Police beat Cynthia Ndikumana, a Burundian lesbian activist, and threw her in jail after she gave an interview defending the rights of LGBT people in her country. And so she fled to Kenya, lulled by the siren song of refugees everywhere: the promise of a life better than the one she was leaving behind. She and many others like her, LGBT refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Congo and, of course, Uganda, came to Kenya in the hopes of finding a place that is, if not exactly welcoming, at least secure enough to apply for asylum to a more friendly region and wait out the processing time. But instead, they found more persecution.
LGBT rights in East Africa are fraught at best, and more often nonexistent or openly denied. Uganda, famous for its anti-gay legislation, is the most obvious example, but LGBT people around the region face beatings, life imprisonment, and death at the hands of officials and near-total impunity for extrajudicial crimes against the LGBT community.
Though Kenya is perhaps the most liberal nation in the region, refugees found anything but open arms, and some claim the anti-gay sentiment in the country is growing, largely fueled by religious officials. Every refugee I met had stories of being chased from apartments, often multiple times in the span of a few months, and many bore scars from beatings by mobs of angry Kenyans, sometimes with machetes, others instances with sticks and stones. For many LGBT refugees, life in Kenya is characterized by the dueling narratives of intense scrutiny and deep shadows.
All are in the process of being resettled elsewhere in the world, typically in western Europe or the United States. But the process can take years, and in the meantime, they are forbidden from working. And so they wait, confined to the dual shadows of their LGBT identity and their status as refugees in a country that would rather not talk about either. They hope for something better, but that promise seems to live forever on the horizon.