Brian Chira burial
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Paradox of Tiktok star Brian Chira

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Fans of Tik toker Brian Chira during his burial ceremony at the family home in Gathanje, Githunguri in Kiambu County on March 26, 2024.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

In Act II Scene 5 of Twelfth Night, Englishman William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest playwright of all time, put down a most memorable phrase.

Little did he know it would outlast the sands of time and live even in infamy. He wrote, “some [men] are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

In these words, Shakespeare captured the destiny and fate of most important people. Look around Kenya and the world and you instantly recognise the wisdom herein. I posit here that Kenyan TikToker Brian Chira, who died last month in a road accident, exemplified perfectly three of those categories – he was born great because of his brilliance; he achieved greatness; and had greatness thrust upon by a chance car accident in Nakuru.

To me, however, it was Mr Chira’s agency more than chance and happenstance that made him a youth phenom. Agency is what we do with opportunity. To quote Shakespeare again, in Julius Caesar Act IV Scene 2, “there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in the shallows and in miseries.”

That was Mr Chira in his diametrical personality. As the passage concludes, “on such a full sea are we now afloat; and must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

In a nutshell, that was the great promise, paradox, and Greek tragedy of Mr Chira.

He was a bundle of contradictions. Brilliant yet humble and contrite. Male yet effeminate. Determined yet full of despair. Ambitious yet given to hopelessness. Intellectually sober yet hooked on the bottle. Popular yet lonely.

I suppose we all have our own yin and yang. We are complex yet at some level are simpletons who have got to relieve ourselves in the toilet at rather regular intervals, or risk public embarrassment.

For the sake of those who have been living in a cave, Mr Chira was a young man from Githunguri and student at Kabarak University. He became an instant sensation when he was interviewed at the scene of an accident in Nakuru. He parlayed the interview into TikTok fame.

Mr Chira was a person living with Aids which, in his telling, he contracted when he was raped at a drunken orgy in Mombasa. That was likely a pivotal moment in his young life although his torment came earlier.

Orphaned and adrift for lack of a strong family anchor in spite of the yeoman work his grandmother put in him, poverty ravaged him and left him vulnerable at the mercy of the most vicious social predators.

He confessed there was “nothing he hadn’t done” to earn a buck to feed himself. Chira’s is a story that tears one apart. Yet his sense of humour and obvious love for life wouldn’t allow him to quit.

Mr Chira wasn’t a quitter.

We know the tragic circumstances of his untimely death two weeks ago. Reportedly leaving a Nairobi club in the wee hours drunk and in melancholic despair, Mr Chira ran into an oncoming truck that killed him instantly.

Little did the hit-and-run driver know he would immortalise Mr Chira and uncork a profound national conversation on sexual identity, the desperate straits of our youth, and the revolutionary possibilities stoked by TikTok. Tiktokers, artists, and common folk flocked his funeral after raising millions in a snap.

Kenya was shocked and surprised by the outpouring of grief for a “nobody.” Strangely, although politicians haven’t seen a funeral they didn’t like, only one maverick MP, Peter Salasya, showed up for Mr Chira.

Even far more shameful, Kenya’s print press completely shunned Mr Chira’s funeral and bubbling national discourse on identity and powerlessness. I suspect that Kenya’s press as well as the elite gave the Chira sendoff a wide berth because of his gender-bending practices and proclivities.

Many presumed Mr Chira’s sexual identity to be gay or bisexual. So what? I was sickened and angered by the blackout. Human sexuality is very complex, a fact heterosexual simpletons never seem to get. Acting as though they don’t have a single brain cell, they vituperate and demonise folks who are LGBTQIA+. Fact is sexuality spans the spectrum from heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, pansexual or omnisexual, homosexual, gay, lesbian, and others.

In societies with a more nuanced sense of sexuality, there’s greater acceptance for many sexual identities, including in the pronouns used to identify oneself. Today, in the US, my students and colleagues use their preferred pronouns to describe themselves and their sexual identities.

These include traditional ones such as “he,” “she,” “her,” or “him.” But increasingly used is a combination of “him/her,” or “they,” or “them.” So, a person who physically looks and sounds male may be a “she,” “he,” or “they.” A full and intelligent national conversation on Mr Chira would’ve helped us grow as a nation. It’s an opportunity lost.

- Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.