Jela si Pahala

We make concealment happen; it is not natural but rather names and organizes where racial-sexual differention happens.
—Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds

How do we think the possibility and the law of outlawed, impossible things?
—Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness”

I have been watching and re-watching KTN’s special report on sex in Kenyan prisons, especially from 5:10-6:45: Sakina’s testimony. Kind friends have transcribed her testimony and it appears below, untranslated.

SA: Sakina
R: Reporter

SA: Jela si pahala kwa sababu sisi wenyewe sisi mashoga twaonewa, nimekataa, na kutandikwa na kufanyiwa unyonge wa unyama na kuumwa hivi maalama hizi maalama chungu mzima zimenijaa, asema kwa sababu wewe ni shoga, utajiju, ukienda ukimwaambia askari, askari mimi mbona naonewa hivi ama kwa sababu mimi ni shoga ndio naonewa hivi, askari anakwambia lipa deni mimi usiniletee ujinga kama huo, nendeni huko mkaongelee huko mkamalizianie huko, saa nyegine moyo-roho yangu haitaki, wajua saa ingine wataka saa ingine hautaki, sasa wajua naye vile nafsi naye inaamka, saa ingine wataka saa ingine hautaki

R: Naam, we kwako-

SA: Na sasa venye mtu sasa, sa venye wewe wataka ndio mtu naye hakutaki basi, na saa yenye hutaki ndio mtu anakulazimisha

Interval

SA: Anakwaambia kama unataka kula hapa chakula vizuri vizuri paka nilale na wewe ndio niku-nikupe

R: Unakumbuka umelala na wanaume wangapi?

SA: Haa-watu elfu mbili na-(Laughs)-wanakupa chakula, kwa mfano ukipewa paka hivi mapeni, askari jela ashakuja kukuny’anga’nya, amekupokonya, ameshakuny’anga’nya, anakwambia mbona huku, mbona wafanya biashara hii, huku pesa watoa wapi, hebu leta hii pesa ama tukutandike, sasa wewe ukiskia hivyo wampa yeye zile pesa

Asked about the possibility of AIDS infection

SA: Roho yangu iko juu yaani naogopa nashikwa na stress nasema sasa hapa nikijipata ninao ndio basi itabidi niambukizane chungu mzima nitafanya nini, kama ni kufa nife na wengi nisife mimi peke yangu

And another version:

Sakina – Jela si pahala, sababu sisi weneywe sisi mashoga twaonewa. Nimekataa na kutandikwa na kufanyiwa unyonge na unyama na kuumwa hivi maalama hizi maalama chungu nzima zimenijaa.

Wanasema ooh, sababu wewe ni shoga utajijo. Ukienda ukimwambia askari, askari mi mbona naonewa hivi, ama kwa sababu mi ni shoga ndio naonewa hivi. Askari anakuambia lipa deni, mimi usiniletee ujinga kama huo. Endeni huko mkaongee huko mkamalizanie huko.

Saa nyingine roho yangu haitaki, wajua saa nyingine wataka saa nyingine hautaki. Sasa na unajua na yeye vile nafsi nayo inaamka. Saa nyingine wataka saa nyingine hautaki. Mhmmm.

Lulu – Naam we kwa …..

Sakina – Na haswa vile mtu, saa enye wewe wataka ndio mtu hataki basi. Na saa enye hautaki ndio mtu basi yuakulazimisha.

Anakuambia oooh, kama unataka kula hapa vyakula vizuri mpaka nilale na wewe ndio niku- nikupe.

Sakina – aaah, watu elfu mbili na.

Wanakupa chakula, ale ukipewa mpaka hivi mapeni. Askari jela ashakuja kukunyang’anya. Amekupokonya, ameshakunyang’anya. Anakuambia huku mbona wafanya biashara hiii, huku pesa watoa wapi, hebu lete hii pesa ama tukutandike. Sasa wewe ukisikia hivyo wampa zile pesa.

Sakina – roho yangu iko juu, yaani naogopa nashikwa na stress nasema sasa hapa nikijipata nina do inabidi basi niambukizane. Chungu nzima ntafanya nini? Kama ni kufa nife na wengi, nisife mi pekee yangu.

Here’s what was offered in English subtitles. Three statements.

“Prison is not a good place . . . we homosexuals are denied our rights . . .”
“ . . . if you want to live well you have to sleep with somebody . . .”
“ [I have slept with] about 2,000 men . . . I have to do it everyday . . . but I don’t care whether I get infected or not . . .”

I’m hoping, first, that the sheer physical distinction in word count—how much space it occupies on the page/screen—will tell one kind of story about how queer testimony is unheard, made concealed, rendered ungeographic, to use McKittrick’s wonderful concept. We know prisoners are “disappeared.” This distinction between what Sakina says and what is made available as translated testimony illustrates part of this disappearance.

What is disappeared matters.

As the report opens, the reporter frames the story as one about “men” who went into jail “normal” and emerged completely changed, unable to be “men” anymore. While gender seems to be the focus here—Sakina is clearly female-identified in the report—sexuality cannot be far behind. It is suggested (the passive matters) that prison turned Sakina into Sakina: a queer gender-bender. The threat of prison, then, is that it unmakes masculinities, renders gender unstable.

This framing is only part of the violence of the report.

The report says, “we homosexuals are denied our rights”

Sakina says (pardon my inexact translation):

we homosexuals (“washoga”) are victimized; I have refused, and been beaten, and been brutalized, and been bitten. These marks, these marks [on my body] have been caused by (and cause me) excruciating pain. . . . When I seek help from the prison guards, they dismiss my complaints and tell me to deal with the situation myself . . .

Sakina reports rape and violence and abuse: her scars record this violence. The subtitles translate this report of pain into an inadequate, sanitized language of rights.

But the report wants to make sure we don’t sympathize with Sakina, and this becomes clear when the subject of HIV/AIDS comes up.

Here’s the English subtitle: “I don’t care whether I get infected or not.”

Here’s what Sakina says, courtesy of another kind translation:

“My heart is racing. I’m afraid. I’m stressed out. Now, here, if I find out that I have it, I’ll then start to pass it on to others. What else would I do? If I’m to die I’ll take others with me. And not die alone.”

As the translation indicates, Sakina worries about infection, a lot. “I’ll take others with me.” It’s a curious way to position prison economies of sexual violence and sexual negotiation. The tv report wants us to hear callousness: the terrible queer who runs around infecting others. This terribleness is not absent from Sakina’s story or demeanor. Revenge fantasies abound: you raped me, you forced me, if I die, you die. We die together. Part of me would like Sakina not to be the potential death-carrying, avenging queer. I realize I want her to be “likable” so a certain argument can take shape. I want Sakina to be “relatable.”

Jela si pahala.

Sakina is appetite and survival: saa ingine wataka, saa ingine hutaki. Sakina is desire and its violation: saa nyingine wataka, saa nyingine hutaki. Sakina is the impossibility of translating from an un-place, an un-time, an un-becoming.

Two statements come together in this un-making: jela si pahala and mimi ni shoga, the ungeographic of prison and the unbeing of queerness. How else to read “jail is not a place” and “I am [a] queer.” How does what is not allowed to exist live in an ungeography?

I am uneasy about the turns I am making here, about the violence of abstraction, even as I understand that abstraction to enact a labor of re-enfleshing. I want to hold on to the “we” that McKittrick gives, “We make concealment happen,” even, and perhaps especially, when we try not to. So I will attempt to do something quite wrong. A redemptive turn, if you will.

Nisife mimi peke yangu. I will (mis)translate this through Hemphill into a different kind of wish: “Don’t let it be loneliness / that kills us.”

Banal Misogyny

We live with unrelenting, terrible, normative misogyny. Indeed, the misogyny we inhabit is so pervasive and so unrelenting, that, as I remarked to a friend, Audre Lorde’s essays from the 70s and 80s feel much too present, much too relevant. It is not simply that we are dealing with an ugly remnant that every so often reminds us of an even uglier time. Rather, it is that the ugliness of then, cloaked in masculine benevolence, is too much with us. And we seem to have lost the ability to recognize it, to name it, to respond to it.

At least this is the way it feels.

I use “banal misogyny” because I want to register something about the moment we inhabit. Something about our ability and desire to see gender work, to see gender differentiation insist on diminishing, infantilizing, and degrading women. It has become too easy to be a man, too easy to understand women as quirky girls with charming habits and idiosyncratic style. It has become too easy to forget and un-learn all the lessons of feminism.

To speak of something like “the oppression of women” one must ignore nuance and specificity. One must accept the shame that speaking in such broad terms is now meant to invoke. This shame interests me, for while part of it stems from necessary critiques against universalizing impulses, a more insidious part stems from patriarchy’s sneer at the very concept. The danger is that the ethical injunction not to universalize can meet patriarchy’s sneer, and one wanting to feel responsible can feel ashamed, coerced into the impossibility of choosing from a range of unimaginative options.

I realize, belatedly, that when I write “banal misogyny,” what I really mean is “banal.”

Banal means dull, boring, uninteresting, unremarkable. What passes without comment. At once background and foundation. What can be taken for granted. I am interested in how misogyny backgrounds banal—how it becomes banal, expected, unsurprising, the thing that need not be named. Indeed, the ground on which choices about, for, and by women can be made. Misogyny is dull.

How did misogyny become dull?

By dull I mean unremarkable and uninteresting. Unable to “cut” through the social.

Misogyny, like racism and homophobia, is a word (concept-metaphor) designed to “cut” through the social. To arrest an action, create a space for reflection, create a route to action. The “dulling” of misogyny is not an accident. Patriarchy actively works to dull concept-metaphors that arrest its action, to render such terms laughable, dull, banal, impossible.

Yet the banality of misogyny should not blind us to its active, hyper-active life: misogyny is not inert. It is dynamic and active, always working to shore itself up, to make itself felt and invisible, always working to hide in plain sight. Always working, especially, to recruit young women to its cause. And so the young, too many of them, sneer at the idea of misogyny. Or, rather, sneer at the idea of feminism. There are many ways to read this too-common scene: I read it as a symptom of misogyny’s labor to recruit women so that they will be against feminism.

I tell a friend that I want to see the word patriarchy used more. Used often. I want to hear its harsh syllables “cut” across the social. I want it to labor, to work on unmaking the ordinariness with which patriarchy masks itself. Unfashionable as it might be, I want to talk about the oppression of women. Not in our too-polite languages that say women are getting more choices today. I want to “cut” across the social, to make visible patriarchy at work. To refuse its sneer and its grin and its cocky walk and its hatred for and exploitation of women. To refuse its wink and its nod and its casual invitations to join “men’s clubs” where we shake our heads at “women” and marvel at their shrillness. To refuse its laugh and its glazed eyes when it’s confronted with its violence.

And because she helps me think this way, I give the final words to Shailja:

Because you never know enough / but you can learn / you’ll never be / ready but you can fake it / because the when and where / are here and now the answers / to who and what / are you and this is the how / and why will reveal themselves / in the making.

Because ready / is never a question just a reminder / to breathe / and jump (“The Making”)

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.

Dear Kenya:

Somehow, two men accused of crimes against humanity, have been nominated to run for president and vice president in next year’s general election. I say “somehow” because it happened while we were awake, while we were watching, and even with our approval.

These men declared themselves African patriots and identified the ICC as an imperialist agent. Their nomination is understood as a fight for African justice against Western interference. They are our flag bearers. Our warriors. Our heroes.

Something happened in 2007-2008. Between December 2007 and February 2008, many people were killed, many others displaced, while conspirators capitalized on this instability to create a political system they could inhabit and control. Contrary to what we have been told, we have not moved to a new generation of rulers. The foot soldiers have moved into the throne room. And they know the value of money and violence.

We have been told that deals were made, talks were had, discussions were staged. Away from the public eye. We have been told that such deals will avert violence. Deals made in private rooms will save Kenya and will help to implement a constitution that is, supposedly, by and for we the people.

We were taught that our cosmology consists of the living, the unborn, and the ancestors. If we respected the ancestors, then the living and the unborn would be safe. This cosmology has nothing to say about the dead, the murdered, the raped, the immolated, the killable, and the dead-dead. Killed once by election violence and killed again by our forgetting.

Elections are for the living. They are not for the dead-dead.

Something happened.

Once, we hoped that the dead would find justice, or be remembered. We hoped that we could help them move from the limbo of the violated-forgotten to the world of the ancestors. That they might come to forgive us in time. We believed we owed them something.

Something happened.

Two men accused of crimes against humanity are running for the highest political offices in Kenya.

Somewhere, a choir of ghosts is keening.

Karibu Kenya?

In reviving the traditional meaning of an expression and in restoring a memorable heritage to its former dignity, we have been eager to propose simultaneously, beyond the old word, an original concept of hospitality, of the duty (devoir) of hospitality, and of the right (droit) to hospitality. What then would such a concept be? How might it be adapted to the pressing urgencies which summon and overwhelm us? How might it respond to unprecedented tragedies and injunctions which serve to constrain and hinder it?
—Jacques Derrida, “On Cosmopolitanism”

All refugees and asylum seekers living in urban areas have been directed to move to camps in North Eastern and Rift Valley provinces.
—Dave Opiyo, Daily Nation, December 19, 2012

What is the status of Kenyan hospitality?

At first blush, the question might seem impertinent, if not unimportant. After all, who diagnoses “hospitality” and what does it mean to diagnose “hospitality”? Yet, I think this question must be asked, as must the question of who “deserves” hospitality. I want to start from the question of hospitality to reflect on the place of Somalis in Kenya today. I want to think about Somalis within Kenyan practices of, and beliefs in, hospitality. I want to ask about the status of that karibu we seem so willing to extend to the right kinds of visitors.

Karibu is in trouble.

But perhaps karibu has always been a troubled practice, withdrawn as easily as it is granted, and sustained only within a market logic: to extract money. Like hakuna matata, karibu might be a tourism-inspired fantasy. The welcome is not insincere, but it is strategic, and limited. Extended only until the money ends. I have started from a false place, by presuming a welcoming us and a welcomed them. This is not the place to start with Somalis in Kenya, but it might be the only place left now.

Accretive anti-Somali rhetoric has effectively de-nationalized all Somalis: birth certificates, national IDs, and government-issued passports are no longer enough to certify Kenyan Somali-ness. An intensified xenophobia has already marked such forms of documented belonging false: they were bought, faked, stolen. They document a lie—an impossible identity. If this seems too abstract, consider this scenario: anti-Somali vigilantes will not pause to check whether those phenotypically or culturally identifiable as Somali are “legal” before they attack. Once the first blow has landed, one can never be Paul before the Romans: one can never claim to be a citizen before a court that must recognize that status.

I am tracking a logic that, along with friends, I have been terming a “genocidal imaginary” that, borrowing from and in league with a “developmental imaginary,” frames the world within a problem:solution model. The development imaginary diagnoses and frames problems and proposes solutions. This is the dominant imaginary in Kenya today. One can no longer diagnose a problem without prescribing a solution. Within the development imaginary, the social is a problem to be solved, even as the impossibility of the problem guarantees a speculative market logic. Investing in unsolvable problems creates and sustains multiple economies.

The problem:solution model of the development imaginary slides, too easily, into a genocidal imaginary. In the genocidal imaginary, those identified as causing problems are eliminated. Made ungeographic and unthinkable. Even as that disappearance is figured as an act of (exhausted) compassion. We have given until there’s nothing left to give.

Yet, exhausted compassion is only one avenue to erasing karibu.

Over the past few years, the terms Somali, Refugee, and Terrorist have become synonyms, creating Somali:Refugee:Terrorist. I have noted this previouslyrepetition is necessary and useful. Something has happened to our karibu: it has been unmasked and attenuated.

We pride ourselves on our hospitality. Listen to Binyavanga describe dancing the dombolo:

If you ask me now, I’ll tell you this is everything that matters. So this is why we move like this? We affirm a common purpose; any doubts about others’ motives fade if we are all pieces of one movement. . . . Our shells crack, and we spill out and mingle.

Listen to Shailja chastise a lack of hospitality:

We cringe in silent shame for you when you don’t offer
food or drink. Eat before us without sharing. Serve
yourselves first. Insult us without knowing.

Two white Americans said to me, when I shared my
doughnut with them:

We’ve never seen anyone cut a doughnut into three pieces.

We calibrate hunger precisely. Define enough differently
from you. Enough is what’s available, shared between
everyone present. We are incapable of saying, as you can
so easily:

Sorry, there’s not enough for you. (“The Making [Migrant Song]”)

The examples can be multiplied. Across a range of spaces, we have described ourselves as the karibu people, the people of hospitality. We are “friendly” and “warm” and “welcoming.” Karibu Kenya.

Karibu means welcome, or we use it that way. It can also mean “close,” when describing proximity. To be close to something or someone. It is an invitation to proximity. An invitation to the intimacy created by proximity. An invitation never extended to Northern Kenya and never to Somalis.

If we approach karibu (welcome:closeness:intimacy) from Somalis in Kenya, karibu becomes quite strange. Perhaps karibu is a tourist fiction, created to lure those who want to spend money. If this is so, then shouldn’t the rich economy of Eastleigh be welcomed? Friends and family frequently show off goods from there. If karibu is, borrowing from Binyavanga, a dance where “we spill out and mingle,” then how do we explain our continual othering of Somalis as those whose “shells” cannot “crack”? As those who are inassimilable to project Kenya? How do we explain a Kenyan-ness that guards its borders jealously against Somalis already-always identified as border-people?

Does starting from Somali-ness expose the gaping chasm beneath karibu? Indeed, must we get rid of Somalis to maintain the fiction of our hospitality?

What does it mean to protect Kenyan-ness and, more specifically, urban Kenya and Kenyan-ness from Somalis? For whom must these ideas and spaces be protected? And how does a genocidal imaginary undergird attempts to “remove” Somalis from “urban centers.” I’m tempted to say that “genocidal imaginary” is a stretch. But Nazi Germany must be invoked. And not in a gratuitous way. Nazi Germany has taught us to flinch when a government, any government, juxtaposes “removal” or “repatriation” and “camp.”

What does it mean to claim that Somalis have outstayed their karibu? Given our ethno-nationalist and ethno-regional obsessions with ethno-cide, what does it mean to “clear” Somalis from urban areas? What does it mean to “manage” others by moving them to “camps”? What must we forget to believe that such a “solution” makes sense? What must we desire to justify such an action? What does it mean to claim Somali-ness now if one is in Eastleigh?

Karibu is troubled. Welcome and hospitality, closeness and intimacy, these are threatened. Perhaps they have always been. Perhaps starting from Somali-ness merely exposes karibu’s fictionality. Just as the post-election violence exposed karibu’s fictionality. It, too, must be invoked, because we continue to inhabit its ethnocidal logic.

Put more simply: what the Kenyan government is doing is wrong.

Conjugal Rights: Prisoners’ Rights: Prison Homo-sex

Saturday 27 [October 1984]: No woman. No sex. As months develop into years, the desire for sex becomes almost unendurable. The deprivation of sex, of a woman’s love, becomes the greatest sense of torment, next to the everpresent, anguished longing for freedom.
—Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ, Kenya: A Prison Notebook

Kenyan prisoners are not granted conjugal or partner visits. Nor are they provided with condoms. The two issues are related, but not the same. A recent report by KTN news broached this issue through the backdoor: by framing conjugal rights in relation to prison homo-sex, defined, variously, as “homosexuality,” “sodomy,” “rape,” “secrets,” “sin.” The argument for conjugal rights, which is approximately two minutes out of the fifteen-minute video, was a thinly-veiled excuse to peer into the “secret” world of male-male prison sex.

This world is, of course, not so secret. It features prominently in several Kenyan prison narratives by authors including John Kiriamiti, Wahome Mutahi, and Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to read a contemporary Kenyan prison narrative without encountering some version of homo-sex. Readers of Foucault will recognize the structure I am describing. An “explosion of discourse” is framed as a “secret” to create what Foucault terms “the speaker’s benefit”: those who “break” the “secret” of sex imagine their acts as transgressions, modes of resistance. And, in the KTN video, what can be more “transgressive” than a woman discussing homo-sex with prisoners?

Prison homosexuality has a relationship to prison sodomy and prison rape and prison love and prison intimacy and prison hate and prison resentment and prison survival and prison suicide. And on it goes. It has a relationship to the structural conditions of Kenyan prisons, to their histories, their presents, and their futures. It has a relationship to the worlds brought in to the prison from diverse geo-histories and psycho-socialities. It is not one thing. It is, as Binyavanga might put it, a many-thing.

This many-thingness is evidenced in the obvious disjunction between the English-language report with its sparse translations from Swahili and the rapid-fire Swahili and bodily movements of those interviewed, especially the two figures who identify as queer. As one says, “sometimes you want it, and sometimes you don’t want it,” going on to add, “the prison guards are indifferent to how queers are treated in prison.” An eloquent bodily testimony emerges of prison brutality: bite marks linger as scars, a body ravaged by a system that does not protect its queer prisoners. But “sometimes you want it, and sometimes you don’t want it.” That’s important.

Whereas one version of the narrative that KTN wants to promote seeks to collapse all prison same-sex encounters into “rape,” “sin,” and “perversion,” alternate narratives emerge of desire and negotiation, of prison economies where sex is a form of currency. In pointing this out, I do not mean to overlook the very real sexual violence in prisons. That would be irresponsible. Instead, I want to register the complexities in prisoners’ testimonies that are erased through bad and absent translations into English (for those who don’t understand Swahili) and through equally bad and misleading framing by KTN.

I am interested, as well, in how the figure of the homosexual becomes legible within Kenyan media and the uses to which this figure (as metonym and sediment of/from prison sex) is put in political discussions. Against the logic suggested by the KTN report, which argues that conjugal rights should be provided to “prevent” the scourge of prison sexual violence and prison sexual activity and sodomy and homosexuality (these are not the same things), I would suggest that one can be for prison reform, for prisoners’ rights, for conjugal and partner visits, for queer prisoners’ rights, and for prison health reform. These are not all compatible, of course: in my ideal world, prisons would not exist. Humans should not live in cages. Nor should animals. And so when I think about “prison reform,” I’m really thinking about abolishing prisons.

In the here-and-now, the durative present, I can be, must be, for prisoners’ rights, conjugal and partner visits, and queer prisoners’ rights. To be more precise, I can be, must be, for prisoners’ sexual rights, regardless of taste, desire, orientation, or preference. I have insisted on conjugal rights and partner rights because if prisoners are going to have consensual sex with non-prison populations, it should not be dictated by marital status or relationship longevity.

I am happy to support conjugal and partner visiting rights and to support prisoner sexual health and to advocate against prison sexual violence. I am delighted that the Kenyan parliament is discussing prison sexual rights and prison sexual health, albeit at a pace that is much too slow. And I think it’s way past time to have a national conversation—and activism against—prison sexual violence.

But prison sexual violence should not become the metonym, the figure, for male same-sex intimacies or homosexuality. And it’s troubling to see a news report that so easily, casually, and lazily uses “homosexuality,” “rape,” and “sodomy” as synonyms, implicitly suggesting that “homosexuals” are the biggest threats to decent Kenyans. Toward the end of the video, a prisoner (we assume) is interviewed. Unlike many others in the video, he is dressed neatly in new-looking clothes, a far cry from the many other rag-clad prisoners the camera has shown us. And he proclaims his (voyeuristic) disgust at prison sex, because he is a Christian. The camera—and interviewer—invite us to identify with this man who, though in prison, has turned to religion. He is, in fact, what a certain Kenyan Christian imaginary hopes will happen to prisoners: not that they will be released or granted rights, but that they will find religion, atone for their sins, and accept imprisonment as a just consequence.

This Christian prisoner can represent “decent” Kenyans because he looks the part. And, through an imaginative act that erases his materiality, one fostered by the camera, we can identify with him: we are “all prisoners” on this ungodly earth, the narrative goes. This (misguided) identification enables a further one: his disgust at prison same-sex acts (all conflated as sin and deviance) is supposed to mirror and represent our disgust. He is, through a sly trick, the “decent” Kenyan we claim to be. The Kenyan who must be—and should be—defended against prison sodomy. His reassuring masculinity is juxtaposed against, and comes after, the disturbing gender-bending presented earlier in the video which, it is suggested, repeatedly, both precedes and emerges from imprisonment.

Conjugal rights will save good Christian Kenyan men from turning into fags. Good Kenyan masculinity is decent, Christian hetero-masculinity, and it must be saved.

The Kenyan prison has been—and will continue to be—important to how we understand Kenyan sexual cultures and, in particular, same-sex cultures. Reforming prison sexual cultures to provide health and care and comfort should begin from a prisoner’s comment. And I give this comment the last word: saa ingine waitaka, saa ingine hautaki.

Still Listening For James MacArthur

We must . . . guard against the erasure of our experience and our lives.
–Melvin Dixon

If you visit James MacArthur’s blog—please do so, I urge you—you will notice that there have been no new posts since he was arrested on December 1, 2012. Friends have asked where he is, and I cannot answer. I don’t know how to negotiate the legal sites and databases that might provide a partial answer. His twitter handle, @baltospectator, is similarly silenced. The final note, “THANKS,” to those who cared enough to listen and support him as he was being arrested.

His final blogpost, dated December 1, has the ominous title, “Freedom Under Fire – I Will Die Free!!!” Those three exclamation marks perform defiance and prophecy. But prophecy is rarely agreeable. In “I’ll be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” Melvin Dixon writes, “I am troubled by the power of prophecy inherent in art. One becomes afraid to write because one’s wildest speculations may in fact come true.” Echoing Dixon, MacArthur writes in his final post, “Anyone Can Be Erased.” Those technologies we use so often and so thoughtlessly, taping over old cassettes, reformatting disks, deleting files, erasing hard drives: these are metaphors for what can happen to “Anyone.”

Given MacArthur’s silence, the concerns expressed by his family, that his “continued incarceration may be retaliation for his habit of observing city police at crime scenes and regularly criticizing their activities,” and their further concern that his judicial process is being unduly prolonged, I have been wondering how to return to MacArthur, how to “still listen” not only “to” but “for” him. And about the need to listen “to” and “for” him.

At the moment, his website still features the extended conversation he staged with the police negotiator. Listen to it. Download it. Circulate it.

Consider the kind of testimony it provides. Consider, also, the silence about him that has taken hold. In my (admittedly limited) search for news, I found one website that has updated news. Most of the news dated within the last week rehashes the events of December 1, 2012.

This re-hashing merits some attention, especially to “the last word.”

A follow-up article in the Washington Post claims,

Police say Yerg didn’t alter his tactics even as his every utterance could be heard across the Internet, though they also concede that the negotiations were prolonged as commanders tried to avoid using force.

“This will go right into the training scenario,” said Elbert Shirey, a retired Baltimore deputy police commissioner and former commander of the tactical unit. “They will discuss this in classrooms and go through everything to try and determine how everybody reacted.”

Situations in which suspects take to digital media during fast-moving situations are not unprecedented. This fall in Pittsburgh, a man who took a hostage in an office building posted about his ordeal on Facebook until police cut off his access, fearing it was interfering with their negotiations. But such measures are becoming increasingly difficult.

Notice, first, how this “scenario” becomes incorporated into police training, assimilated into a paradigm that teaches police how to be more efficient. Notice, also, that MacArthur is aligned, by comparison, with a man who “took a hostage.” A strange inversion happens, where, implicitly, MacArthur, trapped inside his house by a SWAT team, is imagined to be holding the police captive.

And then look at the last sentence in the WAPO article:

Yerg said, “We want you to come out.”

The police get the last word. The final word. The word that counts. It matters who gets the last word. It matters, also, how we understand who gets the last word. It matters how we listen for echoes and repetitions.

If you haven’t, go to MacArthur’s website. Listen to his conversation with the police there. Better yet, if you can, download it. And then listen to it. Listen to it as the echo that remains, the voice that persists, the fierce resistance that, in its repetition, refuses to let the police have the last word. The fierce repetition that reminds us there is always another last word.

James MacArthur’s story, the story of that prolonged negotiation and arrest, is not a story of how social media is complicating arrests; nor is it a story about police persistence when faced with unruly suspects; and it is not a story about police improving their training techniques. It is not, in other words, the story mainstream sources have suggested. If you listen to MacArthur, you understand the ecology of the story: it’s a story about Baltimore, about race relations, about living in Waverly, about observing the police, about the pedagogy of race, about the racialization of power. It is a story about how to speak when power surrounds one, when power demands compliance, when power demands silence. It is a story about how criminals are made. It is a story about what Tavia Nyong’o has beautifully described as “the uchromic darkness we inhabit.”

But James MacArthur is not Glenda Moore. Even though both face, in different ways, the question Tavia poses: “What does it mean to be abandoned to life?” And with Glenda Moore, MacArthur also represents “the violent relatedness into which blackness and whiteness are thrown.” One surrounded by a SWAT team, the other abandoned by her white neighbors, but both caught in a world that can only be described through water metaphors, through the afterlives of slavery: the one who jumped the ship-the one who stayed in the hold. These, too, are metaphors. And histories. And memories. And enfleshments of blackness that contour our daily lives.

It matters who gets the last word. But this is not only about who speaks. It’s also about how we choose to listen. Who we choose to listen to. MacArthur reminds us that black voicelessness is as much a function of power as it is about how we learn and choose to listen. His voice exists.

Listen to it.