On Love, On Kindness, On Care

tell them how we died
–ICC Witness #64

Many people will never testify before the international criminal court, or whatever its past and future equivalents might be. It is an impossible court, a court that can never hear the ghosts who flock to its chambers, hoping to hear their names, their stories. Ghosts who rustle through court documents looking for answers, seeking something beyond a justice forever denied. In this most haunted of courts, impossible stories are sought.

A chorus of voices:

I was walking to buy milk
I was playing with friends
I was washing the laundry
I was hopingpraying not to die

What is the collective name for the bombkilled? The governmentdisappeared? The policeslaughtered? The warerased? The developmentsacrificed? What is the collective name for the collateraldamaged? The lookedliketerrorists? The didnotrunfastenough? The livedinthewrongarea? The inthelineoffire? The borninthewrongskinbodyreligiontimegender?
*
And, still, I cannot stop thinking of love, of kindness, of care.
*
Four girls in a church: Four boys on a beach

Something resonates

(I can’t help thinking about the football-hating child, the book-loving child, found by a bomb a few pages before a story’s climactic end)

bomb-attracting children

bomb-attracting bodies
*
One asks friends for unimaginable things: to imagine with one, to provide words that travel in the fear-suffused spaces, in the death-saturated spaces.

Earlier today, I imagined a parent explaining to a child why another parent’s child has to die: “this is my gift to you,” a child-killing parent might say.

I wanted to believe that this child would say: “could we not have had a play date instead?” I wanted to believe in the myth of the peace-bearing child.

More than that: I wanted to believe in the myth of the parent who hears. To believe there might be a person with the ability to make power listen.

These are world-building killings. World-sustaining killings. World-imagining killings.

The “end” of this killing extends these imaginations—births their persistence, demands their use.

(Even now, death-makers learn new rhetorics, new bodily vernaculars, new ways to extend power, adopt new justifications to eliminate life)

(those were death-attracting bodies)
*
And so, one turns to prayer, to song

You died on the hum of a million voices raised in prayer
*
but I forget: it’s “tell them how we died”

They died walking, standing, sitting, running
They died terrified
They died having forgotten how to dream

water memories

Before I can return to where I hope to resurrect sensation, I turn back, a familiar and, in many ways, inevitable turning. Faced with today’s nightmares, I need not pursue yesterday’s.

In summer 1996, having learned how to take long distance buses in the U.S., I bused to Mombasa. I came to find the meaning of that trip.

I cannot go back to where I came from. It no longer exists. It should not exist.
–Dionne Brand

An image lingers: a man on a busy street handling his crotch. I do not know if he was fondling himself or scratching, and while I know what he looked like, I cannot describe him. Somehow, description seems irrelevant. I’m tempted to add that the ways we have of describing humans are so saturated with racist assumptions from colonial modernity that description must be—can only be—debilitating. I recall the excitement of my desire for him, how unfocused and bashful it was, how world-tilting. In part, this experience suggests why I react to Samuel Delany’s work as I do: he has the remarkable capacity to render such axis-shifting moments.
*
A frieze of quotations adorns the little Book First at the City Mall Nakumatt. All the quotations exhort those browsing to read, promising the sorts of thing that such things promise. Some of the names are familiar—Katherine Mansfield, William Styron, John Ruskin. The rest elude me. Helpful annotations make them legible: American essayist, American novelist, American this, American that, English this, and, surprisingly, Chinese that.

Not a single quotation is by an African author.

A creature of (terrible) habits, I have come to the mall, a space I find conceptually interesting. Graduate school habits remain, so I go to malls on weekdays, at hours when most 9-5 people are at work. At such times, malls have different ecologies: the moms who lunch, the seniors who exercise, the tourists, the job seekers. Malls feel less frantic, less harried than during holidays and weekends. At least, this is how I explain this (terrible) habit.

A man—the original version of this had “gentleman”—sits at a table, takes out his phone, looks irritated when a female server approaches to offer a menu. In what I am told is Kenyan vernacular, he does not look at her. Kenyans, I am told, do not look at wait staff. Wait staff must be unimagined as human, as worth seeing.

Malls are a kind of sameness, and this one is not particularly interesting. Perhaps its bland availability most closely approximates what I came to excavate, a name from childhood—Nyali. Incarnated in this particular artifact might be an unfettered delight that once existed, a carefree laugh of the kind I no longer remember enjoying.

Nostalgia might be this impossible search for what one is told must have existed.
*
Here, at the Gateway to the World, the Door of No Return feels pressing, present in the hues and shades and physiognomies around me, present in the lingua franca that here, perhaps more than elsewhere, lives as a borrowing and an imposition, a stealing and a surviving, a trade language accented by coffles and whips. To become Mswahili, a book tells me, is to be deracinated, to refuse to follow the ethno-legalisms and ethno-rituals that sustain a precarious, ever-unraveling we:us.

To be here, at the Door of No Return, might be to ask how one inhabits the black body, how one “takes part in its mask, its performance.”

Part of what I have wanted is to follow the traces that might unmake this:here as inevitable, to find a wedge that might begin to chip away at those ossifications that started as strategies.
*
I return, again, to Nobody Knows My Name, a book in which Baldwin tries, repeatedly, to (re)claim an American-ness that he insists is in his blood, an American-ness that he cannot escape. Belonging and attachment wrestle in Baldwin, in a way that they do not in Audre Lorde. Her too-recent immigrant sensibility, to put it crudely, her proximity to the Door of No Return, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for her to claim the promises that Baldwin and, before him, Hughes and Du Bois, claims as his inheritance. But, perhaps, women are always disinherited from promises men claim so easily, too easily. Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood struggles to find a genre within which women in the Americas can survive, let alone thrive. Which leads me back, oddly, to Nobody Knows My Name, a quest narrative looking for the languages and sensations that might make the U.S. possible for Baldwin.
*
Water Memories:

Water memories are forbidden memories, forbidding memories, disciplined memories, impossible memories. Lines on a map show where people like me might have been taken—stolen, coffled, traded. Other lines, hidden lines, unspeakable lines, exist as traces in many elsewheres I was trained to unrecognize. “We” is a huddling together, a house with no exits, no travel paths, no water memories. Water memories are slip-away memories, wash-away memories, trace-erasing memories.

The road knows that where you find yourself you are.
–Dionne Brand

Every family has stories of the disappeared, the not-talked-about, the grief- or fear- or rage-inducing names, the lingering unforgotten, the shame, the scar, the oozing wound. One learns to unsay particular names, to erase the brief shadows that every so often haunt faces that have forgotten to forget.

Water memories might name a particular fantasy of unforgetting. A wish that something might wash up on time’s shore.
*
What would one do if one encountered a trace from the forgotten?

More than once, in other elsewheres, I have seen faces I know how to recognize. Traces of long-forgotten migrations, past-unmaking thefts. An idea that we might once have been legible to each other in other ways. We meet, instead, in this stranger-making present. We trade nods or avert gazes, rub suddenly salt-encrusted eyes.
*

Some of us want entry into the home and nation that are signified by these romances.
–Dionne Brand

A cut at the root.

Picture a root system shaped by terror. Everywhere growths certain that most will not survive, hoping that some might. Multiply this image, forest it. Listen to the song-making leaves, to the song-fleeing wind. Stand in this moment, not because you can, but because you must.
*
The ocean is more disturbed today, more insistent as it swells and carries, moves and unsettles. Nearby, ocean-born children play with such ease, such fearlessness. I wonder how many generations it takes for terror to dissipate. Slavery on this coast was formally abolished in 1907. The dispossessed linger, those saved from slave-bearing ships only to encounter the ethno-nationalist independent state that refuses to grant attachment, belonging, legibility.

What do those washing their feet in the ocean hope to wash away?

What do those looking out over the ocean hope to find?

Perhaps the terra-memories I cling to, the land-soil green I profess, can only be imagined because of water memories: the land also has its terrors.

There are ways of constructing the world—that is, of putting it together each morning, what it should look like piece by piece—and I don’t feel that I share this with the people in my small town.
–Dionne Brand

A slash at the root.

The bars on the windows here echo the former prison this restaurant abuts. Patterns linger across geographies, cross-fertilize, become traces and memories.

And what this place was called in its own language I do not know.
–Dionne Brand

*
20 hours into a too-long train trip, I remain entranced by trees.

We have stopped again—I’m not sure where. We keep stopping at seemingly random place, made even more random by the uneven lengths of the stops. A minute here, twenty there, two hours wherever. Sometimes, if you look out of the window fast enough, a name appears, train towers in various states of use and disuse, curious, indifferent, and hostile faces.

Geographies unfold—this is the promise of the train trip: a geography will unfold.

We pass through water-parched lands that stripped water memories from the stolen. Water memories might linger in long-lived trees.

Mello, Mello PQ

a b c d e f g
h i j k
mello mello pq
—singing the alphabet

A few hours away from Mombasa, the train was delayed in a small town for about two hours. Young men from the town were playing volleyball, a sight that seemed to enrapture the Australian tourists on the train. As though to damage that rapture, a man with a guitar showed up to “hakuna matata” and “buffalo soldier” away any pleasure that might still be found in those songs. About 45 minutes into their play, a small group of children outside my window began to produce a national vernacular: they started attempting to sing the national anthem. A little earlier, one of them had attempted to start singing another song—one I did not recognize—but none of the others had joined in. But something about the anthem compelled participation, as one, and then more voices joined in. It was, I thought, an odd choice, but perhaps its origins as a lullaby linger in some way, making it available as a different structure of feeling.

That they tried to sing the anthem was unusual in itself, but not particularly noteworthy. It became noteworthy because of how many times they tried to sing it: starting over and over, mostly in Swahili, but at least once in English. The third line, “haki iwe ngao na mlinzi,” kept coming out as a version of “mello, mello pq,” garbled, cobbled together, a fiction, while the final lines, “ natukaye na uhuru / amani na undugu / raha tupate na ustawi,” simply would not come. Instead, they kept substituting, “nchi yetu ya Kenya/ tunayoipenda / tuwe tayari kuilinda.”

The children were young, yes, but certainly old enough to know the words to an anthem mastered by 5-year olds. More jarring, was that this particular unfluency followed rapid conversations in musical, colloquial Swahili. What was it, I wondered, about this particularly bureaucratic form of Swahili that made it forgettable, impossible, infinitely substitutable?

But, also, what is it about now that makes uhuru (liberty/freedom), amani (peace), undugu (fraternity), raha (joy/happiness), and ustawi (prosperity) so impossible to contemplate? What is it that makes togetherness so difficult to imagine, and, consequently, a kind of “mello, mello pq”? As opposed to togetherness, one gets a jingoistic nationalism, dedicated to loving the country and, as a result, defending it. This might be termed the quotidian life of militarization.

One might say that I’m making too much of this small moment. Perhaps I am. Samuel Delany teaches me that shifts in the nature of the social, in possibilities for togetherness, take place as shifts within discourse, within what is said, what it is possible to say, what it is possible to imagine saying. And the by-now multiple-year shift to “Kenya must be defended,” which takes Somalia (or unfriendly figures within Somalia, terrorists and pirates) as that against which Kenya must defend itself, has shaped languages and imaginations, displacing certain imaginative and ethical possibilities.

One sees these narrowed possibilities—the visual is key here, as metaphor and evidence—in the now widely-deployed (military metaphors must be used) “security discourse.” A range of actual and self-anointed security experts now pronounce, unceasingly, on “what Kenya needs.” Across a range of media, “security failures” and “insecurity” traffic as a new, powerful vernacular, whether discussing security as an ethno-nationalist problem (“we must arm ourselves against those others out to destroy us”), taking security as the key facet of the 41 v. 1 narrative (“arm the young men to protect or destroy”), or framing security as a problem of the everyday (“we must all be on the alert”). Security becomes the bribe paid to extorting police so that they will not harass and rape vulnerable Somalis; it becomes the equality-unimagining advice given to women (“dress like this,” walk like this,” don’t go here or there”).

Security discourse has become an unimagining of possibilities. A turtling in, it cannot admit that freedom matters, that a togetherness is possible based on amity rather than fear and intimidation. It swallows other languages, other world-envisioning, world-making possibilities, creating itself as the only thing (what’s the right word here?) that merits attention.

On twitter, one sees #tribekenya, a failed attempt to forge an ethno-national collectivity, more pernicious, I think, than the forced collectivity of #weareone. These might be called failed performatives, as they attempt to sew together pieces that simply will not fit, materials that cannot possibly stick together. Here, I do not mean that togetherness is unimaginable or even impossible. Rather, I mean that peformatives that ignore the material conditions within which they are embedded must fail.

Such performatives become mello, mello pq, garbled versions of futures that seem even more distant.

To speak of imagination and freedom now, in Kenya and elsewhere, is to speak in mello, mello pq, to speak a garbled language that has no place in a public discourse consumed by security, insecurity, unsecurity, and securitization. Those of us who insist on freedom and imagination are deemed irrelevant idealists, precisely because our terms do not come with huge security-buying, security-enhancing budgets. Nor do they come with the approbation of international partners.

Security discourse is seductive—it makes one feel grown-up, relevant, as though one is participating in a “national conversation” about “important matters.” It is, also, at least in this particular case, an imagination-eating discourse, so consuming that it does not leave space for any other kind of thinking, feeling, being.

And so our public imaginations are narrow—how to survive, destroy, replace. Our public discourses are narrow—how to arrest, destroy, profit. Our public assemblies are narrow—hymns to ethno-patriarchal, ethno-nationalist fantasies. And those who dare to imagine other worlds, other possibilities, creep away, remain silent, feel the weight of their irrelevance.

At a moment when fantasies of togetherness have been replaced with ethno-nationalist and ethno-patriarchal militarization in the name of “security,” those of us attempting to imagine other possibilities might struggle to turn off, turn away, turn inward, turn anywhere that might detoxify our dreams, nurture our fantasies, make attachment hurt less.

War:Memory

What happens if you stand in a moment like this?
—Dionne Brand
IN MEMORY OF
ARTHUR JOHN
BYNC WAVELL mc
COMMANDANT
THE OFFICERS AND MEN
OF THE ARAB RIFLES
WHO LAID DOWN THEIR
LIVES IN DEFENCE OF
MOMBASA AND THIS
COAST DURING
THE GREAT WAR

I sit looking at recovered and restored cannons, next to one of the phallic memorials with which men like to be remembered, marveling, not for the first time, at the memory-making, memory-stealing, memory-hoarding capacities of war. We live in aggressively militarized times, when the distinction between the war-killed and the peace-killed becomes insignificant, a bureaucratic exercise in tallying and official declarations—“war has not been officially declared.” Monuments to phallic death, with their pre—viagra fantasies of eternal erections, become newly threatening.

A monument to an obsolescent empire becomes a daily reminder of perpetual war.

I’m struck, again, by how much I loathe the unethical references to “THE GREAT WAR” and “WORLD WAR,” labels that minimize the death-making of “skirmishes,” “rebellions,” “riots,” “uprisings,” “clashes.” One keeps asking how a war is to be understood, what losses count, what monument-making (un)remembers.

A man sits astride a cannon.

I enter Fort Jesus.
*
In conversation with Yvonne Owuor, I discover that, despite my protests otherwise, I am also a descendant of the waters. English came on a ship, we say. And while I am standing on the ruins of an empire the Portuguese were never able to hold and build, I feel the weight of all the recovered and restored cannons I can see. Looking out from the fort’s ramparts onto the ocean, seeing the defending carronades—guns with heavy bore, developed in 1779 by the British Navy, for short range battering of ships and buildings—I begin to see the fantasies that fueled empire building. Looking out from here, it seems possible, and even inevitable, to desire all that one surveys.
*
Polite signs everywhere bear elaborate names—“Passage of the Steps,” “Passage of the Arches”—and even more polite warnings that “graffiti” and suchlike will destroy “our heritage.” I smile at every little bit of defacing graffiti I see, every “X WAS HERE,” even as those names—Mary, Steve, John, Moses—testify to imperial success.

A room titled “Portuguese Paintings” grants gravitas to crudely executed 500-year-old graffiti. Even crude graffiti racializes. I’m grateful for the insistence with which so many have insisted on penciling their names on this room’s walls, a riposte to the crude images, a list of names from those whose ancestors would never have been deemed able to write, draw, imagine, respond.
*
The Fort is a series of warrens: too-high stairs and too-low doorways that lead to more stairs and more doorways. A guide leads schoolchildren aged, perhaps, from 6 to 9: he uses a random “uingereza” to describe those who once populated this place, and I wonder if, for him, that name captures all whiteness.

A brief, educational exhibition on slavery begins,

After consistent struggle by individuals, the abolitionists, religious and other relevant groups, slavery was gradually abolished in different parts of the world.

A list of names follows: England, France, the U.S.A., Zanzibar, Mauritania

As always: where is Haiti?

To ask, “where is Haiti?” is to ask a paradigm-changing question, one that foregrounds black resistance, black collaboration, black agency, black history making, black world-making. It is a dangerous question. A question that colonial-era museums, such as this one, cannot allow.

Founded in 1960, this museum attempts to mask the end of empire. From 1895 to 1958, the British used it as a prison. Little remains from that period. The carefully-curated museum, assembled from donations by British-sounding names, traces a history of the region from the 8th century through the 19th, a period of invasions: here, one sees the Arabs, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the English, and, rarely, an item that might be identified as “indigenous” or “local.” An emergent Kenya exists nowhere in this memory-making place. It is, in fact, against project Kenya. Against an imagination that sees this space free from domination.

The displayed objects are discrete: one is not to imagine this region as a vibrant place of exchange and travel, a place of mixing and blending, a place where lives were made and remade, pasts forgotten and presents imagined.

As I look at “bullet pouches” from the 19th Century, two young women enter the exhibition space. One poses in front of multiple objects while the other takes photographs. They are absolutely uninterested in the displayed objects, in this plunder framed as history. I approve. There is nothing for them here.

As I prepare to leave, a sign catches my eye, a translation from an inscription now too faded to read: It says that a twenty-seven-year-old Fransisco de Seixas de Cabriene was commander of this fort. That he came to subject the people of the Coast, to quell rebellions, to inflect punishment, to chastise locals, to make them pay tribute.

Another museum, another group of school-age children. How, I wonder, will they remember this trip.
*
I now carry Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return with me, a work that Baldwin could not—was not permitted to—imagine.

History, after all, is a permission giver.

Brand offers me water memories. I came to the coast even though—or perhaps because—I hate beaches. If I believed more in wind-persistent-memories, I might say that sand, that most abrasive of soils, more easily retains the pain- and loss-memories of the snatched away, the neck collared, the names erased because their burden could not be borne. Water memories are steal-away memories, stolen-away memories, soul-stealing memories.

Sirens linger on soul-abrading sand.

Ukimwi Upo

The sign blares down a street—Makadara, I believe—at least three times. A declarative. It’s situated next to a youth centre (I want to write center). Ukimwi Upo. I’m reading Michael Nava’s Goldenboy, an AIDS novel from the midst of the plague—1988. The main character, Henry Rios, a lawyer, has taken on a case to repay a favor to another lawyer, a friend dying from AIDS. He has also fallen in love with a younger man, a 22-year-old who has been diagnosed as positive. The novel is pedagogical: Henry kisses his friend and his new lover, but, when offered bareback sex of the “you can always pull out before you shoot” variety, he refuses. You will be tempted, the book says, but you can be smart: you can say no.

Ukimwi Upo sounds fatalistic—I see no ads for condoms, no advice about testing, none of the resources that I take for granted as life-saving, as life-enhancing, as life-sustaining. How is one to read these repetitions? Especially when they are so concentrated—so noticeable because they are so concentrated? I did not walk much—probably 2 hours or so—but I did not notice the ads elsewhere. One notices what presses on one. This is a strategy, and, given how crowded this particular street seemed, how full of young life, perhaps it makes sense to concentrate the signage there.

Signs are also population-making, subject-producing. And I wonder about the kinds of populations being created by these particular signs, by their peculiar concentration.

I wonder, as well, about their tone. Ukimwi Upo. AIDS Exists. Or, if one presses, AIDS Is. Or AIDS Is Here. Translated into English, I can hear the prophetic, the seer, the blind sage screaming out warnings.
*
Men on the street ask to change the dollars they are positive I have.
*
Other signs.
*
PLOT NOT FOR SALE

The signs are insistent, weaving James Gichuru Rd. in Nairobi and Nkrumah St. in Mombasa. When I first returned to Kenya, I noticed the PLOTS FOR SALE signs everywhere.
—interrupted—
the young woman serving me says she hopes I’m not writing a book as she doesn’t want to appear as a character. I assure here that I don’t write about people I meet. A promise I break when, a second later, as she takes my order, I mention I’m vegetarian.

“What happened to men eating beef?”
Men still eat beef, I respond.
“Okay, competition is getting tougher,” she flounces.

An interruption because her final comment is so cryptic. Has my pink scarf has given me away? That I am unmasked as queer? Or is it that there is some competition for beef–or beef-eating men–of which I am blissfully unaware?
*
Perhaps I noticed the Plots For Sale signs because of the For Sale signs that filled Maryland when I arrived there in January 2009, after the market crashed. Speaking with friends based elsewhere, I tried to describe the mass of “SALE” signs accompanied by “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.” These signs signaled a certain failure into which I had inserted myself. The Plots For Sale signs along the roads into and out of the Rift Valley similarly felt like failures, especially because I was surrounded by people for whom plot accumulation was a game, severed from any ethical consideration. Plot accumulation did not care for how any piece of land came to be plotted—how it was acquired, how it was divided, how it was written and written over. The plot imaginary, as I thought of it then, incarnated one of the worst aspects of ethics-free capitalism: the vast failure of an ethical imagination.
*
The news this morning tells me that human rights defenders in Mombasa tried to hold a peaceful demonstration. They were teargassed and some were arrested. Even though I receive the news in the past tense, I delay my exit from the hotel, unsure of my geography. When I finally leave, I adopt the same careless wayward strolling that, somehow, has kept me safe in multiple cities.
*
Unlike others I know, I have never been a picaro.
*
The PLOT NOT FOR SALE signs contain, within them, an entire history of the emergence of Kenya—of stolen lands, unfair contracts, the minutia of colonial bureaucracy, the acquisitive hunger of the newly independent, the many lives of dispossession in the names of progress, development, settlement, resettlement.

A name: Mpeketoni

It appears three or four times in the Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission: one of many names for historical injustice. A cry from a persistent wound. A barely-there disturbance from a place considered a solution. A struggling indigeneity.

A stray comment: about this, we shall pray.

Mpeketoni has become a changing body count—over 35, over 42, over 47, over 48 killed. The deaths from some attacks are multi-generational—they do not sit neatly in instant ledgers.

Mpeketoni has become a ghostly story to chase, a crude tool in the hands of otherwise indifferent politicians. Forgotten as it’s taken up. Because some deaths—many deaths—cannot be allowed to take attention away from “larger issues.” Like so many other Kenyas, Mpeketoni calls out to be enfleshed—but with what flesh? The obscene red-green-black-white that has already taken so much?

Too much.

I do not know how to think of Mpeketoni—of its long histories and entanglements, of its intimacies and privations, of its making and unmaking, of the ethno-nationalisms and ethno-indigeneities with which our truncated imaginations populate it. Multiple imaginations—mine included—continue to attempt to wield Mpeketoni in ways that unimagine it, unpopulate it, undo its being before our competing imaginations.

We plot it.
*
Certain places are unimaginable. I marvel at the courage of Gloria Wekker and Omi Tinsley, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, Alex Haley and M. NourbeSe Philip—those who dare to imagine the slave ship. Not only as it stole, killed, and delivered, but also as it sailed, as it ate flesh and muscle, as it transformed resistant subjects into resistant objects.

A block.

Hortense Spillers says “that”—let the referents accumulate, agglutinate, remain unspeakable—is “unimaginable” from this distance. She means something, I think, about the quality of the imagination it might take to inhabit “thingness,” “thinghood,” the shifting of being that is more than discursive.

I return, over and over, to this “unimaginable,” hoping that if I can bear it for just a little longer each time, I can apprehend the unhumaning practices of our dilating present.
*
Perhaps what stays with me from the signs is UPO rather than UKIMWI. That insistent, persistent, dilating now. That “exists,” that “is,” that “is here.”

It presses.

Revenant

Everywhere he turns, the revenant finds himself reflected.
–James Baldwin

By the time I post this, it will have been a few days since the attack on Mpeketoni, Lamu. By now, I assume anger will be more directed, grief more sedimented, mourning in progress, as waves of feeling assume more legible configurations. I had planned this trip to Mombasa before Mpeketoni, hoping to find ghosts from another time, muscle-making memory.

Mombasa exists as bone—deep certainty: flashes from a multi-family trip, a train journey, yellow scrambled eggs, a plane trip; another trip, later, in a fantasy family unit where I was the only child, a tan that did not fade; and yet another trip, by bus, white sands, a picture I used to attract gay men in the U.S. Mombasa exists as the high school trip I did not take, the sex-saturated space described by Richard Meinertzhagen and Evelyn Waugh, later to be repeated by sex tourist sites and half-policed by a sex-sells, tourism-money-loving state. It exists, metonymically, as the place that produced the guy with the largest cock in bible school.

It takes new shape now—as I wait to board the train—as the sullen beauty of the young man mopping the floor, as sound bites from an overly-loud TV, as the two navy-blue-suit-wearing men gnawing through boiled maize, as a train that was canceled on Friday and re-booked for Monday. As a cascade of memories from public sex sites that describe cruisy bathrooms in train stations, anonymous encounters in train berths, impossible promises of reciprocal desire.

A train—not mine—is on the platform. I suspect it dates from the 60s or 70s. Its rust-embossed roof and glass-free windows do not inspire confidence. I imagine that what is now the Railway Restaurant—my current perch—might once have been a waiting room, filled with the aggravatingly apprehensive voices of those attempting to civilize through plunder, to rape and reform.
*
A man enters the restaurant, beckons a staff member as one would a recalcitrant child, demands milk.
*
Don’t take the train, a friend warns. It will be unlike any other train experience you’ve ever had.
*
As you arrive into Penn Station, Baltimore, from the south—D.C., Virginia, other souths—the train begins to sway violently, enough to make the unaware standing stumble, even fall. One enters Baltimore on a shudder, a gasp, a sharp exhale. Trains teach you how to ride them. They produce bodily dispositions—ways of standing, holding, sitting, swaying. They produce time and space, the shape and feel of travel, the experience of geography, of the geographic and the un-geographic.

The un-geographic because a random website advertising this particular train ride invites potential tourists to live out their colonial fantasies. Fantasies sustained by the English-only signs at the station, by the broken clock in front of me, permanently stuck on two past two, by the strange wood paneling.

Still.

The resonant voice of the train announcer—a resonance more than familiar from Baltimore’s Penn Station—“trains” me. Unlike flight announcers, who always sound tinny and frantic, train announcers resound with the confidence of long-lived mountains, sure of their authority. A good train announcer inspires awe and confidence; an average one provokes anxiety; I have yet to encounter one who is less than average. Perhaps it is that train conductors produce geography, seemingly with the ease of a deity shaping a world. Places seem to fall out of their mouths only to appear in unfolding landscapes and seascapes and cityscapes and otherscapes.

And, here, with the exception of the Mombasa-bound train I am on, the announcements for all the local commuter trains have rung out with a place-conjuring Swahili:

Tafadhali, Sikizeni
Sikizeni, Sikizeni
Kahawa, Kikuyu, Kibera, Ruiru, Embakasi

*
I’m in a private berth, a wonderful luxury, were it not for the loud laughter from other, too-near berths. Still. This is more privacy than I’ve ever had on a plane. And I was in boarding school. I know how to sleep with others.
*
I have switched from purple to pink ink and will, at some point, switch to black.

Already, a little mosquito has kissed me.
*
Again, I am reading Baldwin. This time, “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”
*
An interruption: dinner

    Minestrone soup from a packet—I know my knorr
    Beef Stongnoff
    Veg Fried Rice
    Mashed Potato

Our server, Mirriam, is a woman with a story. She strides magnificently, sullenly, serving plain white rice and tasteless vegetables. The meat follows, served by Charles.

An obnoxious white woman keeps saying, “asante sana, kijana,” proud that she has mastered this infantilizing patter. Every so often, she fouls the air with her speech.

Mirriam smiles—she has found Kikuyu-speaking passengers. The trip, delayed at this point, offers her a glimpse of something familiar. The vegetables are tasteless. In this, the trip—still to leave the station—reminds me of recent plane trips. I eat because I want to sleep, not because the food is especially good or interesting. The fruit salad consists of—count them—six pieces of fruit—papaya, watermelon, and tangerine. One imagines this particular version of a fruit salad failing an audition for fruit salad. The couple seated at my table—I’m politely ignoring them while eavesdropping—are unimpressed by the meal. “This is not coffee,” the black man guide announces to his white woman companion. English is not her first language, her accent announces. Their conversation is one of those wonders of half-sentences and benign intentions that sustain tourism.

After an indifferent dinner, I am more than ready to return to my berth. To wait for the train to depart from Nairobi.
*
Now, hours away from Mombasa, the soil outside is redder than I had imagined. Here, in the median between train tracks and road, the trees are smaller, diminished, poisoned.
*
I come looking for a particular silence granted to the stranger.

Return to Bomas

A convenient lie: I am here to remember how to think about movement. Bomas—already anglicized by the addition of that pluralizing “s”—is a factional space, an idea of a multi-traditional Kenya imagined as an assemblage of “traditional villages” and “authentic dances.” While I know—with bone-deep certainty—that I have been in this space as a child with my family, that knowing is suffocated by memories of uniform-clad children on a school trip to Bomas. Tradition becomes institutionally produced and reinforced, from home to school. I have come here many decades after unlearning those lessons to look for “something.” I imagine it to be a history of movement, a language of performance, a peculiar excavation that pursues fluencies I never had, but was always assumed to own and desire.

I come to this space searching for a “Kenya worth saving.”
*
Perhaps I am borrowing memories-in-formation: a family has invaded my previously quiet perch, the 2 children aged perhaps 6 or 7; on the drive in, I saw a school bus and, from my perch, I can hear the screams—or are they shouts?—of playing children. We are, in many ways, the memories-in-making that we borrow, or cannibalize. Even as memory lingers to be reactivated. And while I’d like to dismiss this space as “tourist,” the sea of Kenyan faces around me—the physical vernaculars I know so well, the varieties of language, the body postures—suggest otherwise, makes me realize the powerful making of a certain ethno-traditional version of Kenyan-ness, the persistence of what I once imbibed.
*
I do not smile at children.
*
Bomas also lives as other memories: in family photographs, where my parents socialized with others like them, members of the emergent professional class. I know its architecture, and not simply from the numerous times I’ve seen it on TV. I know, as I enter the performance hall, the entrances the dancers use to access the performance stage. I know the bar-adjacent spaces that young professionals haunted. Thinking of these photographs, I muse on the varieties of pedagogy Bomas offered, as a place where tradition was ambered in empty pasts and re-imagined during cocktail hours.
*
While waiting to see dancers, I venture to the TRADITIONAL VILLAGES section—the viewing price is included in the entry ticket. The path into the village is festooned with, first, many children on an enclosed playground to the right, presumably bought here by the school bus I saw earlier, who are dressed in identical, institutional maroon tracksuits, very similar to those I wore in high school. Past the children, a sad collection of curio stalls, perhaps six. A man standing by them serenades those on the path on a marimba. This is, perhaps, the first musical thing I have encountered so far. Past the man, to my right, I encounter a government-issued white board, of the kind so often labeled, MINISTRY OF . . . . It reads,

THE
PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES
FROM NORTHERN KENYA
TRADITIONAL HUTS

The signs outside the TRADITIONAL HUTS indicate that THE PATROLIST COMMUNITIES include the

    Boran Community
    Rendile Community
    Sakuya Community
    Somali Community
    Gabbra Community

The signs on the dwellings are identified in strict kin terms: Husband’s Hut, 1st Wife’s Hut, 2nd Wife’s Hut, Sons’ Hut, 1st Wife’s Granary, and so on. While the dwellings are in excellent condition, they are dead inside. They were never built to be inhabited. Nor do they allow one to imagine them as ever habitable. The group of undergrad-age tourists (volunteers?) in front of me dart in and out of buildings, snapping photographs of these dead monuments to a never-was.

I leave the PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES, and the imposing white government-issue board, and proceed to follow other geo-histories. As I walk along, various openings appear to my left and rights, some with careful signs:

    Kikuyu Village
    Meru Village
    Taita Village
    Iteso Village
    Luhya Village

I wonder about which “communities” are allowed to have “villages” and which ones are not, that is, if we take “villages” to signify a kind of spatial and political organization instead of a random collection of family units. The white, government-issue board designating northern Kenya seems more ominous now: that region, what we know as the Northern Frontier District, must be “organized” by the state to exist as part of Kenya.

As with the PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES, these villages follow an ethno-kinship polygamous logic:

    Grandmother’s Hut
    First Wife’s Hut
    Second Wife’s Hut
    Husband’s Hut
    Sons’ Hut

The metonymic logic is never explained; as a result, homestead becomes village, homestead become ethnicity: diversity is abolished.

Diversity is not quite the right word: I mean something closer to culture—the entirety of a way of life that might include prophets and healers, the mad and the disabled, the loners and the other-desiring; it might include spaces for dancing and play and feasting; it might allow one to envision the complex political imagination of “traditional” ethnic formations.

I wander into unmarked “villages,” marked only as ethno-patriarchal—a husband with many wives and a son. I think about the labor of erasure. But, no, not yet.

The signage is fairly new—it does not look weathered and is, in fact, incredibly legible. Seeing this, I do not understand why “Granary” is sometimes spelled “Grannery.” Or why, in the Kisii Village, what I think should be a “Cattle Shed” is spelled “Cattle Shade.”

But, perhaps, this has always been the ideological labor of spaces like these—to show a past that’s now past, to unthink and unimagine “that” Kenya.

I wonder, now, if what populated my childhood imagination after I visited Bomas was less reverence for the past and, instead, a deep sense of bewilderment, as I was unable to envision, via Bomas, a past worth recalling. Modernizing Kenya—the Kenya of emergent professionals at cocktail hours and school children on trips to Bomas—was predicated on learning to see the “tradition” imaged at Bomas as dead, quaint, a history from which we had emerged and a background against which we could stage insouciant modernities.

As I leave this part of Bomas, I stop to look at a labeled tree:

Family Name: COMPOSITAE
English Name: Silver Oak
Scientific Name: Brachylaena huillensis
Status: INDIGENOUS

A quick google check tells me that this tree has many names in Kenya’s languages:

Muuku (Kamba)
Muhuhu (Swahili)
Muhugu (Kikuyu)
Diamagaldad (Nandi)

No ethnic names “mar” the “traditional villages.” They incarnate a post-ethnic vision of Kenya that does not need to be interrupted by geo-ethnic specificity. All that’s needed is an insistently patriarchal, polygamous order.
*
But I came for movement, for dancing.
*
I enter the dance hall, positioning myself far away from watching tourists and the close to two hundred primary school children. Announcements issue from an unclear sound system, welcoming guests, announcing the dances that will be performed, locating them in various ethno-geographic terms: a dance from the Busia region of Western Kenya; a dance from the Embu and Meru people who live on the slopes of Mt. Kenya; a dance by Maasai Morans that demonstrates their jumping abilities; a taarab dance from the Coast performed by young women.

I notice that all the dances center on celebration: weddings, parties, praise ceremonies. Echoing the tourist fantasy incarnated in “Hakuna Matata,” which is also performed. There are, perhaps, thirty tourists here and at least two hundred Kenyan school children, along with about twenty or so Kenyan adults. I think about the fantasy that is being produced of Kenya.

But, perhaps, a multi-ethnic: post-ethnic Kenya can only exist as a fantasy of happy natives. Perhaps, this fantasy can do some work in helping to imagine a Kenya that is not about endurance, survival, grinding down.

I get ahead of myself. I return to the notes I took yesterday.
*
A troop of 14 dancers and three drummers enter, ostensibly performing a dance from Busia—the sound system does not permit me to hear the name of the dance. It is performed during happy occasions. The dancers’ faces are dour, their movements labored. Perhaps they are saving their energy for later dances, for more ecstatic moments. The dancing reminds me of a dance competition I attended at Sarakasi Dome, where those performing similarly lacked energy, conviction, vitality. Perhaps I am asking for too much? Perhaps I am missing the intricate choreography of movement? Perhaps I simply don’t know how to read energy, how to measure its ebbs and flows—certainly, there appear to be more ecstatic moments. Still, I can’t help feeling that I’ve seen far better dancing from high school students during the Kenya Music Festival. The singing seems interminable, the dancing even more so. I want it to stop. Or, I want something better. (Perhaps if the male dancers were more naked, less skinny, less bored.)

(I look through the Traditional Dances of Kenya booklet that I bought for Kshs 200, but I cannot identify the dance.)

A wave of applause from the audience—from tourists and primary school children.

Now, a performance of percussion instruments—again, I miss from where. But I don’t think I came for ethno-particularity.

The percussion performance is preceded—accompanied—by a melodic accompaniment that might have been penned by any student of harmony—I doubt its “traditional nature.”

Still, the percussionists are skilled, subtle in a way that I have always found lacking in U.S. rock music—an approach to percussion that over-privileges speed and volume, often lacking the intricate interlacing that my ears hear as a vernacular.
*
An obligatory song: “welcome to Kenya, welcome bwana, come see the animals, come see the ocean” and then the even more obligatory “Hakuna Matata.”

These tourism-sustaining fantasies, these productions ossified Kenya, depopulated, unimaginable.
*
A dance—Mwinjiro—from the Embu and Meru people who live on the “slopes of mount Kenya.” A dance that praises elders—the announcer says something about “fertility,” but I can’t quite hear it. Drums traditionally played by men. Long thin drums are positioned like over-long phalluses, the heads of which are beaten. The choreography reminds me of a porn script in search of a position. Pounding. And now pelvic thrusts. A fall to the ground. Switch to another position. More pounding. More pelvic thrusts. More falling down. Let’s just call this the sex dance in praise of elders.

MORE PELVIC THRUSTS!

And now Mwomboko: rhythm and movements adapted from western dances. Performed during happy occasions—accompanied by an accordion (WTF?) and a triangle-like instrument to keep time (the Gikuyu are not drum people). The dance is intricate, the steps complex, often unpredictable. At least, I can’t quite figure out what happens when. The music—the singing—grates.

As the dancers leave the arena, their faces are full of relief, as though glad to be done with another obligatory performance. I see none of the excitement and anticipation I remember from school competitions.

And now, Orutu—the Luo from Lake Victoria—performed during happy occasions. I must confess, my ears are more attuned to this music, more seduced by its promise—unlike much Gikuyu music, it does not sound lazy or bored.

A dancer catches and re-catches my eye—the shortest of the men, and the most exuberant. In dance after dance, he seems determined to have a good time.
*
The dancers return to grab visitors from the crowd—a guaranteed crowd pleaser. (erase this) And the crowd goes wild! (No longer watching this portion of the dancing.)
*
Taarab—from the coast, done only by “a few female dancers.” Gorgeous. Simply stunningly elegant. Subtle and generous.
*
Eunoto, by the Maasai. Another dance of celebration. The dance is ostensibly famous because of how high the young men dance. I am captured, instead, by the flirtation games, by how the young men flick their hair in young women’s faces to indicate interest, to seduce. This, I think, is part of what I came looking for. Desire in vernacular. It is a seduction dance, in which young men compete for young women’s attention and interest, staging mock fights and mock acts of claiming.

The suitable-for-children booklet describes it thus: “characterized by impressive dancing of the young Moran warriors while girls sing in their praise.” I marvel, again, at the ethno-patriarchal focus.
*
Kamabeka-dance
Litungu—instrument
*
At this point, the watching children are bored restless, swapping seats, throwing items at each other, wondering, perhaps, why they are here and for how much longer they must endure this “education.” Some, a few, are captured, are moving in their seats, losing themselves when the rhythms become available.

How will this be remembered, I wonder. As what kinds of fragments, what movements reproduced on foreign dance floors, what ways of walking, talking acting?

What is moving “after” Bomas?
*
And now, an acrobatic show. I didn’t come for this, but I linger.
*
I return from Bomas unsure of what I experienced. Though I don’t remember my earliest trips there, little of what I experienced today seems to have changed—the dancers might have changed, the villages refurbished, but I feel as though I’ve seen it all before.

At first, I think it’s the strange mélange of performances that has so confused me. But that can’t be right, as I saw an equally wide and varied range of movements when I attended the Kenya Music Festival in the 90s. I know how to process multi-diversities, how to weave them together. But this remains stubbornly unweavable, disparate strands of something that cannot possible co-exist.

Perhaps in the space of now—the space of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp—I am only able to see Kenya as a disparate collection of randomly-assembled objects, none of which want to stay together.

And while, on foreign dance floors, I have borrowed from here and there, stitching together a Bomas-country to inhabit rhythms that country never envisioned, I now find my feet leaden, weighted down by the unpromise of that Bomas-country, that impossible past that cannot yield any possible futures.