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Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.

Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

Born into a humble family and raised by a single mother – he lost his father when in Primary Seven, Issah struggled to raise school fees, which made him vulnerably dependent on his benefactors. So, when in his form three, he told his mother who had been pestering him for a girlfriend, that he was gay, he knew he had crossed a line that would provoke the ire of his religiously conservative guardians.

“My mum immediately told my uncle. Being a devout Muslim sheikh, it was like a scandal for him. He threatened to withdraw the partial scholarship he had helped secure for me to help afford high school, if I continued with my “satanic ways.”

Days later, when Issah’s cousin also came out as gay, Issah was accused of “recruiting him,” and a mini-religious ritual was organised to “exorcise the ghost of gayism,” from him. Scared, isolated and vulnerable, Issah submitted to the ritual reluctantly, because it was the only way he would retain his uncle’s support to return to school.

Expelled from school because of his orientation and estranged from his own family, the first months of 2012 were difficult for Issah as he contemplated a bleak future for himself. Then, as luck would have it, that July, an aunt from the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa visited. She was more liberal minded towards gender and sexual minority rights, and she immediately offered to return to Mombasa with Issah to afford him an opportunity for a fresh start.

Issa immediately jumped at the opportunity. In 2013, he resumed school and enrolled for a Bachelor’s in Information Technology Management at the Technical University of Mombasa, thanks to the generosity of his aunt and her husband who offered to pay his tuition.

At University, Issah found that the environment was more accommodative of sexual diversity, and he immediately joined the sexual minorities community. But he was soon disappointed and would soon be on a collision course with the community’s leadership.

“The leadership was not interested in truly empowering and advocating for the rights of the less prominent members, who were still being harassed and denied access to basic health care and justice. They were more interested in the privileges and access their positions were giving them, yet elsewhere, our colleagues were suffering. I couldn’t take it,” he says.

Resolved, Issah decided to start a counter movement to represent the neglected members of the community. But the resultant contest for supremacy between his and the older movement drew disproportionate attention to the community, provoking university intervention. Issah’s aunt was summoned and appraised of the nephew’s activism. In response, she admonished Issah, arguing that while she was okay with his sexual identity, she was not comfortable with the accompanying activism and warned him to desist from it or she would throw him out of her home. But for Issah, that was a difficult choice:

“I had just found my voice and purpose – to speak up for others who like me had for long been oppressed and suffering injustice, and yet I was being asked to give all that up. No matter how much I loved my aunt, I couldn’t just give up all that,” Issah says.

Unwilling to withdraw from his newfound vocation to which he was passionately devoted, Issah was eventually thrown out of his guardians’ house, and denied tuition, and for a second time in five years, he found that he had to drop out of school. Not sure how to start all over again, Issah tried out some menial jobs to survive, and eventually ventured into sex work.  

In 2018, Issah came across an organisation called Pema Kenya, which was devoted to advocating for the rights of sexual minorities. Persuaded by his advocacy skills, they took him on as a peer educator, and mandated him to return to the same streets on which he was struggling to survive days back, this time to restore hope to other ostracized members, and to sensitize sex workers and help them access health services to enable them do their work safely. Soon, Issah was an outreach worker, which meant that he could now afford to rent a house of his own.  

In 2019, he was sent in Kisumu to attend a month-long Paralegals’ training, after which he was appointed Pema Kenya’s Paralegal. Now rejuvenated, Issah decided to start an initiative of his own, which he named – #KnowYourRights. Via this initiative, he set out to sensitize and empower other members of the community encountering challenges like the ones he had just survived.  Whenever he had free time, he would walk to their hideouts and hold small barazas with them, listening to their challenges, helping where possible, but most importantly, encouraging them not to despair.

“Eventually, some of these people started joining the crusade. We would agree on which communities to visit, when, and then proceed there as a team. This would energize the community we have visited and challenge them to look out for others too,” he says.

Issah’s efforts were creating a ripple effect in communities, and he started getting invited to radio programs to speak. Although these (programs) would enlist a lot of backlash, Issah was unfazed. That was until his relatives and neighbors back in Busia recognized him and started stigmatizing his mother. Suddenly, his mother, to whom he was by now sending a monthly stipend, decided she would no longer take his “satanic” money.   

Issah decided to recommend her for P-Flag, a PEMA Kenya program that sensitizes on sexuality and sexual orientation, with a view of facilitating understanding and acceptance between sexual minorities and their parents. After Issah’s mother attended for seven days, she embraced her son and apologized for all the mean comments she had said to him and went a step further to become an ally of the movement.

Issah is now a legal officer with PEMA Kenya. With a bit more financial freedom, he, returned to university, and hopes to graduate in August 2023. He still hosts the #KnowYourRights campaign virtually – on social media, and once on zoom every month.

Last year, he also started a campaign to identify young members of the community, many of them ostracized by their families and living on the street, who he offers shelter at his former house that he vacated.  Here, he and his fairly better-to-do #KnowYourRights campaign members look after them, try to talk to their families where possible, and set out to find them an economic opportunity to earn an income.

He acknowledges he and his colleagues have made significant gains but argues there’s still a long way to go:

 “Kenya’s Penal code still criminalizes what they call “unnatural sexual acts,” under which they target and harass all other sexual identities other than heterosexuals. I would like and hope that one day, we can have such an archaic law repealed.