The Kisumu Feminists Society was founded as an LGBT-inclusive feminist organization in Kisumu, Kenya when the women’s movement and the LGBT movement could not stand alone in the face of gender-based violence in Kenya. After the rape and murder of a nonbinary lesbian, the Kisumu Feminist Society has begun to call for #justiceforsheila to make sure that this murder, after so many others, does not go ignored.
By Jo Moses
When a Kenyan lesbian is murdered, who avenges their death? Feminists? LGBT activists? Anti-violence campaigners? All of these, argues the Kisumu Feminists Society of Kisumu, Kenya, should be the same. This is why when Sheila Lumumba, a nonbinary lesbian, was murdered in Karatina just this April, the Kisumu Feminists Society started two campaigns: #justiceforsheila and #protectqueerkenyans.
The founder of the Kisumu Feminists Society, asking to be identified only as Afrika, explained that the Kisumu Feminists society was born in 2019 after a rash of femicides. Because sexual violence and gender-based violence in Kenya often extends to members of the LGBT community, Afrika, who herself is a lesbian, was compelled to create the Kisumu Feminists Society as an “intersectional feminist organization that openly worked with LBTQ+ women, an organization that didn’t shy away from saying, ‘we work with lesbians.’” The Kisumu Feminists Society’s mission is to “prove to the region and maybe to the country that feminism and queer activism can intersect.”
Since the organization’s founding, they have held “Humanizing Black Female Bodies: Feminist Convening,” hosted a COVID-19 mutual aid drive, and worked to provide food and financial assistance to Kisumu’s female and nonbinary population. This April, the Kisumu Feminists Society began its most extensive campaign yet, #justiceforsheila, when 25-year-old Sheila Lumumba was found brutally raped and murdered in their new home in Karatina. After Sheila’s death, the Kisumu Feminists Society, and the entire Kenyan LGBT community, had questions about whether justice was really being served.
According to relatives, family friends, and organizations that advocate for LGBT rights, such as the Human Rights Watch, Sheila’s murder was not adequately investigated. “Kenyan police and the [Directorate of Criminal Investigations of Kenya] is yet to release any statement condemning the act of telling us who the perpetrators were,” said Afrika, who also explained the outrage that erupted among online supporters when it was revealed that “the police claimed to have searched [Sheila’s] whole house. And yet when Sheila’s relatives went to take their belongings, they found the murder weapon.”
#justiceforsheila is “basically a call for action in ensuring Sheila’s death doesn’t go unpunished, and they get the justice they deserve” despite inaction from police, said Afrika. Even as the days went by and Sheila’s murderers were still at large, the DCI appeared to be most focused on insulating itself from scrutiny: “They were even asking us not to post about Sheila at first because they didn’t want it to interfere with the investigations, which to me didn’t sound right because we were like, ‘we are not posting anything that could tamper with the investigation. We were just posting asking you to do your job’.”
The violence that Sheila faced and the police inaction are not an anomaly in Kenya. Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission reports that violence against queer people is a severe issue in the region, and recent high-profile murders have included those of Erica Chandra and Joash Mosoti. Afrika concurred with this assessment, adding that “Kenya is not a safe space for LGBTQ+ people.” However, this fact is often disregarded even by human rights organizations, explained Afrika. She said that “the fact that it took like, five, six days, for even organizations with […] a bigger influence to release statements condemning the act proved that we still do not have the solidarity that we need, in regards to […] ensuring that LGBTQ plus people can be protected and safe or can access justice.” This lack of solidarity is a circumstance that the Kisumu Feminists Society wants to remedy by making certain queer issues are included in human rights discussions around sexual violence or gender-based violence, and their campaign to #protectqueerkenyans.
For queer people in Kenya to finally feel safe, the Kisumu Feminists Society advocates for working with the police, religious leaders, entertainment leaders, and club owners to “identify hotspots where queer people are prone to violence” and “come up with a security plan.” In addition, the Society stands with many other activist groups against Section 162 of Kenya’s penal code that “classifies things like homosexuality and same-sex relations as unnatural acts, which in turn, […] gives people an excuse to attack and harm LGBTQ people.”
Also very necessary is for the LGBT rights movement to consider the implications of sexism for lesbian and bisexual women, trans women, and nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth or present femininely. Members of these groups are often unwillingly sexualized; that sexuality is then seen as threatening, and such a threat leads to violence. Because of this, safety for Kenyan lesbians is very precarious. In Kenya, said Afrika, “queerness is looked at from a very sexual point of view [… but] there’s so much to queerness beyond […] just sex. We are queer; we are doctors. We are queer; we are teachers. We are queer; we can be Christians.” Afrika knows that the message to Sheila was clear during their attack: “I can say this confidently as a lesbian woman […] – Sheila’s death came from a space of ‘oh you’re masculine, you’re a lesbian. And you exist in a society that expects people who look like women to act in a certain way. Let us show you what it feels like to be a woman. Or, you want to be a man? Prove to us that you can be a man’.”
Since Sheila’s death, the Kisumu Feminists society has been rallying for action. Despite the seeming indifference from Kenyan Police, Afrika urges anyone who comes across the #justiceforsheila campaign or the #protectqueerkenyans campaign to join LGBT Kenyans in speaking out, as well as to sign the Change.org petition calling for transparency in the DCI and donate to Sheila’s funeral expense fund.
Most importantly, the Kisumu Feminists Society wants everyone to keep fighting because fighting despite the opposition is to honor Sheila themselves. While only the Kenyan police have the power to bring Sheila’s murderers to justice, there is equal power in community and in pride, in continuing to love, to protest, and to mourn. “Every working day for us in this country is a resistance,” Afrika said. “We have to always stay alive; we have to stand guard [… But, nevertheless, the] Kenyan LGBTQ+ community is a community that is full of love and support. And this was shown when most of us, those who are out and those who are not out yet, came together to say #justiceforsheila […] the love was fired from all over. I’m pretty sure even Sheila, wherever they are […] would feel loved by everyone within the community.”
Ways to Help
- Tweet with the hashtags #justiceforsheila and #protectqueerkenyans.
- Sign the petition calling for police transparency in the investigation of Sheila’s death.
- Donate to Sheila’s funeral expense fund.
- Donate to fund a safe house in Kisumu for women and trans folks facing violence. You can donate through World Remit to Afrika – +254718736815. Option, mpesa, location kisumu.
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