unhoming kenyan women

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s short story “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Taking different forms, this sentence runs through a wide body of writing by Kenyan women.

Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed features a female teacher who is forcibly abducted and raped by the male head of state. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poem, “The Way You Felt Remains,” describes a public encounter where a young woman encounters a “chokora” who gropes her in public, unsolicited. Sitawa Namwalie’s “Let’s Speak a Simple Truth,” notes that, “the average man can without much planning / Take by force most average women in the world.”

Repeatedly, Kenyan women’s writing bears witness to a society where women’s bodies are considered available to all men, a society where a woman’s consent is considered irrelevant.

In fact, the question of women’s consent is considered irrelevant in our National Assembly. During the recent discussions of the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. John Murithi Waiganjo (Ol Joro Orok, TNA) described intercourse as “enjoy[ing] the facilities,” rendering women as inert structures.

Hon. Jimmy Angwenyi (Kitutu Chache North, TNA) insisted that marriage voided the need for women’s consent, arguing, “We are talking about somebody you persuaded to move from her parents’ home to your home. When she moved from her parents’ home to your home, that was when she accepted you. Therefore, every time you need that thing, she should accept.” Men’s needs take priority over women’s will and desire.

Further contributing to this line of thinking, Hon. Makai Mulu (Kitui Central, WDM-K) argued for a “cultural exemption,” saying, “in the Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question.”

Engaging these voices, Hon. Priscilla Nyokabi Kanyua (Othaya, TNA) reminded the National Assembly, “Our African cultures actually protected their women. The reason why we are here 1000 years after the discovery of man is because Africa protected women.”

If we turn to the body of writing by Kenyan men, the notion of bodily integrity is well articulated. Maina wa Kinyatti’s Kenya: A Prison Diary rails against the humiliation of being searched by prison guards. In Three Days on the Cross, Wahome Mutahi has nightmares that he is being sexually violated while in prison. Onduko bw’Atebe’s award-winning Verdict of Death features the dashing protagonist being brutally attacked and raped in prison.

Across a broad range of works set in prison, Kenyan men demonstrate that they know what it feels like to be vulnerable, to fear for their bodily integrity, to lack consent.

Across a broad range of writing—on twitter, on blogs, in poems, in novels, in non-fiction—Kenyan women describe their everyday lives as gendered prisons, where they are vulnerable, subject to bodily violations in private and public contexts, where their consent is taken for granted, their bodies mishandled by friends, acquaintances, intimates, and strangers.

At a historical moment when Kenyan politics is consumed by the question of security, we might pause to ask why so many Kenyan women feel insecure in public and private spaces: walking on public streets, taking public transport, attending colleges and universities, visiting friends and relatives, hosting guests at home.

During the debate about the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. Aden Duale (Dujis, URP) argued that questions of domestic violence were minor. Kenya, he claimed, had “more serious issues” to contend with, including terrorism and food insecurity. It should strike us as odd that women’s security in our homes is deemed unimportant. In fact, it should strike us as obscene and unacceptable.

It should be unacceptable that Kenyan women feel they must submit to bodily violations to participate in public and private life. It should be unacceptable that section 28 of our constitution, which guarantees inherent dignity to everyone, should be suspended when it comes to Kenyan women. It should be unacceptable that women’s bodies are considered available for men’s use and consumption. It should be unacceptable that we mute women’s voices when they attempt to assert their rights to dignity and bodily integrity.

Kenyan author and activist Shailja Patel has said, “Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.”

Kenya is full of homeless women, unhomed by official parliamentary discussions, unhomed by misogynist radio shows, unhomed by public spaces full of unwanted touch by strangers, unhomed in private spaces full of unwanted touch by friends and acquaintances, unhomed by a country that discusses women as property.

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Let’s pledge to make this sentence unthinkable.


Date: Thursday September 25

Contact: Ann Njogu, Chair, CREAW, Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women
Mobile: 0722 768 381

On Saturday September 20th, Standard Group columnist Mr. Tony Mochama is alleged to have committed an indecent act upon the person of poet and activist Shailja Patel, at a gathering in the home of Professor Wambui Mwangi in Spring Valley, Nairobi.

Today at 12 noon, Ms. Patel filed a police report at Spring Valley Police Station. She was accompanied by her lawyer Ann Njogu, Chair of CREAW (Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women), high Court Advocate Betty Kaari Murungi, Executive Director of COVAW Joan Nyanyuki, representatives from FIDA, and friends and supporters.

Ms. Patel had previously stated that she would seek restorative community justice rather than engaging the judicial system. Following consultation with civil society colleagues and consideration of all parties involved, she decided to file a police report for the following reasons.

1) To facilitate the need for corroboration, substantiation, triangulation.

2) To support the decades of work of Kenya’s women’s movement has spent to improve reporting procedures for SGBV survivors.

3) To move forward policy and practice on on sexual violence in public life on the basis of evidence.

4) The women’s movement has fought hard and long for sexual violence to be treated like the crime that it is. We must uphold that struggle by being as rigorous as possible when we make our claims and the demands thereof.

Ms. Patel said:

“Each time a man sexually harasses or assaults a woman with no consequences, he is emboldened to repeat and escalate that behaviour. It becomes a pattern. Sexual predators are not born; they are the product of patriarchies and rape cultures that teach men they are entitled to the bodies of all women.

“When a man invades a woman’s body space without her invitation, touches, grabs and gropes her without her consent, he violates her sovereignty of person. He evicts her from her own body. Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.

“Let us stand with all victims and survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Let us create a society where sexual violence is unknown.”

Whither Justice?

On Saturday, September 20, Mr. Tony Mochama, a columnist with Kenya’s Standard Group, Secretary of PEN Kenya, and holder of a Morland Writing Scholarship, sexually assaulted a woman during a gathering of Kenyan and international poets. Mr. Mochama is a well-known figure in Kenya’s literary circles: he has hosted open mics, promotes literary culture in his work for PEN Kenya, and travels abroad regularly as an ambassador for Kenyan literature. Beyond his own accomplishments and labor, Mr. Mochama represents us. An us that encompasses all Kenyan literary workers, cultural producers, and cultural administrators. Quite simply: he is one of Kenya’s faces.

What are we to do when one of our collective faces commits sexual assault? How do we face that aspect of ourselves?

Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti argued that the African sense of self could be found in the formulation, “I am because we are.” Extrapolating from Mbiti, we can say that the self, the individual, exists within multiple networks and embeddings, all of which provide legibility, livability, and, most importantly, produce and demand ethical orientations. More simply: what injures one of us, injures us all.

If the damage is not only to the poet Mr. Mochama assaulted—who must not be forgotten—but also to our collective sense of self, how are we to address this assault? How can we take collective responsibility and imagine forms of accountability that produce a more ethical “we”?

If, in his role as PEN Kenya’s secretary, Mr. Mochama travels to Kenya’s schools, who are we sending to those schools? If, in his role as a Morland Writing Scholar, Mr. Mochama represents African writing, who are we saying represents African writing? If, in his role as a columnist for the Standard Group, Mr. Mochama publishes articles, who are we saying writes us and circulates among us?

Quite simply, if Mr. Mochama is the mirror we look into to see our faces, what faces are we seeing? And are those the faces we want to see?

I have used a collective we to emphasize the role of community accountability. As “advanced and theorized by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence,”

Community accountability is a community-based strategy, rather than a police/prison-based strategy, to address violence within our communities. Community accountability is a process which a community – a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood, etc – work together to do the following things :

Create and affirm VALUES AND PRACTICES that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability

Provide SAFETY AND SUPPORT to community members who are violently targeted that RESPECTS THEIR SELF-DETERMINATION

Develop sustainable strategies to ADDRESS COMMUNITY MEMBERS’ ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior.

Commit to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to TRANSFORM THE POLITICAL CONDITIONS that reinforce oppression and violence.

Community Accountability refuses to privatize relations of damage—a privatization that happens when damage is framed as a relationship between assaulter, assault victim, and police-state mechanisms. Community Accountability acknowledges that damage is never private, that it is embedded within historical, cultural, and ideological frameworks. And it seeks to unmake those frameworks that make damage not only ordinary, but also inevitable.

And, so, this is a call: if you are reading this, will you help unmake the frameworks that make sexual assault not only ordinary, but also inevitable in Kenya and elsewhere?

two places

Kangemi and Westgate are roughly equidistant from my house, though Kangemi is a shade closer.

A few weeks ago, as the school term was starting, the Nairobi government arrived in Kangemi at 3 a.m., destroyed the local market, and, in the process, a bulldozer crushed a man to death. I do not know this man’s name. This man’s death was not pronounced a national or even local tragedy.

Around midday last Saturday, a number of people took Westgate Mall hostage. They shot many people, released some, and held the Mall hostage for 4 days, as Kenya’s elite forces, aided by other countries, attempted to regain control of the Mall and, by implication, the country. Thus far, approximately 90 million shillings has been raised to support recovery efforts.
Following the Kangemi demolitions, many Kangemi residents protested the government’s actions. They blocked roads, set tires on fire, raged and mourned. They mourned that their lives were so disposable; they raged that their livelihoods had no value. With very few exceptions, Kenya remained silent. These were not lives worth valuing. A death in Kangemi is not worth mourning.

Reports indicate that president Uhuru Kenyatta was personally affected by Westgate—a nephew and his fiancée were killed. Photographs from Westgate have traveled across the world. We know names and faces and occupations and relationships.
Who will grieve with the mourners?
For the past few months, I have been thinking about disposability, about its reach and grasp and ever-expanding power. And while I continue to learn from Judith Butler about whose lives are grievable, about who is deemed worth grieving, thinking about disposability leads me to ask about killability.

To be disposable is to be ungrievable. Not to merit grief or thought. We have other words for this: acceptable losses, collateral damage. Yet, disposability is not passive, not simply a category into which we place the ungrievable. Instead, it is a hungry logic and practice. It becomes ever-more voracious as it eats.
For years now, rumors have circulated that, like the Kangemi market, Westgate Mall is an illegitimate structure, that it should be torn down.
The question of whose lives are grievable is not about withholding grief, saving it for those usually deemed ungrievable. Instead, it is about the possibilities of radical vulnerability.
Radical vulnerability is debilitating. It saps energy and will. It is exhausting.
Kangemi is forgotten. Another eyesore destroyed.
To hold Kangemi and Westgate together.
To imagine Kangemi and Westgate together.


Become smaller.
And smaller
Fear works to contain bodies within social space through the way it shrinks the body. – Sara Ahmed

Fear works to expand the mobility of some bodies and contain others.
-Sara Ahmed
I have been afraid to use “ICC indictees.”
Pay attention to fear.
Pay attention to shrinking away.
Pay attention to contractions.
We are playing.

“I’m Shirley Temple
Curly, Curly Hair”
Irritated, we snap at each other. There is “something” not quite right.
Now we name as “something” that thing we once named during the day.
The KPTJ Report is hidden from view.
Do Not Look At This!
“Milk Hawkers” are shut down.
The President owns one of the largest milk companies in the country.
We can’t say this.
Power is openly contemptuous.
Power despises “the people.”
The president discusses title deeds.
One of Kenya’s largest land owners discusses giving away 50×100 plots.

Be grateful for crumbs.
Don’t Speak.
A cowed media sycofantasizes
We celebrate ever-receding freedom

Peace and Justice for PEV Victims

Who are the victims of Kenya’s Post-election violence (PEV)? And what would it mean to secure “justice” for them? What would “justice” look like, feel like, taste like, sound like? The farther away we’ve moved from the PEV, the more distant these questions have become. Justice, we have learned, has something to do with the law and legal arguments and lawyers’ abilities to argue and counter-argue. Justice, we have learned, is about the time of the argument—collecting evidence, verifying it, evaluating witnesses, intimidating them, diplomatic negotiations, diplomatic failures, winning elections, losing elections, blaming victims, victimizing blame. Justice, it seems, has very little to do with people to whom specific things happened.

As with 9/11, in which every U.S. resident, citizen or not, was deemed injured and subsequently recruited to participated in the surveillance state—if you see something, say something—the PEV has been used to recruit Kenyans as infinitely vulnerable, woundable subjects, whose task is to build armor, or, more precisely, don Kevlar vests that prevent such wounding. In the years since the PEV, those of us who experienced the violence from a distance have been made proximal through exhibitions and stories, traumatized by our second-hand experiences. While I do not want to minimize the labor of witness and exhibition, I wonder what happens when we claim a trauma equal to those who witnessed their loved ones killed in brutal ways.

What does it mean to claim we are all victims of the PEV?

Even those accused of aiding and abetting the violence, the ICC 3, describe themselves as political victims of the violence. They merit as much prayer—with anointing oil—as those whose families and friends died under brutal conditions. The pain of the political class is always much more significant than the wananchi’s. And in an even more recent twist, we are told that the real victims are, variously, African sovereignty, African dignity, Kenya, and Kenyan masculinity.
News arrives that 93 witnesses for the ICC have withdrawn from the case. That is, 93 victims of PEV violence have withdrawn. Their reported statement is heartbreaking:

“The utterances of the prosecution against our government threatens the process of national healing and reconciliation. Our peaceful coexistence as a community is much more important.”

Is “our government” the same as “Our . . . community”? And what does it mean to understand oneself as an obstruction to “national healing and reconciliation”? It’s worth remembering that PEV victims have been actively constructed as undeserving criminals for the past few years: lazy, unmotivated, liars, and cheats. The burst of sympathy and goodwill from early 2008 has been transformed to disgust and contempt. We have been taught to regard PEV victims as irritants who are holding us back, as incarnating a “bad time” that was a “little mistake” when “passions were inflamed.”

And we have been told that anything is worth doing (silencing, suppressing, repressing, arresting, disappearing) to maintain peace. At a moment when peace increasingly means not irritating those in power.

kenya’s memory work

What do we want from each other
after we have told our stories
– Audre Lorde, “There are No Honest Poems about Dead Women”

Memory, that vast orchard of myriad, variegated moments, appears to undergo an endless replanting.
—John Keene, Annotations

Memory work is myth-building and myth-busting, story-making and story-unmaking, a stitching and patching, cutting and pasting, and never as patchy and cut-pasted as when it’s collective memory work. I come looking for a “we” I have already known, a flavor as familiar as the forgotten sensation of Nyayo-era school milk.

A fabulation:

In pre-colonial times, different communities lived in harmony within their socio-cultural, physical and natural environment. However, the situation changed drastically with the onset of colonialism, which imposed foreign languages, values, beliefs, lifestyles and traditions. Colonialism suppressed indigenous elements of culture and heritage and alienated Kenyans from many of their cultural practices. Moreover, the colonizers imposed various legislations and institutions with the objective of protecting their own cultural, political and economic interests.
—National Policy on Culture and Heritage, 2009

Historical Faction:

This book has little entertainment value. . . . This book has been written to put in record the events that happened in Wagalla massacre in 1984. I have described the actual events as told to me by survivors over a period of twenty years. I was six years old in 1984. The horrendous stories of Wagalla, of how men from my family were detained, tortured and killed formed part of my social education as I grew up.
– S. Abdi Sheikh, Blood on the Runway: The Wagalla Massacre of 1984


Sometimes it is important to be personal.
– Carole Boyce Davies &
Elaine Savory Fido,
Out of the Kumbla

Writing as Re-vision:

Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.
– Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”

Through their daily lives, through their families and their communities, in ritual and belief, in their travels, their struggles, and their travails, African women, as historical subjects, were active agents in the making of the colonial world.

Women’s colonial histories, moreover, challenge the chronological boundaries that have framed African colonial history generally, boundaries based largely on formal political markers, such as a decisive military defeat, a treaty of “protection,” or the hoisting of the flag of independence. For the most part, such markers are not gender-neutral, but rather signify definitive moments in the colonial histories of male political elites.
– Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi,
“Women in African Colonial Histories: An Introduction”

Research and investigations conducted by the Commission coupled with the testimonies it received, shows that widespread and systematic use of torture occurred in the following contexts:

  • during the Shifta War;
  • in the aftermath of the 1982 attempted coup;
  • between 1982 and 1991 purposely to quell dissenting political voices and as part of the crackdown on Mwakenya;
  • between 1993 to 1997 as part of the crackdown on the February Eighteenth Revolutionary Army (FERA);
  • in 1997 following a raid on a police station in Likoni; and
  • most recently in 2008 during Operation Okoa Maisha, a security operation to flush out members of the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) in the Mount Elgon region.

- TJRC Report, Vol 1


the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
– Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”

where one starts

Memory Work

Did my ancestors kiss
to share love and passion
that warmed, pulsated
between them?
– Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, “Hybrid Love”

The carcass of the house stands still.
– Sitawa Namwalie, Cut Off My Tongue

Ours, too, is an age of propaganda.
– C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins

the voices of women victims of the violence have almost completely faded away
– Rasna Warah, Red Soil and Roasted Maize

If you do not like it, you will have to fight it the way one fights myths: by building or resurrecting more convincing myths.
—Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy

The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation.
– Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

I fantasize that one day male public intellectuals might write about Kenya as if women live here.
– Shailja Patel


it is not enough to acknowledge that what happened did or did not happen as it is said or documented to have happened, just as it is not enough to acknowledge that injury and impoverishment are persistently multigenerational and compounded

what story suffices, what feeling, what compensation

living in the fissures of our ongoing undoing, burns from ropes we did not know we were pulling on teams we did not choose, but never for them

and now
there is

the prose is meticulous, the sentences polished, the syntax elegant, the spaces between the commas immaculate, as the words cut and tear and break and shatter and fragment and explode

and still
the question
of where it begins

memory work

James Baldwin writes, “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch” (Nobody Knows My Name). Released as Kenya “turns” 50, the TJRC report documents what we have done to and with ourselves. It traces, in some detail, what we “have done with independence.”

what we have done
with independence

It’s tempting to read the TJRC report as documenting what has been done with freedom, as absenting agents, displacing responsibility, or even, in one vein, of documenting the absence of freedom, as a report on unfreedom, but that lets us off the hook

Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me. I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.
-James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

Uhuru ni Kazi

the work of seeking independence
is ongoing

because the work of domination
is ongoing

uhuru ni kazi