Wanjiku?

Wanjiku is sovereign. She has rights to services. She has the right to access justice. She has the right to condemn those who abuse and steal from her.

She is no longer a dummy. She is a leader as Mama Mboga, farmer, teacher, painter, executive, mother, scientist, preacher, doctor, computer specialist, etc. She must be paid fairly.
G-C.M. Mutiso, Daily Nation, November 14, 2012

Wanjiku was always a dangerous fiction. Created through dismissal—Moi’s infamous claim that she could not, could never, read the constitution—she quickly became a symbol of resistance against what was perceived as Moi’s elitism. Moi was many things, but never a snob. Following Moi’s dismissal, a chorus of voices arose to speak for (and as) Wanjiku. She had to be defended, protected, supported. Wanjiku was everywhere and, as Wambui Mwangi has suggested, nowhere at the same time. Flesh made into figure, figured beyond recognition. With Wambui I wondered: does Wanjiku have a body?

But if a male-conjured Wanjiku was not real, those of us who came to her through our deep commitments to feminist and class politics seized on her public circulation, as figure, to speak to and for a gender-class politics. We attempted to materialize her concerns where figuration might allow, even, and especially, when such efforts seemed to fail. Still, there appeared to be a space to enflesh her, to inhabit her, to think about the violence of speaking for and speaking as, but also to consider what such enfleshments might accomplish. We asked, repeatedly, what the constitution could do for Wanjiku. It seemed, for a while, that while the constitution might not fix anything specifically—constitutions are aspirational documents, I believe; they create opportunities—its long occasion—from debates about it, to votes for it, to its promulgation, to its extended implementation—might keep Wanjiku alive, as a spur for us to do better, think harder, work against abjection, work toward her active enfleshment.

But just as quickly as Wanjiku was conjured through a stray comment, she has disappeared from view. Wanjiku’s spectral presence in our political discourse once tried to nudge us toward a politics attuned to class:gender, the gendering of class and the classing of gender, and those figures unaccounted for and made illegible: her disappearance (she has been “disappeared”) should trouble us. For the disappearing of figuration has material implications: those not available to be thought of and with, even as figures, cannot stake claims on our imaginations, our practices, our lives, our politics.

Yet, my epigraph seems to tell a different story. Far from being “disappeared” from public discourse, it appears that Wanjiku is everywhere. She is “mama mboga” and “computer scientist, etc.,” so vast her accomplishments that they cannot be listed, “etc.” And how quickly Wanjiku assumes leadership in all spheres of life: she leads as “mama mboga.” To which one wants to query: where does she lead the “mboga”? I understand the rhetorical attempt to make meaningful the multiple ways women lead across all social spheres; but this is a dangerous fiction because it evacuates the problem of class stratification that abjects Wanjiku. Wanjiku, if a male fantasy, becomes Wanjiku within a class:gender politics in relation to other women. Inequality, Wanjiku-fication, is as much an intra-gender problem as it is an inter-gender one.

In Mutiso’s utopic vision, Wanjiku is no longer abject, never subaltern: she no longer represents the wretched of the earth who coalesce around a radical politics determined to reshape the political order. Wanjiku is a worker who “must be paid fairly.” Now that she has a constitution that guarantees her rights, Wanjiku should work and should be paid fairly.

I’m for “fair payment.” But to believe that “fair payment” will solve the problem of Wanjiku—this figure who cannot be imagined except as absence, as abjection, as subalternity—is to misread Wanjiku and to silence whatever radicalism her circulation, as figure, might have suggested.

Wanjiku has been disappeared from Kenyan political discourse at a time when gender parity, always a threatened element in the constitution, has become increasingly precarious. Constitutional provisions have been deemed impractical in the short term and deferred to an indefinite future. Indefinite because “tomorrow never comes” in Kenyan politics. An election season that had promised to feature at least a few women running as presidential candidates has been turned into a spectator sport between men, with women as convenient adjuncts, their roles being to support their menfolk. And Wanjiku, now a rights-bearing subject, has been told to step up to the plate. If she does, “gender parity” will pay her “fairly.”

Because Wanjiku is a rights-bearing subject, we need not think about her.

She is strikingly absent from contemporary political debates. And it seems we are done with her. She need no longer nag us, irritate us, bother us. She might still not be able to read the constitution, but it gives her rights! She only needs to step up to the plate.

The dangerous fiction has become discarded fiction. We now inhabit a post-Wanjiku world. Done with her insatiable, illegible demands—doesn’t she know how to write a proposal?—we can now move on to the political things that matter. And to the economic things that matter.

Does the disappearing of Wanjiku matter? If she was always a too-convenient, dangerous fiction, isn’t it better to embrace a politics of the real, a politics of the legible, a politics of the achievable? What, after all, can we do about those figures who remain in the shadow of the political? What can we do for those figures who remain illegible within our political imaginations? What can we do for figures who are “disappeared”?

If, as I have suggested, Wanjiku was a male fantasy, she was also available for feminist labor, and I think her disappearance, her being disappeared, registers a profoundly patriarchal anxiety about feminist labor. For all that Wanjiku might have been a misrecognition, she circulated as a name that could be called and invoked and re-named, as Kezia, Atieno, Miriamu, Scholastica, Sitawa, Sera, Wangu, Mshai. Wanjiku was a naming that assembled women in public, offered a space from which to speak to and against patriarchy. And patriarchy wanted to erase this name.

I have skimmed through the available websites for Kenya’s presidential candidates and respective political parties. Wanjiku is not there.