Talking to Joji Baro was like catching up with an old friend, a warm and open soul with an amazing sense of humor; through his story, we experienced Nairobi, South Africa, and Canada over afternoon tea, via zoom.
I personally recall the first time I had seen Joji Baro, on national television as they boldly called out Ezekiel Mutua, “I’m not madam, my name is Joji Baro and I belong to all the Gay and Lesbian Associations in Kenya.” My eighteen-year-old self, watching television with my brother felt a peculiar collage of intrigue, excitement, fear, and paranoia - the all so familiar tension that comes with being Queer in a queerphobic space, whether closeted or not. By following Joji Baro’s life on Facebook, I have witnessed what I hold to be the purest form of activism: the power to be vulnerable by sharing stories as he does on his Facebook page. I admire that his posts engage with the sidelined parts of the Kenyan nation, TLGBIQ+ people, and even more, the ugly parts of our own community such as elitism among Queer Kenyans. Greatest of all, I admire Joji’s consistency in activism throughout the ten years I have followed his work.
Going into this conversation, I was excited to hear his life story and his insight on Queer activism in Kenya. As expected, Joji rose to the occasion by narrating and deconstructing the most complex discussion regarding education, organizing, and immigration
to make his case for reimagined activism. Be on the lookout for Mashoga Radio’s interview with Joji, a powerhouse that should certainly be on your radar.
Joji kept us up to date on his recent endeavors. He spoke at the Candlelight Vigil held in Alberta, Canada to honor Lesbian Activist and martyr, Sarah Hegazi, who was arrested and tortured for flying the rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo. She died by alleged suicide after being exiled to Canada. His message: Black Lives Matter, and All Black Lives, especially TLGBIQ+ lives that are often sidelined. As he shared his plans to finally join university to study Human Rights, Joji humorously criticized the western education system that is always demanding ‘formal documents’. “In Kenya, we do things ‘informally’: we sell mitumba, we have matatus,” he said, “...so when you come abroad, it becomes a very big challenge because what we do in Africa is considered informal here, so we have to find ways to document what we do.”
This is the reason he is excited to finally enroll in a university, but Joji is also critical of this ‘formal documentation’ that often misses and undervalues the lived experiences, especially of Queer people in Kenya who go through “the hard school of life. ”We are forced to learn quickly how to think critically, make arguments and engage with a queerphobic community. What is accredited here through a degree, Queer activists in Kenya have learned firsthand through organizing. “I have a blank space in my resume,” he said, “how do you document your work that has often been relegated to the shadows.” He shared how Kenya, by nature is very community-centered, and so instead of relying on institutions to serve us as we try to make a change, we must rely on the people and communities around us to survive. This is why he spent a lot of time working in the “informal”- community radio stations, community conferences, and even queer clubs.
“It was my life, and so when someone calls it informal, I feel abused, I feel insulted,” Joji says, “just because it’s how we work in Africa does not mean it's informal!"
As he gazed to the left, I couldn't help but notice his high cheekbones - I mean the rest of us can continue contouring (it’s fine).
Following his train of thought, like something that flew through his window and back to him, he said that the biggest hindrance to the nature of activism work was the lack of formal education, “according to Western standards.” He narrates the bitter story of how his family disowned him once he came out as gay and HIV+, forcing him to self-educate, engage in grassroots activism, and later seek asylum. “I lost my teenage-hood,” he said. Yet, people don’t care about how much he has worked since there was no accreditation for it. “I have sat in boardrooms in Kenya where we make decisions about things like PrEP, and I remember being one of the people who was involved in the first programs of PrEP enrollment and education in Kenyabeing trained about what PrEP is about and trusted to go teach members of the community.”
Joji speaks painfully about how he has fallen out with leaders in queer organizations for their need to overcomplicate what he says should be community-based activism, under paperwork, elitism, and Western assimilation. ‘I just got tired,” he said, “you face challenges as a queer person...and even the organizations that are supposed to help you don’t trust you, and even perpetuate the same problem by calling the police on you.” This is what pushed him to launch his platform on Facebook and share his life events with other queer people as a form of activism. He gave a big shoutout to his Lesbian Women fanbase who are his biggest
By sharing his story, Joji Baro has moved across the world. He sought asylum in South Africa before later coming to
Canada where he now resides. However, this path is one that has certainly not been easy. “South Africa said I cannot prove to them that I am gay,” he said, “but my work has always been in the shadows.” Joji expressed his ardent stance against legislation
activism as a cop-out from activism. He said that while we laud South Africa in praise for being progressive on paper, queer-phobia still persists and LGBTQ people are still targets of discrimination and violence without any justice. He said that we should stand firm in the understanding of the particular nature of our own communities to better eradicate queer-phobia and help elevate LGBTQ people in Kenya and Africa at large. This is why he honored us with his story.
“I think Kenya needs radical activists,” Joji says, “ I would like to see activists who have never been to high school being
empowered to share their stories.” He spoke highly of Marsha P. Johnson, as a great example of an activist who inspires
him and what he thinks activism work should look like. Joji Baro holds storytelling as the greatest activism as it has the power to radicalize and impact communities, even on a national and global level.
While Joji remains humble, it was truly our greatest honor to be in conversation with him and move his work and life away from the shadows and into the light. Now in Canada, he still continues to critique their ‘backward way of life.’
“How can a hairstylist, who is licensed and certified, not be able to work on black hair, yet back home any white person can walk into an informal salon and get their hair done.” I couldn’t help but laugh even after concluding the conversation.
Joji Baro, a human rights defender, student of life, storyteller, activist, and soon-to-be graduate - a powerhouse in Kenya and across the world. Be sure to find him on the internet where he inspires thousands of people just like he once inspired me
Connect with Joji: @jojibaro on the queerafricannetwork.com