Politician David Kuria Mbote once took an elevator in a Nairobi building alone after a group of people he had been waiting with recognized him as a gay rights activist.
“I entered the lift without thinking then realized no one wanted to join me,” he says. “Most of the people in the group were human rights activists going to the same conference I was attending. I couldn’t help but marvel at their hypocrisy.” The 38-year-old man says he has faced this kind of discriminaton regularly for being openly gay in the largely homophobic Kenyan society. But he has learned to brush such incidents aside. He says he doesn’t mind when men avoid talking to him in public for fear that people may think they are gay.
Save for some tiny gray patches of hair, Mbote looks much younger than his age. He could easily pass for a man in his 20s with his slight build and easygoing nature. But it is his determination that dumbfounds both his friends and foes.
He comes from Kiambu, a county bordering Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. His conservative community considers him an outcast because of his sexuality and gay rights activism, which he has done for 10 years. But Mbote now hangs up the boots of gay rights activism to seek political office. He is running to be his county’s senator in the country’s newly established Senate. He believes he will win the seat, bigotry in his community notwithstanding. Mbote says he aims to change the game of politics – campaigning with social media and committing himself to good governance in order to effect positive social change. If elected, he says his main priority would be creating laws to fight HIV. But he has a challenging campaign ahead, as many people here reject homosexuality on the basis of religion. Voters are giving a mixed response on whether they would vote for a gay politician. The 2010 constitution established a Senate, which will comprise representatives from each of Kenya’s 47 counties, 16 women nominated by the political parties, four other representatives of minority groups and a speaker. The elections are set for March 2013.
Some people have dismissed his aspirations as “a long shot” and “just a dream.” But Mbote, who is riding on what he calls the “Third Wave,” a movement to usher in innovative ideas and solutions to social challenges, says winning the Kiambu county senator seat is possible.
After passing a new constitution in 2010, Kenyans are seeking a new crop of leaders to achieve their aspirations for good governance, Mbote says. Patronage and voter-buying have historically dominated Kenyan politics, often blocking young people from ascending to leadership.
“Almost every single one of exceptionally bright and gifted individuals I have asked why they do not put their great skills to serving and solving the problems of the people say one needs money – lots of it – to get the attention of the voters,” he says.
These, too, he hopes to overcome to set an example for the youth in the country.
“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have, I give you,” reads a line on his website banner, which is borrowed from the Bible and translated into Swahili and Gikuyu, his native language.
The financial consultant, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in finance at Kenya College of Accountancy University in Nairobi, says he does not have the resources to crisscross the expansive county to hold political rallies. But he says he hopes to use social media to galvanize support, especially of young people. He appeals to supporters to invite him to birthday parties, barbecues and other social events so he can pitch his ideas to the people. He says he’s in it for the opportunity to serve the people, not for the money.