Thursday, January 17, 2013

Minister for Education, Kenyan minister Mutula Kilonzo threatens to ban The Whale Rider . Reason is that the author, Maori Ihmaera Witi is gay

To: The Minister of Education, Kenya

Dear Mutula Kilonzo,

An article by Evans Mwangi in a Kenyan newspaper informed us that the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) had selected The Whale Rider by Ihmaera Witi as a set book. Prof Mwangi wrote that he knew that the author of this book is gay. He also mentioned that there was a time he withheld this information because he knew what that would lead to in Kenya. He wrote that he knew trouble would arise on the chosen book. The Whale Rider is praised for its artistic content and indeed some students in Kenya have already studied it for examinations. http://www.nation.co.ke/News/KIE-censors-score-a-first-by-picking-gay-authors-novel-/-/1056/1657730/-/14qow9s/-/index.html

The next headlines on the book came swiftly. They indicated that the Minister for Education was trying to slap a ban on The Whale Rider. As expected many Kenyans jumped into the fray to discuss how we cannot have such 'immoral people' writing books that are read by 'our children'. A few people wrote to question your hasty judgement and the idea of banning our book in our days was rejected. Others  supported your idea. The churches too called for the ban of the book as expected.

 Short skirts

Well, you more than anybody else knows that directly.  It was only in July 2012 that an uproar ensued from a comment that you made regarding girls' school skirts. The girls wanted to wear short school uniform skirts. There was an uproar. You mentioned 'nuns' saying that the school girls did not have to go around dressed like nuns. Some nuns asked for an apology. It was very clear that you were not giving a directive but speaking lightly but they reminded you that you are a heavyweight and must not speak lightly. The church and many Kenyans expressed serious reservations. You tried to explain but I think you ended up apologising to the imaginary nuns you were talking about in your speech for really you never had mentioned any particular group or convent. 

I still remember Sister coming to check if our skirts were more than three inches above the knee with her fingers and if they were, one had to let down the hem. But the nun was funny and we often laughed.  She would call you from far and she would quickly hold up three fingers before holding your knee down to see exactly where the skirt was. Looking back at old photos once I saw that none of us in school wanted long skirts. This was a very important matter for us. Indeed some girls were very offended when they had gone into real minis and the nun stood by them to bring down their hems. At that time in the 70s, we did not even know that homosexuals existed. Now everything is on the internet.  We read words here and there but no educator would touch on the subjects of sexuality. To be very honest, this same nun prayed very hard before we opened Mackeans Biology book on the Reproduction Chapter. But she loved the skeleton in the lab.  

Whereas I remember with humour our lives in the schools, I know for a fact that Kenya is directed by a very strong grip of some churches. That we badly need to thaw some lines and to see a different picture. We have been to a point where parents who are involved in such schools will come together and bring down such pressure to bear when they do not agree on an issue, and woe unto you if the issue has anything to do with sexuality. You will remember the debates on whether or not to have sex education in the school curriculum. It is their right to do this but not to ban books on the basis of the sexuality of the author. 

I remember I attended some debates with you on Crossfire with Judy Thong'ori, Otieno Ka'ajwang and  Kogi Wa Wamwere. We often spoke about the fundamental freedoms of all people regardless or origin and that people cannot be discriminated upon on the grounds of sex, religion or gender. I know you quoted and can quote these sections very well and many more as a lawyer of long standing. I do not then understand what is going on. Knowing how some people will use their churches to say that certain books are unclean or when the government of poor quality also subversive and since you experienced yourself how unreasonable discussions can become, why do you use your office to try to ban this book? Is this not an affront to freedom of expression?

How is it that in Kenya we can tolerate no difference except if it is the same and therefore does not exist? We have deep problems of tribalism based on games politicians will play for votes. But this book or the author actually do not require tolerance. They deserve respect and reverence. This is because as one teacher and a few other people already wrote to the papers to say, the book is enjoyable reading and it is not pornographic. No one would have allowed pornography on the Kenyan syllabus. 

Institutions


Then the unilateral way of responding as a matter of your own taste and opinion. Why? If a book has been approved by the KIE surely there must be a different process for getting it off the syllabus rather than a minister saying it to the press?

It is urgent that through our institutions we make ourselves understand that there is more to how we can do issues than just according to our own taste. I am glad the article by Prof Mwangi was published even when some rejoinders have come up to disapprove him strongly as was to be expected. But I remember one thing Prof Mwangi wrote. It was that he did not wish that his child should ever think that he was a homophobe. Can we afford more homophobia than we already have in our country and the region as well as in Afrika? I know that this is also to be found in Europe. Of course there are many people who  may not want to know that gay people exist. The fact is that they do and they are super gifted in many cases. And the bigger fact is that we cannot say we are defending human rights and then turn our backs on some humans.

I know that the coming election takes all your attention now and that there will be a new minister in office soon. We hope to see the end of this threat to ban a book because its author is gay. We have a constitution and a duty to the young people and our nations with regard to free thinking. Let the K.I.E be respected. Lead in helping people to distinguish how to always act in order to take the course of justice for all. Homosexuals had to wear a distinct mark before being sent to the gas chambers under Hitler. Jews, Homosexuals, the Romani, the disabled and intellectuals were gassed to death. We cannot approve of discrimination at the level you are suggesting. The book pages stay open to be read and criticised.

Philo Ikonya
Voice and Vote

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