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Travel - Out in Kenia

by Jasper Groen in Travel and weekendtrips , 28 april 2012

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Unfortunately gay tourists are not really welcome in Kenya. Gay sex is even illegal. A large majority of the population thinks gay and transgender people are disgusting. That’s the bad news. But after South Africa Kenya is the most popular holiday destination in Black Africa, because it is a phenomenal country. With friendly people, unparalleled landscapes and even something that feels like a gay nightlife. Although you have to be careful and discrete and know the right people.

During my second visit to Kenya, in 1997, I discovered that it was better not to share my preference for men with my local friends. At the time I was staying with a local family in the northern city Isiolo. In the small shack that was their home I found an old newspaper with an article on gays in Europe.

I asked them what they thought about it. Well, the mother got up from her seat, spread out her arms dramatically and spoke loudly: “If such a person would come into my house I would burn all my stuff as well as my house. Then, I would take my children and travel for a hundred kilometers before I build another house and start saving for new possessions.” In the years after I learned that as a tourist you can’t navigate by your usual gaydar in Kenya. Picking up a boy can be very dangerous, even when you are sure the guy is gay.

In the countryside I once had to run for my life. I was chased into utter darkness by perhaps the most handsome but also the most effeminate young man I’d met in years. Behind him were a group of men who smelled money, I’d been to obvious in my admiration.

Even when you’re very careful you risk threats, extortion or abuse and you can’t count on the cops to help you. To the contrary, the prime minister called upon police officers to arrest homosexuals in a “crackdown.”

According to the criminal law one could get up to fourteen years in jail. Fortunately this article is not used often, the prosecution prefers to stick to attempted rape. This article focuses on Kenya but other countries in Africa have also outlawed gay sex.

In neighboring Uganda the situation is worst for gays: parliament even considers introducing the death penalty for someone who gets caught for the second time. This proposal came after the scandal in which a local newspaper published a list of addresses and photos of (alleged) homosexuals. The West was shocked but in Africa most people agreed.

A straight couple in the morning sun of Masai Mara. Eight percent of male lions in their natural state mate occasionally with the same sex. Lionesses only exhibit lesbian behavior in captivity

At the end of January the difference in opinion between the West and Africa became painfully clear when at an African summit in Addis Ababa UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called attention to the fate of homosexuals and transgenders on this continent. African leaders were appalled.

Readers of a Kenyan newspaper also responded: “Like murderers, thieves, rapists and prostitutes, everyone has the right to a fair trial,” someone writes. “Gays who break the laws of their country should be treated fairly. They should be tried so they will go to jail, which is where they belong.”

Maybe by accident another writer mentioned the painful dilemma the West faces: “Why are African gays so important? Homosexuality is not part of our culture and we have more important things on our head.

The United Nations should spend more time on hunger amongst refugees in overly crowded encampments. When would these refugees have time to think about their sexuality?”

Uhuru Park, with a view of Nairobi’s center, used to be a cruising zone. Nowadays it serves as a crowd-puller for families. During the night the park counts amongst the most dangerous places of the country

Before you lose all interest in visiting Kenya: there are some little points of improvement. The new constitution, accepted only recently, offers room for more tolerance for minorities, at some point. Foreign same-sex couples are usually left alone as long as they act normal. If you look really hard you’ll find something of a gay scene. Nairobi has several bars that are known as gay meeting spots, especially aimed at expats. There, no-one’s harassed by the government and locals wouldn’t go there.

In order to get to know this hidden gay scene I take a cab to an outskirt of Nairobi. Far away from the modern center with its skyscrapers and its business district I arrive at an industrial area full of car dealers. A grimy high-rise houses the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya.

I have an appointment with Dennis Nzioka, spokesperson of this Kenyan version of the COC. Behind the flaky facade a new world opens up for me. Different rooms represent different minorities: lesbians, gays and drags. I even see a local transgender, which moves me especially when I think about what this boy must have been through, being born a girl. Gays could still choose to hide, this boy had to choose between his family and his gender.

Dennis Nzioka in his office at the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya: “Approach us for the best places to meet gays and never investigate on your own. That’s too dangerous”

Aside from an office the building has a restricted hospital department for gay boys and men.
Dennis: “They have specific health issues you can’t go to a normal hospital for.” The hospital and GLCK are partly subsidized by the government. “We receive money from the HIV and AIDS programs,” he says. I look at him in surprise. Dennis laughs and says: “Yes, that’s the government for you. They hate gays but they have to battle AIDS as well. Call it hypocrite, but we’re happy with the money.”

Dennis laughs a lot. He’s an exuberant type with wide shoulders, a short beard and piercings in both ears. It’s not hard to imagine him in the gay scene of Amsterdam, but he doesn’t want to hear about it. “I don’t like flying,” he says. “I’m a Kenyan, so I belong here.” Even with all the problems he’s had. He says he’s been lucky. “My grandmother is very understanding. She knows, even though we’ve never said anything about it ever.”

Dennis tells me there are several bars and clubs in Nairobi where gays gather. I knew of Gypsy’s already, in the expensive Westlands suburb. This bar is mainly frequented by expats. Thursday night is gay night, says even the Lonely Planet. I know Skimmers as well, in the heart of town; known for girl prostitutes but also frequented by gays. On one of the many nights there a gorgeous boy with his shirt off embraces me: “You wanna fuck me? Please?”

“There are more,” Dennis says and tells me about them on the condition I won’t publish their names. It’s too risky because these spots are really for the local gays and therefore an easy target for the police. I’d been to one of the places and indeed, I’d noticed that some boys came very close on the balcony with a view of the busy shopping street. Somewhere in Nairobi lives an expat who organizes orgies regularly, Dennis claims. “You won’t get in easily because the risks are simply too high. At an orgy one really breaks the law!”

He also knows of a gay travel agency at the coast. The scene at the beaches is very relaxed, I had noticed before. I’ve even had a flirt one time with a nude and muscled twenty-year old beachboy.

If people want to know more about these clubs, bars, beaches they can come by GLCK personally, says Dennis: “Don’t go investigating for yourself.

Masai shepherds are sticklers for generation-old traditions. They make an all-out effort to keep other cultures away. This applies certainly to gay behavior, which they consider “occidental”

The population really doesn’t want to have anything to do with it.” He points at a research from 2010 showing that 96% of the Kenyans reject homosexuality. Exactly like the mother in Isiolo threatening to burn her house if a homosexual had been inside it. I was so shocked I never told her anything anymore afterwards. I admit to Dennis that I was also a little bit disappointed with my friends. He responds with certainty: “Don’t blame that mother, she doesn’t know any better. The politicians are to blame, opinion leaders and clerics with their negative slur. Don’t turn your anger towards the ignorant population.”

The Best of Kenya

Kenya is a small universe of its own, with deserts, wildlife parks, lakes, a Muslim coast, tropical rainforest, eternal snow on Mount Kenya, the cosmopolitan capital Nairobi and so much more. Where to begin?

1. Turkana Lake, North-Kenya
If you have the money (from 755 dollar pp) and at least eight days to spare, you could go on an organized tour to the Turkana Lake.
It will take you across the Chalbi desert and the wildlife parks Marsabit and Samburu, you’ll pass by villages from a different age and see the landscape go barren.

Only when all life seems to have disappeared and even grass can’t grow anymore on the black rocks, you’ll see the mesmerizing green lake of Turkana. Breathtaking and unforgettable. has the best program at the best price for a trip to Turkana.

2. Masai Mara, South-Kenya
Confession: I’ve ignored this Kenyan wildlife park for years because I hate mass tourism. During my ninth visit I decided it was time to go and discovered a whole new world: Masai Mara is indeed a crown jewel. Surrounded by large groups of elephants it was a bit like Jurassic Park. offers individual and affordable trips, also to other parks. This organization often works for deaf / sight impaired or otherwise handicapped customers.

3. Mathare, Nairobi
If you want to know where the donations for development go to, visit the infamous slum Mathare. Amidst the shacks and garbage belts and close to a polluted river local organizations are flourishing like never before. They help, sometimes with help from The Netherlands, kids develop their talents. They support them with education and social issues like HIV. stems from a project that is funded by The Netherlands. If you send them a mail in advance and pay a small fee (30 euro pp) you can get some information and a short (safe) tour.

4. Simmers, Nairobi
A lively open-air bar at the base of the centrally located Sixeighty Hotel with live African music every night. Great barbecued meat. The inevitable pretty girls hustle together with beautiful (drunk) gay boys. A few years ago someone threw a hand grenade over the fence...
If you still have some money to spend, ask for Joseph. He’s been doing the rounds past tables with his batiks and shoes for years. He’s the Kenyan version of Marc-Marie Huijbregts!

A Homosexual = A Poisonous Cactus

Here are a few classic expressions and words in Swahili that will impress Kenyans. Pronounce everything phonetically, the “u” sounds like “you,” the “I” like in “me.”

Habari? = How’s it going?
Habari is the Swahili word for “news” so literally the question is: Any news? Don’t be fooled, in Kenya they use the word “Jambo” only to greet tourists; they don’t use it amongst themselves.

Nzuri = well
Even when things are not well at all the answer to Habari is always Nzuri.
Mbaya = bad
This word is only used for other things, like when something tastes bad.

Lala salama = Sleep well.
The perfect greeting at night when your game driver retreats from the bar. Salama means “excellent.”
Safari salama = Have a good trip
When a Kenyan is going for a “safari,” it usually means he’s going to visit family and not a wildlife park.

Baridi = Cold
You will see the sign “Cola baridi” everywhere. This means the coke can be served cold. Kenyans like to have their softdrinks unrefrigerated, because they think the cold is bad for your stomach (which is true).

Moto (‘motto’) = Warm
Order a “Tusker Moto” just for fun. Tusker is the largest Kenyan beer company. You’ll get the beer lukewarm. The waiter will be impressed and a “warm” Tusker makes you pleasantly light-headed.

Nakupenda = I love you
Just in case you get lucky.

Msenge = homosexual.
Originally “msenge” was the Swahili name for an African cactus: Milk Tree. When the plant is damaged it bleeds white juice. This juice is poisonous. It’s a clear referral to the “poisonous” sperm of a gay man. Msenge is a very negative term, but there is no alternative in Swahili.

Kutomba = to fuck.
In Holland and other western countries it’s very normal to use the word “fuck,” but this is definitely not the case in Kenya. It’s considered extremely rude to use this verb in the presence of elderly. Youngsters however, might be impressed that you know it.



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