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Kenya:  Girls Together



July 5, 2003: We have heard of the growing number of gay men in our midst but very rarely do we hear people speak about the women yet apparently they are just as many.


"Hata hiyo maneno wanayoongea, hatuwezi kusema kwa lugha yetu"

- Former President Daniel arap Moi on gays.


That could very easily sum up the accepted Kenyan attitude towards gays. Kenyans, at least most of them, are straight ugali and sukuma wiki people. They value their traditions and conform to societal norms. Men are brought up to be real men and women are brought up to be real women. These two categories of people link up to form a family unit which in turn forms a society. And they live happily ever after or so goes the gospel according to African tradition society.


Though not an accepted societal norm, gay relationships between men have become fairly commonplace here in Kenya. Between women, however, it is a subject that hardly ever comes up. Yet an increasing number of women in Kenya are involved in relationships with same sex partners. Does this point to hitherto undisclosed flaws in our societal values or is this a side-effect of modernity?


Haunted by these questions and apprehensive of the daunting task of getting gay people to come out of the closet, Mokaya Migiro went looking for lesbians willing to talk. These are their true stories. Names have been changed to protect privacy.


See them out on a date, most people think it's a girls night out. Since most women hug, peck and sometimes hold hands, they do not stand out. Because of this acceptable affection, lesbians find it easy to blend-in negating the need for special social places.


I meet Carol, a successful 30-year-old businesswoman, casual in jeans, shirt and safari boots. Hers is not just a casual fling. She not only lives with her lover, Katrina, but has had the relationship formalised.


Carol feels women are more gentle, caring, loving and honest than men.


"I could have sex with a man and fake it. But I couldn't fake it with a woman. When I am with a woman it is something so pure and special," she says, "And it is not just about having great sex. It is about this loving, caring and gentle relationship. Remembering birthdays, keeping time and putting the person you love before you.


"For the past four and a half years that I have been with my girlfriend, she has never forgotten my birthday or our anniversary. It is all these loving gestures that you would never get in a man that make me love her even more," she enthuses.


Carol and her girlfriend felt so strongly about each other that they decided to get married 19 months ago.


"We wanted to show that our commitment to each other was for real. When I die, I'd like my partner to inherit my property as my next of kin. Hopefully by then, the law here will have changed," says Carol, who sports a diamond engagement ring and a gold wedding band.


"Besides, my partner works for this company that has very good benefits for spouses including free air tickets and medical cover. We thought it made sense for me to have these benefits."  But Kenyan law does not recognise same sex marriages, so Carol and Katrina went to Switzerland, where Katrina is from.


"All her family and friends were there at the ceremony. I had already met her mother when she came to Kenya to visit Katrina and she was really cool about the whole thing. We went to the equivalent of the Attorney-General's chambers, signed the papers then had dinner and a party at our friend's place. That's how simple it was," Carol recalls.


Back home, things are not so simple. Many Kenyans would argue that lesbianism is a foreign concept and an unsavoury side-effect of modernity and Westernisation.


"Who says that lesbianism started recently? Many women have been able to fool men all through time. Even now some of my male friends do not know I am a lesbian. They think Katrina and I are just good friends sharing a house. Let sleeping dogs lie," says Carol with a sly smile.


And what about comments that it's all a foreign lifestyle? "The people who have hit on me are mostly Kenyan women. Even though I am married to a white woman, white lesbians in Kenya are few. Most of my friends who are in relationships are Kenyans. It's not therefore right, at least in my experience, to claim that lesbianism is a foreign concept. It is very much with us here today and those involved are locals" says Carol.


Carol believes her upbringing influenced her decision to get involved in same-sex relationships. In her home, the eight daughters were forced to wait on their younger brothers and violent father.


"My father made us feel our brothers were more important than we were. He basically considered us girls a waste of space. We would be asked, even though we were older than them, to serve, cook and clean for our brothers. They were small kings in our house," says Carol.


Her mother's advice also turned her against men. "My mother believed all women who suffer do so because of men. When I was 12 years old, there was a photograph in the paper of a pregnant nine-year-old girl. My mother called all of us girls and told us, 'You see, this is what you are going to be like if you keep fooling around with men.'


Growing up seeing the men being favoured and the violence that her father would unleash on her mother, Carol made a decision that "men would never rule my life again".


She traces her first lesbian encounter to when she was doing her 'O' levels. One day, the head girl just kissed her out of the blue. "It felt so good. Boys wanted only one thing. This kiss felt like it was not a demand for sex. It was more an appreciation of who I was," she recalls.


She enjoys the equality she experiences in a relationship with a woman. "I'm equal from my kitchen to my bedroom, to my car, to my place of work. I am not the type who wants a 'man' in the house," she says.


That has not stopped her from experimenting with men. Five years ago, she had her first sexual relationship with a man "I liked him, he listened to me and my body", and she continues to have the occasional affair even though she is now in a monogamous relationship.

"I have always had relationships with women, but men I just sleep with. There are times I prefer men. I think it has something to do with a woman's cycle. Sometimes I just feel like I need a man.


"My girlfriend is also bisexual and she doesn't mind me sleeping with men because it is not a threat to what we have. And besides I only sleep with men when I want to and according to the terms that I dictate.


"When I feel like, I pick a man up, sleep with him and then discard him quickly. Most men I have encountered do not even know I am attached to a woman. They think they are very smooth and that is how they scored with me. I sometimes think if they knew who I really was they'd be devastated," Carol laughs.


Looking to the future, Carol's wish is that gay rights - in particular same-sex marriages - be recognised.


Next I meet Precious, a 24-year-old logistics manager. Dread-locked, beautiful, with big brown eyes, an almost shy persona with a killer smile, she comes across as tomboy-ish and laid back but very intense.


She wears no make-up, prefers shirts and sneakers to skirts and heels. A mix of silver and African jewellery - the kind you'd associate with independent, creative women - completes her look. She smokes, is unbeatable in pool, gives firm handshakes and can drink any man under the table!


Over a drink, she agrees to talk to me on condition that I keep her identity secret, this she says is not just to protect her but her partner as well. A few stalling tactics and awkward silences later, she begins her story.


Like Carol, her first lesbian experience was at school.


"When I joined Form One, we were allocated 'big sisters' from senior classes to act as our guardians. Mine was a Form Three student with a heart of pure gold. She helped me with my studies, warned off the bullies and ensured I was comfortably settled in.


Inevitably, I developed a deep bond with her. So deep that sometimes I'd spend the night in her bed. First, it was the cuddles, then the fooling around and before I knew it, we were spending every night together."


A sip of her drink as she warms up to the tale. "Our relationship didn't last long though because we were discovered by the teachers. This led to my being suspended on numerous occasions. Of course, I always denied any wrongdoing when I went home but my mother suspected. She never really said that she didn't believe me, but I could tell ... she just suspected."


"After high school, I started seeing men. I had a few relationships with them, some of which were very fulfilling but I still felt drawn to women. I started seeing women secretly. Some were just experimenting while others were completely gay and it was all so much fun. Then I got to where I decided there was no point in playing games with the men in my life when the only people I really felt comfortable with were women. Looking back now, I don't regret having made that decision."


Precious lifts a cigarette to her lips, lights it, takes a deep drag and simultaneously drops the pack almost carelessly on the table - a gesture I find very masculine.


But what attracts her to members of her own sex? Was it something in her childhood perhaps or the men in her life?


"Not at all," she is quick to point out. "I had a perfectly normal childhood, a good family and lots of love. All my siblings are straight. I'm the only 'crooked' one, if you like. The men in my life had nothing to do with my decision either.


"I feel the same way a man does when he looks at a woman and is so taken by her that he cannot even speak. How do you explain that attraction ... that magnetic pull from which there is no running away?"


Precious is in a serious relationship with Jalalo, a 29-year-old aid worker. Tall, stunningly beautiful and extremely charming, Jalalo has that regal carriage of a model. Effortlessly, she can pull men and women with one penetrating gaze from her feline eyes. She has a seven-year-old daughter from a previous marriage with whom they live.


"I was born in a very traditional home," she says. "I went to school, worked hard, got employed then married well. I wanted to be the perfect daughter, wife and eventually mother. A few years into my marriage, I developed serious doubts about my sexuality. I'd fantasise about other women when I made love to my husband. I started seeing other women because that is what my mind, body and soul wanted me to do.


"This went on for a while until I decided to tell my husband how I felt. I thank God because he was very understanding. Him having a gay sister and being an American helped because he kept an open mind, something I think an African man would have found very hard to do. We agreed to separate, then divorce. He's now happily married and I am happy for him."


Like most couples, Precious and Jalalo have conflicting stories about how their relationship started. They both dissolve into embarrassed giggles whenever I broach the subject. With gentle coaxing, I managed to glean the facts.


When they first met, Precious was in a relationship with another woman. "But I knew that if you love something, you have to fight for it," narrates Jalalo with a conspiratorial look. "When Precious' girlfriend decided to go straight, scared her family and friends wouldn't accept it, I got my chance and I didn't waste it."


Jalalo has since taken Precious to her mother who's asked for dowry if they are to get her blessings.


Precious on the other hand has not yet summoned the courage to reciprocate the gesture.


They admit that they have fights like any other couple but not about things like "he squeezes the toothpaste in the middle". Their fights are mainly about other women. Men don't bother them that much. "Sometimes people see us having a fight and think that we are fighting over a man. Little do they know!" explains Precious.


They go to the same places that everyone else goes. We dance, drink enjoy ourselves. Anyone looking would assume we are just two friends having a nice time.


But there was something nagging my mind. Jalalo had been married before and has a child from that marriage. What about Precious, didn't she ever want to get married or have her own child?


"We've discussed it at length," says Precious. "And we've decided that if I ever want to have any children, I'd get a sperm donor purely for procreation purposes. But for now, I have Jalalo's as my own and I am not in a hurry to make up my mind."


I wonder about Jalalo's seven-year-old daughter, how she takes all this. Jalalo doesn't believe her daughter will grow up traumatised.


"When she is old enough, I'll tell her that this is mummy's special friend. I won't lie to my daughter.


People sometimes ask me whether I am encouraging her to become gay like me but I always tell them that my daughter's life is her own. If she decides to experiment, she'll try it. It's something I cannot control even if I wanted to.


"But I'll teach my daughter all about how to be a woman with morals and I'll always be there for her. Precious is already her other mother. Think about it how lucky can one be to have two mothers, a dad and a step mum who all sikizana."


Both Precious and Jalalo agree that it is much harder for gay men to come out in the open. People find it easier to accept us women than men, they say. But they admit it is a daunting task because women are already discriminated against even in law. Worse still, lesbians are a minority amongst women. They feel the time is not right yet for them to come out.


"Let us first fight for women rights, then the girl child, then maybe we'll get to us. For now we are choosing to remain anonymous but we would like people to know that we are here and we are also human beings and there's nothing wrong with being who we are. We love each other and even though we cannot show affection publicly, we hope that one day we shall be able to do so. Today, you are reading about us in the paper, tomorrow it might be your sister, daughter or wife telling you this," Precious says.


They are strongly convinced that there are very many women in Nairobi who are gay or bisexual but are too scared of their family, friends and mungiki to come out in the open. They estimate that they know 70 to 100 such women and that there are many more out there. They cite an example of a gay party they went to that had 12 female couples, most of who were married.


Source:  Behind The Mask - Girls Together 

FemmeNoir (c) 2003