Accelerating acceptance: Chris Makena Njeri on the support African queer communities need right now

Chris Makena Njeri, CEO of BOLD Network Africa, speaks on their organization harnesses the power of storytelling to support queer communities.

Why It Matters

Out of 54 countries in Africa, only 22 have legalized homosexuality, and only South Africa has legalized same-sex marriage. While the task of overturning these laws is vital, queer folks more immediately need a support network and safe spaces.

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In 2019, Chris Makena Njeri was outed as gay. Pictures of their vandalized car with hateful comments went viral on Twitter, and their inbox was flooded with hate mail. Njeri says this topic continued to be a social media trend in Kenya for over a week. At the time, they worked as a journalist for the BBC, and even the validity of their work was being questioned because of their sexuality. “The fact that I was outed, when I was not ready to come out, was something that really, really disturbed me,” says Njeri. 

During the process of recovering from this experience, Njeri spent a lot of time introspecting, and asking themselves what they could’ve done differently. “For the longest time, unfortunately, I had given people the permission to give out my story the way they wanted to give it out, and this would’ve constantly continued the bullying and the harassment…And I thought to myself, ‘what if I just actually give out my story the way it’s supposed to be?’” 

Njeri switched gears. They started speaking on different social media platforms “boldly” about being gay, reclaming their voice and story. Njeri immediately started to recognize how taking control over their own story affected people’s reaction to it. While there were still negative comments, the amount of support and positivity was significantly more. This led Njeri to want to empower other queer people in Kenya and across Africa to also find strength in telling their own stories. 

Future of Good spoke to Njeri about the broad landscape of issues the queer community faces throughout Africa, and the challenges community organizations like BOLD Network Africa come across in supporting LGBTQ2S+ folks . 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Neha Chollangi: What was your vision when you started up BOLD Network Africa? 

Chris Makena Njeri: Being a journalist for all those years, and a trained filmmaker, I really do believe in the power of storytelling. And storytelling was my number one…how can we use storytelling to be able to break different barriers, accelerate acceptance in the continent and to end discrimination for the LGBTQ community?  

I wanted to be able to change people’s mindsets, whether in workspaces, homes, and also within the LGBTQ space for people who have gone through so much trauma.

Neha: When we talk about storytelling, what kind of role does it play within the organization? 

Chris: In our three pillars for the BOLD Network Africa, number one is storytelling— so doing documentaries and docu-series that will be able to highlight the lives of LGBTQ people, and just paint them in different scenarios, and show their journey of owning their identity. 

Neha: What are some other areas of focus for BOLD Network Africa?

The second pillar is training, or education. I realized, even just from social media trolls, and the many people that I spoke to, that lack of knowledge creates fear and what people don’t know they constantly attack. 

So there’s a need for serious education and sensitization for people in the African continent. We pitch to different organizations, and also try to get into different spaces where we can educate people, right from the basics of even understanding what LGBTQ stands for. This includes local workplaces, corporate organizations, and even parents seeks to better understand their queer children. 

Then the third pillar is music and arts. I have seen what music and arts has done to the Western world in terms of exhilarating acceptance; having artists who are in the LGBTQ space coming out and singing music. How can we be able to use musical arts here in Africa to be able to advance the acceptance and just write songs for the community?

Neha: So looking at these three elements, has your initial vision evolved since the start? 

Chris:  Although a couple of things have changed, having gone through last year, and now just seeing other different needs. But we’re still trying to marry them within the three pillars that we work on. 

I realized that so many people in the community just crave a safe space. Sometimes they just want time away from home, where they’re being discriminated against by their parents. or they just need a safe space away from university. 

So we started curating small events partnered with an organization called The Dance Shagz, where the founder is very big on using dance to break down many different societal norms in Africa. We started creating events every single month called ‘Bold and Proud’ where people came together, they are loved, they are celebrated, they are safe, and also just bringing in more allies.

Neha: Have there been challenges in holding these events or promoting these causes, whether that be from COVID-19 or general stigma? 

Chris: We did six successful events, and unfortunately, in November 2021, our Bold and Proud events had to be cancelled. This is because the police, of course, decided to make us a target. They looked for the owner of this place where we were going to do the work, and said that it’s illegal to hold these kinds of events in your facility. They said ‘if you guys go ahead with this, we are definitely going to come and raid.’

That particular point, of course, for me, was a very big setback, but also eye-opening to see that police are not sensitized, so there’s still a lot of work when it comes to education and sensitization [of police]. But for the safety of the people in the community, we had to cancel that event.

Neha: What are some of the major issues for queer folks in Kenya, and more widely in Africa today? 

Chris: The biggest issue is discrimination from a very, very young age. Kids in Africa are not given the opportunity to speak their truth and to live their truth. 

Many kids in the LGBTQ space end up dropping out of school just because of the kind of bullying and harassment that they go through when they are in college or even high school. And so there’s a lot of unemployment for most of the queer folk here in Africa. What that means is that if you do not have money to be able to sustain yourself, it also reduces, unfortunately, the voice that you have in society. 

I think people in the LGBTQ space are definitely lacking when it comes to healthcare issues because they do not have ease of access into medical centers because of discrimination and lack of sensitization. Many people in the community are constantly having different issues with STIs, and they don’t even know where to go to get treatment. It’s healthcare from that perspective, and also mental health issues. 

Neha: How is BOLD Network Africa approaching this topic of these healthcare issues?

Chris: This year, looking for proper funding for healthcare is a major goal. We as an organization are starting to look at and speak to different doctors and see how we can create BOLD health care centers where people in the community can know they are going to find medical officers, doctors, and nurses who have been sensitized. And people can be able to get the proper health care that they deserve.

Neha: What are some other goals for the organization you have on the horizon for the coming years? 

Chris: We want to create a network and a movement that goes beyond the borders of Kenya.  As we’ve been doing our work, we get a lot of people from say, Uganda or Rwanda saying, ‘we are going through the same challenges, but unfortunately, we don’t have people like you who are bold enough to be able to start this kind of organization.’ 

So I’m looking at how I can make the social movement bigger than Kenya, and of course, that still requires funding. But for me, it’s how I can be able to create, for example, a platform using technology that can be able to connect all of us in the continent, or some parts of the continent so we can be able to start moving forward with the same speed.

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