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Emerging African Queer Pentecostal Knowledge: Interview with Dr Stephen Kapinde


In 2021 Dr Stephen Kapinde was awarded a fellowship in the LUCAS/LAHRI Virtual Research Fellowship Scheme about African Knowledges for Global Challenges. On completion of his Fellowship we interviewed Stephen about his research on ‘Queer Mission in an Anti-Queer Nation’: Emerging African Queer Religious Knowledge from the Bride of the Lamb Ministries International Church in Kenya.

Please briefly introduce yourself

My name is Stephen Kapinde, a Franz Humer scholar with a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Basel, Switzerland. My doctoral thesis on Church and State Relations in Post-Colonial Kenya (1963-2013) focussed on Religion and politics in Africa by drawing on Kenya and the Anglican Church as an empirical case. Currently, I am lecturing at Pwani University, Kenya, and also serving as an adjunct tutor of Religion and Global Politics at the University of London Worldwide, United Kingdom. In addition, I am a Research Associate at the Institute of Faith and Gender Empowerment (IFAGE), where I engage in gender justice advocacy. Generally, my research lies at the intersection of religion, politics, and social justice. In the LAHRI/LUCAS fellowship, I focussed on religion and queer politics in Kenya with a focus on gender and sexually non-conforming persons, particularly, the intersex community.

What project have you worked on during your fellowship period?

At this monastic moment of the COVID-19 pandemic, the LAHRI/LUCAS research fellowship at the University of Leeds offered a unique opportunity to critically reflect on global challenges facing gender and sexual minorities. This reflection began back in 2019 while I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation on "Church and State Relations in Post-Colonial Kenya". Emerging out of this study was the church's opposition to constitutional reforms in 2010 on the pretext of promoting queer rights and citizenship. Most intriguing is how the fundamental rights of the queer community were reduced to a moral question and framed as largely un-African and an anathema to Christian social norms and practices. Considering these debates and the continued challenges facing gender and sexual minorities globally, my project, "Queer Mission in an Anti-Queer Nation: Emerging African Queer Religious Knowledge and Practices from Bride of the Lamb Ministry International-Church (BLMI-C) of Kenya," sought to challenge the widely held conceptual assumptions in queer scholarship in Africa that theorize religion and religious actors as generally opposed to queer citizenship and Africa as a "homophobic" continent whose traditions and values are irreconcilable to liberal democracy. I argued that such assumptions have played a significant role in the production of negative knowledge, and oppressive practices, and legal policies against the queer community, resulting in a failure to address real and/or imagined challenges confronting gender and sexual minorities globally. Furthermore, the production of negative knowledge and prejudices continues to play a role in the colonial script, which problematizes Africa as "backward" and antithetical to liberal ideals of democracy and citizenship. This project challenged such assumptions about religion and religious actors as inherently opposed to queer rights. Using one Afro-Pentecostal church, BLMI-C, led by a cleric who openly identifies as intersex, Apostle Darlan Rukih, the project brought into focus the agency of religious movements and actors in addressing the global challenges facing the intersex community and other gender and sexually non-conforming persons in Kenya. The project investigated BLMI-C as a "queer church," providing a space for the queer community and producing positive knowledge about queer citizenship, as well as the relevant subversive approaches used by BLMI-C in queer activism. Methodologically, the project brought into focus indigenous approaches to queer studies, including "oral histories" and "storytelling," as relevant "decolonial and participatory approaches" on theorising queer politics in Africa.

What are the findings of your project so far?

First, this project established that queer clerics such as Apostle Rukih of the BLMI-C have emerged as a "prophetic voice", demystifying the stereotypes inherent in the mainstream religious LGBTQI + discourse. Openly identifying as intersex, ADR, through popular culture (songs, dance, and art), speeches and public sermons, creatively and innovatively utilised African values, spirituality, and religious logic as a "powerful counterforce" to the anti-queer debate, thus challenging Western assumptions that foreground African religious actors are anti-queer. Moreover, Rukih’s extensive sermons were directed towards creating public awareness of the plights of gender and sexual minorities in the public sphere. On the other hand, the songs served as a repository of theological interpretation of queer identity as well as vehicles of expression of sexual identities and spirituality among intersex people. Thus, her subversive yet collaborative and participatory strategies of queer activism were built on a sound theological plate. Second, the project established that queer-affirming churches like BLMI-C offer safe spaces for sexual and gender minorities, including intersex. The latter experienced BLMI-C as a space of acceptance, emotional healing, and modelling of communal love and reconciliation in a rather constrained environment that prefers heteronormativity as the ordained order of gender and sexual relations. Third and finally, the BLMI-C provided opportunities for community dialogue on queer citizenship by nurturing transgender relations. Thus, helping in the navigation of exclusive sexual boundaries by engendering trans-inclusion of all genders (conforming and non-conforming persons) through inclusive liturgies and intimate songs of spirituality and solidarity that appraise queer people as a reflection of the diversity of God’s creation. Finally, this project concludes that religion is critical in the construction of positive knowledge and practices about queer citizenship. These research findings, among others, will be presented in an article that’s currently in process.

How does the project speak to the overall theme of “African knowledges for global challenges”?

The LAHRI/LUCAS fellowship significantly repositioned Africa at the centre of knowledge production by bringing African voices and scholars in addressing global challenges. This was essential considering that ‘African studies’ from the Western society has often been marked with the production of ‘western knowledge’ camouflaged as Afro-centric. Thus, the ‘African’ in African studies is epistemologically questionable. Yet we see that unequal technologies of power backed up by enormous resources have privileged Western scholars as legitimate producers of knowledge on global challenges while at the same time undermining those from Africa as inferior thus rendering ‘Africans’ as consumers of western knowledge. The LAHRI/LUCAS fellowship focused on Africa not as a site of ‘knowledge consumption’ but rather as a producer of indigenous knowledge towards addressing global challenges. My project on "Queer Mission in an Anti-Queer Nation’ with reference to the intersex community shed light on the emerging African queer religious knowledge and practices from the global south. From a post-colonial perspective, it challenged the imperialist view of Africa as an unintelligible continent whose knowledge and practices on gender and sexual minorities are incompatible with the ‘new human rights agenda’ of liberal democracy as propagated by the western society. It questioned the rationale of those assumptions by bringing to fore Afro-centric and participatory approaches essential in addressing societal challenges.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I am sincerely grateful to my project advisor, Prof. Adriaan van Klinken for his immense support during this project. The Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI) and Leeds University Centre for African studies (LUCAS) accorded me sufficient support including extending my fellowship for the successful completion of this project.  Much gratitude to LAHRI Director Professor Jamie Stark and fellowship administrator, Erin Pickles for their support. Last, I am sincerely grateful to my research participants for according me the opportunity to engage them in this project despite the challenges of COVID-19.

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