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Meet with the woman using art and fashion to change LGBTI lives in Uganda

Art is essential for personal transformation but also as a vehicle to reach hearts and minds in a very unique way. For more inspiration, visit our special section on Artivism in the “Strategies” section of this site.

This article first appeared in Gaystarnews

Stonewall 50: How one woman is using arts and crafts to validate queer lives in Uganda, one of the more homophobic nations in Africa

Meet with the woman using art and fashion to change LGBTI lives in Uganda
Kakyo Trinah is the founder of KakyoProject in Uganda (Photo: @kakyoproject on Instagram)

Growing up in a predominantly Christian ecosystem, I was constantly reminded that homosexuality is a sin. I was told it is un-African and a Western phenomenon. I received little to almost no conversations about sexuality and gender.

As I came to terms with my sexuality, I was very aware of how my entire existence is not validated.

Because of this, I felt quite unhappy when I first realized I am a lesbian. For a long time, I didn’t want to deal with this reality.

I avoided dealing with it until I was fortunate enough to discover the tools, friendships and connections able to help me gradually accept my sexuality.

Now I am out to everyone.

Negative reaction to coming out in Uganda

At first, I came out to a few friends. I officially came out to my family in 2016.

I received predominantly negative reactions from my closest inner circle. My close friends invalidated me. They ‘ghosted’ my existence.

My immediate family thought it wise for me see a therapist. He constantly amplified my nonexistence, labelling my queerness as ‘mental illness’ that I could be converted from.

I also received a negative response from myself, towards myself.

Trinah Kakyo

Trinah Kakyo (Photo: Supplied)

‘Perfectly queer’ and Kakyoproject

Here in Uganda, queer persons are able to meet safely and interact with one another, but of course, not as openly as other countries. We have to be more subtle. But we exist and are perfectly queer.

My project, simply titled Kakyoproject came together organically. The name was inspired by my personal experiences and surroundings.

For as long as I can remember, I created little, eccentric, DIY crafts for myself as a form of healing. Making crafts grounded me, personally. I never gave it much thought at the time. I was mentally battling many things.

Deep down, I knew somehow that my creations were one thing the world couldn’t take from me. It was a refuge of sorts and an affirmation of my existence.

Also, orders from friends to create them pieces proved to be a source of money. This provided further encouragement.

Then I began making rainbow pieces.

What inspired this was a friend. They were having a difficult time, ‘not being able to meet anyone for years,’ as they put it. Semi-jokingly, they said: ‘I have needs that need tending to, you know.’

I felt powerless and didn’t know how to help.

I crafted a simple rainbow hair tikka piece and gave it to them.

My friend wore this piece religiously. A few months afterwards, they ran into someone on the street that was curious about the rainbow. They went on a date and have been dating since.

Rainbow bracelets are among KakyoProject's best-selling products

Rainbow bracelets are among KakyoProject’s best-selling products (Photo: Supplied)

Adding rainbows to accessories and clothing

This experience drove me to crafting more unique handmade pieces for friends.

Whenever someone shared a story of an encounter through these pieces, it re-energized me.

I stuck with queer color details as part of my endeavor to celebrate and affirm diversity. And to fashionably contribute to visibility.

Last year, kakyoproject organically moved to creating more types of apparel. Again, these were drawn from a personal experience.

In early 2018, I was back in Kampala and dealing with a situation: a fallout with some girls I had previously thought were a safe space.

I honestly didn’t think I had the energy to deal with it. One Friday night, after an intense encounter and open meltdown, I hopped on an uber “boda” (motorcycle) home.

Teary eyed in the Kampala traffic, I spotted another fellow on the back of another “boda” wearing a denim jacket reading: ‘Take it easy.’

Those three words calmed me down. I returned home and woke up the next day full of energy.

I decided to create apparel that speaks in the same way: Affirms; informs; and educates. Clothing crafted to be worn more to our spaces of work, restaurants, school and partying.

More than ever, I intentionally chose to use queer color details on the pieces because of my personal experiences.

 ‘Transforming the words used to demean us’

Someone subsequently told me, ‘You don’t have to wear dreads to be a Rasta,’ hinting at my choice to wear rainbow detailed embroidery on my outfits.

I was quite disheartened at first. But shortly after, I read somewhere a quote from Arabelle Sicardi: ‘Queer life has always been transforming the words used to demean us into things that feel celebratory.’

So I now intentionally add these details. In the same way I am constantly told that my existence should not be, or should be toned down, erased … I choose to still exist. And so these details fit where I was told they shouldn’t be.

‘I will choose to dread or not, my head and my business, I am still a Rasta.’

‘Retail therapy’

Kakyoproject more recently began to offer what I call ‘retail therapy.’

I realized my stalls where attracting a lot of people. Some are not always wanting to buy but hangout.

How to satisfy this demographic became my endeavor. So retail therapy is just to hangout. It’s an inclusive space for uplifting, celebrating and affirming the lives of women and queer persons through fashion.

Every stall setup has a retail therapy point. The retail therapy goals are to create a space to inspire, create, love, heal, vent, fun, games, dress-up booths, wigs, photo booth, etc. The aim is to provide a healing space for participants.

This has branched out into social media, visuals and digital art. There are pop-up stalls in Nairobi in Kenya, and Kampala in Uganda, along with other parts of the world.

A model wears KakyoProject rainbow beads leather necklace

A model wears KakyoProject rainbow beads leather necklace (Photo: @kakyoproject on Instagram)

Art as a tool for personal transformation

Kakyoproject strongly believes art can be used as a tool for personal transformation. Fashion, arts and crafts were essential in my own transformation.

Here in Uganda, it may seem unsafe but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We learn how to navigate safely and learn from the challenges. For example, our most recent event was a #fivefilms4freedom screening.

We screened five films in Kampala for a small audience. The films came from The British Council and British Film Institute. I hope they serve as inspiration to those attending to hopefully create films telling our stories, as well.

We also exhibited the artwork of Kenyan photographer, Wawira Njeru. Her work questions notions of gender identity and diversity, female masculinity and the variation of maleness in today’s society. These remain topics taboo in Kenya, Uganda and Africa more widely.

This year if the 50th anniversary of Stonewall riots in New York City. Thinking about my own country, I think our Pride this year will be an intimate celebration of individuals in the community, in their own safe spaces.

For myself, I am keen to hopefully be able to march on the streets alongside our Kenyan neighbours in the near future, depending how the current court case there to decriminalize gay sex proceeds.

Of course, authorities pose a challenge, but I have learned from events such as the Stonewall riots, resilience eventually trumps all authority.

Kakyo Trinah was born and raised in Uganda. She lives in Kampala and occasionally Nairobi. She is the founder of the Kakyo Project. Follow Kakyo Project on Instagram and Facebook

A KakyoProject necklace

A KakyoProject necklace (Photo: @kakyoproject on Instagram)