Colloquium Close-up: Kuchu Culture in Kenya

Deb Amory, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Purchase, presented a creative and challenging talk on Gay Globalization in the CLAGS Colloquium Series in March, using her research on a group of urban same-gender loving men in Kenya.

Amory argues against thinking of ‘gay globalization’ as a single, simple monolithic thing. Instead, she accents the importance of the growing international lesbi-gay-trans-queer human rights movement, and the emergence of a set of recognized media symbols, i.e. rainbow flags, gay pride parades, drag queens, and what she refers to as “the Kiss.” Using a selection of Associated Press photos collected from a purposely casual search (generated from plugging in the word “gay” on her browser) Amory shows us how ubiquitous these symbols have become, though primarily in a western context.

Rather than using the omnipresence of these symbols (even in parts of Africa) as an argument for the depth of globalization, Amory challenges us to ‘visualize’ what it is like to be gay in Africa in terms of ‘layering modernities.’ Here she refers to the layers of our experience as ‘modern gays’, and how those layers are interconnected but still very different from each other. Since the conventionally recognized symbols of “gay” life (rainbow flags, the Kiss, etc.) are absent from Kenyan Kuchu visualizations, Amory argues that we are seeing not a globalization of gay cultures, but the layering of queer modernities.

Amory’s field research (and friendship) was among a group of young men in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, who describe themselves as “kuchu.” The term comes from a Bantu-ization of the slang English word, “coochie,” and which the young men use to identify their crew of young, urban, mostly effeminate homosexual men. While she spent some time trying to configure the kuchu world into the rest of Kenyan “queer” culture, much of Amory’s talk focused on describing kuchu culture, and letting the testimonies and photographs of the men speak for themselves.

By presenting a series of what she termed “visualizations,” (images and musings on the culture and lives of kuchu in Kenya), Amory helps us to see both the intersections and cleavages between Kenyan and global gay culture. Kuchu may craft their public identities based on Black gay characters in western media, but they do so in ways uniquely African. The fiercest diva in Nairobi dons the moniker not of Madonna, but calls herself “Miss Angelique Kidjoe.” Amory observed that even in the casual teasing during which these men create community and define themselves, they embrace symbols of power and wealth. For the young men, many of whom are sex workers, Bill Gates is the ultimate husband. One cannot help but make comparisons with the Ball Culture in Black gay urban culture in the U.S., where Gucci and Prada are the symbols of acceptance into the national culture. According to Amory, “the layers of experience are produced from the differences that are the result of structural inequalities — differences of class, of race, of gender.
Amory’s research is particularly important in the context of the viciously anti-gay rhetoric of Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi. Moi has recently joined the ranks of the heads- of-state of Zimbabwe and Uganda in attacking gays and lesbians. Rather than driving queer culture in Africa underground, these attacks seem to be engendering well- organized responses by self-identified African gays and lesbians. In fact, the globalization of state-inspired homophobia is likely to lead to greater visibility for kuchu and other same-gender loving men and women in Africa, both locally and internationally. Though we may never see a gay pride parade bounding down Kenyatta Avenue, and “the Kiss” may never grace the front page of the East African Standard, non-Western cultural responses to homophobia will necessarily broaden our list of symbols.

Cary Alan Johnson
Diaspora in Action for Development