Kevin Mwachiro: Keeper of Stories
This week on The Trip podcast: talking African stories, LGBTQ rights in Kenya, and surviving cancer with Kevin Mwachiro.
One of the things, one of the unnerving things, that you first realize as a foreigner visiting Nairobi, is that many of your cohort—those other foreigners landing at Jomo Kenyatta airport—seem to be looking right past the people, past the humans of Kenya. They are searching for animals. Nairobi is the world’s busiest transit hub for safari-goers. There’s even a national park inside the city limits, a park with wild warthogs and zebras and giraffes and the rest of the cast from The Lion King.
I am resolutely and proudly not here for a safari. It just feels, well, a little premature, a little colonial, like I’d need to be wearing a pith helmet and khaki knee breeches. Maybe on my fifth visit I would go for a walkabout. But Nairobi’s wildlife will not be ignored. In Karen, the district I’m staying in—named after Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa nearby—the birds bring the safari to you. Kestrels and crakes and bee-eaters and bustards, sooty falcons and jackson’s widowbirds all circle and sing and their song to me, I’m sure, roughly translates as fuck you if you think you’re too good for us.
But I stand firm. It’s people I’m most interested in, and if I’ve found anything in two decades as a foreign correspondent and daydrinker, it’s that humans are endlessly fascinating, and occasionally even delightful. Case in point, this episode’s guest, Kevin Mwachiro—an openly gay athlete in a country where gay relationships are illegal, a survivor of a rare cancer who is also the sunniest person I’ve met in ages. Kevin was a guest on one of the last episodes of Parts Unknown, when Bourdain and W. Kamau Bell came to Kenya, and it is my distinct human pleasure to have him, like Tony and Kamau before him, on this show.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Kevin. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Nathan Thornburgh: All right, so this coffee is great. This is exciting. And I remember Colombians, God love them, make incredible coffee, Juan Valdez on down, but the national passion was instant coffee, and it was always very confusing. But it’s one of those things where you have this really valuable commodity, easy to export, and somehow I think it’s true in a lot of places that make the best coffees in the world where the average person is like, “Well, I’m not going to compete in the global market for these high quality beans. I’m going to just be happy with the instant.”
But what is Kenyan coffee drinking culture like? Is there some proportion of the population that recognizes that Kenya makes some amazing coffee and rolls with that?
Kevin Mwachiro: The thing with Java House, they make Kenyan coffee accessible to Kenyans, so to speak. I’d say maybe middle-class Kenyans. Before that, we were getting high on instant coffee. You were paying a pretty penny for coffee. Then Java opened up and they had baristas there making coffee, good food as well, and you’re like, “Yeah, it’s not too bad.”
Mwachiro: But we are a tea-drinking nation.
Thornburgh: So coffee is still the number two?
Mwachiro: Coffee is number two. You go anywhere, people will offer you tea first. And not just teabag tea, but brewed tea with milk and that is it. Coffee, a smaller proportion of people drink coffee, and especially black coffee.
Thornburgh: So, I have been internet stalking you in your various talks and interviews. You have a very entertaining and interesting media profile, I guess you would say.
Mwachiro: Yeah. Entertaining is an interesting word to use.
Thornburgh: A lot of it is the kind of stuff that would give me pause: Getting up on stage, single person, telling a story, trying to hold an audience, and you do it really well, and I’m interested in how you got into that. How did you decide, or maybe it just sort of fell into place, that this is what you were going to do for a living?
Mwachiro: I recently took on that label of a storyteller. I think this comes from my time at the BBC, and I’ve told people this, I consider myself a custodian of people’s stories, even as a journalist. People gave me their stories and I told them to the wider world. I love hearing people’s stories, so I think through everything as a journalist, as an activist, as a podcaster, as a cancer survivor, and telling my own story, I think life handed me what I’d been avoiding for a very long time, and now find myself doing it and people actually say I tell stories pretty well.
Thornburgh: Why had you been avoiding it?
Mwachiro: I love and I don’t love being on stage. I don’t like the attention, but I know once I’m on stage I become a whole new, confident person, and I feel comfortable. And people, every time I’m up on stage, were like, “You are comfortable there.” I used to act once up on a time and yeah, the stage is also home and I’m now doing this. I think over time, it’s a question of valuing yourself, it’s been a journey to actually get here, and valuing my own story and realizing that I have a story to tell. And was it two, three years ago I gave a talk on, it’s like a Ted version of Kenya called Engage, and I spoke about finding my voice and that, I think, was a turning point for me. I used to moderate quite a bit before that, professionally, but now being on stage and telling people my own story and actually saying, “This is me finding my voice,” and sharing it and not feeling ashamed about whatever I have gone through has landed me now here with you.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Let’s not make than an end point. This is a humble detour.
Mwachiro: And I realized I like sitting in front of a mic. When I used to work at the BBC, one of the requirements of the work as a journalist was to perform in front of a microphone and on camera. And I realized this is cool stuff, man. I do like cams, I do like microphones, I love audio, I love sound.
I believe in the spoken word.
Thornburgh: Well, let’s talk about that. Obviously this is a medium that we’ve jumped into with great enthusiasm in podcasting. What is the state of podcasting in Kenya? Is it a word that people recognize or is your audience both kind of local and international? How do you look at podcasting in particular?
Mwachiro: It’s very interesting you should say that. As I was buying coffee, I met another podcaster, a guy called Armani, and he…
Thornburgh: That’s a very Brooklyn scene right there.
Thornburgh: Here we are at the coffee shop, just a couple podcasters. All right.
Mwachiro: And he recently got into podcasting as well. He wants to bring other podcasters together. I would say it’s a very Nairobi-centric thing, and very middle class.
I wanted to get back into radio at one time. I’d missed audio. I wanted to come up with content, spoken word, and when I talked to people about it, they were like, “You should go into podcasting.” I’m like, “No, I want to go back into mainstream radio.” And then after some time I figured this might be my avenue, going into mainstream radio. I believe in the spoken word… What’s the term we used to use? Anyway, spoken word radio. I’m a big fan of that, NPR, BBC.
And that’s my background. And I just like storytelling. I figured this is a way of getting Kenyans to listen, but I want to go mainstream. But after some time I realized, speaking to other podcasters, that this just might be an avenue to explore.
Mwachiro: I saw it as very niche. As you know, everyone’s podcasting in the States, in Europe, and it’s not quite here—the audiences still listen to radio.
Mwachiro: And commercial radio. And I love public service radio. I really do. And I wanted to go back into that, but that didn’t quite happen. Then I started listening to podcasts, started meeting other Kenyan forerunners, forerunner podcasters, and liked what I was doing. I realized this is something that I could do. I started buying kits, good kits, listening to stuff on YouTube, tutorials, I rented quite a number of those, and came up with content. Hence, Nipe Story. Initially I wanted to have full podcasts, then after just trying I realized this is a lot of work, so I scaled down to Nipe Story, which is my podcast. But in general it’s a very urban thing here in Nairobi. People are beginning to recognize what it has and coming up with a lot of niche content.
Thornburgh: Yeah. That’s the thing about the promise of podcasting. You can find your audience and it doesn’t have to be that big, but they can be with you deeply because they can find something that’s just specific for their taste. I also, from my short time here in Nairobi, I see tremendous opportunity in podcasting because it’s all about cars and traffic…
Thornburgh: … and the commute.
Thornburgh: So, you have so many human hours in the car.
Mwachiro: You have already an audience sitting in Nairobi traffic waiting to listen to stuff.
Thornburgh: Waiting for Nipe Story. So tell me about that show, what is it trying to do and how are you getting that done?
Mwachiro: Nipe Story is just trying to get people into listening to stories, Kenyan stories, African short story fiction. I love stories. I love reading fiction and yet again, I love listening to spoken word and this was my way of just getting involved in that. It started in, I think, December or November 2017.
Mwachiro: So I said, “This is amazing,” and it’s a simple goal, mate. Just to make people love listening to stories. And there’s a lot of African creative writing going out there and I’m hoping to provide a platform for that, and also for a lot of queer writing that doesn’t get a platform, especially in this form. So I just want to do that with Nipe Story. I would love Nipe Story to have a Pan-African feel.
Mwachiro: First of all.
Thornburgh: So they could go across the continent and not just be for Kenyans.
Mwachiro: Absolutely. And sometimes when I look at the stats you get people listening in South Africa. But the thing that surprised me, there’s a huge North America audience and a British audience as well, that surprises me.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I don’t know. I could see the appeal, especially because one, there’s a huge diaspora and two, it is a different … I’ve gotten to listen to some of the episodes and it’s beautiful in the way that the concerns are just different, the dialect, the accents are different, it’s transporting in some way. If these were presented from a local perspective in the States, you could have the same mission, the same mandate, but it’s just very different in the way that it plays and sounds and listens, and you can lose yourself in it.
Mwachiro: Thank you.
Thornburgh: And it’s interesting, I remember you did an interview in Berlin where you were talking about the flip side of that—particularly talking about the context of, I think, queer film—where you were saying there are some really great films that you saw at the Teddy’s, where you were a judge, but that they didn’t necessarily speak to you. It was just a different experience, because these are European or American filmmakers. That was the sense that I got from that, and there is a way where your experience just does have a local identity to it, right? I mean, it’s a very Kenyan thing, even though you have common cause with people who are trying to do fiction podcasts, with queer activists, with people in different countries, but your experience is going to be your own, and fairly specific here. So, I’m interested in getting a sense from you, taking your temperature on where Kenya is at right now in that particular realm, in queer activism. It seems like a tough game right now.
Mwachiro: People say it is. I don’t consider it a really tough game, because we’ve been here a long time, so we’re used to this. I had drinks with a friend yesterday who’s visiting also from the States and he said, “It must be tough being gay,” and it’s a question these days I don’t know how to answer. Because I’m just doing my thing.
It’s waking up Kenya to the reality that queer people are here and there’s nothing you can do about it and we’re as Kenyan as you are.
Thornburgh: You’ve always been here.
Mwachiro: Yeah, I’ve always been here. Some of my girlfriends are like, “Who comes up with single guys?” I look at my phone book and I’m like, “I don’t know single guys and if there’s any single guys here, they’re dicks and I don’t want to introduce you to them.” My phone book is full of queer men and women. And I’ve normalized that existence here.
Mwachiro: But the fact that we lost the case in court that was trying to decriminalize gay sex. That was hurtful, that was painful.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I spoke with Wanuri about this too and I think especially for, it’s a three-year legal battle, but even longer than that, just an entire life of wishing this to be true.
Mwachiro: But the fact that we were actually in court—you have to look at the positives. I remember some of the comments that I got on my page: “We’re not coming to Kenya. We’re going to boycott.” I’m like, “Why?” We’ve been in this space for quite a while and to find that 10, 12 years ago we never even thought that we would be in court.
Mwachiro: But the fact that on the 24th of May, people showed up in court from all over, didn’t care about the media glare, didn’t care what people thought, but we were in court, mate.
Mwachiro: That was powerful. And even before that, the first time they postponed it, we had activists come in from Uganda, Tanzania, and Nigeria. Such was the magnitude of what we were doing. And I don’t think it will stop us. The fact that now people know that queer people do exist in Kenya. They’ve always known, but the fact that we are coming out strong, we’re waving the flag next to the Kenyan flag, and we are your brothers, your sisters, your sons, your daughters, your fathers, your husbands, your wives. It’s sort of waking up Kenya to the reality that queer people are here and there’s nothing you can do about it and we’re as Kenyan as you are.
So I think the space now and being involved with the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya and talking to people, it’s now wanting to move now to dialogues and getting Kenyans to come out in support of us. I feel we’ve been preaching to the choir for quite a while and it’s now engaging other members of society and saying, “Yeah, you know, this is who we are. What do you want to know about us? How can you help?” So that when we do go back to court, we’d have other people speaking for us as well and not just ourselves.
Mwachiro: That would be great. I mean if you look at the case, Botswana luckily won theirs and people were making direct comparisons and you can’t look at it that way. This is the jealous coming up, it’s a very simplistic way of looking at life. That story is not that simple.
But the fact that I was in Botswana last year and the deputy mayor, who’s a man living with albinism, came and opened the largest Pan-African LGBT conference that had happened on the continent. The fact that he was there was a huge thing. And I remember sitting there, like would we even get someone from the city coming to attend one of these?
Thornburgh: Yeah, you don’t think Mike Sonko’s showing up?
Mwachiro: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
Thornburgh: Your entertaining rapper turned [governor] of Nairobi.
Mwachiro: No, let’s not go there. He vexes my spirit, man.
Thornburgh: Mike Money.
Mwachiro: That’s how low we can go as a country.
Thornburgh: So yeah, that idea of building some sort of bridges to other parts of society, so you’re not out here fighting alone.
Mwachiro: Absolutely. And then the fact that the President of Botswana gave out very positive statements about homophobia, saying that we can’t be in this space and other people have spoken. We have a president who still describes us as non-issues.
Mwachiro: So we need to get them to move from non-issues, but I keep on saying almost everything in Kenya is a non-issue. That’s why we are the way we are. So we’ve just been lumped with everything else. Fight corruption, not an issue. You know?
What do I have to lose now? My shit is out there. I think that’s the way you take power from people.
Thornburgh: So many amazing, pressing issues that are actually non-issues.
Mwachiro: Exactly, so when that happened, and then I talked, and people were like, “Oh, aren’t you annoyed?” I said, “No, I’m not annoyed. The truth is, a lot of things that should be dealt with in the country that we’ve made non-issues, and we have been put into that category of non-issues with everything else.”
Thornburgh: So you have joined the mainstream then by becoming a non-issue.
Mwachiro: We have, exactly that. So that’s where the space is at. I’m just hoping that the ruling has just made us as a movement stronger.
Mwachiro: Will make us be very introspective in how our strategy going forward will be. And for me personally, I know it’s made me bolder, totally unapologetic about what I feel and the gay shit I’m putting out there on my face.
Thornburgh: The Supreme Court has unleashed the wave of gay shit from Kevin.
Mwachiro: I wrote an article that’s going up on this platform called Yellephant. They’ve been very kind in giving us an opportunity to put queer stories out there, two of my articles there, and I’m like, “Yes, we need it”. And as a journalist I’m taking … I used to be slightly apologetic about it and I’m like, I’m just going to put stuff, I’m just going to put the good journalist I think I am into this area where my energies are and where my life is involved in.
Mwachiro: And come up with good journalism talking about queer Kenyans.
Mwachiro: And what it is to be a queer Kenyan in Kenya.
Thornburgh: When you, I think it was a film festival or some sort of forum here that you were involved in that had the tag line “Shame is a luxury we can’t afford.”
Thornburgh: But that’s that kind of thing. Because certain things are stacked against you, you actually have to be bolder and brighter and kind of more out there. That seems to be your perspective on it.
Mwachiro: I was telling someone, what do I have to lose now? My shit is out there. I think that’s the way you take power from people. I’ve hung up my dirty laundry. I don’t think it’s there, I just use that expression. I hang it there. So you can see I’ve taken the power away from you.
Thornburgh: Right. Right. This sort of constant, ongoing … This is the experience I think that gay people have had for a long time in the States. It’s like this daily blackmail.
Mwachiro: Exactly. Exactly. I’ve gone through a process and a journey, Nathan, where I didn’t like myself pretty much, I didn’t think I was worth something to a point where I know what I’m worth and I’m happy about who I am in this space. Life has dealt me numbers, thrown lemons at me and I’ve made lemonade and I’m dealing with that and moving on. I was telling a friend yesterday, “You only have one life.”
Thornburgh: Right. How are you going to spend it, huh?
Mwachiro: How are you going to spend it? And if this life is going to be used trying to make it easier for other queer individuals in Kenya, so be it, mate. And not just that, but also just trying to make a world, the world a better place for other folk, man.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I mean this is the thing also that I feel people understand very little of. I mean, clearly by some of the conversations we’re having in the United States, rights for LGBT, justice or rights for minority groups, it’s not even about them. It’s about you and what kind of country you’re going to be. And I’m sure Botswana is looking at it holistically as well as all these goals they have as a nation, which include development, increased tourism, equal standing on the world stage, all of these things are hurt when they diminish the rights of some large percentage of their population. We have that same conversation in the States. It’s not about being nice to gay people. It’s about your quality of country.
Mwachiro: Absolutely. I like that. And just being nice to all people. Being nice to women. I think we as a country could do a much better job in being nicer to our women. Slight digression here, we still haven’t fulfilled that constitutional quota that requires 25% representation of women.
Thornburgh: Wow. Which isn’t a big number.
Mwachiro: It’s not a number, but –
Thornburgh: It’s not totally proportionate, but yeah, even that is beyond reach.
Mwachiro: And that keeps on going back into Parliament. I’m like, “Why aren’t we passing this?” That is basic. The fact that we’re not doing shit to make life easier for people living with disability, for senior citizens, for people living with albinism, for other minorities apart from us. And I’m just hoping that if we win, we will win for other minorities. And I think for me, that is important.
This win is a win for other minorities in Kenya, and that’s what we try telling people. And someone said the larger populace don’t get it until they’re affected. One of the things, I’m slowly getting onto another bandwagon—I don’t know how I’m going to go about this, but advocating for the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
Mwachiro: And people are like, “No.” That is important and I don’t know if you want to talk about it now or later, but as a cancer patient, that shit helps, man.
Thornburgh: Yeah, yeah.
Mwachiro: That shit helps, if people can access it. Somebody was telling me Kenyans are not ready for it and will not advocate for it until they experience it. And I said, “Why do you have to experience it?”
Thornburgh: Yeah. I don’t think they want to experience it. Just in order for you to become and educated voter you have to go through the life-threatening bout of cancer? Yeah, fuck that. There’s got to be an easier way to enlightenment.
Mwachiro: Yeah, exactly. And I want to make life easier for people so that when you have to come across that hurdle or you know someone, like, “But here are options for you. We’ve done the work just to make this life easier for you.” I mean, a week ago a friend of mine, who also has multiple myeloma, one of the side effects of her treatment is shingles.
Thornburgh: Oh, shit. That’s a lot of pain.
Mwachiro: Right. I was on the phone with her, she was telling me what she’s going through and then I heard her screaming.
Mwachiro: It was the worst thing I had ever heard. She screamed, mate. Called her husband and kept on screaming. Kept on screaming. It did my head a number. It did my head a number, mate. I was so angry. I was so, so angry. Why doesn’t someone like her have access?
Mwachiro: Why doctors can’t say, “Don’t go to morphine, don’t go to this, here’s something that will ease your pain.” And I just realized, my cancer compared to hers was a walk in the park.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Cancer comparisons. Well let’s get into that. We started this podcast with a cancer episode, which was about me, which was the cancer that I had had, and I haven’t had a really good cancer conversation since then.
Mwachiro: Let’s have a good cancer conversation if you want to.
Thornburgh: Because that was among your multiple identities and voices that you bring to the work that you do that I think you got this very unwelcome addition to the trophy case. That’s probably a terrible metaphor.
Mwachiro: It is what it is.
Thornburgh: It is what it is. So tell me about that. When did this happen? It was not long ago.
Mwachiro: I got diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is a blood cancer, in October, 2015.
I will not be another number. I will not be another funeral service, not because of cancer, and not yet.
Thornburgh: And I have to say, I had the walk in the park cancer, the actual walk in the park.
Mwachiro: Which one was that?
Thornburgh: I had thyroid cancer. I didn’t even get classic chemo, but it was a radiation treatment and it was weird and it sucked and it was frightening, but ultimately it was a very different experience. So tell me, what is multiple myeloma?
Mwachiro: It’s a cancer that affects the plasma in your blood.
Thornburgh: That sounds grave.
Mwachiro: I don’t know why people say that. I’m here, man. My doctor says ignorance is bliss and maybe I was just blissfully ignorant for that whole process. I still don’t get into the technicalities of my cancer because I’m like, “I don’t understand this shit. I’m not a doctor.”
Just give it to me in the way you know that I will understand. And I meet other survivors and they talk about this kind, this kind, this kind, and I’m like [inaudible 00:37:13]. This is the central reading I look for and that is it. All these other bits, my brain just can’t process that, to be honest. I just can’t. I’m like, this is the main thing? Fine. And I’m good.
Thornburgh: So you had the diagnosis, what is the treatment process like?
Mwachiro: I went through chemo for six months.
Thornburgh: Jesus Christ.
Mwachiro: Went to India for a stem cell transplant, was in India for seven months, and I’ve been in partial remission and now in remission since, my god, since June 2016, so to speak. Proper remission last year. I’m on what they call maintenance treatment, where I take an immunosuppressant, so to speak, a drug, rather, every day for 21 days. I get a week off and then I start again. So I’m on round or cycle number, I think, 39 or something.
Thornburgh: Wow. That’s a number that you can scratch on the walls of your prison cell.
Thornburgh: You’ve made it that far. Wow. So that’s an entire year between the chemo here and stem cell in India and it’s just an entire year to try to survive this and beat that. How do you restart your life after that?
Mwachiro: The thing is, mate, I lost my favorite aunt to cancer just around the same time I was diagnosed.
Thornburgh: I’m sorry to hear that.
Mwachiro: And I figured once the doctor said that, more from my surgeon to an oncologist, and when they initially told me about the diagnosis it was, I think it was pulmonary TB or something… It was one disease or multiple myeloma. I keep on telling people it’s like being on a plane and the stewardess tells you, “Tea or coffee? We’re out of tea, sir, there’s only coffee.” And that sort of made it easier for me to accept this. So when the doctor said, “You’ve tested negative for this,” I knew okay, it’s myeloma, and it’s only myeloma.
Thornburgh: So you were served the coffee, the bitter coffee.
Mwachiro: The bitter coffee. And my mom’s other sister had died of breast cancer.
Thornburgh: Oh, man. Your poor mother.
Mwachiro: Yeah. They had just buried my aunt Judy when all this had happened, and I figured, not me. This shit has to change. I will not be another number. I will not be another funeral service, not because of cancer, and not yet. And that instantly changed for me. I figured, I’m going to fight this shit. That was it. I figured, no, I will not let this scourge win in our family again. And I think through that whole process, my writing had sort of gone into hibernation. I just started taking control and being open about my disease, and I think coming out really helped. I figured I’m just going to put my shit out there for people to understand.
Thornburgh: So you came out at the same time that you started talking about having cancer?
Mwachiro: No, I’d come out before.
Thornburgh: Okay. It was practice.
Mwachiro: Yeah. Right. Stigmatize, ostracize, like, oh my god. I’m like, I’ve already gone through that process where people other you for some reason or the other. So I said, I’m just going to make sure that if anyone wants to know what I’m going through, that they are all reading from the same song sheet.
Mwachiro: Taking control of your narrative. So I started blogging, and I blogged my journey through treatment. I still blog every now and then about cancer, but I just wanted to make sure that everyone was getting the right script, the right story, because our family and friends are scattered all over. You can only answer so many phone calls and so many WhatsApp messages, so other things just go into the blog. Everything is there.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I have a friend who’s fighting cancer, very intense right now, and she’s doing the same. There’s a site, I forget the name, but it’s really powerful, and she can say what she has to say once and then there are also ways people can sign up to bring a meal over, do any of these things, so it’s sort of like integrated help. Help telling the story, not being distracted by having to retell it, and then also help with the things you need. I don’t know, I’m kind of fascinated. When I got diagnosed, to me it felt like it taught me something, and maybe I took the wrong lesson or it’s just for me, but it taught me something about, for example, social media—because I had been on social media quite a bit or on Facebook, whatever, pictures of my kids, some shit I was doing overseas when I was working, all this stuff, and for some reason I had a very visceral allergic reaction against talking about cancer while I was going through it.
And I don’t know if it was the uncertainty of it and just not wanting to talk about things I didn’t know. I didn’t know how the story was going to end. I will say, obviously when we launched this podcast with Bourdain, the first episode was ultimately about me having cancer, so it’s not like I was shy about it in the long term, but just in the moment while I was going through it I felt like it gave me a sense of the people around me who knew me and were family and close friends, felt like the people who would help me through this. And I haven’t really gone back to social media in that same way afterwards, because it just felt like if it’s not something that works for me in a moment like this, then what actually is it besides lifestyle marketing? So, I don’t know, it’s impressive, but it’s also something I just didn’t have the same ability to be there in real time talking about it.