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.

Internally Displaced Kenyans

[F]rom the perspective of the bracketed, the problem is how to endure the material conditions that compose their limbo.
—Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment

To go back was harder and to go further was hardest, so at last we made up our mind and started to go forward.
—Amos Tutuola, Palm-Wine Drinkard

In early October 2012, the Kenya Parliament passed the Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Bill, 2012. Reporting in the Daily Nation, Caroline Wafula noted that the Bill was designed “to manage internally displaced persons.” This word “manage” is very important. Management took shape formally and rhetorically, through the renaming of the bill, and emerged as a key strategy in parliamentary discussions through a process of bureaucratic erasure. I am interested in how we think about Internally Displaced Kenyans, the strategies we use, the worlds we imagine, the possibilities that emerge, the impossibilities we assume. I want to ask how Internally Displaced Kenyans matter and materialize and how they are, simultaneously, de-materialized and cease to matter.

Until October 2012, the Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Bill, 2012 had been known as the Internally Displaced Persons Bill, 2012. This earlier, shorter naming permitted the fantasy that the bill was owned by Internally Displaced Persons, that they were, to use Kenyan parlance, important stakeholders in shaping Kenya’s histories, memories, presents, and futures. Within this fantasy, the state would serve the needs of Internally Displaced Persons: they would be “managed,” of course, but also granted some measure of agency through the fantasy of ownership. Moreover, the short title embedded Internally Displaced Kenyans within the post-election violence, as necessary metonyms for other displaced populations in the country—more on those later. As metonyms, they could demand a specific response from the rest of the country, as the most visible victims of state neglect, and as incarnations of failed nation-making.

The shift in name refuses that fantasy.

Perhaps the most interesting word in the new title is “Prevention.” “Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities” makes sense; but what is being prevented? And what is the relation between prevention and protection? Prevention and assistance? Prevention assumes a clumsy prophylactic function, delaying (perhaps indefinitely) access to the Internally Displaced Persons, who are now conveniently sandwiched in the middle of coercive and intrusive state procedures (prevention, protection, assistance) and an idea of “affected communities” so broad as to be meaningless. We are all “affected communities.” In the version of the bill I have, the term “affected communities” is not defined, though the term “affected” recurs with alarming frequency, referring to those displaced as “affected” and those in relocation habitats as “affected.” Let me shelve “affected” for now.

This “disappearing” or “burying” of Internally Displaced Kenyans in the title of the bill, and a certain urgency drives me to focus only on the title for now, mirrors their broader erasure from public consciousness. An erasure that has focused our attention on those deemed responsible for the post-election violence; driven us to startling and troubling ethno-nationalisms and ethno-regionalisms; created new public intellectuals who absent Internally Displaced Kenyans in the name of rigorous debate; exacerbated quotidian militarization as an ethno-regional, ethno-national, and national-regional project tied to neoliberal demands and aspirations; and foreclosed rigorous thinking in favor of liberal socio-ethnographic projects that promise empirical and cultural “solutions.”

I want to think a little more about this erasure by looking at an exchange in Parliament. I take this from the August 1, 2012 Hansard. As always, my deep appreciation to Mzalendo for making this—and many other documents—available.

Esther Murugi, Minister of State for Special Programmes, answered questions about the settlement of IDPS posed by Peter Njuguna Gitau, Erastus Mureithi, David Kibet Koech, Peter Njoroge Baiya, Luka Kipkorir Kigen, and Millie Grace Akoth Odhiambo.

Repeatedly, the questions emphasized the “fuzzy” nature of the IDP problem. First, as a problem of numbers. Murugi claimed that the government had resettled 5200 IDP households; was in the process of settling another 2,593; and would then turn its attention to the remaining 1,778 households. But what exactly is a “household”? What does it describe? What configurations of sociality and collectivity? What does it register as loss and violence? In other words, what kind of work does the term “household” perform to affirm and erase the materiality of post-election violence—the deaths of kin and friends; the re-shaping of social units; the ongoing fractures of lived sociality? What kind of confusion does the term “household” produce? This confusion was evident when Koech asked about the 1,778 IDPS still to be resettled, which seemed to translate household into individuals, an equation that is still too easy to make.

Complicating the numbers game, Kigen raised the problem of IDPs at Alco:

Luka Kipkorir Kigen: Mr. Speaker, Sir, there are a number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who were told to decamp from their camp at Alco. They are about 472. What is happening to them because they are not in the camp and have not been given any settlement? What arrangement does the Government have to resettle them?

Esther Murugi : Mr. Speaker, Sir, I am not sure whether I know about these IDPs. Could the hon. Member clarify a little bit on who they are?

Luka Kipkorir Kigen: Mr. Speaker, Sir, Alco is one of those camps which were captured by the Government and it had 759 families. A number of them were taken to Trans Nzoia and 472 families were left behind. The Minister assured them that they would get accommodation by June this year. What is happening now since she has not given them accommodation? What is the arrangement to settle those IDPs?

As with the term “household,” the term “family” here complicates actual numbers and configurations. More interesting is Murugi’s claim not to know—to see as legible—what Kigen describes.

Indeed, Murugi often makes IDPs illegible—to be clear, I am not interested in chastising her; rather, I think her responses exemplify something systemic about the making illegible of Internally Displaced Kenyans. Two more exchanges are worth noting.

Baiya asked about the conditions under which IDPs live:

Peter Njoroge Baiya: Mr. Speaker, Sir, I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that there are some IDPs in Kieni Forest here in Kiambu who, actually, have been involved even in tracing land. They have identified a piece of land somewhere in Laikipia, but the Government, for one reason or another, is unable to assist them to acquire it. They are over 800 families settled in a parcel of about six acres in really squalid conditions. What is the Government doing to ensure that they are helped to buy that land and assisted to resettle out of the forest?

Esther Murugi: Mr. Speaker, Sir, I am aware of the Kieni as well as the other forest evictees. They are all being resettled together. The technical committee has already gone to visit the land. After inspection, they will furnish me with a report. But in the meantime, they are being looked after and they will be resettled as we resettle other forest evictees.

Murugi does not answer the question. Or answers it by making conditions irrelevant. IDPs are to be herded into a space, whatever space is available; the conditions under which they occupy that space do not matter. Cannot matter. The IDPs living in “squalid conditions” are “being looked after.” It’s difficult, here, not to think about the long histories of space-making—as the slave hold, the slave ship, the concentration camp, the detention camp, the slum—through which populations are “managed,” “looked after.” As though to place humans-bodies within a space is to “look after” them. We know from the long histories I’ve listed that placement in space is also about deracination and commodification and dehumanization and, following Elizabeth Povinelli, “making die” and “letting live.”

What does it mean to be legible? How is one made available to the state? In what state? And does that matter?

This question comes to the fore in the last recorded exchange of this particular parliamentary session between Odhiambo and Murugi:

Millie Grace Akoth Odhiambo: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, Sir. You have just heard the hon. Minister say very clearly that they have not covered integrated IDPs within their programme and that they will be covered under a policy. A policy does not actually talk about compensation or anything like that. Is the Minister, therefore, in order to deliberately discriminate or confess that the Government is deliberately discriminating against a category of IDPs?

Esther Murugi: Mr. Speaker, Sir, my mandate was very clear. I was given a data of the people who I was to settle. So, if that is discrimination, maybe it is, but I do not know. However, those are the people I was given to resettle, and that is exactly what I am doing.

For Murugi, Internally Displaced People are those included in the “data” she was “given.” If that “data” has gaps, elisions, erasures, that is not her problem. It might be “discrimination” not to consider the meaningfulness of the term IDP; it might be “discrimination” not to think about how the category IDP is conceived and functions; it might be “discrimination” not to think about the conditions under which those “resettled” actually live.” But this is largely irrelevant to a bureaucratic procedure of managing populations. Murugi is “doing” her job.

By the end of 2011, Kenya had an estimated 250,000 IDPs. In March of 2011, around 20,000 Kenyans were displaced from Mandera in the Kenya vs. Al-Shabaab war. A recent report from the Institute of Security Studies argues that displacements of pastoralist communities in Northern Kenya have been absent from national conversations. These displacements have taken place over decades—that is, over a temporal span that far exceeds the spectacular event of the post-election violence—and in that time, between 200,000 to 400,000 people have been displaced.

Northern Kenyan pastoralist communities risk becoming illegible—I’m being too cautious, are actually rendered illegible—by how the term “internally displaced people” is defined in the bill.

“internally displaced person” means a person or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, large scale development projects, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.

“and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” In other words, pastoralist communities, you are shit out of luck. Northern Kenyan pastoralists become illegible as Internally Displaced Persons, that is, as people the state can accommodate within its frameworks of care, or, rather, management.

In my (admittedly brief) reading of parliamentary discussions focused on IDPs, I am stunned by how much they seem not to matter—materialized and de-materialized as “data”; made legible and illegible through their geographies and lines of ethno-descent; produced as variously human and inhuman through the conditions of their existence; fictionalized as an effect of a cause that is itself absent from discussion; framed as public and national nuisances, reminders and remainders of a time now deemed necessary in our contemporary ethno-national discourses, where the post-election violence is now framed as “teaching us” about the need for ethno-regional unity.

And if the lesson of the post-election violence and efforts to re-settle IDPs is that large populations can be managed into small spaces, into what historians of the prison term spaces of confinement, materialized as data and de-materialized as people who matter.

I’m sorry. I’d prefer not to finish that “if” sentence. But let me try.

It would be a mistake to believe that the unlearned lesson of the post-election violence and the “making” of IDPs has to do with displacement and re-settlement. Instead, I want to suggest that the making of IDPs as data, as material and immaterial, as legible and illegible, offers a fruitful way to think of how class and region function in Kenya, how space, to invoke Katherine McKittrick’s work, produces people and is produced by them.

Since the post-election violence, it has been easier to focus on grievance rather than grief, to pursue “those responsible” than to engage with those left behind as reminders and remainders. Indeed, our response to those reminders and remainders has shifted rapidly, from sympathy and empathy to irritation and annoyance. We want them managed, removed from sight, or, in this election cycle, used as evidence of ethno-regional conflict to marshal ethno-national sentiments.

Now that we have a nicely named bill, it’s tempting to believe that we are “done” with the problem—just as we seem to believe that producing nice long reports solves problems. What would it mean to make Internally Displaced Kenyans a Kenyan problem? How might this shared problem re-orient our geo-histories, compelling us to think as much about Northern Kenya’s pastoralist communities as we do about famers and traders in other Kenyan regions? It seems silly to ask, now, belatedly, what we can learn from the ongoing management of IDP populations, but it also seems urgent as they incarnate ongoing deracination under state management.

Killing Kenyans: One Strike at a Time

Kenyan health professionals—nurses, medical technicians, pharmacists—are on strike. Predictably, the newspapers are featuring stories of the many patients who are dying because of the strike. Health professionals, we are told, lack compassion. Crass materialists, they dare to put their own material comforts above the urgent needs of the most vulnerable: sick women and children. The claims are familiar, uttered in similar tones during the doctors’ strike in 2011.

I prefer not to simplify complex situations, but polemics have their uses.

During the doctors’ strike, we learned about their labor conditions: they worked in under-funded, equipment-deprived conditions catering to massive populations. Their hours were long and their compensation poor. These issues compound: overworked doctors  lacking proper equipment and medication can only improvise for so long. At some point, ingenuity gives way to exhaustion, innovation to depression, experimentation to despair.

Poor labor conditions create material and affective obstacles.

Patients die.

Doctors detailed what it felt like to watch patients die. Kenyans tend to downplay psychic life: we know how to mourn at funerals and how to be angry at politicians, but we are very bad at discussing depression and discouragement, at thinking about the affective life of our labor conditions. And so, when doctors discussed how it felt to watch patients die, we ignored them, spoke of service and duty, claimed that they needed to show up, as though showing up is enough to compensate for the absence of resources.

Doctors said: patients die when we show up because we don’t have resources to treat them. We said show up anyway, refusing to appreciate what it means to watch patients die. To borrow from my pal at Roxie’s World, we demanded excellence without money.

Worse, the mainstream media led the demand for excellence without money. Medical professionals who did not show up caused death. While the presence and expertise of medical professionals *might* prevent death, this *might* becomes ever more precarious without proper resources. And it is a terrible thing to believe that health professionals should go to work to watch patients die.

We learned, also, that doctors were dying: they could not afford the services they were supposed to provide to others. They were also casualties of a system that lacked resources. Doctors could not save themselves.

In response to the recent strike, the government has sacked 25,000 health professionals, including nurses. Excellence without money has been supplemented by excellence without personnel. Apparently, retirees and interns can perform the job of trained health professionals.

Whereas health care professionals are insisting that the material conditions of labor matter for patients and those who provide care, the government is insisting that material conditions do not matter: health professionals should be magicians and professional mourners, able to effect cures without resources and to prepare the sick to approach death.

Regrettably, I am not surprised that the government ignores the recommendations of health professionals. I am not surprised that the government stands by and watches Kenyans die because it refuses to provide resources. I am not surprised that politicians who regularly increase their perks do not believe that Kenyan workers deserve fair labor conditions. I am not surprised that the government stands by while Kenyans die.

Predictably, the government is aided by a mainstream media that ignores the patients who die because of inadequate resources and chastises health professionals for refusing to watch over the dying.

Practically, the government has abrogated its responsibility to create conditions that allow Kenyans to thrive. Comprised of the 0.5%, the government will watch Kenyans die during an election year and do nothing. I suspect that the strike will not last long. I suspect that the health professionals will be forced to return to work. I suspect that, as before, they will watch patients die as those in the government award themselves generous raises and stipends.

The Kenyan government: killing Kenyans, one strike at a time.

Post-Patriarchal: Eulogy for Michuki

Daddy, I have had to kill you—Sylvia Plath

Let us now praise the dead old men. Let us now praise our desiccating fathers. Let us now praise our well-preserved corpses. Let us now praise our obsolescent regimes. Let us now praise our dead old men.

Dance for the dead old men. Dance on and around their graves. Pour libations to the dead old men. Dance for the dead old men. Do not fear their flaccid passions. Dance. Dance. Dance.

Let us now bury the dead old men. Let us dig beyond graves. Dig beyond the earth. Seek graves beyond resurrection. Where clarion calls cannot penetrate. Where worms cannot eat. Where flesh cannot fertilize. Let us now bury the dead old men.

Let us now cherish our dead old men. Hymn their praises. Aria their achievements. Cantata their brutalities. Oratorio their biographies. Benga their benevolence.

And when we are done singing—let us gargle with salty tears.

Let us embalm our dead old men. Seal them beyond memory. Pyramid them beyond excavation. Marble them beyond recognition.

And pray their poison does not leak.

“We Have Chosen To Be Gay”

An anonymous African gay man says,

We have chosen to be gay, that is what we want, and that is what we like. That is what we have chosen and we want to display it.

What does it mean to “choose to be gay”? What does it mean for an African man to “choose to be gay”? I am not interested in claiming that “gay” is a “Western” term so I can privilege alternative terms—kuchu, basha, and so on. Instead, I am interested in “gay” as an object of desire and as choice and as spectacle: “we want to display it.” Because, arguably, what is at stake in most anti-gay legislation is precisely the relationship between choice and spectacle: the making public of what Foucault terms “a way of life.”

Some old ground: In Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta claims there was no homosexuality among the Gikuyu. I have wrestled with this statement for a long time. Was he simply homophobic? Was he so removed from the Gikuyu that his statement carries no weight? (Kenyatta left his rural home at 9 years of age and never “returned” to it.) Was he responding to theories of sexuality in anthropology? (For answers to these, wait for the book, where I address them in complete sentences.) In more generous moments, I have absolved Kenyatta of homophobia and considered his statement a comment on homosexuality in the U.K. Re-framed in this way, it would read, there is no homosexuality among the Gikuyu as exists among the English in 1930s England. This is, perhaps, too generous, but it allows a necessary way of thinking about the geo-histories of homo-sentiment.

All the African anti-homosexuality legislation I have seen and the various reports I have followed focuses on homosexuality as public spectacle: the problem of chinkhoswe for Stephen and Tiwonge; the circulation of queer-friendly material in the form of pamphlets, film, books, posters, music; the public appearance of queer intimacies—same-sex individuals holding hands, kissing, displaying affection. Implicitly, anti-homosexuality campaigns are, more precisely, campaigns against public homosexuality. (I set aside, for the moment, the question of whether homosexuality can exist as private.)

Indeed, Kenya’s minister of justice, Mutula Kilonzo, has followed a Lawrence v. Texas paradigm by arguing that the state has no business monitoring same-sex consensual acts performed in private. In other words, be a gay on your own time, away from innocent African publics.

Practically, we know this doesn’t work. Rowdy homophobes break down doors, invade private residences and rented hotel rooms, leave nasty facebook and email messages, scrawl trollish blog comments (I don’t get this, and if I figured out why, I might offer advice to those who do). The public always breaks through to the private: and one might argue that at least since Oscar Wilde’s trial, homosexuality has been constituted as the making public (through humiliation) of the private.

To “choose to be gay” is not the same thing as “coming out,” even though they both intervene into a public. Here, I use a Foucauldian distinction. Today, coming out is understood as an expression of identity, an “I am this.” And it is troubling, as Samuel Delany explains:

The rhetoric of singular discovery, of revelation, of definition is one of the conceptual tools by which dominant discourses repeatedly suggest that there is no broad and ranging field of events informing the marginal. This is true of science fiction versus the pervasive field of literature; art as compared to social labor; blacks as a marginal social group to a central field of whites; and gay sexuality as marginal to a heterosexual norm. That rhetoric becomes part of the way the marginal is trivialized, distorted, and finally oppressed. For what is wrong with all these seemingly innocent questions—which include, alas, “When did you come out?”—is that each tends to assume that the individual’s subjective field is one with the field of social statistics.

Sexual interests, concerns, and observations form a broad and pervasive field within every personality, as broad a field in me as it is in you, as broad within the straight man as it is in the gay woman. When we speak of burgeoning sexuality, that’s the internal field we speak of—not the social field defined by what percent of us are gay or straight, male or female. The discourse behind that same rhetoric of singularity is, of course, the discourse which stabilizes the belief that a single homosexual event can make an otherwise straight person gay—or that the proper heterosexual experience can “cure” someone gay and turn him or her straight. (“Coming/Out”)

To “choose to be gay” is to contest the singularity of definition, to engage and re-organize the social. It is to shift the air, to pluck at vibrations, to unsettle the low hum of heteronormativity. To bring attention to the silence that passes for normativity by exposing its fiction, disrupting what Elizabeth Freeman terms its “chrononormativities”: the middle-aged gay man who goes out dancing and drinking and fucking instead of staying at home with the wife and kids or cheating on his wife with his mistress. The unattached who trouble our belief in adult heteronormative attachments with their illegible and promiscuous attachments to objects, animals, friends, fictive kin.

To choose to be gay is to contest dominant narratives about life trajectories: school, work, marriage, children, grandchildren death. One acquires, instead, and perhaps, tricks, lovers, cum-encrusted souvenir jock straps, an STI or two, dildos, cockrings, massive porn collections, open relationships, a houseful of cats, poetry. One accumulates a narrative that requires narrating, complicating the unspoken scripts prepared for us to follow.

One notes, to the state’s consternation, that the unspoken script is damaged: soaked in floods, rubbed through mud, eaten by termites. Words are illegible, the language foreign, the instructions unfathomable. That to live is to innovate, to practice what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living.” Such experiments trouble the ostensible stability envisioned by the state and privileged by tradition. They trouble the narrow trajectories that manage “population.” They trouble the quotidian heteronormative, heterocetera interactions that lubricate the social. They make “trouble.”

Those who “choose to be gay” offer the disturbing possibility that attachments and affiliations can be chosen outside of state-sanctioned norms. That there are ways of living not envisioned in school textbooks. That how we choose to live matters just as much, if not more, than how we are supposed to live.

To choose what one “likes” over one’s “duty.”
So much depends on the latter.
Too much.

Bad Activist Women! Bad!

The Nancy Baraza-Rebecca Kerubo story dominated Kenyan minds prior to the ICC ruling that now consumes our time. I want to think about the context of the case against Deputy Chief Justice Baraza, more specifically, the role of women activists and the much-debated gender requirements of the constitution.

To give the quick and dirty, DCJ Baraza is accused of pinching Kerubo’s nose and, later, threatening to shoot Kerubo, who was trying to perform her duties as a security guard at one of Nairobi’s most exclusive malls, the Village Market. Baraza reportedly told Kerubo that she should “know [important] people” and, implicitly, not trouble them with the minutiae of mall security procedures.

Since the case broke, public comments on newspaper articles have highlighted Baraza’s status as an activist and reformer:

What an embarrassment to the women’s movement, FIDA, and women lawyers as a whole! Lady up madam and act with the decorum that deserves that office you hold!

Ms. Baraza, Power! Power!

Kenyans, it is now my pleasure to present to you the so-called reformers.

We are getting what we asked for. We have chosen to have radicals as our judges. We have chosen to have ‘born stubborns’ as our referees. We thought we could change them, but here we are. Once stubborn/radical, always one.

One more reason why I cannot vote for a woman to be president. It is not a male chauvinism but just an age old observance of African ladies who have power over their subjects. Sorry if I have hurt the feminists and the politically correct individuals.

The real issue as mentioned here is the quality of vetting for these jobs. All the plum jobs are going to members of a small “club” of civil society players whose main claim to fame is globe-trotting, Ivy league education and support for Western values especially gay rights. But these guys are untested in the real world of work. Worse, as in the case of Baraza and MM they are or are perceived to be arrogant and out of touch with “Wanjiku”.

Critics have blamed Baraza’s behavior on her gender. Murithi Mutiga, for instance, describes the courtly behavior of leading lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee when faced with a difficult situation to suggest that men know how to handle power. As he notes in an aside, “If it’s any consolation, though, at least [Baraza’s] boss [Willy Mutunga, the Chief Justice] is . . . one of the most easygoing judicial officials you will ever meet.”

We will be saved by our men—perhaps even by those accused of crimes against humanity.

It is worth remembering that the Kenyan parliament—or whoever is in charge of these things—has not yet come up with a formula for complying with the gender rules of the constitution—no more than 2/3 of seats shall be occupied by more than one gender, even as presidential appointments of ministers and senior leaders continue to ignore gendered considerations. In the meantime, Kenyan women continue to undergo scrutiny: newspaper and magazine articles continue to emphasize their natural roles as wives and mothers: wives and mothers are too busy to stretch their minds. And those who do are unnatural and have unhappy husbands or boyfriends. Week after week, the newspapers print yet another disciplinary column instructing women to act like women if they want to get and keep men.

Successful women are described as arrogant—DCJ Baraza is now, unfortunately, the poster child of the arrogant woman who cannot handle power. Many fingers have been wagging in versions of “bad woman, bad!” Others, “bad activist, bad!” Others, “bad reformer, bad!” And the lesson we are enjoined to learn is that women cannot handle power. Activists and reformers are hypocrites.

Women activists are the worst hypocrites!

Meanwhile, we have yet to ask persistent questions about class politics: what is alleged to have happened between Baraza and Kerubo represents quotidian interactions between Kenyan employers and employees. One need only walk into Nakumatt or Uchumi or Chandarana to see any number of wealthy women striding around followed by their uniformed maids pushing heavy carts or, at times, carrying the two light items that employers dare not deign to carry. It’s not uncommon to enter stores in town where employers openly insult employees. And domestic workers in Kenya are, to borrow Zora’s language, the “mules” of the world.

While I do not want to ignore the specificity of the Baraza-Kerubo interaction, I’m interested in how we might use it to frame and enable other discussions about labor practices and politics in Kenya. (I totally had no idea this post was going to head this direction—I thought I was writing something else. I’ve been thinking a lot about the occupy movement and how it might speak to Kenya, where our version of the 1% are comfortably situated within government positions or in near proximity to office holders.)

The conflation and condemnation of women-activists-reformers upholds the myth of a benevolent, gentlemanly patriarchy while obscuring substantive discussions of class privilege. Those who have critiqued DCJ Baraza’s “arrogance” have ignored class and labor and focused on gender and activism, that is, Baraza does not represent the moneyed elite to which she belongs, but, rather, women activists. (I’m splitting hairs for strategic reasons.)

DCJ Baraza is our contemporary Wangu wa Makeri, a leader who, in some versions of the story, got drunk on power and misbehaved in public. The lesson of Wangu wa Makeri, one taught in primary schools when I attended, is that women cannot be trusted with power. They will always misuse it.

In treating the Baraza-Kerubo case as a lesson in “when women misbehave” we ignore the very real conversations we need to be having about Kenya’s version of the 1%, who have thrived under Kibaki, and the many others who struggle to survive in a country that barely acknowledges they exist.

Silence in Audre Lorde

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

The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not
–Audre Lorde, “The Black Unicorn”

Audre Lorde’s poetry is infinitely quotable. While claimed for a largely confessional feminist tradition, Lorde reads more as a late modernist: hard-edged, crystalline, difficult. This unacknowledged difficulty reveals itself in the dearth of criticism on Lorde’s poetry. A lot has been written on Zami (though not enough); her essays are cited all the time; but her poetry remains neglected. Lorde will not let language turn into chant or slogan. In reading her poetry, one is forced to wrestle with the complications of breaking silence. Lorde is known, after all, for the slogan, “Your silence will not protect you.” Yet, her poetry suggests that breaking silence need not lead to liberation. Silence has a far richer life in Lorde, and breaking silence carries with it “the weight of hearing” (“Outlines”).

History is not kind to us
we restitch it with living
past memory forward
into desire
into the panic articulation
of want without having
or even the promise of getting. (“On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge”)

Lorde’s “want” unsettles me. A “panic articulation” of the unrealizable, it inhabits the neighborhood of failure, but a failure that we cannot do without. When I taught her work a year ago, I kept wondering what it meant to fail to read her, how to think through her impossible syntax, the race-queer-feminist labor of impossible syntax. It was easy to fall back onto discussions of queer ineffability, but even those did not quite work—they were too easy and not quite right, not embedded in the right histories. At the time, I told my students that Lorde’s readers had used her essays to explain away her poetry—we were going to try to inhabit its fractures and gaps, its hard lines. To understand how, for instance, “Coniagui women” feed their sons “yam soup / and silence” to turn them into “men.”

The difficult lessons of silence:

Harriet there was always somebody calling us crazy
or mean or stuck up or evil or black
or black
and we were
nappy girls quick as cuttlefish
scurrying for cover
trying to speak trying to speak
trying to speak
the pain in each others mouths
until we learned
on the edge of a lash
or a tongue
on the edge of the other’s betrayal
that respect
meant keeping our distance
in silence (“Harriet”)

Respect, and yet, to give that up, to abandon the “vanities of silence” to “war and weep” (“For Assata”). Even as,

When we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid (“A Litany for Survival”)

In retrospect, I was trying to teach about silence in Lorde. But how does one teach about silence? Or teach silence? And what is the value of silence in Lorde? We have been so insistent on breaking it, ignoring it, shelving it, silencing it, that we have risked missing it. Missing its awkward demands. But what are the demands of silence? What might it mean to inhabit its space-time?

This is too hard.

I am tired of holy deaths
of the ulcerous illuminations the cerebral accidents
the psychology of the oppressed
where mental health is the ability
to repress
knowledge of the world’s cruelty
. (“Eulogy for Alvin Frost”)

I marked this up in my book; we read the poem in class; I could not talk about the part I’ve emphasized. Published in 1978, it felt much too raw to become part of a classroom conversation. Reading Lorde was too hard, exposing scars I thought long healed. One might talk about vulnerability in the classroom—but the psychic costs of it are unbearable. One manages. Somehow. And learns not to teach Lorde again.

One cannot anticipate the minefields of the classroom. For certain bodies—black, queer, foreign—the vulnerabilities embraced in U.S.-born professors rarely translate. The affective tax is too high, the ideological demands impossible, the experiment bound to fail. One remains professional, theoretical, detached, cold.
In the silence, one hears Lorde’s echoes. Listen.

Our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence. (“A Song for Many Movements”)

Labor is not “speech.” It can be. And Lorde’s echoes—there are so many of them. Who is being persuaded? What conditions enable the echo? What silences are needed by the echo?

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being
ready to kill
instead of your children. (“Power”)

I was looking for an argument about silence. But I find myself “rushing headlong / into new silence” (“Smelling the Wind”). Knowing (or believing) with Lorde,

There is a timbre of voice
that comes from not being heard
and knowing you are not being
heard noticed only
by others not heard
for the same reason. (“Echoes”)

That is not quite right. But I don’t know how to continue. Perhaps that is the lesson of silence.

Where are Kenya’s Leaders?

An update from the DN reads:

Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka at Eldoret North MP William Ruto Karen’s residence in Nairobi. He joins Ministers Samuel Poghisio, Ali Mwakwere and other Members of Parliament allied to the newly formed United Republican Party (URP) who have also converged at the residence. 12:56 pm.

Are any of our leaders at IDP camps? Or at sites where bodies were burned? Buried?

With the people (and the ghosts) this process is supposed to be about?

PEV Ghosts

We must put the ghosts of 2007/8 behind us.
–Uhuru Kenyatta

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
–T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

A skeletal hand scrabbles though the muck of forgetting. This year the maize tastes richer. Grazers seem more intelligent. They make terrified noises at night. The wind wails. We have yet to complete funeral rites. The ghosts are waiting.

I am seeking ghosts.

This is risky.

Ghosts lack clear memories, are outlets of emotion, repositories of bad affect. They do not know where to direct their anger. To the ghost, I am as culpable of murder as the hand that lifted the machete, set fire to the church, stood aside and watched.

It’s dangerous to face the anger of ghosts.

It’s even more dangerous to face the truths ghosts tell, “tongued with fire.”

Burning Kenya again.



Raising the temperature on our perpetual simmer. Creating hot spots that cannot and will not be governed by police forces who were silent and absent and complicit in 2007/8. The sizzle of then.

From the right angle, a whiff of rotting flesh.
Tomorrow the ICC judges rule on something that is by now irrelevant: whether the so-called Ocampo Six will face trial. It is irrelevant because two of the six are running for president—they have supporters and machinery—and have said, boldly, that the ICC’s ruling will not affect their presidential aspirations. It is irrelevant because Kenya, in its treatment of Bashir and its actions during the ICC process, has signaled its willingness to shield the six on the grounds that the ICC is racist and anti-African. It is irrelevant because at least four of the six are so intimately connected with Kenyan power that their downfall threatens root structures we can only imagine. It is irrelevant because the creation of the six as six erased the dead and displaced. We started talking about the six and, as our leaders implored, we forgot about the rest. We forgot the Kenya of rotting flesh and focused on the Kenya of gleaming cars. We were dazzled. Distracted. Forgot why the ICC mattered. Ignored the haunting ghosts.

I am seeking haunting ghosts.

They frighten me.

I am not brave.

This must be done.
After Samuel’s death, King Saul consulted the Witch of Endor and asked her to raise Samuel’s ghost. On rising, Samuel asked, “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?”

The ghosts I seek come in waves of anger and rage—angry they have been forgotten, angry they died too young, angry that I refuse to let them rest. And still I seek them. Need to seek them. Listen for them in winter winds. Taste them in Kenyan food.

I am seeking ghost raisers—mediums who will risk their sanity, witches who will risk their lives, artists who will face the darkness. Kenyans who will face the darkness.

Not with the certainty of “never again.” Not with the bravado of “next time we will be prepared.” Not with the anxiety of plane tickets in hand to escape. Not with the comfort of faith or family. Not with the habits of living through troubled times.


Open to the madness of ghosts.

Open to memories that should never be owned.

Open to the lingering cries of the dying.

Of those we once called ours.