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.

Shrinking

Become smaller.
And smaller
More.
*
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
With
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.

Crumbs.
*
Be grateful for crumbs.
*
Shrink.
*
Don’t Speak.
*
Whisper.
*
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

*
Paukwa
Pakawa

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
matters


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


Memory
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


work

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
this
truth-work
memory-work
being-together-work

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

Fear & Stuckness

I dream of your freedom
as my victory
– Audre Lorde, “For Assata”

The peculiar insistence that Kenyans move on diagnoses a state of stuckness, a leaning in and now digging into as trained dispositions return and words and actions we once thought banished recur with force and vigor. “Move on” also has a peculiar globalizing history, as a phrase associated with police procedurals: “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” Nothing to see, a demand that eyes be averted, minds be engaged elsewhere, the “here” made into the “not-here.” One notes the not-here to which we are directed: Vision2030, the glittering city on the hill, incarnated, partially, as the Konza Techno City, which will “create” and “provide” and “innovate” and “transform.”

Move on. Nothing to see “here.”

What would it mean to see “here”? This “here” is especially interesting given that the newly released TJRC report only goes up to 2008. Writing in the Nation, Kwendo Opanga warns,

My concern is that the possibility exists that if the truth is not handled properly it could become a monster that would burden and haunt us with the ghosts of the past forever or, worse, turn the present into a hell that consumes us all. We must be careful as a country not to expend a substantial part of our time and resources on excavating the past to the detriment of building the future.

Following Opanga’s logic, dwelling in the past might take up too much energy, even as remaining in this “here” seems impossible. We must be future-directed, but, curiously, in a way that does not account for the past or the present. How does one “move on” from a past deemed too impossible to encounter and from a present considered too impossible to inhabit?

As I keep thinking about these temporalities we are being told not to encounter, not to think about, not to act on, I’m struck by the rhetoric and experience of fear. Many accounts suggest that Kenyans voted as they did because they were “afraid” Kenya might not survive the elections. The banning of Shackles of Doom suggested that Ministry of Education officials were afraid that “certain communities,” might be upset by being depicted in unflattering ways. Euphemism is also about fear. The mysterious deaths of Saitoti and Kilonzo, powerful men, have ratcheted up fears that no one is safe. The word “disappeared” has returned with acute force. Ongoing efforts to silence activists on social media—on twitter and Facebook—have stifled possibilities for robust political engagements. And now, we who write monitor our words and sentences, afraid of ever-watching power and of each other.

Locked in our dark, unspoken, airless fears, we are urged to move on from a “here” that we are not allowed to acknowledge exists to a future blueprinted in “innovation” and “transformation.”

How does one move on from a not-here?

One symptom of our fear—and it must be called fear—is a persistent claim that we are “amnesiac” or “apathetic” or “indifferent.” This claim has been repeated with such force and persistence for so long that it now circulates as a kind of common sense.1 Kenyans are “amnesiac.” Kenyans “move on.” Kenyans are “apathetic.” The persistence of the repetition suggests that it can also be read as a symptom: who are these Kenyans who are “amnesiac”? Who are these Kenyans who have forgotten? Who are these Kenyans who are apathetic? Before names are named and fingers pointed, it might be worth thinking about how silence in public means.

Rather than ask why Kenyans are amnesiac, we might ask: what is said in public? What is not said in public? What might be said in private? How do we read those micro-confessions: “I can talk to you because you are not like the rest of them.” Where is talking happening? Where is silence happening? What are the conditions that permit talking and silence?

It might well be that many people are “amnesiac” and “apathetic,” but those claims can also be scrutinized for what they might miss about the shaping of publics and the circulation of sentiment. Where do we feel safe and with whom? How is that “we” shaped and fractured by our feelings of safety and danger, by our convictions of where we will be heard and not heard? How do we deal with what Audre Lorde describes as “the weight of hearing”?2

What would it mean to feel hearing? To encounter the selves and histories and presents given to us from within our fractures and secrets?

What is it to re-encounter fear as a condition of living and working? What is it to embrace familiar, if unused, dispositions and habits to manage such fear? To become exhausted by anger and rage? To worry about the fragility of coalition? To sustain hope in what feel like the ephemeralities of talking and writing and thinking? To build affective capacities for dwelling in a “here” that is “not-here”?

What is it to make demands on each other? What kind of demands can be made? What demands can be made in a climate dominated by fear? What demands placed on our time, our loyalties, our obligations, our fractured collectivities? What is it to know, also, that our silence will not protect us?

Lorde’s much-cited statement that silence will not protect us has been taken as a call for confession, a call to speak out. it’s also about the damage silence creates for collectivities and coalitions, about simmering, unspoken rage and envy, about living and working with people we cannot trust want freedom for all of us in the same way. It is about the fragility of an “us” sustained by a damaging silence. It’s about the risk of trying to be “together,” of building toward an us.

Loving in the war years
calls for this kind of risking
– Cherríe Moraga, “Loving in the War Years”


1. But, as Kara Keeling asks, “How can subaltern common senses that elude consent to domination and exploitation, that create an alternative to existing power relations be crafted?” (The Witches Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense [Durham: Duke University Press, 2007], Kindle Edition).
2. Audre Lorde, “Outlines,” in Our Dead Behind Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 10.

dissent:censor

First, Rancière:

Politics is first of all a way of framing, among sensory data, a specific sphere of experience. It is a partition of the sensible, of the visible and the sayable, which allows (or does not allow) some specific data to appear; which allows or does not allow some specific subjects to designate them and speak about them. It is a specific intertwining of ways of being, ways of doing and ways of speaking. (Dissensus)

Second, Kenyan Drama:
Citing concerns over the threat of “hate speech,” Ministry of Education officials have banned Butere School Girls from performing a play at the National Drama Festival. The play, “Shackles of Doom,” addresses economic inequality and nepotism. Adjudicators who evaluated the play claimed the “script” should “use more imagery, allegory and metaphor to achieve some persuasion other than be intrusive.” Ministry of Education officials suggest “Art” should not be “Activist.”

Third: Context
In African Writes Back to Self, Professor Evan Mwangi of Northwestern University describes how East African writers have used innovative formal techniques—he focuses on “metafictional” strategies—to produce political art under repressive regimes. Professor Mwangi is interested in how those not permitted to write openly develop formal tactics to critique repression. I doubt that Professor Mwangi would go this far, but one might suggest that the demand by Ministry of Education officials that plays should have “more” art(ifice) and should not be “intrusive,” recognizes a shift in the political climate.

A “paranoid” reading might suggest that we are now in a “new” age of repression. An equally “paranoid” reading might suggest we need to pay attention to sites of pedagogy as places where specific forms of discipline are produced, specific types of bodies created, and specific modes of subjection perfected.

Fourth: Small Events
Tea leaves are very small. It seems silly to read tea leaves. We are past superstition and in a new age of facts. Big data. Even though Kenya’s electronic systems are notoriously unreliable. To read the Ministry of Education officials’ actions as anything other than a small event, something idiosyncratic rather than representative, seems very silly. Small events needs not signal anything significant. My training in literary studies does not help, precisely because I am trained to read for the small. As Eve Sedgwick notes, literary critics are trained to be paranoid readers: we see “insidious intent” everywhere.

Small events might be small events. Not all butterflies create typhoons.

Fifth: Discipline
The most powerful censorship is never explicit. Discipline, Foucault teaches me, is about producing habits and dispositions, knowing when and how to act and move and speak as though by instinct. Knowing, as well, when not to act and move and speak. Discipline is knowing when to be silent before silence is demanded.

Sixth: Precarity

Precarity is the embodied experience of the ambivalences of immaterial productivity in advanced post-Fordism. The embodied experience of precarity is characterised by: (a) vulnerability: the steadily experience of flexibility without any form of protection; (b) hyperactivity: the imperative to accommodate constant availability; (c) simultaneity: the ability to handle at the same the different tempi and velocities of multiple activities; (d) recombination: the crossings between various networks, social spaces, and available resources; (e) postsexuality: the other as dildo; (f) fluid intimacies: the bodily production of indeterminate gender relations; (g) restlessness: being exposed to and trying to cope with the overabundance of communication, cooperation and interactivity; (h) unsettledness: the continuous experience of mobility across different spaces and timelines; (i) affective exhaustion: emotional exploitation, or, emotion as an important element for the control of employability and multiple dependencies; (j) cunning: able to be deceitful, persistent, opportunistic, a trickster.
—Vassilis Tsianos & Dimitris Papadopoulos

Seventh: Dissent
I grew up in a country where dissent was criminalized. Silence was not a habit. Whispering was. Whispered fear. Whispered rage. Whispered promises. Whispered desires. Whispered dissent. Walls, doors, and windows could not be trusted. I knew how to feel the threat of the threat. Repression does not mind whispers. In fact, repression craves whispers and silence. Dissent was a dirty word. No. That’s not right. Dissent was impossible. No. Dissent was bad. To dissent was to un-love Kenya. To dissent was to betray our loving national father-president. We were free to love our father-president. Because the greatest love of all is the freedom to love the father-president.

Dissent: Promiscuity

Our American Now

England was rolling moss and gathering buds and saving nines, Princess Di in a long dress, and First Aid English to fix our broken tongues. BBC Shakespeare with dowdy sets and James Bond the glamor of attachment. Pictures in an album, the silence we misread as enchantment. Now, the smiles seem a little sadder. Stiff upper lips.

We are different now.

Then: the excitement of speaking English properly. To be Eliza Doolittle. The strangeness of the U.S. accent. Exotic. Kiswahili by Lionel Richie. My father said no to the U.S., convinced it was still barbaric. No fit place to acquire an education. A country squire trapped in his peasant past.

America offered amnesia, unending mobility, accumulation that was not unseemly.

We are ruder now.

Tavia Nyong’o has argued that Barack Obama is the first postcolonial president in the U.S. Uhuru Kenyatta is the first U.S.-educated president of Kenya. If, as so many writers have argued, the U.S. is the great nation founded on forgetting, president Kenyatta’s U.S.-style inauguration following a U.S.-style Bush v. Gore court case has implications for Kenyan memory-work and historical reconstruction. This is not a matter of documentation or truth, but about the urgency and importance attached to memory-work in our ongoing state of crisis. (To be “under-developed” or “developing” or “third world” is to be in a perpetual state of crisis, one intensified by the “global war on terror.”)

The almost ritual invocation of Bush v. Gore during the Supreme Court hearings on the presidential election suggests that we have entered a newly Americanized frame of reference. It marked, I think, a certain departure from the promiscuous cultural mixings we see in popular culture: the adoption of U.S. spelling by Kenyan publications, the presence of more U.S.-style eating establishments, even as our bookstores remain heavily British. Since 2003, when president Kibaki assumed office, many U.S.-trained professionals have “returned” to Kenya or have been instrumental in setting up and engaging with local institutions. One could argue this has been true since at least the late 1960s, but the invocation of Bush v. Gore during the televised Supreme Court hearing formalized a transition in how Kenya is to be thought. (We aspire to be “like” the U.S. as it has grown increasingly repressive, domestically and internationally; that requires a different writing occasion.)

I’m interested in what it means to be “like” the U.S. for memory-work. James Baldwin is my guide here.

Perhaps no country is as anxious about historical memory and memory-work as the U.S. History books are scrubbed clean, public memory denied, the thing happening at the moment described as not-happening, the known classified, the unknown classified, the previously known classified, and memory trained to anticipate the future. The now-here is to be forgotten for a tense predicated on an ever unfolding expansive future. Save room on your camera-phone for what will unfold. Erase the past if you need to. Memory is what is to happen. Memory is desire.

In “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin writes, “About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified.” An interest predicated on a not-here, not-now, anchored in a desire to own something not yet describable, something “experimental.” How to read Baldwin’s desire in this early writing?

Baldwin understands white America’s desire, a “we” he inhabits and makes thinkable and impossible:

Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank if one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the black face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished – at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be much the same thing. (“Many Thousands Gone”)

Who is this writing “we”? What act of forgetting must be undertaken to blank it and accept it as “we”? I must struggle to remember the “I” who is writing the (im)possible we.

He adds,

The making of an American begins at that point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land. This problem has been faced by all Americans throughout our history – in a way it is our history – and it baffles the immigrant and sets on edge the second generation until today. (“Many Thousands Gone”)

Kenya’s American Now is about a relationship to history and to memory and to feeling. It is present in Vision2030, a collective vision predicated on eliminating the unsightly and the unproductive from public view and collective memory; it is present in many shiny plans to develop an educational system predicated on producing appropriate “skills” for new industries that will transform us; it is present in the current attempts to depict the ICC as an imperial invader that took over a Kenyan process and marginalized Kenyan voices; it is present in (successful) attempts to criminalize IDPs, the “welfare mothers” of Kenya; it is present in the new accents on TV that erase traces of other pasts, other affiliations; it is present in the desire for forgettability; it is there in the enforcement of that forgettability.

Kenya’s America Now is about desiring the memory of tomorrow: what is to be made and who we will be constantly overwrites the who and where we have been, those things that “hold us back in bondage.” Kenya’s America Now is being produced by our politicians, our religious leaders, our business leaders, our intellectuals, and our artists, all looking away from here-now and then-there, the Egypt we left and the desert we crossed. We are in a new land of free computes and free maternity care and free secondary education and it is bright and shiny and new and only fools would dare try to look back.

Remember Lot’s Wife.