David Kuria, an openly gay man, will be facing an election on March, 2013 for the position of Senator of Kenya’s Kiambu County.
Kuria was the co-founder and general manager of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), and intends to use this experience for the advantage of his electorate.
This is exceptional in a country where sexual acts between men are illegal under the Kenyan statutes and carry a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment.
His election campaign has started and focuses on anti-poverty, social empowerment, health and reforming politics. He is running for office in a county which has a population of over 1.6 million people, right at the doorstep of Nairobi, the country’s capital.
GSN interviews Kuria about his campaign, his vision and hopes.
We start by asking him about the relationship between his previous work as an activist and his interest in politics.
‘My interest in politics is something that always has been there. This is the first time though I am running to a public office.
‘My involvement with LGBT activism dates back to 2006, when I was one of the people who founded GALCK, which later in 2008 got funding and the I became its general manage until 2011.
‘I always had an interest in politics but thought I can’t take part in it as I’m gay, but as I got involved in LGBT activism, I thought, wait, I think it is possible to have this dream.
‘We have made progress and people are willing to listen, so I thought, maybe it’s not a big deal after all to go for political office.
‘So really my interest in politics predates my work as an activist but it did help as it showed me people are willing to listen.’
What about the fact that you open about your sexuality?
‘Kiambu neighbours Nairobi, and its fairly urban, it is also an area where during the colonial period where the colonists settled, and so it is highly westernised. I think that makes people less interested in me as “gay” but more in what I have got to say. This despite the fact, that some radio stations that have branded me “the gay” candidate.
‘Regarding the fact that I am gay, it is not an issue that people have not heard about. In my public engagements people do not want to talk about that issue, it is not because they do not know about it, it is because they make a choice not talk about gay issues or about having a “gay” candidate.
‘People are more interested in the agenda, in how different I am from the other candidates that are standing for office.
‘The general response has been very positive. People are very polite; they wouldn’t say anything negative to your face, which is good as you can engage with them. But of course it leaves you wondering if people are accepting me or privately they have reservations.
‘Being able to run in and of itself is a huge feat. It relates to the new constitution we have in Kenya, where no one can stop me, and that is good, because then we can have a “gay face” in terms of publicity.
‘Then again we are speaking about issues that are of concern to every individual in Kenya and principally in Kiambu.
‘I knew from my experience in GALK that if you speak about LGBT rights, you look at the faces of people and you can see that most of them are basically tuned off. That is, If they are polite enough to stay in the room and listen to you.
‘But now we engage with people, and they know that you are a gay person. In my last radio interview the journalist, for some reason, kept on saying: “Oh, he is running for Kiambu Senator but he is gay”, but people were not really bothered about that.
‘When we talk about LGBT rights people think of sex, so we are here talking about issues in a context that is not related to sex, and I think that is great.
‘For me this is very important, we are not talking about sex or decriminalisations, which are automatically associated with “gay rights”. If we are going to reduce the hostility against gay people, I think this is an approach we never thought of before that might actually work.’
What about the issue of your sexuality in a larger political context?
‘UDF [the United Democratic Forum Party of Kenya] party officials have been very supportive, but politicians, in particular one of them, saying that the party is not working with me.
‘It was a huge shock, first of all he acknowledged me, as a member of the party but as one which is not supporting my candidature.
‘As for the competitors I think they do not think that people can vote for a gay person, so maybe they are in for a huge shock.
‘What I’d like to do is run as an independent, because I am then assured of being on the ballot box.
‘On a grassroots level I think it’s possible to convince people and they are listening.’
So what are the issues you are discussing in the context of your candidacy?
‘I speak about a five point program.
‘The first point is participatory representation, where people have a stake in the political process. Normally once a candidate gets elected he or she forgets about the electorate until the five year term is nearly up. This means that people can be assured that I will represent their interest at all times.
‘The second is about engineering health systems. You see in Kenya people still die from easily curable diseases. If we approach the issue from a social perspective – for example, improving sanitation; if we had proper sanitation facilities where people can simply wash their hands after visiting the toilet, we would prevent many water borne diseases, like typhoid and diarrhoea, which is one of the main cause of death for children age five and below.
‘Dealing with such issues from a structural point of view is possible, but then we have to improve the health systems, hire more doctors, nurses and all that. Everyone says that, but not improving the social aspects from structural point of view is something that most people are silent about.
‘The third is improving Kiambu’s visibility in terms of investment, as we are neighbouring Nairobi. If we took an investment angle of our proximity to the capital and to the international airport and of our agricultural lands, we are able to provide job opportunities for our youth. We provide a theory of change, and that is something new to our competitors, it hasn’t really occurred to them.
‘The fourth point is the Kuria foundation that we have established. Its aim is to eradicate extreme poverty in Kiambu. We do this by engaging with individuals, families and community-based groups, with the aim of supporting them to access mainstream anti-poverty programs.
‘This has attracted a lot of attention and discussion. Just a few weeks ago a group of elders asked me to meet and explain the issue of the foundation with them. So people see that this is a unique approach and positively react to it.
‘The last point is about providing second chances. Kiambu was the most modernised region in Kenya, it was the first to adopt women empowerment, but we unfortunately forget to empower our boys. So much so that there are more girls are now in school while many boys drop out earlier and have serious issues of substance and drug abuse.
‘We need second opportunities to our youth, we have men who have gotten into crime and we need to get them out in a supportive way. I know what it means to be excluded and discriminated against, so it is easy for me, as I share some of the experiences that they have. It is interesting that the youth have been listening to that.
‘A group of 400 youths have invited me to talk with them how to help their colleagues who gotten into drugs and alcohol.
‘So on the whole people are listening and I don’t know how the campaign progresses but I do know it is something that people are receptive to.’
What are the issues that you are right now facing in your campaign work?
‘I have many invitations to go to meetings I cannot manage to attend. Because of my history in gay rights activism, chances of me getting funds to run a campaign here in Kenya is nil. That is why we are running a fundraising campaign; the goal is to finance at least a 100 meetings in Kiambu, if we got enough support. It would be great to get some support from the readers of this interview.’
Is there a particular message you would like to get across to readers of this interview?
‘Africa has some really bad stories: we have what is on-going in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Cameroon and other parts of the continent. But you have some cases of hope, like Kenya. I think that in as much as we support countries that are having trouble it is also important to support those making progress, because we often forget about them. They can act as springboard from which to help those who are having problem.
‘Say we win this seat the next elections; Uganda will be hard-pressed to continue its hard-line stance against its LGBT community as a member of the East African Community. For sure that is one of the issues I would bring at the community level, because how is it possible for us to pursue an East African Community while some members are homophobic. This is why it’s important to support the countries which are making progress.’
Watch Kuria and his family in the short video below: