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Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa (Inaugural Lecture)


By Adriaan van Klinken


Some years ago, the late Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, came out by publishing a literary story titled, ‘I am a homosexual, mum’.[1] In this beautiful and intimate story, he re-imagines the last days of his mother’s life, telling her on her deathbed the truth about his sexuality. Wainaina’s revelation caused a splash in Kenya, the country where he was a well-known literary and public figure – but also a country where homosexuality is legally banned and is surrounded by social, cultural, and religious taboos. For Wainaina, coming out as gay was a deeply political move. At a time that countries such as Uganda and Nigeria were passing new anti-gay laws, he wanted to make, in his own almost messianic words, ‘an intervention, in a moment in time’.[2]

Further expanding this intervention, he also released a six-part video commentary on homophobia in Africa. The title of this series is telling: ‘We Must Free Our Imaginations’. In Wainaina’s analysis, the recent politicisation of homosexuality that has taken place on the African continent from the late 1990s, is the result of the African imagination continuing to be colonised. After all, it were British colonisers who introduced anti-sodomy laws in their African colonies, and it were European Christian missionaries who introduced a norm of heterosexual monogamous marriage and nuclear family life, not only as a key part of Christian conversion, but also of modernity. Decades after African countries gained political independence, the emergence of a new wave of social, political and religious homophobia exemplified, for Wainaina, "the bankruptcy of a certain kind of imagination", because colonial norms of sexuality continue to define African attitudes and laws.[3] Echoing Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s highly influential book Decolonising the Mind, Wainaina argued: "It’s our job, this generation, to say, 'We are in charge of our fate, and we’re in charge of our future.”’

In his video commentary, Wainaina discusses at length the role of popular Pentecostal Christian movements, which he sees as a driving force fuelling homophobia in contemporary Africa. He sees Pentecostalism as a conservative movement that continues the colonisation of African minds. In his own words, public space in Kenya and other countries is "squashed by Pentecostal demon hunters", who are particularly concerned with fighting the demon of homosexuality.[4] Christianity, especially in its Pentecostal form, for Wainaina is an obstacle in the much-needed process for Africans to free their imagination, to decolonise the mind, and to take charge of their own future.

Wainaina is certainly not alone in this analysis. For instance, the great Nigerian writer and public intellectual (and Leeds alumnus), Wole Soyinka, speaks of popular religion, including Pentecostalism, as something that ‘threatens the very fabric of a continent’.[5]

Baptised and initially raised as a Catholic, and having attended many Pentecostal services himself as a child after his mother’s born-again conversion, Wainaina knew what he was talking about.[6] At the time of his premature death, in 2019, in his own words he was "an atheist or a lapsed believer" [7], and he also was in the process of re-engaging with African indigenous spirituality.[8]

However, as a progressive pan-African thinker, he also acknowledged that there are other possibilities within Christianity. In a long Facebook post from 2015, he invoked ‘the Jesus of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King’ – that is, the prophetic Gospel of the American Civil Rights movement and of black progressive religious thought. This Jesus, according to Wainaina, critiques popular forms of Christianity in Africa, because

The Jesus Christ sold to Africans (often for weekly cash money) is a rich white man. … He is not the Jesus who overturned the political party of the Pharisees who were determined to keep the most marginalized of the people of Judea poor and broken down. … Our Jesus wants a gated community, wants diversity deleted, our Jesus wants us to condemn ourselves, tear out hearts apart, beat up our lesbian sister, attack our Muslim neighbor.[9]

For Wainaina, the black Jesus of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King is the real Jesus of the Gospel, bringing liberation to the most marginalised. This might be what he had in mind when, in an open letter to all Kenyans in 2017, he stated: "I believe in the biblical verse that says: 'the truth shall set you free.”’[10]

I’m opening this lecture with a discussion of Wainaina’s thoughts about Christianity, sexuality, and African imagination, partly because Wainaina himself has been an important figure in my recent work on Christianity and sexuality in Africa. Back in 2014, I responded to his message on Twitter, in which he called for someone to accompany him to a dinner party in London.[11] I’m not sure which of the two criteria mentioned in the tweet I met, but in any case, I had the privilege of meeting him – at that dinner, indeed, and later at his house in Nairobi, where we talked about religion, politics, sexuality, African literature, and a lot more, while sharing food and a bottle of whiskey. He also showed up, unexpectedly, at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, when I was about to present a paper, titled ‘Binyavanga Wainaina as a Queer Prophet’, which was a little nerve-wrecking. Wainaina’s step, on World AIDS Day 2016, to disclose his HIV status[12] –, has been an inspiration for me to engage in a similar act of embodied and intimate self-disclosure.[13] After all, the personal is political and also shapes our academic positionality. This is only one example of the many ways in which I have been enriched, not just academically but also politically and emotionally, through the interactions with my research participants, and in which they have allowed me to grow as a human being, I hope. Unfortunately, Wainaina died just a few months before my book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer, which has a chapter about him, was published.

Yet the discussion of Wainaina with which I opened is also important because it brings us to the heart of the question central in this lecture: Can Christianity be part of a progressive reimagination of sexuality in contemporary Africa? This question has become more pertinent in recent years, as heated debates about decolonisation have re-emerged, as well as debates about queer politics in Africa. Scholars such as Kwame Bediako and Lamin Sanneh argued already years ago that Christianity can be considered an African religion.[14] But recent debates make us ponder the question again: is there a decolonial future for Christianity on the continent?[15] And related to that, can Christianity contribute to what Stella Nyanzi has called "the queering of queer Africa"?[16] Clearly, Wainaina himself was rather sceptical about both questions, yet he did not preclude the possibility altogether. Some of you may have felt equally sceptic about the title of today’s lecture. Isn’t it a contradictio in terminis to think the words ‘Africa’, ‘Christianity’ and ‘sexual diversity’ together? Many of us who do have an interest in African affairs, and/or in LGBT human rights, have grown accustomed to reports about religious leaders driving conservative politics of sexuality, actively fuelling socio-political homophobia, and fervently opposing the rights of sexual minorities. Most recently, in Ghana a new anti-gay bill was proposed, even more strict than the notorious Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill that several years ago caused so much international outcry.

Poster for a 1 Day National Prayer Rally on LGBTQI+. Head and shoulder images of five religious leaders.

The Bill in Ghana, like previous similar bills in other African countries, has been enthusiastically endorsed by Christian leaders. In March this year, clerics from Pentecostal, Catholic, Methodist and other churches organised a national prayer. It was a rare sign of ecumenical unity, in a country that otherwise is a highly competitive religious market with different churches constantly competing for influence and following. You would hope they were praying for prosperity and peace in the country. Or that they used the occasion to pray and warn about corruption or climate change or whatever important issue. But no. Their primary concern was: ‘Homosexuality: A Detestable Sin to God’.[17]

The Public Nature of Christianity and Sexuality in Africa

A lot can be said about the reasons why much of Christianity in Ghana, and across the continent, has become so deeply invested in creating these moral panics, by reinforcing the idea of homosexuality as a danger to the family and a threat to the nation, and as something at odds with “African values”. Two books that I edited with Ezra Chitando some years ago offer detailed analyses of these dynamics in a range of African countries.[18] They carefully unpack how ‘public religion’ in postcolonial Africa has come to manifest itself in a clash with increasingly public forms of non-normative sexualities.

In this lecture, however, my interest is a different one. In recent years, I have become increasingly interested in the ways in which religion is also part of counter-mobilisations. Empirically, this interest was inspired by the observation that many of the LGBT people I met during my research, first in Zambia and later in Kenya, often identified as Christian, and frequently where active church-goers, finding ways of negotiating their sexuality and faith in the face of religiously-driven homophobia.[19] Moreover, LGBT and queer activists and artists across the continent engage with resources from Christian traditions in creative ways, in order to claim visibility and seek public recognition.[20]

Theoretically, this interest is also inspired by the notion that public religion is always a space of contestation, open to multiple, and often conflicting interpretations.[21] As a scholar with feminist, decolonial and queer sensitivities, I am committed to exploring and foregrounding counter-discourses that emerge from the margins. Because such counter-discourses help us to debunk any generalising narratives about “Africa”, “religion” and “homophobia”. They also help to identify the potential for social, political, and religious transformation. It is of vital importance to acknowledge the complexity and multiplicity, both of the African continent (which I think is a key task of any African studies scholar) and of religion (which is a key task of any religious studies scholar). The complexity and multiplicity of Christianity in Africa in particular has motivated Asonzeh Ukah to argue for the plural term 'African Christianities'. The plural is "to emphasize these different strands or traditions that may or may not be compatible to one another."[22] Thus, as much as the centre of gravity of global Christianity is shifting southwards, with Africa becoming one of its most important heartlands, we should not think of this as the emergence of a ‘next Christendom’[23] in monolithic terms. As Toyin Falola points out, there are "multiple faces" to the question of Christianity and social change in Africa.[24] The plurality and constant innovation of African Christianity opens a range of possibilities to imagine African Christian futures, including, I dare to suggest, queer affirming ones.

Pondering about what he calls "Afroqueer futurity", Kwame E. Otu writes: "African. Queer. Christianity. An interesting twist. These analytics, never construed as entangled, share such productive affinity."[25] But how to explore this affinity? The central claim that Ezra Chitando and I make in our recent book Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa is that a variety of African thinkers, writers, activists and artists have already begun to re-imagine Christian traditions in support of the quest for sexual diversity in contemporary Africa.[26] They do so by creatively and critically engaging religious texts, language, imagery, and symbols in order to explore the possibilities of queer African futures. In what follows, I will talk through a couple of examples, from different parts of the continent and representing a variety of genres, to give you a broad introduction to how this reimagination is taking place.

Religious thought: Mercy A. Oduyoye[27]

My own entry to the field of religion in Africa, and to African studies more generally, was through the study of African theology. While studying at Utrecht, I became somewhat bored by, and frustrated with, the overwhelmingly Eurocentric focus of my curriculum. I developed an interest in contextual theologies in which questions of Christian faith and practice were directly related to concrete socio-political realities. Given a chance to do a special option module where I could choose my own topic, as a young student from the Dutch bible belt who had never been to Africa, I decided – for reasons that I can’t fully remember – to study the work of Ghanaian theologian, Mercy Amba Oduyoye.

Often referred to as the ‘mother of African women’s theology’, Oduyoye has made a major contribution to reimagining Christian faith in African contexts through the lens of women’s experiences. She critically unpacks how missionary Christianity arrived in a patriarchal guise, reinforcing the patriarchal traditions already present. In her analysis, this resulted in women being marginalised in the Christian church, and indirectly laid a foundation for discrimination of, and violence against women in society more generally. But going beyond this critique, she develops a theological hermeneutics that blends African cultural and religious traditions, with biblical texts and key tenets of Christian faith, and with women’s life experiences. Doing so, she creatively develops a theology that affirms women’s dignity and empowers them in their quest for life, justice, and healing.

At the heart of her theological project is a reimagination of God through African women’s eyes, such as reflected in the following two poems from her hand[28]:

Growing up
In my father’s house
At the missionary’s feet,
I saw you as a
Grey-bearded white man from a far away Land
A large all-seeing,
Stern and demanding, thundering
“Throw away your brass, wood and stone idols.”
They said,
“He is a jealous God so
Serve no one but He.
Burn your totems and change your name
Save your soul from Heresy."

Compare this poem to the next one:

The life-force that surges through one woman
and causes her to drag her children to shelter
from the elements, that’s God.
The sense of worthiness that drives a
young woman to face the authorities and to
tell them ‘now is the time’ – that’s God.
The constancy with which all creation
seeks to increase, multiply to maintain
their communities on earth and sky
that’s God.
God is life
God is worthiness
God is a constant communit
all come from God and tell of God.

What we see in these two poems is a shift in Oduyoye’s perception of God: from the colonial, patriarchal God introduced by European missionaries, to the divine imagined from an African woman’s point of view, affirming the human quest for life and community.

I ended up writing an extended essay about Oduyoye’s work, and my lecturer liked it enough to invite me to give a presentation about it to a class of undergraduate students (which must have been the first-ever class I taught). What I did not know at that time, but discovered years later, was that Oduyoye out of her feminist theological concern with women’s position in church and society, was also one of the first African theologians who in her publications openly denounced homophobia and heteronormativity, and expressed a genuine concern with sexual minorities. As early as 1993, she wrote an essay in which she stated to be "horrified by the demonisation of homosexuals".[29] She drew a direct parallel between homophobia and what she called "the phobia of childlessness" experienced by childless women in Africa[30] – a reality that she knows personally too well. A later publication, in which Odyoye writes about her own experience as a married but childless woman, can be read not only as an African feminist but also as a queer theological text. Here, she proposes a theology of fruitfulness that goes beyond the norm of biological procreation. She calls upon the church to acknowledge "the diversity of God’s gifts" and to celebrate "all the ways of bringing forth life" [31] – that is, the many different ways in which human beings can lead a fruitful life, regardless of their reproductive capacities, marital status, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Together with the legendary Desmond Tutu from South Africa, Oduyoye is among the first black African theologians to engage in a progressive theological imagination in which Christianity enhances the quest for sexual justice in Africa. For each of them, this was inspired by their primary concern with other categories: in Tutu’s case, race, and his personal experiences of apartheid, and in Oduyoye’s case, gender, and her personal experiences of patriarchy. They both realised that one cannot theologise racial justice, or gender justice, without taking into account justice in other areas of human life. Building on this principle, any emerging African queer theology thus is intersectional. As the popular saying goes, “Justice denied to one is justice denied to all”. The African LGBTI Manifesto underlines this as follows:

As Africans, we stand for the celebration of our complexities and we are committed to ways of being which allow for self‐determination at all levels of our sexual, social, political and economic lives. The possibilities are endless. We need economic justice; we need to claim and redistribute power; we need to eradicate violence; we need to redistribute land; we need gender justice; we need environmental justice; we need erotic justice; we need racial and ethnic justice; we need rightful access to affirming and responsive institutions, services and spaces; overall we need total liberation.[32]

In the light of recent developments in Ghana, it is comforting to know that one of the most influential theologians that the country has produced is, in fact, highly critical of these popular Christian anti-LGBT politics, and has provided a strong basis for an alternative way of thinking. In other parts of Africa, too, progressive theological voices have emerged that explicitly confirm and defend the human dignity and rights of sexual minorities and embrace sexual diversity: Musa Dube from Botswana, Nyambura Njoroge and Esther Mombo from Kenya, Elias Bongmba from Cameroon, Ezra Chitando and Masiiwa Ragies Gunda from Zimbabwe are only some examples. Together, they have laid a foundation for the emergence of queer African theologies.

Methodological intermezzo

By discussing Oduyoye here, I also acknowledge the importance of engaging with African theology as part of the broader study of religion in Africa. The endless methodological debates about theology versus religious studies, which for long have dominated our field in European institutions, in my view are not particularly helpful in African contexts.[33] After all, in Africa, theologians often play an active societal role, theological discourse is part of the public domain, and academia is not necessarily conceived of as a secular space. I advocate a multi-disciplinary approach that mobilises a wide range of methodological tools and that combines emic and etic perspectives to examine and understand the multiple dimensions and roles of religion as part of African social worlds.

In my own work, I have become increasingly interested in an approach that considers religion as a key part of African cultural production, in all its various genres and forms, from literature to movies, from music to social media, and from popular culture to street art. One of the potentials of this approach is that it draws attention to the arts, broadly defined, as a space of creative engagement with, and contestations of public religion. Contemporary African arts and cultural production mediate the negotiation, resistance, innovation and transformation of religious belief, symbol, imagery, and practices in the public sphere. That is, they are vital to the reimagination of religion. Moreover, they engage in a contestation over the question of "what it currently means to be African"[34], and they are concerned with reimagining "the traditional African vision of humanism that is relentlessly being eroded by the realities of postcolonial nationhood" [35]. As such, cultural production, in the words of Gibson Ncube, also "play[s] a pivotal role in creating alternate spaces in which LGBT or queer individuals and groups can freely and openly embrace their differences."[36]

Literature: Under the Udala Trees[37]

Obviously, one important area of cultural production is literary writing, and I’m honoured to work at an institution where the study of African literature is deeply ingrained in our institutional history and present.

I’ve always loved reading – as a kid, my dad would read for us, and a few years older, my mum took us to the public library every Friday evening, and I’d choose five books which I’d devour in the next week. So, I’m grateful to them for introducing me into the imaginative world of books. Taking up that love for reading again, I’ve recently developed a new project on African literature, giving myself an alibi to read more novels and count it as ‘work’.[38]

In modern African literature, Christianity has often been subject of critique for its intricate connection to the history of colonialism. The title of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things fall Apart, about the impact of colonialism and mission, is illustrative here. And so is Ngugi wa Thiongo’s novel, The River Between, which captures the socio-cultural divide caused by European intervention. However, for a new generation of African writers, Christianity is not so much something that arrived from outside, but that has become rooted in African social milieus. As Simon Gikandi puts it, "after independence, Christianity could no longer be represented as a force extraneous to the African experience but a crucial part of the social and cultural fabric of postcolonial society" [39]. So, recent literary texts allow for a critical, but also nuanced and constructive engagement with Christianity. Moreover, recent African literary texts have engaged with the hitherto controversial theme of same-sex relationships.

Book cover of Under the Udala Trees

Cover of Under the Udala Trees

A fascinating example of a text that intersects these two themes is the Nigerian Igbo writer, Chinelo Okparanta’s book Under the Udala Trees (2015). This beautiful novel presents a female same-sex love story in a narrative that includes plenty of references to religion. For the protagonist, Ijeoma, the church, in particular the culture of Pentecostal-Charismatic prayer, deliverance, and intense bible study, is presented as a hindrance in the process of coming to terms with her sexuality. Yet, importantly, the novel offers a nuanced and multifaceted account, opening up other ways of imagining Christianity and sexuality. For instance, Ijeoma herself begins to question her mother's interpretation of the Bible and suggests that the creation story about Adam and Eve can be read as underlining the need for companionship in multiple forms. Responding to the popular argument against homosexuality – "It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve", Ijeoma muses:

Just because the story happened to focus on a certain Adam and Eve did not mean that all other possibilities were forbidden. … What if Adam and Eve were merely symbols of companionship? And Eve, different from him, woman instead of man, was simply a tool by which God notes that companionship was something you got from a person outside of yourself?[40]

The novel thus reinterprets the Genesis account of creation. It takes Adam and Eve as a narrative model, not of gender complementarity and compulsory heterosexuality in marriage, but of human difference, companionship, and relationality that can be found and enjoyed in multiple, equally viable, forms. Okparanta advances here a queer biblical interpretation avant le letter. She does so in a way that is distinctly Igbo, by engaging with the motif of the udala tree that is central in the title and that appears throughout the novel. This tree is highly symbolic in Igbo indigenous culture and religion, as it is associated with both innocence and fertility. In the novel, the symbolic meaning of the udala tree appears to merge with that of the biblical tree of knowledge: the tree becomes a symbol of losing innocence, gaining knowledge and maturity, and exploring new ways of being fruitful.

Obviously, the Bible plays an important role as a religious, but also a social and cultural text in contemporary Africa, and it is often used to reinforce a conservative attitude towards sexual diversity. Addressing and interrogating this, Ijeoma ponders:

Change is a major part of God’s aesthetic, a major part of His vision for the world. The Bible itself is an endorsement of change. … Maybe the rules of the Bible will always be in flux. Maybe God is still speaking and will continue to do so for always. Maybe He is still creating new covenants, only we were too deaf, too headstrong, too set in old ways to hear.[41]

Moreover, her staunchly conservative mother, who throughout the novel uses the language of abomination and deliverance in relation to her daughter, at the end of the story concludes: "God, who created you, must have known what He did."[42] Thus, Okparanta’s suggestion is not only that God is open to change and that the Bible is not static, but that even conservative and initially homophobic Christians can be transformed in their minds and attitudes. As much as she acknowledges, in her own words, that "Christianity has historically been the greatest platform on which homosexuality has been condemned", through her novel she creatively explores the possibility of alternative imaginings of Christian faith in relation to sexuality.[43] Some readers have argued that her account is too optimistic about the possibility of change.[44] Yet Okparanta appears to address this criticism in the epigraph of her book, which is a quotation from the New Testament (Hebrews 11:1): "Faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities, though not beheld." In other words, reimagining social reality, including Christianity, is a matter of hope and faith that a better world is possible.

Sacred queer stories

Putting Okparanta’s notion of the Bible as an endorsement of change into practice, over the past few years I have worked with my colleague, Johanna Stiebert, and with a community-based organisation of LGBT refugees in Kenya, on a project about re-telling Bible stories from LGBT refugee perspectives. It was the most fun, but also the most moving and enriching piece of research I’ve ever been involved in. From them, I learned that one of the secrets of African queer existence is joy and creativity, and the joy of being creative.

The very basic idea of the project was the following, in the words of the fabulous Raymond Brian who served as our local research coordinator:

The Bible is often used against us, but in this project we reclaim it as a book that affirms and empowers us.

As Sarojini Nadar has argued, such a dialogical and transformative process of ‘rescripting’ sacred text is particularly important given the prominent status of the Bible in many African societies and its role as a “site of struggle” about issues of sexual diversity.[45] Our premise was that by inter-reading life stories and bible stories, new sacred queer stories would emerge – and so they did! As one of our participants put it succinctly:

The Bible is a book of life, and we should use it to reveal our lives.

To capitalise on the power of storytelling, we enacted these new, liberating stories through drama. Let us watch two fragments from one of the two drama films that came out of our project – ‘Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den’ – for you to get a sense of how the bible story of Daniel in the lions’ den was re-told by participants in the light of their experiences in the aftermath of the Anti-Homosexuality bill in Uganda.

The drama films, as well as the stories that we published in the book Sacred Queer Stories (co-authored with two community leaders, Sebyala Raymond Brian and Fredrick Hudson), are a testimony to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s claim that "Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity"[46].

And as much as the Bible is, indeed, a site of struggle, it can be creatively reclaimed as an African text by marginalised communities to affirm and empower themselves, and to re-tell the stories of their lives in a liberating way.

Audio-visual texts: Rafiki and Same Love[47]

Another major genre of African cultural production is audio-visual texts. In recent years, queer-themed videos have emerged from different parts of the continent, demonstrating the emerging method of visual activism. Let me briefly discuss two Kenyan texts that can be seen as contributing to a reimagination of Christianity.

First, the film Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu and released, to wide acclaim, in 2018. Rafiki tells the story of a romance developing between two young women – Kena and Ziki – in an urban Kenyan setting and amidst family pressures as well as socio-political contestations over gay rights in Kenya. In the film, Christianity is part of everyday life: we see Christian imagery and language throughout the film; Kena’s mother is depicted as a deeply religious figure; the church is an important part of the neighbourhood, and the pastor an influential figure in the community. Christianity is depicted as a driving force in the struggle that Kena and Ziki face when their friendship develops into a blossoming love. The pastor delivers a sermon that is typical of religious anti-gay speech widely prevalent in Kenya:

There are Kenyans who are challenging the government because of their stand on same-sex marriage. They say it’s a human right. What is a human right? Isn’t it God who decides what is right and what isn’t? Are we going to ignore God? Don’t accept to be lost. Because God’s laws don’t change like human laws or your country’s.

Later in the film, Kena is taken to church, where her mother asks the pastor to pray over her daughter and deliver her from the demons possessing her. Thus, the film addresses the widespread notion that homosexuality is a result of demon-possession, and that the queer body is in need of deliverance. However, the deliverance fails: Kena is as tomboyish and same-sex loving after the ritual, as she was before. Thus, the film suggests that sexual orientation cannot be ‘healed’ or ‘corrected’ through spiritual intervention. And the pastor’s claim that God’s laws don’t change is subtly interrogated in the film when, in one of the opening shots, it shows a religious text written somewhere on a wall, reading:

I have no other God but you. You have done what no man has done. You will do what no man will do.

Manos de Luz: [Nueva entrada] Cuando 'Rafiki' signifique 'amor'. Red writing on a white background, "I have no other God but you. You have done what no man has done. You will do what no man can do."

The line is a quotation from a popular Gospel song. At first sight, the image illustrates the way in which Christian language through music and popular culture, infuses public space and has become part of the aesthetics of urban life in Kenya. However, this specific text entails a promise and can be read as prophetic. Watching the film, one may reach the conclusion that gay rights are impossible in Kenya. However, this text suggests that with God, all things are possible. The positive ending of the film underlines this optimistic message. Kena and Ziki are reunited many years later; love will prevail, and queer love is possible.

Where Rafiki is somewhat subtle in bringing across this alternative interpretation of Christianity, the music video Same Love (Remix) is much more explicit. Produced by George Barasa and released in 2016, this film ends with a quotation from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13):

Love is patient
Love is kind
Love is selfless
Love is full of hope
Love is full of trust
Love is not proud.
God is love and love is God.[48]

The insertion of this biblical quotation in the Same Love song illustrates how Christianity, as a public religion, also shapes contemporary African cultural production. But reading the film as a form of visual activism, the use of the Bible here is also highly strategic, as it reclaims sacred Scripture from a largely homophobic church, and uses it to affirm the validity of love in its multiple forms. The video explicitly claims that queer love finds its origins in God, the source of love.

Moreover, the video interrogates the criminalisation of homosexuality in Kenya and other parts of Africa, explicitly referring to Uganda and Nigeria. According to the song,

It’s time for new laws
Not time for new wars
We come from the same God,
Cut from the same cord.
Share the same pain
And share the same skin.

The song reflects the pan-African belief in the unity, equality and solidarity of black and African people as created by God, united in a history of struggle and in a quest for justice and liberation. Indeed, the song refers to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr, and claims that this spirit is living on in Africans who fight for the dignity and rights of LGBT people today.

This emerging discourse of queer Pan-Africanism, which we also encountered in Wainaina’s thinking, is inspired by religious, largely Christian thought.[49] As such, it not only advances a reimagination of Africa, helping to imagine queer African futures, but also of Christianity in Africa, with faith being mobilised to imagine a continent – the cradle of humankind – that embraces human diversity and guarantees freedom for all its people.

Gospel spirituals

Achille Mbembe has stated that "Struggle as a praxis of liberation has always drawn part of its imaginary resources from Christianity" [50]. He makes this observation in relation to the history of slavery and the civil rights movement in North America. As we know, music was a crucial method through which those suffering from the injustice of slavery and racism kept hopeful and engaged in a reimaginative practice. This history reminds us that reimagination is born out of struggle – a struggle reflected in the Gospel spirituals that emerged from the plantations.

Now, music is also central in contemporary African Christian religious cultures. Gospel music, according to Damaris Parsitau, is "the fastest growing musical expression in many parts of Africa today", and thus is also a vital part of African cultural production.[51] Of course, the significance and meaning of particular songs and lyrics is always contextual. During my ethnographic research with LGBT Christians in Kenya, I was struck by the importance of Gospel music in their community. And I can’t interpret this in another way than that Gospel songs for them, too, are born out of struggle and represent an imaginative practice of faith

At the time of my research in the Cosmopolitan Affirming Church, an LGBT affirming Christian community in Nairobi, one of the most popular songs sung during Sunday worship was titled “I Love the Way” (by the Ugandan pastor, Robert Kanyanja):

I love the way you handle my situations,
I love the way you fight for me.

These lyrics, which in CAC were greatly extended compared to the original version, are particularly meaningful in the context of the struggles church members have experienced because of their sexuality and the challenges they still face in their everyday lives. In the context of CAC, this song becomes a song of empowerment and encouragement for LGBT people of faith.

Indeed, this song reflects a reimagination of Christianity, with God being imagined as a source of affirmation, acceptance, support and even defence of queer folks, many of which have faced discrimination and exclusion in their communities.

Another very popular song, that was sung by the CAC choir at the launch of my book Kenyan Christian Queer in Nairobi a few years ago, is Kuliko Jana (by the Kenyan band Sauti Sol) which is not so much a song of struggle, but of love for Jesus. But again, in the context of this LGBT church community, the very close, intimate relationship to Jesus that the song reflects, becomes meaningful against the background of exclusion and ostracization.

Ngugi wa Thiongo has said about the African American gospel spirituals that they represent an "aesthetic of resistance" with a "force of beauty and imagery of hope" [52]. These same words very much apply to the beautiful songs of the CAC choir – by praising God and expressing their love for Jesus, the Affirming Voices denounce the suggestion that LGBT people cannot be true Christians. By thanking God for fighting for them, they also claim that God is on their side in the struggle for existence and recognition; and by endlessly repeating those lines, the song becomes a performative anticipation that this struggle will be won. By singing they imagine and help to create the world they are hoping for: a world of love and acceptance, of dignity and rights, of justice and freedom.

When Aiwan Obinyan, David Ochar and I produced the documentary film Kenyan, Christian, Queer, we tried to capture the important role of gospel music for African queer world-making in the opening of the film (watch first minute).


Last but not least, one final example of creative forms where the appropriation and reimagination of Christianity occurs: in drag performance. The example in question comes from South Africa – the country of my first personal encounter with the African continent, first when as a teenager we had two South African girls staying with our family, and my sister was teasing that I was in love with one of them (she was wrong; but it might have been the beginning of my love for the country); and later when I was a visiting student in the Theology and HIV/AIDS programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I have returned to South Africa many times since then, and my experiences there are forever inscribed in my body and the memories in my heart.

One of these memories is in a community hall in the Cape flats area at the outskirts of Cape Town, far away from the predominantly white spaces that owe Cape Town its reputation as ‘gay capital’ of the African continent. I had been invited to attend a performance by one of South Africa’s most fabulous drag queens, Belinda Qaqamba Fassie. In their arts, in a fascinating way Belinda weaves together their family history, the struggle and the beauty of black and queer existence, the vitality of indigenous traditions, as well as of Christianity.

This is a photograph of a performer on stage wearing a white hat and orange top, black skirt and high heals holding a 1.5 meter wooden cross.

Belinda Qaqamba Fassie performing in memory of her Methodist grandmother.

In the show, Belinda paid tribute to their grandmother, by dressing in the traditional church uniform of the Methodist women’s movement. With the same authenticity and creativity, Belinda at other occasions performs songs from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, and wears dresses that remind of indigenous Xhosa rituals. Belinda’s performances illustrate what Jose Esteban Munoz has called practices of disidentification by queer artist of colour, bringing together hitherto seemingly opposed categories – blackness and queerness, indigenous and Christian symbols, tradition and modernity. And doing so, she performs a world that is yet to come, a "utopian performativity imbued with a sense of potentiality" [53]. A black queer body wearing a Methodist church uniform, carrying a cross with an image of the black consciousness leader, Steve Biko – this is drag as a creative imagination and a radical political form of art.

With some colleagues in South Africa, I’m currently developing a research project into black queer creative practices such as presented by Qaqamba Fassie, and the way in which they present us with a fascinating assemblage of sexuality, race and the sacred. Such performative practices speak back to the queer body which in Eurocentric queer studies tends to be conceptualised as Western, white, and secular, and they put religion, spirituality, and faith at the heart of African queer worldmaking.

To conclude

I opened this lecture with a question posed by Binyavanga Wainaina: Can Christianity be part of a progressive reimagination of sexual diversity in contemporary Africa? With the history of European colonialism and Christian imperialism, and with the present role of Christianity in fuelling anti-LGBT politics, many might be tempted to answer this question in a negative way, and for understandable reasons. Yet at the same time, as I have demonstrated, this reimagination is already taking place – whether or not liberal, progressive, and/or secular thinkers and activists may like it. Creatively and courageously, new possibilities of faith and sexuality in Africa are imagined, and are beginning to transform the present, making queer existence possible with all its vulnerabilities but also with lots of joy and energy in the quest for abundance of life.

True, it is a relatively marginal phenomenon, and it is yet to be seen what the long-term impact and effects will be. Some critics of my work have challenged me to pay more attention to the social, political, and economic conditions in which the kind of reimaginative practices that I’ve been talking about can materialise. And certainly, that is an important question, especially for social scientists and political economists. But the value of Arts and Humanities research is also in identifying and exploring creative and critical narratives that emerge from the margins of history and of the socio-political present, even if such narratives may not seem viable at the time. From Martin Luther King Jr we know that any struggle for justice, any movement for social, political, and religious transformation, starts with a dream. With the risk of ending this lecture as a sermon (to the joy of my mum, who I think still hopes that one day I will become a clergyman): this is a dream, in King’s words, for "that day when all God’s children . . . will be free at last."

This reimagination of Christianity and sexuality is, I believe, potentially also a decolonial imagination. This may sound surprising, so let me explain. Ngugi wa Thiongo has reminded us that colonialism was a dis-membering practice, with African memory being supplanted by European and Western-centric knowledges. Decolonisation, for him, is therefore a re-membering practice, with African memory being restored in order to bring about an African post-colonial renaissance. He points out that "creative imagination is one of the greatest remembering practices" [54]. How do these critical insights about memory and re-membering relate to our discussion today which so far has had a strongly contemporary focus? In relation to the question of sexual diversity in Africa, Ngugi’s point about re-membering can be applied to the memory of indigenous traditions of sexual diversity. Usually, these traditions are linked to indigenous religious cultures, the suggestion being that they were supplanted by the introduction of Christianity in the colonial period. As much as there’s an element of truth in this, it is important not to forget that the history of Christianity on the African continent far predates the arrival of European explorers, settlers, colonialists, and missionaries. Indeed, Christianity was present on the continent long before it arrived in Western Europe. And contemporary Christianity in Africa presents, at least potentially and perhaps ideally, not a case of a next Christendom, but an example of what Kwame Bediako has called "the renewal of a non-Western religion" [55]. Moreover, in this context it is important to re-member that some of the oldest narratives of female same-sex intimacy in Africa relates to early Christian traditions, such as Perpetua and Felicity, two 2nd century North African women martyrs, recognised by the Catholic Church as saints, and the 17th century Ethiopian nun Walatta Petros, recognised as a saint by the Orthodox Church, and leader of a movement that drove out foreign missionaries. In other words, there is potential for a creative imagination of Christianity and sexual diversity in Africa that does engage in a queer African Christian remembering practice.

Finally, delivering this lecture today, I am grateful to each and every one of you who has supported me in academic journey (which in many ways is also a very personal journey). I am particularly grateful to be part of an intellectually vibrant, but also socially supportive and collegial academic community here at Leeds – both in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, the subject area of Theology and Religious Studies, the Centre for Religion and Public Life, and the Centre for African studies. If there is one major reason why I truly enjoy working at Leeds, it is the presence of great colleagues and students, and the opportunity to share my interests and pursue my passion with them. Today I feel particularly honoured to stand in, and further build a tradition of studying religion in Africa here at the University of Leeds. I’m grateful for the work of my predecessor, Kevin Ward, and his predecessor, Adrian Hastings, in establishing this tradition. Having said so, I must confess that I also feel rather uncomfortable about the fact that I am the third white man to embody and represent this work. And I am embarrassed to become another white male Professor in a School, in a Faculty, and at a University with an overwhelmingly white staff body, especially in the professorial rank. Nation-wide, not even 1% of university professors in the UK are black[56]. Much could and needs to be said about the imperative to diversify the staff body, here at Leeds, and in the field of religious studies as well as African studies more broadly, and indeed in the UK higher education sector at large. I will keep pushing this agenda here at this University and beyond, and also keep supporting students and colleagues of colour wherever I can. Let me not say more about it at this occasion. Today, I have instead performed a more symbolic gesture. In an attempt to decentre white male scholarship, and to acknowledge the politics of knowledge production and citation, in this lecture I have extensively cited, relied and build on the work of black African scholars, writers and artists. I hope this brings across the message that diversifying and decolonising our reading lists and curriculum is possible, if we make intentional effort.

This inaugural lecture is an occasion to celebrate my academic achievement, and therefore automatically also centres me and my work. However, I could not have achieved anything without my research participants, colleagues, and friends in various African countries, many of whom I know are currently watching this lecture. They generously shared with me their knowledge, life experiences, and embodied world-making. I have learned so much from them and have been truly enriched in the process. In the spirit of ubuntu, I say: I am because you are. Asante sana, thank you so much.


[1] Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘I am a homosexual, mum’, Africa is a Country, 19 January 2014, (accessed 15 October 2021).

[2] Reuters, ‘KENYA: Kenyan Writer Binyavanga Wainaina Comes Out and Vows to Challenge Homophobia in Africa’, ITNsource [online], 31 January 2014. (accessed 15 September 2014; link no longer available).

[3] Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘We Must Free Our Imaginations, Part 1: Bring Me the Obedient Children’, Youtube, 21 January 2014, (accessed 11 September 2021). See the transcript of the video here:

[4] KTN Kenya, ‘Jeff Koinange Live with Valentine Njoroge and Binyavanga Wainaina

(Being Gay in Kenya)’, YouTube, 29 January 2014. (accessed 11 September 2021).

[5] Wole Soyinka, Of Africa, New Haven: Yale University Press 2012, 131.

[6] Binyavanga Wainaina, One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir. London: Granta 2011.

[7] Okey Ndibe, ‘The Binyavanga Wainaina interview, part 2’, This is Africa, 10 April 2014. (accessed 18 October 2021).

[8] Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘A Letter to All Kenyans from Binyavanga Wainaina or Binyavanga wa Muigai’, Brittlepaper, 25 October 2017. (accessed 18 October 2021).

[9] Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘The Jesus of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King’, Facebook, 4 May 2015. (accessed 15 October 2021).

[10] Wainaina, ‘A Letter to All Kenyans’.

[11] Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW), ‘Looking 4 a date 4 dinner in London. Man or woman, good company 4 #TedexEustonDinner. Wittiest tweet wins. Hot men get bonus points’, Twitter, 3 December 2014,

[12] Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW), ‘I am HIV Positive, and happy’, Twitter, 1 December 2016,

[13] See ‘Interlude 3: Positive’, in Adriaan van Klinken, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa. Philadelphia: Penn State University Press 2019.

[14] Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1995; Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2003.

[15] Teddy Chalwe Sakupapa, ‘The Decolonising Content of African Theology and the Decolonisation of African Theology Reflections on a Decolonial Future for African Theology’, Missionalia 46/3 (2018),

[16] Stella Nyanzi, ‘Queering Queer Africa’, in Zethu Matebeni, Reclaiming Afrikan: Queer Perspectives of Gender and Sexual Identities. Athlone: Modjaji Books 2014, 61-66.

[17] ‘Christian Clerics In Ghana Organise National Prayer Against Same-Sex Union’, Sahara Reporters, 23 March 2021. (accessed 21 September 2021).

[18] Adriaan van Klinken and Ezra Chitando (eds.), Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa. London and New York: Routledge 2016; Ezra Chitando and Adriaan van Klinken (eds.), Christianity and Controversies Over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa. London and New York: Routledge 2016.

[19] Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Queer Love in a “Christian Nation”: Zambian Gay Men Negotiating Sexual and Religious Identities’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 83/4 (2015), 947–964.

[20] van Klinken, Kenyan, Christian, Queer.

[21] E.g. see Birgit Meyer, ‘Going and Making Public. Some Reflections on Pentecostalism as Public Religion in Ghana’. In Harri Englund (ed.), Christianity and Public Culture in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press 2011, 149-166.

[22] Asonzeh Ukah, African Christianities: Features, Promises and Problems, Mainz: Johannes Gutenberg Universitat, 2007. (accessed 11 September 2021).

[23] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[24] Toyin Falola, ‘Introduction’, in T. Falola (eds) Christianity and Social Change in Africa: Essays in Honor of J.D.Y. Peel. Durham: NC: Carolina Academic Press 2005, 7.

[25] Kwame E. Otu, ‘Review of Adriaan van Klinken, Kenyan, Christian, Queer’, Africa, 91/4 (2021), 693-695.

[26] Adriaan van Klinken and Ezra Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa. London: Hurst & Co / New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

[27] An extended version of this section can be found in chapter 2 of van Klinken & Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa, titled ‘Gender, Sexuality and a Theology of Fruitfulness: Mercy Oduyoye’.

[28] Elizabeth Amoah and Pamela Martin (eds.), Heart, Mind and Tongue: A Heritage of Woven Words. Poems by Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Accra: Sam-Woode Ltd 2001, 47 and 48.

[29] Mercy Oduyoye, ‘A Critique of Mbiti’s View on Love and Marriage in Africa’, in Jacob Olupona and Sulayman S. Nyang (eds), Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti. Berlin: Bouton the Gruyter, 354, 361.

[30] Ibid. 355.

[31] Mercy Oduyoye, ‘A Coming Home to Myself: The Childless Woman in the West African Space’, in Margaret Farley and Serene Jones (eds.), Liberating Eschatology: Essays in Honor of Letty M. Russell. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 119.

[32] Queer African Manifesto/Declaration, 18 April 2010, Nairobi, Kenya. (accessed 2 October 2021).

[33] For a more detailed discussion of this, see Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Studying Religion in the Pluriversity: Decolonial Perspectives’, Religion, 50/1 (2020), 148-155.

[34] Frieda Ekotto and Kenneth Harrow, ‘Introduction’, in Kenneth W. Harrow and Frieda Ekotto (eds.), Rethinking African Cultural Production. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 4.

[35] Lifongo J. Vetinde and Jean-Blaise Samou (eds.), African Cultural Production and the Rhetoric of Humanism. Lanham: Lexington Books 2020, quoted from back page.

[36] Gibson Ncube, ‘To be Black, Christian and Gay: Nakhane Touré’s Brave Confusion’, Muziki: Journal of Music Research in Africa 12/2 (2015), 48.

[37] An extended version of this section can be found in chapter 9 of van Klinken & Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa, titled ‘Infinite Possibilities in a Nigerian Lesbian Love Story: Under the Udala Trees’.

[38] Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Religion in African Literature: Representation, Critique and Imagination‘, Religion Compass, vol. 14, no. 12 (2020), 1-12.

[39] Simon Gikandi, ‘Christianity and Christian missions’, in S. Gikandi (ed.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of African Literature. London: Routledge 2009.

[40] Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees. London: Granta 2015.

[41] Ibid, 322.

[42] Ibid, 323.

[43] Courtney Gilette, ‘Chinelo Okparanta: On Her New Novel Under The Udala Trees and Being a Champion of Love’, Lambda Literary, 7 October 2015, (accessed 25 October 2021).

[44] Pucherova, ‘What Is African Woman? Transgressive Sexuality in 21st-Century African Anglophone Lesbian Fiction as a Redefinition of African Feminism’, Research in African Literatures 50/2 (2019), 117.

[45] Sarojini Nadar, ‘Sacred Sex, Sacred Text: Queering Religious Sexual Scripts in Transforming African Societies’, in Suzanne Scholz (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2020, 81-96. The notion of the Bible as a ‘site of struggle’ is derived from the work of Gerald West, who uses it in various publications, for instance see Gerald West, ‘African Biblical Scholarship as Post-Colonial, Tri-Polar, and a Site-of-Struggle’, in Tat-siong Benny Liew (ed.), Present and Future of Biblical Studies: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Brill's Biblical Interpretation. Leiden: Brill 2018, 240–273.

[46] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, TedGlobal 2009, (accessed 25 September 2021).

[47] An extended version of this section can be found in chapter 10 of van Klinken & Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa, titled ‘Christianity and Visual Activism in Kenyan Queer Film: Rafiki and Same Love’.

[48] Art Attack, Same Love (Remix), YouTube, 15 February 2016,

[49] Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Queer Pan-Africanism in Contemporary Africa’, in Reiland Rabaka (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Pan-Africanism. London: Routledge 2020, 343-354.

[50] Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2017, 174.

[51] Damaris Parsitau, ‘Gospel Music in Africa’, in Elias Kifon Bongmba (ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 489.

[52] Ngugi wa Thiongo, Remembering Africa, 32.

[53] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 99.

[54] Ngugi wa Thiongo, Remembering Africa, 28.

[55] Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion.

[56] Sean Coughlan, ‘Only 1% of UK university professors are black’, BBC News, 19 January 2021,,than%203%2C000%20in%20that%20time (accessed 5 October 2021).

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