Kevin Mwachiro: Keeper of Stories – Roads and Kingdoms

This week on The Trip podcast: talking African stories, LGBTQ rights in Kenya, and surviving cancer with Kevin Mwachiro.

One of the things, one of the unnerving things, that you first realize as a foreigner visiting Nairobi, is that many of your cohortthose other foreigners landing at Jomo Kenyatta airportseem to be looking right past the people, past the humans of Kenya. They are searching for animals. Nairobi is the worlds busiest transit hub for safari-goers. Theres even a national park inside the city limits, a park with wild warthogs and zebras and giraffes and the rest of the cast from The Lion King.

I am resolutely and proudly not here for a safari. It just feels, well, a little premature, a little colonial, like Id need to be wearing a pith helmet and khaki knee breeches. Maybe on my fifth visit I would go for a walkabout. But Nairobis wildlife will not be ignored. In Karen, the district Im staying innamed after Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa nearbythe birds bring the safari to you. Kestrels and crakes and bee-eaters and bustards, sooty falcons and jacksons widowbirds all circle and sing and their song to me, Im sure, roughly translates as fuck you if you think youre too good for us.

But I stand firm. Itspeople Im most interested in, and if Ive found anything in two decades as a foreign correspondent and daydrinker, its that humans are endlessly fascinating, and occasionally even delightful. Case in point, this episodes guest, Kevin Mwachiroan openly gay athlete in a country where gay relationships are illegal, a survivor of a rare cancer who is also the sunniest person Ive met in ages. Kevin was a guest on one of the last episodes of Parts Unknown, when Bourdain and W. Kamau Bell came to Kenya, and it is my distinct human pleasure to have him, like Tony and Kamau before him, on this show.

Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Joshua. Subscribers canlisten to the full episode here. If youre not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing uphere.

Nathan Thornburgh: All right, so this coffee is great. This is exciting. And I remember Colombians, God love them, make incredible coffee, Juan Valdez on down, but the national passion was instant coffee, and it was always very confusing. But its one of those things where you have this really valuable commodity, easy to export, and somehow I think its true in a lot of places that make the best coffees in the world where the average person is like, Well, Im not going to compete in the global market for these high quality beans. Im going to just be happy with the instant.

But what is Kenyan coffee drinking culture like? Is there some proportion of the population that recognizes that Kenya makes some amazing coffee and rolls with that?

Kevin Mwachiro: The thing with Java House, they make Kenyan coffee accessible to Kenyans, so to speak. Id say maybe middle-class Kenyans. Before that, we were getting high on instant coffee. You were paying a pretty penny for coffee. Then Java opened up and they had baristas there making coffee, good food as well, and youre like, Yeah, its not too bad.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: But we are a tea-drinking nation.

Thornburgh: So coffee is still the number two?

Mwachiro: Coffee is number two. You go anywhere, people will offer you tea first. And not just teabag tea, but brewed tea with milk and that is it. Coffee, a smaller proportion of people drink coffee, and especially black coffee.

Thornburgh: So, I have been internet stalking you in your various talks and interviews. You have a very entertaining and interesting media profile, I guess you would say.

Mwachiro: Yeah. Entertaining is an interesting word to use.

Thornburgh: A lot of it is the kind of stuff that would give me pause: Getting up on stage, single person, telling a story, trying to hold an audience, and you do it really well, and Im interested in how you got into that. How did you decide, or maybe it just sort of fell into place, that this is what you were going to do for a living?

Mwachiro: I recently took on that label of a storyteller. I think this comes from my time at the BBC, and Ive told people this, I consider myself a custodian of peoples stories, even as a journalist. People gave me their stories and I told them to the wider world. I love hearing peoples stories, so I think through everything as a journalist, as an activist, as a podcaster, as a cancer survivor, and telling my own story, I think life handed me what Id been avoiding for a very long time, and now find myself doing it and people actually say I tell stories pretty well.

Thornburgh: Why had you been avoiding it?

Mwachiro: I love and I dont love being on stage. I dont like the attention, but I know once Im on stage I become a whole new, confident person, and I feel comfortable. And people, every time Im up on stage, were like, You are comfortable there. I used to act once up on a time and yeah, the stage is also home and Im now doing this. I think over time, its a question of valuing yourself, its been a journey to actually get here, and valuing my own story and realizing that I have a story to tell. And was it two, three years ago I gave a talk on, its like a Ted version of Kenya called Engage, and I spoke about finding my voice and that, I think, was a turning point for me. I used to moderate quite a bit before that, professionally, but now being on stage and telling people my own story and actually saying, This is me finding my voice, and sharing it and not feeling ashamed about whatever I have gone through has landed me now here with you.

Thornburgh: Yeah. Lets not make than an end point. This is a humble detour.

Mwachiro: And I realized I like sitting in front of a mic. When I used to work at the BBC, one of the requirements of the work as a journalist was to perform in front of a microphone and on camera. And I realized this is cool stuff, man. I do like cams, I do like microphones, I love audio, I love sound.

I believe in the spoken word.

Thornburgh: Well, lets talk about that. Obviously this is a medium that weve jumped into with great enthusiasm in podcasting. What is the state of podcasting in Kenya? Is it a word that people recognize or is your audience both kind of local and international? How do you look at podcasting in particular?

Mwachiro: Its very interesting you should say that. As I was buying coffee, I met another podcaster, a guy called Armani, and he

Thornburgh: Thats a very Brooklyn scene right there.

Mwachiro: Yeah.

Thornburgh: Here we are at the coffee shop, just a couple podcasters. All right.

Mwachiro: And he recently got into podcasting as well. He wants to bring other podcasters together. I would say its a very Nairobi-centric thing, and very middle class.

I wanted to get back into radio at one time. Id missed audio. I wanted to come up with content, spoken word, and when I talked to people about it, they were like, You should go into podcasting. Im like, No, I want to go back into mainstream radio. And then after some time I figured this might be my avenue, going into mainstream radio. I believe in the spoken word Whats the term we used to use? Anyway, spoken word radio. Im a big fan of that, NPR, BBC.

And thats my background. And I just like storytelling. I figured this is a way of getting Kenyans to listen, but I want to go mainstream. But after some time I realized, speaking to other podcasters, that this just might be an avenue to explore.

Thornburgh: Right.

Mwachiro: I saw it as very niche. As you know, everyones podcasting in the States, in Europe, and its not quite herethe audiences still listen to radio.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: And commercial radio. And I love public service radio. I really do. And I wanted to go back into that, but that didnt quite happen. Then I started listening to podcasts, started meeting other Kenyan forerunners, forerunner podcasters, and liked what I was doing. I realized this is something that I could do. I started buying kits, good kits, listening to stuff on YouTube, tutorials, I rented quite a number of those, and came up with content. Hence, Nipe Story. Initially I wanted to have full podcasts, then after just trying I realized this is a lot of work, so I scaled down to Nipe Story, which is my podcast. But in general its a very urban thing here in Nairobi. People are beginning to recognize what it has and coming up with a lot of niche content.

Thornburgh: Yeah. Thats the thing about the promise of podcasting. You can find your audience and it doesnt have to be that big, but they can be with you deeply because they can find something thats just specific for their taste. I also, from my short time here in Nairobi, I see tremendous opportunity in podcasting because its all about cars and traffic

Mwachiro: Absolutely.

Thornburgh: and the commute.

Mwachiro: Yeah.

Thornburgh: So, you have so many human hours in the car.

Mwachiro: You have already an audience sitting in Nairobi traffic waiting to listen to stuff.

Thornburgh: Waiting for Nipe Story. So tell me about that show, what is it trying to do and how are you getting that done?

Mwachiro: Nipe Story is just trying to get people into listening to stories, Kenyan stories, African short story fiction. I love stories. I love reading fiction and yet again, I love listening to spoken word and this was my way of just getting involved in that. It started in, I think, December or November 2017.

Mwachiro: So I said, This is amazing, and its a simple goal, mate. Just to make people love listening to stories. And theres a lot of African creative writing going out there and Im hoping to provide a platform for that, and also for a lot of queer writing that doesnt get a platform, especially in this form. So I just want to do that with Nipe Story. I would love Nipe Story to have a Pan-African feel.

Mwachiro: First of all.

Thornburgh: So they could go across the continent and not just be for Kenyans.

Mwachiro: Absolutely. And sometimes when I look at the stats you get people listening in South Africa. But the thing that surprised me, theres a huge North America audience and a British audience as well, that surprises me.

Thornburgh: Yeah. I dont know. I could see the appeal, especially because one, theres a huge diaspora and two, it is a different Ive gotten to listen to some of the episodes and its beautiful in the way that the concerns are just different, the dialect, the accents are different, its transporting in some way. If these were presented from a local perspective in the States, you could have the same mission, the same mandate, but its just very different in the way that it plays and sounds and listens, and you can lose yourself in it.

Mwachiro: Thank you.

Thornburgh: And its interesting, I remember you did an interview in Berlin where you were talking about the flip side of thatparticularly talking about the context of, I think, queer filmwhere you were saying there are some really great films that you saw at the Teddys, where you were a judge, but that they didnt necessarily speak to you. It was just a different experience, because these are European or American filmmakers. That was the sense that I got from that, and there is a way where your experience just does have a local identity to it, right? I mean, its a very Kenyan thing, even though you have common cause with people who are trying to do fiction podcasts, with queer activists, with people in different countries, but your experience is going to be your own, and fairly specific here. So, Im interested in getting a sense from you, taking your temperature on where Kenya is at right now in that particular realm, in queer activism. It seems like a tough game right now.

Mwachiro: People say it is. I dont consider it a really tough game, because weve been here a long time, so were used to this. I had drinks with a friend yesterday whos visiting also from the States and he said, It must be tough being gay, and its a question these days I dont know how to answer. Because Im just doing my thing.

Its waking up Kenya to the reality that queer people are here and theres nothing you can do about it and were as Kenyan as you are.

Thornburgh: Youve always been here.

Mwachiro: Yeah, Ive always been here. Some of my girlfriends are like, Who comes up with single guys? I look at my phone book and Im like, I dont know single guys and if theres any single guys here, theyre dicks and I dont want to introduce you to them. My phone book is full of queer men and women. And Ive normalized that existence here.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: But the fact that we lost the case in court that was trying to decriminalize gay sex. That was hurtful, that was painful.

Thornburgh: Yeah. I spoke with Wanuri about this too and I think especially for, its a three-year legal battle, but even longer than that, just an entire life of wishing this to be true.

Mwachiro: But the fact that we were actually in courtyou have to look at the positives. I remember some of the comments that I got on my page: Were not coming to Kenya. Were going to boycott. Im like, Why? Weve been in this space for quite a while and to find that 10, 12 years ago we never even thought that we would be in court.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: But the fact that on the 24th of May, people showed up in court from all over, didnt care about the media glare, didnt care what people thought, but we were in court, mate.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: That was powerful. And even before that, the first time they postponed it, we had activists come in from Uganda, Tanzania, and Nigeria. Such was the magnitude of what we were doing. And I dont think it will stop us. The fact that now people know that queer people do exist in Kenya. Theyve always known, but the fact that we are coming out strong, were waving the flag next to the Kenyan flag, and we are your brothers, your sisters, your sons, your daughters, your fathers, your husbands, your wives. Its sort of waking up Kenya to the reality that queer people are here and theres nothing you can do about it and were as Kenyan as you are.

So I think the space now and being involved with the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya and talking to people, its now wanting to move now to dialogues and getting Kenyans to come out in support of us. I feel weve been preaching to the choir for quite a while and its now engaging other members of society and saying, Yeah, you know, this is who we are. What do you want to know about us? How can you help? So that when we do go back to court, wed have other people speaking for us as well and not just ourselves.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: That would be great. I mean if you look at the case, Botswana luckily won theirs and people were making direct comparisons and you cant look at it that way. This is the jealous coming up, its a very simplistic way of looking at life. That story is not that simple.

But the fact that I was in Botswana last year and the deputy mayor, whos a man living with albinism, came and opened the largest Pan-African LGBT conference that had happened on the continent. The fact that he was there was a huge thing. And I remember sitting there, like would we even get someone from the city coming to attend one of these?

Thornburgh: Yeah, you dont think Mike Sonkos showing up?

Mwachiro: No, I dont think so. I dont think so.

Thornburgh: Your entertaining rapper turned [governor] of Nairobi.

Mwachiro: No, lets not go there. He vexes my spirit, man.

Thornburgh: Mike Money.

Mwachiro: Thats how low we can go as a country.

Thornburgh: So yeah, that idea of building some sort of bridges to other parts of society, so youre not out here fighting alone.

Mwachiro: Absolutely. And then the fact that the President of Botswana gave out very positive statements about homophobia, saying that we cant be in this space and other people have spoken. We have a president who still describes us as non-issues.

Thornburgh: Right.

Mwachiro: So we need to get them to move from non-issues, but I keep on saying almost everything in Kenya is a non-issue. Thats why we are the way we are. So weve just been lumped with everything else. Fight corruption, not an issue. You know?

What do I have to lose now? My shit is out there. I think thats the way you take power from people.

Thornburgh: So many amazing, pressing issues that are actually non-issues.

Mwachiro: Exactly, so when that happened, and then I talked, and people were like, Oh, arent you annoyed? I said, No, Im not annoyed. The truth is, a lot of things that should be dealt with in the country that weve made non-issues, and we have been put into that category of non-issues with everything else.

Thornburgh: So you have joined the mainstream then by becoming a non-issue.

Mwachiro: We have, exactly that. So thats where the space is at. Im just hoping that the ruling has just made us as a movement stronger.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: Will make us be very introspective in how our strategy going forward will be. And for me personally, I know its made me bolder, totally unapologetic about what I feel and the gay shit Im putting out there on my face.

Thornburgh: The Supreme Court has unleashed the wave of gay shit from Kevin.

Mwachiro: I wrote an article thats going up on this platform called Yellephant. Theyve been very kind in giving us an opportunity to put queer stories out there, two of my articles there, and Im like, Yes, we need it. And as a journalist Im taking I used to be slightly apologetic about it and Im like, Im just going to put stuff, Im just going to put the good journalist I think I am into this area where my energies are and where my life is involved in.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: And come up with good journalism talking about queer Kenyans.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Mwachiro: And what it is to be a queer Kenyan in Kenya.

Thornburgh: When you, I think it was a film festival or some sort of forum here that you were involved in that had the tag line Shame is a luxury we cant afford.

Mwachiro: Absolutely.

Thornburgh: But thats that kind of thing. Because certain things are stacked against you, you actually have to be bolder and brighter and kind of more out there. That seems to be your perspective on it.

Mwachiro: I was telling someone, what do I have to lose now? My shit is out there. I think thats the way you take power from people. Ive hung up my dirty laundry. I dont think its there, I just use that expression. I hang it there. So you can see Ive taken the power away from you.

Thornburgh: Right. Right. This sort of constant, ongoing This is the experience I think that gay people have had for a long time in the States. Its like this daily blackmail.

Mwachiro: Exactly. Exactly. Ive gone through a process and a journey, Nathan, where I didnt like myself pretty much, I didnt think I was worth something to a point where I know what Im worth and Im happy about who I am in this space. Life has dealt me numbers, thrown lemons at me and Ive made lemonade and Im dealing with that and moving on. I was telling a friend yesterday, You only have one life.

Thornburgh: Right. How are you going to spend it, huh?

Mwachiro: How are you going to spend it? And if this life is going to be used trying to make it easier for other queer individuals in Kenya, so be it, mate. And not just that, but also just trying to make a world, the world a better place for other folk, man.

Thornburgh: Yeah. I mean this is the thing also that I feel people understand very little of. I mean, clearly by some of the conversations were having in the United States, rights for LGBT, justice or rights for minority groups, its not even about them. Its about you and what kind of country youre going to be. And Im sure Botswana is looking at it holistically as well as all these goals they have as a nation, which include development, increased tourism, equal standing on the world stage, all of these things are hurt when they diminish the rights of some large percentage of their population. We have that same conversation in the States. Its not about being nice to gay people. Its about your quality of country.

Mwachiro: Absolutely. I like that. And just being nice to all people. Being nice to women. I think we as a country could do a much better job in being nicer to our women. Slight digression here, we still havent fulfilled that constitutional quota that requires 25% representation of women.

Thornburgh: Wow. Which isnt a big number.

Mwachiro: Its not a number, but

Thornburgh: Its not totally proportionate, but yeah, even that is beyond reach.

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Kevin Mwachiro: Keeper of Stories - Roads and Kingdoms

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