Here’s a post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert about her second research visit to Nairobi, where she participates in a project with Ugandan LGBTQ+refugees. The project has the title “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”and is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. Its lead investigator is Adriaan van Klinken.
The project is focused on stories: life-stories, stories of the Bible, and stories that combine the two. At its heart and centre is a group of refugees, a collective called The Nature Network. Johanna talks about the project and its intersections with Shiloh-relevant themes, such as religion and vulnerability to violence, in an earlier post. Here are some of her reflections on the project’s recent developments.
Stories and Lives
Stories matter. In my life certainly stories and story telling have played a major part since as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was the youngest member of a multi-generational household and even before I learned to read stories, stories were told and read to me. I loved folk stories and fairytales but I especially liked stories about me, set in the-time-before-I-could remember. I loved the stories of when I was very small, about the funny or naughty things I did.
I demanded to hear such stories of my earliest life over and over again. I demanded details and eventually heard multiple versions, with different embellishments (and probably some exaggerations and inventions). Those stories somehow linked me to the protagonists of other stories; they made me feel important, an agent. They linked me to the past, to a bigger, world-connecting meta-story. I like stories to this day.
My academic work focuses on the study of the Bible. It was the stories that first drew me in but also the people I met through studies and teaching – and their stories. Approaches of biblical interpretation have become more honest about how our identities and experiences shape our interpretation and increasingly, life stories and Bible stories have been coming together for me.
Adriaan has been travelling to Kenya, making friends, hearing stories, making stories, and gathering material for his publications for some years. When he and the people who move into and out from The Nature Work developed ideas around life stories and Bible stories, I was eager to get involved. By then, I had also become involved in a number of other projects, all of them relevant to the Shiloh Project, that explore the use of stories and images derived from the Bible to open up discussions about gender-based violence. Because the Bible – while variously interpreted in different settings – is a shared text, it has been an effective medium for connecting me with people whose identities, lives and experiences are very different to mine.
I have only been to Nairobi on two short visits – the second was last month, in January. My impressions of the city are a succession of little snapshots – of bustle and crazy traffic, but also of sweeping parks with leafy trees; of roadsides displaying an array of wares, from potted plants to double beds, playground items to beaded bracelets; of colourful roadside fruit and vegetable markets and little enterprises selling cut flowers or grilled corn on the cob. We drove several times through Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum, which is highly concentrated with busy-ness – washing drying, wood being cut, tiny shops crammed together selling everything from cellphone units to clothes alteration. Sometimes, such as in the large malls, I could completely forget where I was – other times, in Kibera, or seeinggrazing warthogs by the roadside, marabous perched on monuments, or monkeys on the walls of residential buildings, you knew you were definitely in Kenya.
But back to life stories. When something sharp happens in our lives, when we are, for instance, accused of something we haven’t done, then the telling of our stories becomes more carefully constructed. We choose our elements with care, so as to recount vividly and persuasively what really happened. This also happens when we are treated unjustly in other ways – and many of the stories we heard at The Nature Network reported being accused of ‘recruiting’ minors, of being willfully deviant, of choosing depravity to dishonour family and community and religious affiliation. The life stories collected as part of this project were invariably told with vividness and fluency. The refugees were used to telling their stories – they were often telling them for survival, including as part of their efforts to secure resettlement with UNHCR.
The stories told featured rejection, threat, violence, vulnerability, condemnation from family and community and church representatives. Sometimes there were stories of a painful past and of a present in which the story was turning towards more hope. New families were formed within The Nature Network, families not of blood ties but of ties of love and solidarity and acceptance. New religious networks were established, with prayers that bonded together and with a God who loved unconditionally – a God who created queer and whose image was therefore queer.
The Story of a Project: Tales of Sexuality and Faith
The first stage of the project consisted of collecting life stories of refugees associated with The Nature Network. The majority of this was conducted by two members of the Network one of whom, Raymond Brian, is its co-founder. During interviewing, contributors were asked about the role and presence of religion in their lives and whether they had a favourite Bible story. Some interesting things emerged here. Many stories – from all over the Bible – were sources of inspiration. Jesus was repeatedly identified as an ally – as someone who embraced those on the fringes of society and who spoke out against condemning others. One interviewee mentioned identifying with David in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The reason was that the interviewee felt small and up against a Goliath of mighty and imposing challenges in day-to-day life. Like David they had little to work with – a small stone, metaphorically-speaking. But that small stone could be utilized to achieve something bigger and assert their rights and be vindicated. A second story that popped up was Daniel in the Lions’ Den (Daniel 6) – because the interviewee this time identified with the threat all around but simultaneously with a strong sense, too, that like Daniel they had done nothing to justify such threat and hostility. It was this story that seemed like a good one to draw on more.
Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den
Before Adriaan and I arrived in Nairobi, the members of the Nature Network spent time reading the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and discussing it in groups. By the time we joined them the story was quite familiar. Now it was time to relate it to personal experience.
On 12 January we all gathered at the Network’s main venue, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
We shared breakfast and introduced ourselves and each other; we discussed expectations for the day – which ranged from the practical (to receive a refund for travel expenses) to the experiential (to learn, be entertained, and form connections and new friendships) – and rules (to respect one another and listen, and to all participate).
Next, Chris gave a summary of the earlier meeting – where the text of the Bible was read and discussed in focus groups. A decision was made to read the text again – this time with the specific plan to try and make the story relevant to the present.
In our groups, as soon as we sat down with the biblical text, printed out on paper, to read it aloud together, a mood of seriousness descended. I think this is discernible in the pictures.
When we all got together to pool what had taken place in our groups, the discussion got very lively. We looked together at the characters and at the events of the Daniel story – who and what could these be in the present setting?
In the Daniel story there is a king, King Darius, who is somewhat sympathetic to Daniel but none the less submits to his governors who remind him of the laws. Who is this king today? Who are the governors?
Suggestions came in thick and fast: the king is the government of Uganda, or the President of Uganda. The governors are oppressive elements of African culture and pastors using the Bible to condemn, as well as members of parliament. Daniel is the LGBTQ+ community – being unjustly persecuted. The lions are maybe family members who are sometimes harmful and obstructive but not always, or enemies within the LGBTQ+ communityitself who sometimes deny their sexuality, or who choose to blackmail others when it suits them to do so. The den is identified as Kenya and as prison… Some spoke up to say they found the punishment of the governors’ wives and children wrong, others saw this as collateral damage, or as the punishment of those who didn’t speak up but benefited from their powerful family members’ privileges.
After some discussion, a play was put together, performed and recorded. This all happened very quickly– from discussion to completion of the recording took no more than 3 hours. The idea of weaving stories together and of transporting an ancient story into the lived present was quickly embraced and vividly imagined and reenacted. There were some fabulous spontaneous ideas and there was much articulate expression both of condemnation encountered and liberation desired.
The King is the President of Uganda. (In this reenactment he has a consort.)
The governors are members of parliament and representatives of churches, as well as a mufti from an Islamic congregation.
Daniel is a representative of the LGBTQ+ community.
The den is prison.
There are also in this reenactment members of the police force, of the press and supporters of Daniel.
God’s voice can be heard at the beginning and end.
Here is the recording, ‘Daniel in the homophobic lion’s den’. Enjoy.
It was a real joy watching the play at each of its various stages. The strength of feeling and the power of story telling really come across. There is a new immediacy and resonance to the old story of Daniel. I, certainly, will never read this story again in the same way. And when we all watched the completed recording together everyone was very engaged and delighted with the end result.
In time, we – members of the Network, Adriaan and I – hope to publish a book about the project.