments. ‘I see my coming out as an intervention, in a moment in time’, Wainaina explained in almost messianic language. Thus, on 21 January 2014, he published a six-part video documentary, We Must Free Our Imaginations, on YouTube, in which he reflects and comments on the recent manifestation of socio-political homophobia in Africa as ‘the bankruptcy of a certain kind of imagination’.
Since then, Wainaina has developed into one of the most vocal critics, not only of homophobia but also of the religious forces that incite and fuel it. In interviews and through social media, he has publicly voiced a strong critique of popular forms of Christianity in Kenya and wider in Africa.
His particular target of criticism appears to be Pentecostalism, which he claims to be a major factor in the recent politicisation of homosexuality in Africa. As Wainaina put it when appearing in the popular TV show Jeff Koinange Life following his January 2014 coming out: ‘What I don’t like, and this is where my anger comes from, what I don’t like is how public space has been squashed by Pentecostal demon hunters’ (KTN Kenya 2014).
In this paper I explore the ways how Wainaina develops and expounds his critique of Pentecostalism and homophobia. The case of Wainaina as a public critic of religious homophobia is important because it allows foregrounding African agency in the fight against anti-homosexual politics and the struggle for the recognition of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) human rights in contemporary Africa.
In African contexts where religion is predominantly used to reinforce and legitimise homophobia and anti-homosexual politics, it is particularly important to draw attention to counter-discourses and -practices emerging within these contexts.
In this paper I therefore discuss Wainaina as one prominent example of African agency, courage, creativity and authority in the struggle for sexual diversity and gay rights in contemporary Africa. More specifically, I present him as a queer prophet and as a critic of religion in Kenya’s public sphere. Referring to a publicly out and proud gay man who is not ashamed of performing gender ambiguity and challenging the conventions of masculinity, as a prophet – generally thought of as a pious, zealous and holy man of God – might seem unusual and for some even inappropriate. Indeed, I suggest a queering of the figure of the prophet as a socio-political critic – appropriating this figure for queer politics.

A Queer among the Prophets
There are many figures in Kenya’s history as well as in contemporary Kenya that have been called, or call themselves ‘prophet’. In anthropological literature, a variety of religious characters – such as diviners, oracles, spirit mediums and witch-doctors – that can be found in the Eastern African region has been described with the ancient/biblical term ‘prophet’. This variety becomes even greater when one takes into account the manifestation of self-declared prophets in Kenyan Christian circles, both in twentieth-century independent churches, and in twenty-first century (neo)Pentecostal churches.
In their attempt to come up with a more precise use of the term ‘prophet’ in East Africa, Johnson and Anderson (1995)  define the prophet as an ‘inspired figure’ who ‘must be concerned with the wider moral community at a social or political level’ and whose moral authority is believed by the community ‘to be inspired by a divinity or other source of spiritual or moral knowledge that influences the destiny of the community’ (ibid, 17-19).
I do not suggest that Wainaina perceives himself, or is perceived by others, as divinely inspired. Referring to him as a prophet might be a queer, unexpected move, and indeed requires a queering of the figure of the prophet itself. In using this term, I foreground the aspect of the prophet being concerned with the wider community at a socio-political level. As Abraham Joshua Heschel (2001, 12) famously stated with reference to the biblical tradition, ‘the prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.’
As a socio-political critic, the prophet thus stands up and speaks out against the powers that be. In this sense, prophets can generally be thought of as inherently queer. Here I have in mind David Halperin’s (1997, 62) famous capturing of the term ‘queer’ as demarcating ‘not a positivity, but a positionality vis-a-vis the normative’. Wainaina certainly is such a queer prophetic figure, in the sense of him presenting a radical social, political and religious critique of certain norms and power structures in society, as well as opening up an alternative, transgressive space of socio-political imagination.
However, Wainaina is also queer in a more specific way, as his prophetic contribution is rooted, in the words of Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas (2013, 3), in ‘a perspective that embraces gender and sexual plurality and seeks to transform, overhaul and revolutionise African order rather than seek to assimilate into oppressive hetero-patriarchal-capitalist frameworks’. This political perspective was the major reason for him to come out as gay. As he explained in an interview: ‘I had to come out to be useful. In the closet I could not be useful (Mwachiro 2015, 99).
Two further aspects of Johnson and Anderson’s definition are useful to think about Wainaina as a queer prophet. First, the notion that the authority of a prophet depends on ‘a community who is willing to listen and prepared to respond’ (Johnson and Anderson 1995, 19). In other words, a prophet needs to be given a certain platform to be granted legitimacy and authority. In Wainaina’s case it is clear that he received such a platform, with Kenyan newspapers and other media reporting about his coming out and Wainaina being invited to several TV shows and other podia to talk openly about his experiences and views.
Second, prophets always risk to be contested, as their message can be rejected by ‘dissenters or disbelievers within the wider community’ (ibid) or can be challenged by emerging rival prophets. This applies to Wainaina in two ways. Of course, his message received a mixed response and was rejected by many Kenyans. Yet I am particularly interested how Wainaina as a queer prophet himself is contesting the established authority of other prophets in the country.

Pentecostals Prophesying against Homosexuality
In recent years, Kenya has witnessed intense public and political debates about homosexuality and LGBT rights. I have no space to explore this in detail but will focus here on the contribution from Pentecostal circles. Two contributions particularly stand out.
First, Prophet Dr David E. Owuor, the leader of the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness. Owuor has become an enormously popular, though controversial, figure in Kenya’s religious scene, especially after the post-election violence in 2007 which he claimed to have predicted.
Owuor has recently raised the issue of homosexuality at a number of occasions. For example, when he was invited at State House to pray for the country, he reminded the President that ‘righteousness must thrive in order to clear out evil, corruption, homosexuality, immorality and terrorism in the mighty name of Jesus’ (quoted in Wesonga 2014). The suggestion here is that homosexuality is a major national threat, comparable even to terrorism. Homosexuality is used as a site of morality, not just at an individual level but also at a national level. The strong concern is that the moral fabric of Kenya as an African and Christian nation is under threat.
The latter concern is even more apparent from the discourse presented by the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK), an umbrella body of Pentecostal and evangelical churches and organisations. In 2014, EAK published a booklet, Kenya Let’s Pray!, with a 100-day prayer schedule. In his foreword, EAK chair, Bishop Mark Kariuki expresses the hope that the prayer campaign will ‘serve as a turning point’ because Kenya is at ‘a crisis point’ facing serious threats. Reading through the booklet, it becomes clear what the major threats are: they are as varied as terrorism, tribalism, corruption, economic challenges, as well as, indeed, homosexuality. On day 46 of the campaign, the prayer theme is ‘Homosexuality, sexual perversion, drug and alcohol abuse in our children’s schools’. This reflects an interesting parallel with Ugandan discourses where children – as the future of the nation – are also represented as ‘a particular locus of social vulnerability’ (Sadgrove et al. 2012, 121).
Both cases exemplify an emerging prophetic Pentecostalist discourse in Kenya in which homosexuality is considered a threat to the moral purity of the nation.

Wainaina’s Critique of Christianity in Africa
As a queer prophet, Wainaina since his coming out has publicly criticised the role of Christianity in the recent politicisation of homosexuality. In particular, he critically examines popular rhetoric opposing homosexuality because it would be ‘un-African’ and ‘un-Christian’.
He challenges the strategic representation of homosexuality as ‘un-African’ by referring to the history of same-sex sexualities in Africa – a continent that according to Wainaina (2015), is ‘the moral reservoir of human diversity, human aid, human dignity’. In an interview, he then goes on by stating:

And the argument [against homosexuality] is always made under the banner of the church. They start the conversation with “it’s not African culture because it says XYZ in Leviticus.” But nobody has sought to document any arguments [besides what they read in the Bible]. I think it’s … a conversation that has come into the African space via the church. (Ndibe 2014a)

Blaming the church for the way homosexuality has been politicised and homophobia has become endemic, Wainaina appears to be particularly critical of those arguments conflating ‘African culture’ with Christianity. Thus he states:

People always talk about homosexuality and the African culture but when you ask them to quote they quote the Bible. Is the bible/Christianity part of our African culture? (Ngunjiri 2014)

The fundamental question raised here is about the place of Christianity in a post-colonial African society like Kenya. Wainaina suggests that because Christianity originally came from the West, it cannot function as a source of moral authority in Africa. The argument of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o about Decolonising the Mind is directly applied by Wainaina to the sphere of religion. In a tweet on 4 February 2014, he stated: ‘Show me one decolnised (sic) African christian church, and I shall join it’ (Wainaina 2014).
In addition to this fundamental critique of Christianity, Wainaina also questions the hypocrisy in the church undermining its moral authority. Referring to the fervour with which pastors have spoken out against homosexuality and gay rights, he remarks:

I documented, just in the African media since January, 335 cases of gross misbehaviour by Pentecostal pastors. 335. … So I don’t understand why we are having a religious, moral conversation around people who harm nobody. (Ndibe 2014b)

Not only are Pentecostal pastors hypocritical, Wainaina also suggests they miss the essence of what the Christian faith is about. Here, he engages in religious thought in order to criticise the church for singling out homosexuality as the major moral concern, and gay people as the major category of sinners:

We are all sinners. … We are all sinners, and we all seek sanctuary in the eyes of the Lord. And the sanctuary is a right given to all human beings. And that sanctuary is the sanctuary that the church gives. Its job is not to judge, condemn, influence law or such—it’s to give that sanctuary. So the question becomes: where did the crazy rightwing-ness come from? (Ndibe 2014b)

Thus, Wainaina suggests that the church, instead of being preoccupied with the ‘sin’ of homosexuality, should provide a safe space and demonstrate love to people marginalised because of their sexuality.
The question where the ‘crazy rightwing-ness’ of homophobia and anti-homosexual politics in Africa did come from is answered by Wainaina with reference to Pentecostalism, and its belief in demons.

A Queer Satire of Pentecostal Demonology
In African Pentecostal imagination, demons play a central role. Demonology has also shaped the way how Pentecostals have responded to homosexuality. The gay rights agenda is seen as a satanic conspiracy to impose homosexuality on Africa. Individuals believed to be homosexual are targeted by so-called deliverance ministries delivering them from the ‘demon of homosexuality’ that would possess them.
Wainaina has made the Pentecostal concern with demons a focal point of his critique.
In part two of his Let’s Free Our Imagination videos, he discusses the growth of Pentecostalism and the widespread concern with demons in Kenya in the 1980s under the telling title ‘This Ecstasy of Madness’. He explains the outbreak of ‘panic fever’ with reference to the social, economic and political context in Kenya at the time: the dictatorial one-party state under Daniel Arap Moi, the collapsing economy, and the manifestation of a new disease, AIDS. Against this background, he says it is explicable that people ‘start getting the feeling that there are these forces’ and seek help from ‘these brokers of the forces’ – pastors.
Wainaina himself however has little sympathy for Pentecostal pastors profiting from people’s fear and anxiety. Instead, he became ‘dedicated to a rational, secular life’ (ibid) and recently has started using satire to ridicule Pentecostal demonology.
Of particular interest here is a series of messages that Wainaina tweeted in January 2014. These tweets have been compiled and edited into a singular piece of text with the title “African Homosexual Deamon”, published on the weblog BrittlePaper. This series of twenty-one tweets opens with the question: ‘So the deamon for homosexuality, is it French? Coz many Pentecostals say it is not African.’ Obviously, Wainaina here seeks to address and interrogate the popular perception that homosexuality is un-African and is a Western invention. The style he uses is satire, as is obvious from his further tweets in which he writes:

Bible Scientists who know the field very well have deeply researched ALL African knowledge and are sure Gay deamon DID indeed come from the West. Scientists and experts on Bible Africa are sure Homo deamon was imported. I’m not sure though whether by plane or ship. Container number? Homosexuality deamon could very well have arrived, not in a container (carrying Friesian bulls maybe?), it could have come with passengers. (Edoro 2014)

A satirical blend of irony, exaggeration and ridicule, this passage makes the popular idea that homosexuality came from the West look absurd.
Wainaina’s tweet-story becomes fantastic when he writes about his personalised homosexuality demon possessing the son of a pastor who goes to the Netherlands on a scholarship. Together returning to Africa with the new found homosexual ideology, when flying over Sudan their plane is attacked by ‘a chariot of male African homosexuality deamons’ (ibid), consisting of Wolof and Azande-speaking demons, as well as two kings, Zulu King Shaka and Buganda King Kabaka Mwanga. This reference is significant as the Wolof and Azande people as well as these two kings have been associated with pre-colonial traditions of ‘dissident’ sexuality. Thus, Wainaina evokes the memory of these traditions to counter the idea of homosexuality as un-African.
In the remainder of his fantastic tweet-story, Wainaina refers to Ugandan President Museveni and prominent Ugandan anti-gay pastor Martin Ssempa and writes that they ‘wanted to make some contacts with some crazy Bush type southern Baptist ex-slave owning types’. Thus he insinuates that the anti-homosexual politics and legislation in Uganda are inspired by American Christian-right evangelicals.
The tweet-story is not a coherent piece of fiction at all, but rather a satirical rant full of ridicule and fantasy. It is not clear whether Wainaina deliberately intended to mimic the wild, speculative discourse of many Pentecostal preachers. Yet it is obvious that this piece of satire is his ironic response to popular Pentecostal views in which homosexuality is associated with the Devil, is considered a sign of the end times, and a threat to the nation as serious as terrorism. As the editor of BrittlePaper puts it, the text is the result of ‘storytelling [tipping] over the edge of prophecy’. The prophetic aspect of the story can be found in the exposure and interrogation of popular arguments while creatively opening up a space for new imaginations, such as of ‘Afro-homosexualism’. It is a queer prophecy for that matter, because of its creative and absurd style as well as the way it subverts Pentecostal demonology and shifts the focus from the demon of homosexuality to the demon of Pentecostalism.

Conclusion
Referring to himself as a pan-Africanist and Afropolitan, Wainaina evokes the history of same-sex sexualities on the African continent to legitimate his own African gay identity and claim a space for African queer people. He has created a public platform from where he has moved the debates on homosexuality in Kenya and wider in Africa in new directions. On that platform he prophetically challenges the powers that be, interrogates popular norms, and contests the moral authority of his opponents, the Pentecostal pastors and prophets preoccupied with the ‘demon of homosexuality’. Criticising Pentecostalism for its colonialist cultural and socio-political agenda, and reclaiming African traditions of diversity and sexual plurality, Wainaina through the power of language and imagination emerges as a prophet, postcolonially queer.

 

References

Ekine, Sokari, and Hakima Abbas, eds. (2013). Queer African Reader. Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford: Pambazuka Press.
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Sadgrove, Joanna, Robert M. Vanderbeck, Johan Andersson, Gill Valentine, and Kevin Ward (2012). ‘Morality Plays and Money Matters: Towards a Situated Understanding of the Politics of Homosexuality in Uganda’, Journal of Modern African Studies 50/1, 103–129.
Wainaina, Binyavanga (2011). One Day I Will Write About This Place. London: Granta.
——— (2014). ‘Show me one decolnised African christian church, and I shall join it.’ [Twitter], 4 February, 21:30 UCT. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/binyavangaw/status/430936435093282816 [accessed 24 March 2015].
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