/ 28 January 2023

Edwin Chiloba: Gay, proud, murdered

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Edwin Chiloba's relatives mourn his death in Sergoit village. Photo: Simon Maina/AFP

At 6pm on New Year’s Eve, Faith Melvin, a cashier at an entertainment spot in Eldoret near Kenya’s western border, got a call on Facebook messenger. The caller turned out to be her long-lost brother, her mother’s only son, Edwin Kiprotich Kiptoo — Rotich to her. 

They exchanged numbers and were soon on the phone talking. Melvin had to work that night and her workplace was charging a $10 entry fee, a premium for revellers to usher in the New Year. 

At 10.30pm, with the club filled to capacity and the bar keeping her busy, she spotted her brother. 

“Rotich told me he had paid the money so that he could see me,” Melvin says. He was in the company of a friend she had previously only seen in his TikTok videos. 

“He introduced me as his sister to the friend and almost every 10 minutes, he would come to the counter and tell me how much he had missed me,” Melvin recalls. 

At midnight they watched the fireworks together and when he was leaving, he again told her he would miss her. 

She is the one missing him now. On 4 January, his body was found stuffed in a metallic box by the roadside outside Eldoret. No wonder he had not responded to Melvin’s messages asking him to send the pictures and videos they took on New Year’s Eve.

Edwin Kiprotich Kiptoo, the 25-year-old known as Edwin Chiloba, was a gay rights activist and fashion designer. The government pathologist said he died of asphyxia, adding that socks were stuffed in his mouth and denim cloth was tied over his nose and mouth. 

Last week, his family buried him in Sergoit village in western Kenya where he was raised. In the days that followed, Chiloba was a trending topic on Twitter in Kenya. For at least three days, many used it as an occasion to hurl homophobic slurs. Politicians used it to remind their followers that homosexuality was ungodly and illegal in Kenya. 

Homosexuality is indeed illegal in Kenya, with devastating consequences. Gay sex is punishable with up to 14 years in prison. In 2019, the country’s supreme court ruled against a petition to repeal that provision, despite arguments by human rights defenders that it fuels and entrenches homophobia in the country and sometimes results in death. 

In the years since, at least four Kenyans have been killed in suspected anti-LGBTIQ hate crimes. Last year, Sheila Lumumba, a nonbinary lesbian, and Rose Mbesa, an intersex person, were found raped and murdered. 

In 2021, Erica Chandra, a transgender woman, and Joash Mosoti, a gay man, were killed. When news of Chiloba’s murder first broke, rights defenders in the country suspected it was a hate crime. 

Police have since arrested a 24-year-old man identified as his partner, Jackton Odhiambo, and arraigned him in court as the main suspect in the killing, raising the possibility that it was intimate partner violence instead — another widespread problem in Kenya. 

The tragedy is almost more than Chiloba’s mother can take. “I had a really nice child. I feel so much pain that someone killed my child,” said Rael Chepketir days after the funeral. 

She relied on him for material support, family members say. “I am just here at home. I do not have a job, just here,” Chepketir says.

Chiloba’s premature death is doubly tragic for Chepketir because she was robbed of regular family life with him before his adulthood. Her male partners separated her children from her at very young ages. 

“My father came for me. His father came for him. We were young children — even before he started school,” Melvin recalls. 

Although Chiloba visited his mother often during the time he lived with his father, 24 kilometres away, it was his adulthood that held the most promise for them to make up for lost time. 

“Kiprotich told me to be patient, that he was going to look for a life and that he was going to come back home,” Chepketir says. He promised to build her a big house and hire people to help her with its chores.

“He had a good vision and had such a pure heart. My son loved everybody. He laughed all the time.” 

But all that is gone now. She last spoke to him on Christmas Eve. 

“He sent me some money and told me that we would speak on the 1st. When I tried calling him, I was not able to reach him.” 

Headlines have made much of Chiloba’s gender expression and sexuality. “A man in women’s clothing has been found dead, stuffed in a box,” one read. “Chiloba family dismisses LGBTQ claims,” another read. 

Asked about it, his family members brushed aside talk of his real or perceived sexuality. 

“I cannot say he was gay. He is the one who knows. He chose his life. Even if someone is gay, they do not deserve to be treated the way he was treated. The way he was killed,” says Melvin. 

Although they grew up apart, Melvin had tried to keep up with Chiloba’s life and support his pursuits. In 2018, she voted for him in

a local modelling contest and sent the link to her friends encouraging them to vote for him too. 

“I just thought that he was just being himself and trying to be successful,” she says. 

Gladys Chepkoech, Chiloba’s sister, echoes these feelings. She remembers that he loved to dance, even when he was herding cows in their childhood. “It feels bad that some people are mocking him but we knew how good he was. He was the kindest soul, undeserving of such a death.” 

Born in 1997, Chiloba attended St Francis Kimuron before enrolling at Moi University’s Eldoret West campus to study to be a teacher. His family said that with just a year left to complete his degree, he dropped out and switched to University of Eldoret in Chepkoilel to study his true passion: fashion. 

At his funeral on Tuesday, one of his teachers described him as “very determined, hardworking, talented and creative”. His sisters remember him as a lover of chapati and snacks, but also as a man who often hid his troubles behind a smile. “To us, he was and will remain Rotich,” Chepkoech says.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.