NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Inside a dimly-lit recording studio in downtown Nairobi, a man wearing headphones reads animatedly from a script into a microphone as a female producer nods encouragingly through a small window between them.
The scene is one found in most recording studios across the world but the stories being told by this Kenya-based production company are ones that most Africans would never dare to tell.
Meet None on Record, the media house behind “AfroQueer” - Africa’s first documentary podcast series providing a rare glimpse into the hidden lives of sexual minorities on a continent where they are widely demonized.
From gay marriage pictures that went viral in Nigeria to the homophobic religious leaders in Kenya who had a change of heart, the bi-weekly eight-part series features stories of how LGBT+ Africans struggle, but also how they flourish.
“We are basically taking our stories and putting them on the record because I think a lot of the times when we are talking about African queers, it’s like we don’t exist,” said Selly Thiam, 38, founder and executive director of None on Record.
“So ‘AfroQueer’ is part of the process of collecting and documenting queer African stories from the continent, and creating an archive to show that we do exist, and do matter.”
African countries have some of the most prohibitive laws against homosexuality in the world. Same-sex relationships are considered taboo and are a crime across most of continent, with punishments ranging from imprisonment to death.
A 2017 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) found 33 African countries out of a total of 54 nations criminalize same sex relations.
The persecution of LGBT+ Africans is also rife, with sexual minorities routinely being abused, blackmailed, assaulted by mobs, or raped by police or vigilantes, campaigners say.
Thiam, a Sengalese-American woman born and raised in Chicago, founded None on Record after learning of FannyAnn Eddy, a Sierra Leonean lesbian activist who was raped and murdered in Freetown in 2004.
“When I heard she had been murdered, it had a tremendous impact on me. It made me think about the experiences of queer Africans - not only in the diaspora, but also on the continent,” Thiam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I realized there was an invisibility to queer African experiences and thought how can I document this and create a record of our existence?”
Thiam set up the None on Record office in Kenya in 2013 and - with a team of six staff and a network of freelance reporters across Africa - launched season one of “AfroQueer” in July.
The 30-minute podcasts - found on Itunes, Soundcloud and the “AfroQueer” website - delve into topics ranging from the risks of staging a Gay Pride event in Uganda to how dating apps are fuelling the blackmail and extortion of gay African men.
Three months in, audience figures are encouraging, with around 500 people - straight and gay - tuning in across Africa and the world, from the United States to Taiwan and Afghanistan.
Feedback has been positive, with many LGBT+ listeners voicing appreciation for giving them visibility on a continent where their stories are rarely heard.
“I’ve listened to four of the episodes and I think it’s very fresh,” said Solomon Wambua, a Kenyan gay rights activist.
“There aren’t enough stories about sexual minorities in Africa, so it’s good to have a platform where other LGBT people can see that they are not alone.”
“AfroQueer” has also received its fair share of negative comments from homophobic social media users who call the LGBT people in the podcasts “demons” who will “burn in hell”.
Steps have been taken to ensure the safety of None on Record staff.
The location of their office is not publicly given and reporters and producers in the field do not generally disclose the stories they are working on, their sexual orientation, or the identities of their sources.
Staff also conduct risk assessments before venturing out, and have a network of queer-friendly lawyers, hotels and taxi drivers across Africa who can support them.
Aida Holly-Nambi, staff producer at None on Record, said their biggest challenge is finding positive stories about the LGBT community which are not from South Africa - the only nation on the continent which has legalized same sex marriages.
There are many uplifting stories of queer Africans but due to the conservative space they exist in, people are often reluctant to publicize their experiences, she added.
“What is newsworthy tends to be hardships, and one of the things we want to do is disrupt these mental templates about who queer Africans are,” said Holly-Nambi.
“Not to say that queer African lives are easy - but they are often more complicated and nuanced than portrayed. They come in all accents and have a wide range of experiences - from those who are surviving to those who are thriving.”
Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org