The brutal murder of activist Edwin Chiloba in Kenya shocks the LGBTQ+ community

The young designer and model died of asphyxiation after socks were stuffed in his mouth. The main suspect is photographer Jacktone Odhiambo, with whom Chiloba was in a relationship

José Naranjo
Kenyan fashion designer and model Edwin Chiloba poses for a studio portrait in Eldoret, Kenya on June 6, 2022.
Kenyan fashion designer and model Edwin Chiloba poses for a studio portrait in Eldoret, Kenya on June 6, 2022.LAWRENCE LETEIPA (AFP)

The brutal murder of young Kenyan fashion designer and model Edwin Chiloba, a prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist, has sent shockwaves through Kenya. Chiloba died of asphyxiation after socks were stuffed into his mouth; his body was found last week inside a metal box that had been thrown into a ditch. So far, the police have arrested five people, including the main suspect, photographer Jacktone Odhiambo, with whom the victim was allegedly in a relationship, as well as Kenyan bodybuilder Dennis Litali. Many homophobic attacks have taken place in Kenya, but the investigation has yet to determine a motive for the crime.

Born Edwin Kiprotich Kiptoo, Edwin Chiloba was 25 years old. He was studying fashion design in Eldoret, a city in western Kenya. He was known for fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as for his appearances on social media dressed in women’s clothing. He was last seen alive on January 1 at a New Year’s Eve party, after which he returned home with several friends. Kenyan police believe he was tortured and killed on the spot. Three days later, a motorist alerted authorities that several people in a car with hidden license plates had dumped a metal box on the side of a road 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Eldoret. When they opened it, they found the activist’s mutilated body.

That same day, police arrested Jacktone Odhiambo, a 24-year-old photographer who, according to the investigation, lived with and was in a relationship with Chiloba. Subsequently, four other people were arrested, including bodybuilder Dennis Litali, who told a judge that he had no relationship with any of the people under investigation, as well as a cousin and a friend of Odhiambo and a cab driver who allegedly helped move the metal box that contained Chiloba’s body. According to Reuters, two of the people taken into custody are minors. Police said this week that the five suspects will be held for at least 21 days while they conduct the investigation. The car in question has turned up and is being tested for possible evidence.

Edwin’s death reminds us that gay bodies continue to be targeted across the country
The Kenya National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

The autopsy was made public on Wednesday and revealed that the young fashion designer and model died of asphyxiation. “His nose and mouth were sealed with a piece of jeans,” said Dr. Johansen Oduor at a press conference at Moi Hospital in Eldoret. “He could not breathe and died shortly after [...] Socks had been stuffed in his mouth,” the doctor added. The forensic examination also revealed that the body had begun to decompose when it was found and that, despite initial media reports, his eyes had not been gouged out.

Statements condemning the murder were immediate. Roseline Odede, the chairwoman of Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, stated that “it is worrying that those perceived as different continue to be attacked”; she also mentioned the murders of three other gay rights activists in the last two years. Numerous associations and personalities have asked the authorities for a rapid investigation to clarify the facts. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said he was “shocked” and noted the urgent need to “redouble efforts to protect LGBTQ+ activists” around the world. Amnesty International Kenya stated that “no human life is worth less than another. Every person is entitled to dignity, respect and protection under Article 26 of the Constitution.”

Edwin Chiloba had previously suffered a serious assault. Last July, unidentified assailants beat him in the street. Despite all this, in one of his last comments on Instagram on December 16, Chiloba made it clear that he intended to continue fighting “for all those discriminated against.” Similarly, in an interview given last year to Bold Network Africa, an organization that promotes the African queer population, the young fashion designer said: “Coming from a community where being queer is taboo blocks much of my ambition because of the fear of being exposed. This can be a challenge, but every challenge can be overcome. I firmly believe that, with the right expression through my art, I can change the way people think and [they’ll] see me beyond my sexuality.”

Edwin Chiloba’s family has thanked the government for its rapid response and said they are convinced that justice will be done. However, they also claimed to be unaware of the young designer’s LGBTQ+ activism. “As a family, we know that our son made it to college; he was in his fourth year. We don’t know about the other things that we are seeing on social media. He was raised as a Christian. At St. Francis Kimuron he was called a pastor and he was a student leader of the Young Christian Students association, so we don’t know [about] these other things we are hearing; we are just seeing them [now] online,” Caudentia Tanui, a spokesperson for the family, told the media.

Homosexual relationships are a crime in Kenya and punishable by up to 14 years in prison; some 30 African countries have similar legislation. In Somalia, Mauritania and Nigeria, sentences can also include the death penalty. At the other extreme, South Africa is the only African country where gay marriages are legal. Even in countries where homosexuality is not officially a crime, homophobia is widespread, leading to social impunity for those who attack homosexuals.

On April 17, 2022, Kenyan activist Sheila Lumumba’s lifeless body was found in her home. Police reports revealed that the 25-year-old, who defined herself as a non-binary lesbian, was brutally raped and murdered by several men. The previous year, transgender activist Erica Chandra and gay rights advocate Joash Mosoti were also murdered. “Edwin’s death reminds us that gay bodies continue to be targeted across the country,” the Kenya National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission observed on its Instagram page a few days ago.

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