Kenyan LGBTQ+ activists on grief and hope after the death of Edwin Chiloba

The activist and designer’s murder has shocked his community, who are working to keep his memory alive

The murder of Kenyan LGBTQ+ activist, model and fashion designer Edwin Chiloba has plunged the Kenyan LGBTQ+ community into intense grief. On Jan. 6, Chiloba’s body was found in a metal box that was dumped on a roadside in Eldoret Town, the capital of Uasin Gishu County, where he studied and also ran his fashion business. 

While investigations have uncovered suspects involved in the murder, it hasn’t erased the devastation experienced by his fellow queer brothers and sisters, and most especially by his activist colleagues.

“Shocked beyond belief was the first reaction we all had, because it was very unexpected, to say the least,” says Mark Ninga, activist and digital media assistant officer at galck+ (formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, or GALCK). “Edwin had a very bright future ahead of him and it was deeply saddening to see him being taken away from us—his friends, his family, his community—in such a senseless act that really broke our hearts. We cannot imagine what was going through his mind when that ordeal was happening.”

Beyond shock, Ninga found himself grappling with the question of his own safety, but he was optimistic and persistent that the community would keep striving, despite the odds. 

“We still need to continue to fight and be loud and be visible because we cannot afford to put down our tools! We need to be armed with love and solidarity,” he says. 

Ivy Werimba, a communications and advocacy officer at galck+, said hearing about Chiloba’s death was devastating. She remembers learning of his murder through a group message and was numb with shock. 

“I turned my notifications off and went to bed. The next morning, I called some officials from Q-Initiative and offered to help them with the initial statement,” she says. Q-Initiative is a community-based organization offering safe spaces for queer people in Eldoret Town, founded by queer Moi University students in 2010.

Werimba was most angered by Kenyans making homophobic and hateful comments in the wake of such traumatic events. 

“On the day Q-Initiative posted our condolences message on Twitter, we saw a surge of trolls lining up in our comments section. We made sure to report every comment, but that wasn’t enough,” she says. 

Such unapologetic online bigotry isn’t surprising, given Kenya’s anti-homosexuality law, which was passed in May 2019. The law criminalizes consensual same-sex unions and conduct, threatens up to 14 years in prison and relegates LGBTQ+ people to life as second-class citizens. 

Werimba says she is most appreciative of the incredible voices and condolences from allies in the wake of Chiloba’s murder. “One good thing that came from this is the number of allies who have stood by our side. It’s a small change, but it counts,” she says. 

 

Activist and journalist Kevin Mwachiro says a feeling of anger and sadness consumed him upon finding out the murder, and that it’s been difficult for him to accept that the life of a bright young queer person has been cut short. “Edwin was an icon. I admired what he was doing in his town, Eldoret, where the struggle must have been twice as hard, and it hurt knowing that we lost him,” he says.

Kenya has seen past cases of LGBTQ+ murders. In April 2022, Sheila Lumumba, a non-binary person, was raped and murdered in their home. This happened following the death of an intersex woman, Rose Mbesa, who, according to a report by openDemocracy, was found murdered earlier last year in Trans Nzoia County, 380 kilometres northwest of Nairobi. Joash Mosoti, a gay man, was murdered in Mombasa in 2021. While suspects were brought forward in each of these cases, records of conviction weren’t reported.

On January 11, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Change.org, galck+, Bold Network Africa, Q–Initiative and others, released a joint statement commending Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations on the quick investigation of Chiloba’s murder and urged further work on the pending cases of other LGBTQ+ Kenyans murdered in recent years. 

But Chiloba’s murder may serve as a weapon for the government to further cause huge harm to the community. “It is imperative that our leaders and media exercise restraint in their language and actions. Homophobic- and hate-based rhetoric by leaders and media sensationalization of Edwin Chiloba’s murder only serves to incite violence against queer Kenyans,” says Ninga. “We reiterate the call to #Repeal162 and 165 of the penal code that indirectly criminalizes consensual relations by LGBTQ+ persons creating an environment for violence to thrive and go unpunished.” 

For community members still reeling, what remains the biggest consolation in these hard times is the hope of knowing the investigations are moving forward and that important conversations may happen 

“I hope that we learn to have conversations amongst ourselves as a community,” Mwachiro says. “We should seek ways to support and protect each other, especially when there are no existing state structures to do that for us.” 

Werimba hopes the investigation into Chiloba’s murder will provide closure for the case. 

“I am also hoping that the online appeal [#BreakTheCycleOfViolence] that happened on Twitter will bring more attention to the different kinds of violence LGBTQ+ people face,” she says.

Ninga believes that immortalizing the life and activism of Chiloba and other queer Kenyans who have been murdered remains with the community and its hope for liberty. “I hope that Edwin and the others before him who were taken from us through violence will be remembered for their efforts in fighting for what they believed in, ” Ninga says. “I hope they will not be forgotten, I hope their deaths will not be just another case swept under the rug. They all deserve justice.”

Ugonna-Ora Owoh

Ugonna-Ora Owoh is a Nigerian poet and journalist. His works are in The Independent, AnOther Mag, Vice UK, Xtra and Vogue Business.

Keep Reading

Elon Musk and Texas attorney general Ken Paxton are suing Media Matters. Here’s why queer and trans people should care

OPINION: When politicians and the rich leverage the power of the state to quell dissent, we all lose

The ‘trans debate’ isn’t just about wonky policy issues, it’s about families

OPINION: Anti-trans laws are tearing apart the families conservatives purport to want to protect

Ohio Republicans are trying to limit the power of ballot measures—and using transphobia to circumvent democracy

OPINION: Conservatives are courting voters using the little trick that they’ve always turned—demonizing a minority

Calgary Airport trials first gender-neutral security screenings in Canada

Trans Canadians celebrate potential update to binary body scanners, but say staff training is needed to ensure the benefits stick