The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kenyan LGBTQ rights activist Edwin Chiloba found dead in metal box

Kenyan activist Edwin Chiloba poses for a selfie in Kakamega, Kenya, published March 27, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. (Courtesy of Edwin Chiloba/Facebook/Reuters)
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NAIROBI — Prominent LGBTQ activist Edwin Chiloba was found dead in western Kenya on Tuesday, local officials said, his body stuffed into a metal box and bearing signs of a violent attack.

Police arrested one suspect in connection to the apparent killing, which has drawn condemnation and calls for justice from friends and rights groups.

A village elder drew attention to the box containing the body, pushed from a car outside the town of Eldoret in Uasin Gishu County, Eddyson Nyale, the county commissioner, said in a statement.

Nyale said the suspect, 24-year-old Jactone Odhiambo, was arrested after being seen with Chiloba at several locations. He said the purpose of the arrest was to “gather information on the circumstances of the death” and aid in the search for the unidentified vehicle.

“We don’t know for now why he was killed that way,” Resila Onyango, a police spokeswoman, told the Associated Press. “Experts are handling the matter.”

Chiloba was a fashion designer and model who had his own clothing brand, ChilobaDesigns, on Instagram and was popular on social media and among the LGBTQ community in Kenya.

A budding human rights activist, he was outspoken on the importance of inclusivity. His friends described him as a bold, passionate person who loved people and fashion and used his work as a tool for activism. On social media, news of his killing sparked widespread mourning and calls for officials to prosecute those responsible.

“This is a frightening crime but it’s becoming common in Kenya — evidence of a growing epidemic of violence in the country,” the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a nongovernmental organization, posted on Twitter, citing the slaying of 25-year-old Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba, a nonbinary lesbian, in April.

The KHRC called on the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to “conduct swift investigations and ensure the killers are apprehended and prosecuted.”

LGBTQ rights groups have won only incremental gains in Kenya, where conservative Christians wield massive political power. Under a penal code provision that dates back to British colonial rule, gay sex is criminalized, carrying prison sentences of up to 14 years. While it is rarely enforced, Human Rights Watch said the law contributes to a “climate of discrimination and violence.”

In May 2019, Kenya’s High Court declined to repeal the law. Just before the ruling, then-President Uhuru Kenyatta deemed homosexuality “a nonissue” in Kenya, in an interview with CNN. Kenya’s recently elected president, William Ruto, has also taken a stand against LGBTQ rights in interviews, saying they do not align with Christian values.

MaryLize Biubwa, a friend of Chiloba and co-founder of Queer Republic, an LGBTQ rights group, said that Chiloba had been previously attacked twice in the past year, once in July and again in September.

“He was full of life; it’s so sad to think of his life in this way at the moment, because he was a lifegiver,” Biubwa said.

“His fight is not just for him, it’s for everyone who is queer, who is different, who is criminalized by the society we live in,” Biubwa said, noting that after the attack, she fears for her own safety. “Chiloba could’ve really been any queer person, and that’s the saddest thing.”

She is not alone in her fears. Nyakwar Okinda, 28, a peer educator working in LGBTQ rights advocacy in Nairobi, said that he was attacked in 2021 and that friends fear coming out as gay, “especially because of incidents like this.”

“Don’t we have rights? Chiloba’s case is not the first one,” he said. “We die, and they tell us justice will be served, but they forget. This makes us wonder if we have rights.”

Healy reported from Washington.