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LGBT people organizing in remote areas of Kenya

In the furthest, most remote parts of the world you will find LGB and T people. Maybe no surprise but as Melissa Wainaina has been reporting for the African website Behind the Mask what may be a surprise is that they're organizing. Kenya-based Wainaina has been visiting a new group which serves the nomads and pastoralists and refugees in remote Northern Kenya.

Upper Rift Minorities (URM) was officially launched Oct. 9. It has been helped into being by a number of Kenyan groups, particularly The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) and the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative (Uhai-Eashrhi).

Uhai-Eashrhi gave them a laptop and GALCK paid six months rent for a space in Lodwar town, the largest town in north-western Kenya, 624km by car from Nairobi.

The group is small but growing. It started four years ago but had a hiccup when two of the founding members died in a road accident.

Some members are nomadic pastoralists who farm in a system where animals such as cattle, goats and camels are taken to different locations in order to find fresh pastures. Others are from the remote Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kakuma is the Swahili word for "nowhere"). The 50,000 strong camp was established in 1992. Most residents are from southern Sudan, some from Somalia and the last major group from Ethiopia. Other groups include Burundians, Congolese, Eritreans and Ugandans.

The group has found some local support. Founding member Ken* told Wainaina "we were happy to learn that not all people are homophobic as we had previously thought."

But in one incident he was writing a funding proposal in a Lodwar cyber cafe and when the document was printed out the attendant read the document and "accused us of being immoral and bringing foreign cultures to Lodwar. The attendant shouted and held us back while calling the police to arrest us. The cyber-cafés [here] are not private like the ones in Nairobi."

Ken says there have also been instances of health discrimination, nurses saying “Oh we don’t treat such kind of people” which has led to people having to travel to Nairobi. But, he notes, "we have identified gay-friendly health workers who are willing to help but have no training in specialised sexual minority health issues."

Apart from establishing the centre the group recently planted five mwarubaini or Neem trees as a tribute to the late Professor Wangari Maathai (Kenya’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was feted for her contribution to the environment) and to signify a new dawn for sexual minorities in the North Rift.

They also hope to establish a safe house for those fleeing repression in neighbouring countries to Kenya.

Their remoteness in this vast part of Kenya is a problem, for example, in them getting hold of HIV/Aids prevention materials.

Another problem is limited electricity and so they need help in using solar as an alternative source of energy.

Says Ken:

"LGBTI members are moving away from rural areas to bigger cities to live freely. I am committed in creating safe spaces in rural Kenya, we can’t all move to the cities."

* Not his real name

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