Little of what we know or imagine about death suggests resting in peace. To die is to enter a series of bio-chemical processes: blood pools and clots, limbs stiffen, cells burst open, gases are released, flesh-consuming bacteria spring into action. Depending on how a body is disposed, it enters the environment as food or poison, sometimes as both. It has an ecological afterlife.

Depending on one’s beliefs, the dead—as souls, as spirits, as bodies, as energy—travel and encounter each other: they cross rivers, they defend themselves in judgment chambers, they ride horses, they feast, they strum harps, they sing, they dance, they fight everything (see the Nac Mac Feegles), they scream, they writhe in pain, they beg for mercy, they start new cycles in different bodies, they enter the noisy world of ancestors, they haunt and terrorize, they look for psychics and ghost whisperers.

The dead are restless. We’d prefer not to deal with that knowledge.

I have been trying to think about the vernacular RIP, about what it anchors, what it provides, and what it avoids. I have been trying to think about its ubiquity across a range of lifeworlds and political stances, about what it arrests.

One understands that those mourning might desire rest: grief is exhausting, crying dehydrates, bodies ache in unfamiliar ways.

But mourning is never one thing: some mourn on the run, some stockpile weapons, some burn shit down, some create gardens, some fight over property and money, some become catatonic, some have a lot of sex, some become incredibly religious, some seek out new vices, some turn to crime, some turn to good works, some remain stuck—unable to know what to do and how to do it.

Mourning is peace-disturbing. Rest is impossible.

Perhaps because rest and peace are impossible for mourners, we desire them for the dead. I wrote “dad” instead of dead. This, too, is a symptom.

It is surely a sign of our neoliberal times that death announcements in Kenyan newspapers are titled, “Promoted to Glory.” There might be something to this idea—that the afterlife is a corporate space, a place of labor and struggle, never simply a place to “rest in peace.”

It might also be that we say RIP because the unsettled dead frighten us: they populate our reports, fill our television screens, flicker at the edge of what we see. They fill our imaginations and shape our musical tastes. We practice deadness as we dress up as the gone, as we enflesh virtual worlds, as we imagine ourselves as lives and afterlives.

And though we ask for things for the dead—justice, peace, rest—we can’t help feeling that we don’t quite know what the dead want. We worry that if we actually knew, we would never be able to grant it.

So we chant RIP.

Don’t disturb us.


Please leave us alone.


We dare not ask how you’d judge us.


RIP because the dead tear at our world-inhabiting fantasies.


We are not supposed to be in that space [the UN]
—Malcolm London

How the young are tempted and betrayed
into slaughter or conformity
is a turn of the mirror
time’s question only
–Audre Lorde, “Generation”

In May 2014, president Uhuru Kenyatta announced that the National Youth Service would be restructured to “effectively execute its mandate.” The National Youth Service was established in the mid-1960s—the official Act commenced on 1st September 1964. Those joining the service—“members”—were required to be male or female Kenyan citizens between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Enlistment was supposed to be voluntary.

The original legislation, revised in 2012, outlines the specific duties of the “members.” A few are worth noting.

15. Duties of members
Every member of the Service shall—

    (a) perform such duties and carry out such training as he may be directed by the officers senior to or placed in command over him;
    (b) obey and execute promptly all orders lawfully issued to him by the officers senior to him or placed in command over him.

16. Functions of Service
The functions of the Service shall be the training of young citizens to serve the nation, and the employment of its members in tasks of national importance and otherwise in the service of the nation.

17. Employment of Service in times of emergency
(1) The President may, during a state of war, insurrection, hostilities or public emergency, order that the Service or any part thereof be employed to serve with the Kenya Military Forces, or otherwise in the defence of the nation, whether within or without Kenya.

The position of Section 16 is especially interesting: the “Service” trains “young citizens” to work for “the nation.” Based on Sections 15 and 17, “service [to] the nation” consists of following orders from one’s superiors, be it the president or senior officers.

Those enlisted were forbidden from joining any trade unions, and the legislation contains an extensive list of offences for which one might be punished, including political dissent, causing “disaffection,” and “desertion.”

I learned about NYS from older family friends and relatives who were required to join the service. Under the former education system, where one completed high school at sixth form, those who qualified to attend public universities were required to attend NYS training. NYS was an attempt to discipline book-smart Kenyans. I listened, avidly, to stories about drills and runs, about standing under the hot sun for extended periods of time. A family friend fainted in the required manner: without bending her knees, knocking out her front teeth. If NYS did not discipline young, unruly minds—many went on to organize campus protests—it created a dangerous idea of power: how it works, how it circulates, how to wield it. We now inhabit the world of those trained by NYS—those produced by its logics and practices. Ads feature deputy president William Ruto as a proud alum.

According to president Kenyatta, the “new” NYS will ensure that “youth . . . [play] a key role in the country’s development agenda.” The NYS will help “mainstream youth in development.” President Kenyatta knows about the hold of the development imaginary. He knows that saying “development” halts all questions: after all, who would be against development?

Lost in the development talk is the banal fact that the NYS is a militarized organization, a space for producing extra bodies that the president can deploy. The NYS is recruiting 20,000 “youth,” planning to transform them into a militarized body whose first allegiance is to development as incarnated in the presidency.

Kenya’s solution to its “youth bulge”? Militarize it. Turn “youths” into weapons.
Last week, a group of 8 young people from Chicago, organized under the banner We Charge Genocide, traveled to Geneva to testify before the UN Committee Against Torture. They ranged in age from eighteen to thirty. They wore black t-shirts, more than a few had dreads. They spoke with an awareness that, as Malcolm London puts it, they were not supposed to be in that space. That the UN space was organized for career professionals dedicated to upholding rules and following protocol, dedicated to formal processes of managing affect and formulate people-unseeing policies.

They broke protocol.

They stood in protest as the U.S. government obfuscated and prevaricated. They walked out in protest as the U.S. government obfuscated and prevaricated. Their words spoke. Their clothing spoke. The images they held silently spoke. Their bodies spoke. Their movements spoke.

The We Charge Genocide team spoke against the U.S. at the UN.
I have been trying to think about the kinds of imaginations—world-imagining, possibility-imagining, life-imagining—required to organize a trip to the UN. To collect evidence, to arrange it, to have it translated (when required), to crowd-fund to raise money, to travel to Geneva, to speak at the UN.

I was trying to imagine a similar delegation from one of the many communities in Kenya where young men are murdered by the state, even as the state continues to criminalize those young men, classifying them as “problems.” Or, as now, trying to recruit them into its killing apparatus.

I suspect that few, if any, of the NGOs claiming to work with “the youth” would support such a delegation—ideologically or otherwise—precisely because such a delegation would reveal the insidious class politics of much NGO work: dedicated to providing employment to the professional and professionalized classes and, in that capacity, emphasizing the distinction between those who can be professional and professionalized and those who must remain “a problem,” a “youth bulge.”

Kenya—the thing that imagines itself as Kenya—does not know how to see young people. It does not know how to value young people. And it is precisely this unseeing and unvaluing that enables the state to figure young people as weapons and weaponized.

To figure young people as weapons or weaponized should never be mistaken for providing young people with fresh opportunities. This much-advertised NYS program continues to betray and undo young people. It continues to unimagined young people’s possibilities.

Last week, the We Charge Genocide delegation from Chicago reminded us, once again, that young people continue to reimagine the world, and that we need to listen.


We line up to get identity. 130 people are ahead of me. 129, 128, 127. Bureaucracy takes time everywhere.

Bureaucratic time is ritual time. It makes us. Produces the us we narrate in our shared experiences of bureaucracy.

One office felt familiar: the helpful guard, the indifferent office administrator, the petty bureaucrat. The lack of information. The sense that whatever one does is wrong—though there are no rules to direct conduct. One wanders randomly. Hoping not to offend beyond the arbitrary limit whose crossing will transform a bureaucratic hurdle into the unbridgeable sea of lost files.

One smiles hesitantly, says hello. Endures petty cruelties.

How do cruel petty bureaucrats respond to that most casual of interactions:

“How was your day?”
“I was mean to many people.”

The job must be tedious. After all, many of us are here because we are not responsible enough to hold on to our wallet-sized ID cards.

Many sit here without reading or writing material, not even looking at their phones. Anxiety mounts. How can it not? The process seems designed to be humane. Perhaps a busy government facility is a good thing? A sign that “government is working.”

A number is called.
No one responds.
The number has been called.
The subsequent number is called.

Those who can—those who must—stick it out.

How strange it must be to act as the state’s gateway: with a stroke of a pen, one bestows state-recognized Kenyan-ness.

I’m not sure what kind of book one would be able to read here. I am carrying Emma Darcy, Jacques Rancière, and Sol Stein, none of whom seem appropriate to the rhythms of an indoctrinating voice:

Now Serving Number . . .
Please Go To Counter Number . . .

Now Serving Number . . .
Please Go To Counter Number . . .

Now Serving Number . . .
Please Go To Counter Number . . .

Now Serving Number . . .
Please Go To Counter Number . . .

Now Serving Number . . .
Please Go To Counter Number . . .

From Lacan: The important thing, for us, is that we are seeking here—before any formation of the subject, of a subject who thinks, who situates himself in it—the level at which there is counting, things are counted, and in this counting he who counts is already included. It is only later that the subject has to recognize himself as such, recognize himself as he who counts.

those who in counting are counted—that which is countable
a history of modernity

Handwriting conveys a state-recognized truth. One’s details are read from a state database, from a computer screen, and then written down in pen on a state-issued document that is filed by the state.

The process is bureaucratic: wasteful & unnecessary


We assemble here—we are assembled here—as those who wait. State can mean condition. We are conditioned. Acted on by numbers and numbering. A choreography of small movements. Strangers make conversation, an attempt to be unnumbered. Books call it “human connection.”

Another border. Another set of prints.
I will spend as much time here as on a flight to Johannesburg.
Another border. Another set of prints.

One is processed.

The building is well ventilated. Unlike other Kenyan bureaucratic spaces, it is not an accumulation of stale anxiety and fear, the inevitable byproducts of one’s encounters with the state.

A friend tells stories of identity seekers stripped of belonging.

Here, we occupy space as encroachment—the hand that uses you to balance a body, the body that stretches its man-being to assert its man-ownership, the too-large purses that hit one as their owners rush past. And those few of us who fold in on ourselves, trying to make space something that can be shared, struggling against bodies that will not yield, that will not acknowledge others as bodies, that will not attempt to make our shared bodying kind or gentle.

A man walks past. He is holding a recorder. Those who don’t know any better call it a flute.

“Efficient Services Available at the Convenience of the Citizen”

The older gentlemen sitting next to me speaks into a pink phone.

Five hours later: what I need is not possible here.

security & development

President Uhuru Kenyatta has outlined a “10-point security plan for Kenya.” As reported by Capital FM, the 10 points are:

  • Legitimate monopoly on the means of violence
  • Effective administrative control
  • Management of public finances
  • Investment in human capital
  • Delineation of citizenship rights and duties
  • Provision of infrastructure services
  • Formation of the market
  • Management of the state’s assets
  • International relations
  • The rule of law

I have no idea if this is the order in which the points were presented—sequence can matter. If so, one notes that the Kenya that emerges is governed by state violence—the state has a “monopoly on violence” and that violence is to be understood as “the rule of law.” In between, the language of neoliberalism—management, investment, assets, capital, administration—takes hold. Those in Kenya—those with access to Kenyan-ness—are defined, first, as “human capital,” and only, belatedly, as bearers of “rights and duties,” to a state that has a “monopoly on violence.”

These are initial notes.
Some framing gestures:

Governmentality moves away from sovereign and state-centered notions of political power (though it does not eschew the state as a site of governmentality), from the division between violence and law, and from a distinction between ideological and material power. [It also] features state formations of subjects rather than state control of subjects; put slightly differently, it emphasizes control achieved through formation rather than through repression or punishment.
—Wendy Brown, Edgwork

The modern state exercises moral and educative leadership—it “plans, urges, incites, solicits, punishes.” It is where the bloc of social forces which dominates over it not only justifies and maintains its domination but wins by leadership and authority the active consent of those over whom it rules. Thus it plays a pivotal role in the construction of hegemony. In this reading, it becomes, not a thing to be seized, overthrown or “smashed” with a single blow, but a complex formation in modern societies which must become the focus of a number of different strategies and struggles because it is an arena of different social contestations.
—Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity”

In popular usage, neoliberalism is equated with a radically free market: maximized competition and free trade achieved through economic deregulation, elimination of tariffs, and a range of monetary and social policies favorable to business and indifferent toward poverty, social deracination, cultural decimation, long-term resource depletion, and environmental destruction.
—Wendy Brown, Edgework

[However], neoliberalism is not simply a set of economic polices . . . Rather neoliberalism carries a social analysis that, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neoliberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.
—Wendy Brown, Edgework

neoliberalism entails the erosion of oppositional political, moral, or subjective claims located outside capitalist rationality
—Wendy Brown, Edgework

What, then, are the leading ideas of the neoliberal model? We can only pull at one thread here. However anachronistic it may seem, neoliberalism is grounded in the ‘free, possessive individual’, with the state cast as tyrannical and oppressive. The welfare state, in particular, is the arch enemy of freedom. The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their private property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth.
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”

Neoliberalism is not one thing. It evolves and diversifies. Nevertheless, geopolitically, neoliberal ideas, policies and strategies are incrementally gaining ground, re-defining the political, social and economic model, governing the strategies and setting the pace.
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”

few strategies are so successful at winning consent as those which root themselves in the contradictory elements of common sense, popular life and consciousness
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”

Hegemony is a tricky concept and provokes muddled thinking. No project achieves ‘hegemony’ as a completed project. It is a process, not a state of being. No victories are permanent or final. Hegemony has constantly to be ‘worked on’, maintained, renewed, revised. Excluded social forces, whose consent has not been won, whose interests have not been taken into account, form the basis of counter- movements, resistance, alternative strategies and visions … and the struggle over a hegemonic system starts anew. They constitute what Raymond Williams called ‘the emergent’ – and are the reason why history is never closed but maintains an open horizon towards the future.
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”
In what scholars term “the literature,” Kenya’s entry into neoliberal logics dates to the early 1980s, when Structural Adjustment Programs were introduced—the line between imposed and adopted is shaky. A more precise date is given as the 1986 publication of Sessional Paper No. 1. I’ll turn to that in a moment.

However, Stuart Hall teaches me to ask about the “terrain,” or, were I to adapt him in more Kenyan terms, the ground on which these ideas fell. And, for that, I turn to an old favorite, Sessional Paper 10 of 1965: African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.

First, the banal observation that the Session Paper is dedicated to planning; to use a Kenyan vernacular, I do not claim that the term “development” is used with any mischief.

The Paper opens with a Statement By The President:

    Since attainment of our independence just over eighteen months ago, the Government has been deciding the measures that will ensure rapid economic development and social progress for all our citizens.

Much of what follows is administrative boilerplate. I am arrested, as always, by the final paragraph of the Statement:

    To the nation I have but one message. When all is said and done, we must settle down to the job of building the Kenyan nation. To do this we need an atmosphere of political stability and an atmosphere of confidence and faith at home. We cannot establish these if we continue with debates on theories and doubts about our society. Let this paper be used from now as the unifying voice of our people and let us all settle down to build our nation. Let all the people of our country roll up their sleeves in a spirit of self-help to create the true fruits of UHURU.

Building consent requires formal labor. Some of that labor happens as Kenyatta repeats (with a slight variation): “building the nation.” This becomes the work. What is to be accomplished. What pulls people together. Building the nation must take priority and it should not be halted, arrested, or delayed by “debates on theories and doubts” about “our society.” The question of what Kenya is, of who Kenyans are, will emerge as Kenyans “build the nation.” Development will provide identity—it will give shape and meaning to “our society.”

We are on dangerous, dissent-killing ground. We are on dangerous anti-intellectual ground. 50 years later—note that consent takes a long time to build and sustain and become dominant—this ground has won.

Even those who claim to be “progressives” and “radicals” frame their vision of Kenya within the paradigm of “development.” Corruption is bad because it stunts development. Impunity is bad because it delays development. Sexual violence is bad because it arrests development. Evil is bad because it hurts development.

Something curious has happened. And, we can better see what that something curious is by returning to the Sessional Paper. Tom Mboya, author of the Paper, defines what he terms “Objectives of Societies”:

The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include:

  1. political equality;
  2. social justice;
  3. human dignity including freedom of conscience;
  4. freedom from want, disease, and exploitation;
  5. equal opportunities; and
  6. high and growing per capita incomes, equitably distributed

In Mboya’s Sessional Paper, freedom and justice could still be imagined. (Many aspects of the Paper are troubling, but let me defer that discussion.)

To make a polemical point about where we are now, let me leapfrog to the very long Sessional Paper No 12 of 2012: On Kenya Vision 2030. A few long, blocky paragraphs follow.

    Kenya Vision 2030 is the new long-term development blueprint for the country. It is motivated by a collective aspiration for a better society by the year 2030. The aim of Kenya Vision 2030 is to create “a globally competitive and prosperous country with a high quality of life by 2030”. It aims to transform Kenya into “a newly-industrialising, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment”.
    The Vision is anchored on three key pillars: economic; social; and political governance. The economic pillar aims to achieve an average economic growth rate of 10 per cent per annum and sustaining the same till 2030 in order to generate more resources to meet the MDGs and vision goals. The Vision has identified a number of flagship projects in every sector to be implemented over the Vision period and to facilitate the desired growth rate. The identified flagship projects directly address priorities in key sectors such as agriculture, education, health, water and the environment. The social pillar seeks to create a just, cohesive and equitable social development in a clean and secure environment. The political pillar aims to realise an issue-based, people-centered, result-oriented and accountable democratic system.

To the extent that form matters, note that the social and political pillars get one sentence each.

    The economic, social and political pillars of Kenya Vision 2030 will be anchored on the following foundations: macroeconomic stability; continuity in governance reforms; enhanced equity and wealth creation opportunities for the poor; infrastructure; energy; science, technology and innovation (STI); land reform; human resources development; security; and public sector reforms.

One notes that “people-centered” translates into “human resources development,” and the “human resources development” paragraph reads,

    Human Resource Development: Kenya intends to create a globally competitive and adaptive human resource base to meet the requirements of a rapidly industrialising economy. This will be done through life-long training and education. As a priority, a human resource database will be established to facilitate better planning of human resources requirements in the country. Furthermore, steps will be taken to raise labour productivity to international levels. Other steps will include the establishment of new technical training institutions, as well as the enhancement of closer collaboration between industry and training institutions.

What happens when “the people” of a place are framed through “human resources”? What has been prioritized? While the latter sections of the Sessional Paper make some gratuitous noise about rights, the phrases “political equality” and “social justice” are absent from the Sessional Paper.

Market rationalities infiltrate all the ways Kenya and Kenyan-ness can be envisioned.
Little of what I’ve claimed above is new or original. I simply want to mark where we are.
I had imagined spending some time on Sessional Paper No. 1 from 1986, but I can’t find a handy pdf online, and, frankly, I’m tired of trying to think with Sessional Papers.

Call this a broken promise.
Let me return, finally, to the peculiar structure of the president’s “security agenda.” The figure of the citizen appears as one threatened by the state’s “monopoly of violence,” as one “managed” and “administered,” as one framed, primarily, as “human capital.” “Human capital” precedes citizenship, which is, primarily about “rights and duties.” One might argue that one’s “rights and duties” are subordinate to one’s status as “human capital”: one’s being is assessed as a measure of one’s ability to incarnate and produce capital.

We need, here, to think through histories of slavery and the role of fungibility in producing our modern world. To value “humans” as “capital” is precisely to live within slavery’s logics of unhumaning and exchange.

“Life is cheap” becomes more than a metaphor within such logics and practices.

In the president’s vision, security is about fostering development and managing assets, not about “securing” freedom or increasing justice or imagining possibility. Indeed, the imagination must be “managed” and “administered,” kept anxious and paranoid, forced to prove that it participates in “development” and “security.” Kenya has no space for questioning imaginations, for imaginations that pursue freedom and justice and equality.

To read the president’s agenda as a threat—and I read it as such—means refusing to consent to its premises and promises. But this stance, I fear, is a minority one.

Security & Development discourses and practices have so taken hold of the popular imagination that it’s difficult to critique how they proliferate unfreedom. Progressive forces critique the government not for its security imaginary, but because it has “failed” to “secure properly.” The same voices critique the government not for its development imaginary, but because it has “failed” to “develop properly.”

In conference rooms and seminars and forums across Kenya, we sit and nod at our ongoing unhumaning in the name of security and development.

Notes on Education & Excellence

I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for my Ph.D. According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, this is a Research University with Very High (RU/VH) research expectations, one of 108 such institutions in the U.S. According to the 2014-2015 ranking of World Institutions, UIUC ranks as 29th in the world. According to the University of Nairobi website, UoN ranks as 1624 in the world. A more updated metric suggests it is actually 907 in the world.

These numbers matter, if only because knowledge travels along global lines and with global implications. Kenyan academics interact with their global peers at global conferences and send their academic papers to international journals. Their knowledge is assessed against global standards of recognition.

The Commission for University Education (CUE), following a mandate from the Education Cabinet Secretary, recently announced that it would only permit Ph.D. holders to lecture in Kenyan universities. Those holding Master’s degrees “have been reduced to tutorial or junior research fellows.” Simultaneously, using a point system, CUE has raised the bar for those aspiring to Associate Professor and Professor levels.

According to a Business Daily article, those aspiring to promotion must publish a certain number of works and supervise a certain number of Ph.D. students.

On the face of it, these demands line up with those in other spaces.

When I worked as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), faculty members were assessed based on scholarship, teaching and mentoring, and service to the institution and the profession. One achieved promotion for helping to build the institution and the profession, by building and spreading knowledge in the classroom, in conference spaces, and through publication.

Like UIUC, UMCP is classified as a RU/VH: it has high research expectations. One is expected not merely to contribute knowledge to one’s field, but to have a significant effect on one’s field, as assessed by faculty at peer institutions.

Because research and publishing expectations are high, the institution provides support in the form of low teaching loads—I taught two classes each semester; reduced teaching loads and paid time off to conduct research—I had the equivalent of six months off during my third year to conduct research and write; funds to support national and international conference travel; and additional funds to aid in publishing journal articles and books.

This support acknowledges that thinking and research take time and that being published in top journals also takes time, including the long period while peer review takes place and the extended publishing calendar. Within the humanities, it is not unusual for a journal article to take two years from submission to print. That is, the requirements for promotion took note of prevailing publishing conditions.

Promotion from assistant professor to associate professor typically takes about 7 years. For a RU/VH institution, this promotion typically requires one completed book published with a reputable press and a handful of journal articles published in reputable journals. One’s teaching and service are also assessed. Promotion to full professor requires at least another full-length book, recognition from one’s peers at similar institutions, and a record of service to the institution and profession that includes supervising Ph.D. students.

All along the way, it is the quality of one’s contributions that are assessed, not simply the quantity.

Granted, the details in the Business Daily articles are sparse, but it seems as though to become a full professor, one might need to publish at least 10-15 academic books. If this is so, then a logic that values production over quality has taken hold, and it will not serve Kenya well.

If standards for promotion are to be raised, then it only makes sense that institutions requiring those higher standards also create the conditions that permit faculty to meet those standards. Will faculty have opportunities for lower teaching loads? Will they have the paid time off they require to produce original, world-class scholarship? Will faculty have writing support, in the form of ongoing publication workshops and symposia? Will those MA-holding faculty members be supported to complete their doctoral work, if that is what they want and need?

These, of course, are not necessarily questions that the public needs to know. CUE has its own internal procedures and, I’m sure, Kenyan institutions have their own processed to facilitate faculty development and success.

That said, if we are to demand excellence from our institutions, from the faculty who teach and from the students who learn, then we must also create the conditions that make excellence possible.


I have a column on tweetdeck to monitor #kasaraniconcentrationcamp. It has been empty for at least a week.

Screenshot 2014-10-21 00.00.33

The “passing” or “voiding” of a hashtag is part of the twitter cycle, especially if that hashtag is so event-specific and location-bound that it does not come readily to mind.

We return again, perhaps inevitably, to the relationship between the “particular” and the “universal,” to which places or events or histories can claim the “stage” of the “global,” which have the power—might matters here—to frame themselves as “representative” and “relevant.” We are on the familiar grounds of how minoritization happens.

I continue to find invaluable Eve Sedgwick’s distinction between a “minoritizing” and “universalizing” view:

    [One might see] homo/heterosexual definition on the one hand as an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority (what I refer to as a minoritizing view), and seeing it on the other hand as an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities (what I refer to as a universalizing view).

In Kenya, the vernacular for “minoritizing” and “universalizing” is “major issue” and “minor issue.”

At independence, the “major” issues were identified as “ignorance,” “poverty,” and “disease.” To combat all of these, Kenya needed “development.” And the chief opponent to development was soon identified as “corruption.” So powerful has been the connection between “development” and “corruption” that other “vices” (morality as law) and “ills” (disease as unruliness) were soon understood as subordinate to these two: “tribalism” hinders development; “nepotism” facilitates corruption; “land grabs” hinder development; “droughts” and “famines” facilitate corruption; “lazinesss” (an ethno-geohistorical category) hinders development and facilitates corruption.

To get a hearing, one has to frame one’s discourse within the terms of “development” and “corruption,” or, within the logics through which both of these can be measured: ignorance, poverty, and disease.

Thus, to take two sites I follow: cultural workers have insisted that their labor fights ignorance, poverty, and disease. They spread useful information in ways that aid development. What is known as “creative economies” in Kenya lives within a narrow set of parameters. To be heard, one must speak in these frames. Within what is now known as sexual minority work, the emphasis on fighting HIV/AIDS falls within fighting disease, ignorance, and, sometimes, poverty. HIV/AIDS is framed within economic terms, as a problem for development. Queer bodies are pro-development.

Broadly, I term the emphasis on fighting ignorance, poverty, and disease in the name of development the “development imaginary.”

As a universalizing logic and practice, the development imaginary swallows all the air in the room. It composes and interpellates a “we” and “us” known as “Kenyans”: it makes us, makes us act, and acts on us.

It makes Kenya, acts on Kenya: Kenya is divided into “developed” and “undeveloped” regions, a geography from the development imaginary. Kenyans include those industrious ones who aid development and those lazy ones who retard development (the language of ability is key here—recall, “ignorance,” “poverty,” and “disease.” While I cannot pull this particular thread here, it’s possible to track the logics of ableism at the heart of Kenya’s self-imagining).

The development imaginary assigns value to bodies and geographies, racial and ethnic groups, issues and causes.

The development imaginary swallows all the air in the room.

To arrest (the metaphor is deliberate) demands for justice and freedom, the development imaginary demands an accounting. How will “justice” and “freedom” help to fight ignorance, poverty, and disease? To stifle imaginations, the development imaginary demands an audit. How will cultural production help to fight ignorance, poverty, and disease? To promote “rights,” the development imaginary requires projected outcomes that demonstrate how rights will contribute to development.

The development imaginary provides powerful, dissent-killing tools.

While I cannot develop this point right now, the major achievement of president Kibaki’s regime was to intensify the hold of the development imaginary to the point where freedom, liberation, and justice became unimaginable, as every claim had to be justified within a narrow template. Above all, the administrative logics governing the development imaginary had to be supported—and, here, a much-overdue conversation is needed on the relationship between the freedom dreams imagined in the constitution and the administrative logics bound to a development imaginary.

Thus far, I have been trying to develop a frame within which to place Somali disposability as instantiated in #kasaraniconcentrationcamp.

Why didn’t #kasaraniconcentrationcamp become an “issue” of national concern and outrage?

How might “minoritizing” and “universalizing” help us understand #kasaraniconcentrationcamp within a Kenyan imagination?

How do we understand the contradictions within the development imaginary and their implications for Somali lifeworlds in Kenya?

The few voices protesting raids in Eastleigh and South C insisted that Kenya recognize Somali economic contributions. Somalis, so the logic went, were part of the development imaginary. This claim traveled in peculiar ways.

  • To justify extractive processes: Somalis had resources that could be extracted (through extortion and bribes). Minoritizing logics are always extractive logics—the history of slavery teaches this lesson over and over again. One’s ability to produce labor and profit is weighed against one’s standing within a scale of the full human, the not-quite-human, and the non-human (language courtesy of Alex Weheliye)
  • A minoritizing logic was used to frame Somali economic practices: the “monies” produced through such practices were understood to circulate narrowly, among Somali communities (at the most benign) and to support terrorism (at the most insidious). Somalis in Eastleigh were, thus, understood to be participating in extractive, development-destroying acts.
  • Within the peculiar body-geography suture—bodies travel with their geographies and geo-histories, as Katherine McKittrick taught me—Somali claims and lives had to be evaluated against Kenya’s fraught relationship to Northern Kenya, a site of policing and massacre, a “border region” of unruliness, opposed to the state’s unhumaning administrative practices. This unruly geography of dissent traveled with/as Somali-ness, and it had to be contained.

The so-called Northern region of Kenya is a continually-evolving geography: place and space travel across and remake borders, refuse administrative practices of belonging. Bodies that carry this geo-graphy, this writing and unwriting of s/place, unsettle the development imaginary that centers itself as the place that elicits desire, provides identity, and produces possibility.

Perhaps #kasaraniconcentrationcamp, gazetted by the Inspector General of the Police as a “prison,” could never become a “Kenyan” issue precisely because the geographies it attempted to contain contested the logics and practices of an unhumaning Kenyan-ness.

Perhaps #kasaraniconcentrationcamp could never matter to those so ensnared by a development imaginary that freedom and justice have become impossible words, and the fate of the human has become unthinkable.

(What “human” is imagined in “human rights”? And is it a human that can see a freedom-seeking “us”?)

Perhaps #kasaraniconcentrationcamp could never become a Kenyan “issue” because it was understood in minoritizing terms: as a problem for Somalis about Somali-ness, and we lacked the frames and tools to protest it, to see it as a freedom issue, as a human-making, livability-enhancing issue.

As Sofia Samatar argued, #kasaraniconcentrationcamp existed online, in one of the few small spaces of dissent and expression not bound by Kenya’s development imaginary. Its life was never robust—it was kept alive by a handful of voices. And to mourn its passing seems premature, even unwarranted. Indeed, to mourn the passing of a twitter hashtag seems silly, especially one that struggled to exist within Kenya.

At this point, it’s not clear what kind of Kenya this is: the president’s approval rating has never been higher; our comfortable vernaculars of “corruption” and “tribalism” (or negative ethnicity) continue to make freedom and justice unthinkable; ethnopatriarchy continues to extend its hold on our imaginations and practices; trapped within the development imaginary, we are unable to imagine other ways of organizing life or promoting thriving.

And #kasaraniconcentrationcamp–as absence, as void, as non-event, as minoritized–has been normalized in our unspeaking now.

banning kenya

I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in my parents’ Nairobi house. It was probably at some point in the 1980s, though I cannot be more precise. Animal Farm, the internet tells me, was banned by the Kenyan government in 1991. The internet also tells me that Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in Kenya—though I didn’t read it until much later. I knew several of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works were banned in Kenya. And, in general, I knew that Moi’s Kenya was a banning Kenya. A Kenya that stifled cultural production and circulation. Moi’s Kenya protected us from the “bad things” that might “contaminate us.” I learned, in Moi’s Kenya, that Amnesty International was a “dissident” organization full of “foreign puppet-masters” who wanted to “destabilize” Kenya. I learned that the devil was everywhere and that it was Baba Moi’s task—a church attending leader rumored to be a devil worshipping freemason—to protect us from internal and external threats to the spirit and to the mind and to the body.

banning Kenya was my growing-up Kenya,
we children
drank milk from our president-father,
danced for our president-father,
waved flags for our president-father,
in return,
he protected us
from all the dangerous freedom in the world.

We were protected:
From freedom-seeking imaginations.
From freedom-imagining works.
From the necessary debate that forms intellectual life.
From dissent as a democratic practice.
From the responsibility of ethical imaginations.
From the right to hold dissenting positions.
From world-making creativity.
From world-building possibilities.

Our peace-love-unity worlds were saturated with Baba’s voice and face, Baba’s love and laughter, Baba’s protection and abuse.
It’s difficult to explain how one grows up under a repressive regime—the whispers and silences, the shame and complicity, the depression and indifference. The emphasis on industry: work hard, work harder, work even harder. A desperate, bitter map to futurity: you could be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, an architect.

We laughed at these narrow constructions of our futures, not yet knowing how to hear them:

be something that
allows you to leave this space,
to travel elsewhere,
to pursue freedom

In some worlds, bans create desire. They create hunger. They help sales. They popularize.

In other worlds, bans unmake desire. They produce resignation that is affirmed as pragmatism or realism, and sometimes both. They unmake imaginative possibilities—dissident fugitivities. They produce compliance, discipline, and, most of all, disavowal.

We continue to inhabit the long shadow of this disavowal.

In Kenya today: this “realism” travels as, “freedom comes with responsibility” and “this is Kenya.”

“this is Kenya” lives in the ethnographic present, in an ongoingness defined by its abstraction from history—it’s a loop from my childhood, a deep groove that holds an unmoving stylus, an ahistory embraced as pragmatism or realism, or both. A position of depressive realism that cannot imagine a different future.

It is uttered as a response to critique, almost instinctively, as an interjection, an ejaculation, an inevitable sneeze. And while one might argue with it, the contagion of its depressive realism has already poisoned whatever intervention one sought to make.

I do not know how to disentangle “this is Kenya” from “banning Kenya”
I came to the term “ethnographic present” by reading critiques of colonial-era anthropology, especially Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other. In its simplest form, the ethnographic present refers to a logic and practice of writing about “others,” often “primitives” or “savages” (though it can be extended to any group), that locates that group outside of historical change and modernity. The expert observer others by considering the observed group as “unchanged” and “unchanging,” as living in a distinct pre-temporality to the one the expert occupies.

Other terms must come into play here: native informant and indigenous anthropologist. Because “this is Kenya” is so often uttered by “native informants” who claim to be “experts” precisely by virtue of the speech act “this is Kenya,” a speech act offered as knowledge and warning.

I’m interested in what this time-defying “this is Kenya” does to imaginative and ethical possibilities, in how it creates and circulates affective worlds, logics, and practices. In how it explains and justifies. In the structures it helps to keep in place. And, in this instance, how it fleshes out “banning Kenya.”

If “this is Kenya” lives in an ethnographic present enfleshed most vividly during the Baba Moi years of peace-love-unity, then the too-common refrain that Kenya is “sliding back” or “going back” or “rolling back” (each of those work differently) to the Moi era (Moi-error) is, technically, inaccurate. After all, the unchanging nature of the ethnographic present means we “never left” the logics and practices of the Moi era.

Certainly, while some high profile appointments changed after Moi left power, the everyday bureaucratic apparatus that sustained the machine remained unchanged. Acquiring identification did not become more possible for border populations. Ethnic affiliations remained key to securing positions. Ethno-patriarchy maintained its grip on national politics and imaginations. And even the new breed of “activists” actively endorse and practice hetero-patriarchy.

Our most basic building blocks remain unchanged: unquestioned and unquestionable.

If the volume of banned material seems to have lessened—Ngugi is now available in Kenya, in our new era of Gikuyu supremacy; Karl Marx is available in bookstores, in our ongoing era of anti-intellectualism; much is available in the era of the internet, though without public sites of discussion and dissent, our public cultures remain anemic and undemocratic; and the unending work of collecting data, creating documentation, and fundraising has trained many of our best minds to unimagine freedom and liberation because “another report” has to be written, “more evidence” has to be collected,” because “corroboration, substantiation, triangulation” must be satisfied, as though “methodology” explains “failure” against dominant regimes—the logics of banning remain intact.

Any intact system, no matter how dormant it seems, can always be re-activated.

Re-activation is key to one of Foucault’s key concepts: docile bodies. Docile bodies are not passive bodies. They are disciplined bodies, efficient bodies. Bodies that “turn” when called, as Althusser argues.

Banning is a calling.
It turns bodies toward the call.
It spreads fear.
In Kenya,
where we are all trained to fear,
banning does not lead to us challenging the laws.
It leads to compliance.
We return to habit.

Those familiar with the ban against a play staged by Butere Girls might, of course, contest this representation of banning.
Stories of Our Lives, a film of laced vignettes focusing on lgbt Kenyan lives (not sure about the t or the i or even the b, given that the film has been banned and we are not allowed to view it), has been banned in Kenya. It cannot be publicly (or privately?) screened or distributed within Kenya. The banning institution claims that the film does not represent Kenyan values. Simultaneously, George Gachara, one of the film’s makers, was arrested for “filming without a license.”

That is all the information I have.
Those who ban need not explain themselves. Those who are banned struggle to explain why they should be considered human. One is summoned by a banning authority, told why one is impossible.

As far as I can tell, Kenya’s main newspapers have ignored the ban. It is “inconsequential.” (Please correct me if they have covered it.)

The online queer Kenya group to which I subscribe has been mostly silent.

Fear is working.

And even those who spoke up to defend Kenya’s most famous gay—and they were not many, not many at all—have maintained a dignified silence.

As we queers know well, those who claim to support us in private melt away in our public times of need.

Over the past few years, I have been thinking about an “ethical imagination,” one that would promote livability. One which follows Shailja Patel’s injunction, “Give this pain to no one else.”

An ethical imagination is an embedded and embedding imagination: it weaves connections, forges alliances, risks new forms of world-making and world-building, treasures existing ethical forms of world-building and world-making. It sees beyond self-interest, beyond the arrogance of patriarchy’s claims to unethical genius, and through the violence of lazy and uncreative toxicity that attempts to lay claim to “creative freedom.”

Toni Morrison taught me that very little is creative or freeing if it simply repackages toxic stereotypes in pretty forms.

Fear is working. And with it, and in it, our imaginations become less possible, more toxic, less freeing, more unhumaning.

“this is Kenya.”