On the morning of Dec. 11, 2007, Anthony Adero decided to leave his hometown forever and head to the capital, because he wanted to kiss a man for the first time in his life. He packed the few essentials needed for his five-hour trip, little things that carry weight, like family photographs and a prerecorded cellphone message from his baby sister; he felt soothed whenever he heard her giggles. What he could not stuff into his suitcase he packed in his heart. Then he took two reassuring breaths for courage, allowed himself a measured silence, and then headed straight for the central bus station in Kisumu for his final goodbyes. His grandmother cried. The men cried, too, but rural machismo forbids public displays of emotion among men, so they turned their backs to hide their shame. His older brother was envious, while his baby sister was proud. Anthony was hopeful, but everyone else held serious doubts. Kiss, hug... those final moments were so tense that he forgot his ticket before boarding.
One covers 164.85 miles, or 265.3 kilometers, between Kisumu and Nairobi, which would require five hours and three minutes on the well-lit, pothole-free, butter-smooth road that exists in every African's dreams for his or her country's future. In reality (wherever reality is), his trip took longer, but linear time, like history, is the Western world's delusion, and no African on that bus cared how long it took to get to Nairobi as long as they were safe with their possessions intact by journey's end. With both hands pressed against the window to frame his world, everything familiar got swallowed as the bus inched toward its final destination, which, according to Anthony, wasn't so much a fixed spot or place but the sweet promise of self-actualization that would come with the freedom to explore his sexuality. Whatever didn't slip past his eyes as he looked out the bus window burned deep in his mind as painful memories: the semester when six boys were expelled for wearing earrings; the boys beaten to a pulp by their fathers who had sacrificed nearly everything to educate them, counting on their sons for support should they take sick, grow old or become too weak to provide; blood spilling from one boy as he fell to the ground, kneeling as his father pounded him, front teeth knocked clear out of his swollen mouth; searching the dictionary for "homosexuality" to find no word in Kiswahili, though the slang for "faggot," "cunt" and "bitch boy" lives in multiple incarnations at the tip of every Kenyan's tongue; televised broadcasts of presidential speeches outlawing gay love; sermons preaching eternal hellfire, demonic possession, perversity; finally telling his girlfriend, "No, sweetheart, I cannot marry you, because I'm gay," then banking on God's protection, not hellfire, to pave the way for a planned escape.
As the bus pulled into the depot, Anthony decided that a celebratory drink should precede a phone call home telling his family that he'd arrived safely. The rumored hotspot for gay-positive clubbing was Steps on Tom Mboya Street, where men who have sex with men (MSM) mingled with marginalized folks who could party: tourists, prostitutes and the high-ranking African diplomats who preferred local whores to their well-educated African wives.
Anthony sat at the bar and ordered his drink, but he was reluctant to look around, in case locals mistook him for a wide-eyed, awestruck "rural greenhorn" fresh off the bus. Plus, who could see much of anything, given how dark it was inside? Two men, mostly in shadow, sat beside him. They were tall with deep voices, probably MSM. Prospects to explore his sexuality were abundant. "Maybe that first kiss could double for both lovers," Anthony thought as the men inched closer, offering to buy his next drink if he cared to stay a little longer and keep them company -- pretty boy. Anthony smiled. It was his first mistake. Harmless. His second proved to be disastrous.
* * * * *
They stole my shoes, my bag, my money. I lay stomach-down on a dirt floor, embraced by darkness. Eyes closed, I heard the rush of cars down a nearby road. Where was I? I'd been dumped in a semi-completed, abandoned house without a door, which meant they could come back to rape me again and again. Mosquitoes feasted on blood from my anus. Blood was dripping down my legs. There was blood on the side of my skull, where they'd beaten me with a steel pipe, I guessed. My asshole throbbed with pain. My skull and stomach jerked with pain whenever I moved; even the slightest gesture jolted my suffering to its depths.
But to stay motionless was an invitation for rape, more insecurity in a mysterious world where my survival was nothing but a threat. Alternatively, I could escape this hell. I closed my eyes and pushed my consciousness into a bird. I flew. I soared. I was free. Eyes open, I tried to push my upper body off the dirt floor but failed. My wings were too fragile. In my stillness I could not gather peace, only rushing thoughts from a counternarrative in which they parted my legs and penetrated me, stabbing my sexuality as mosquitoes danced joyfully to the rhythm of each greedy thrust. "No!" I screamed, pushing my upper body off the floor. "No!" I screamed as I came to my knees. "No! No! No!"
I stood naked in the dark, a baby bird on the verge of flight, at the edge of a steep cliff, facing takeoff. My first wobbly step took me toward heaven, the open door a threshold to eternity. Then I realized that I had to cover my nakedness if I wanted to reclaim my damaged body to the world outside. I felt around for plastic sheeting left over from construction work. I found it. My broken heart danced. I put the plastic around my body, careful to cover the blood on my legs as best as I could. I worried that I smelled of spunk, blood, sweat, anus. When I reached the door, I took one deep breath, then my first step. How to describe it, that moment of initial self-rescue? A million birds taking flight from my heart, thanks to release by an inner warrior. The spirit regaining "yes" language with each step as affirmation. God of a thousand hands stretching to lift the mountain off my back. Fire dragons plunging headfirst into the ocean, emerging as butterfly love. I was flying. I was soaring. Yes, freedom.
At the end of the road, I came across a woman, old, tired, overworked, poor. I looked for scorn in her eyes. She gave me directions. She walked me to the matatu bus stop, step after step, then slowly reached into her bra and brought out 90 Kenyan shillings for my fare back to Nairobi. "Take," my angel said. She promised to pray for my protection. During the ride back, passengers refused to sit near me. They called me "monster" with volume to accentuate their disgust. In Nairobi I telephoned my rich relatives, who came to pick me up. They said I looked miserable. They said Nairobi was a cosmopolitan city for sophisticated people, a place where someone as dirt-poor and as rural as I could not survive beyond a week at best. They said I smelled bad and spoke like a stupid, uneducated farmhand. I kept silent, in pain. They said curse words. "Idiot, ugly, filth, trash," they said. They sai-- Stop! A voice in my head interrupted their dirty, abusive sermon with warrior language for my broken spirit:
"Anthony Adero, this is not who you are."
"Who am I?"
Then came the epiphany:
"I. Am. Blessed."
* * * * *
Anthony Adero had contracted HIV.