On Love, On Kindness, On Care

tell them how we died
–ICC Witness #64

Many people will never testify before the international criminal court, or whatever its past and future equivalents might be. It is an impossible court, a court that can never hear the ghosts who flock to its chambers, hoping to hear their names, their stories. Ghosts who rustle through court documents looking for answers, seeking something beyond a justice forever denied. In this most haunted of courts, impossible stories are sought.

A chorus of voices:

I was walking to buy milk
I was playing with friends
I was washing the laundry
I was hopingpraying not to die

What is the collective name for the bombkilled? The governmentdisappeared? The policeslaughtered? The warerased? The developmentsacrificed? What is the collective name for the collateraldamaged? The lookedliketerrorists? The didnotrunfastenough? The livedinthewrongarea? The inthelineoffire? The borninthewrongskinbodyreligiontimegender?
And, still, I cannot stop thinking of love, of kindness, of care.
Four girls in a church: Four boys on a beach

Something resonates

(I can’t help thinking about the football-hating child, the book-loving child, found by a bomb a few pages before a story’s climactic end)

bomb-attracting children

bomb-attracting bodies
One asks friends for unimaginable things: to imagine with one, to provide words that travel in the fear-suffused spaces, in the death-saturated spaces.

Earlier today, I imagined a parent explaining to a child why another parent’s child has to die: “this is my gift to you,” a child-killing parent might say.

I wanted to believe that this child would say: “could we not have had a play date instead?” I wanted to believe in the myth of the peace-bearing child.

More than that: I wanted to believe in the myth of the parent who hears. To believe there might be a person with the ability to make power listen.

These are world-building killings. World-sustaining killings. World-imagining killings.

The “end” of this killing extends these imaginations—births their persistence, demands their use.

(Even now, death-makers learn new rhetorics, new bodily vernaculars, new ways to extend power, adopt new justifications to eliminate life)

(those were death-attracting bodies)
And so, one turns to prayer, to song

You died on the hum of a million voices raised in prayer
but I forget: it’s “tell them how we died”

They died walking, standing, sitting, running
They died terrified
They died having forgotten how to dream

water memories

Before I can return to where I hope to resurrect sensation, I turn back, a familiar and, in many ways, inevitable turning. Faced with today’s nightmares, I need not pursue yesterday’s.

In summer 1996, having learned how to take long distance buses in the U.S., I bused to Mombasa. I came to find the meaning of that trip.

I cannot go back to where I came from. It no longer exists. It should not exist.
–Dionne Brand

An image lingers: a man on a busy street handling his crotch. I do not know if he was fondling himself or scratching, and while I know what he looked like, I cannot describe him. Somehow, description seems irrelevant. I’m tempted to add that the ways we have of describing humans are so saturated with racist assumptions from colonial modernity that description must be—can only be—debilitating. I recall the excitement of my desire for him, how unfocused and bashful it was, how world-tilting. In part, this experience suggests why I react to Samuel Delany’s work as I do: he has the remarkable capacity to render such axis-shifting moments.
A frieze of quotations adorns the little Book First at the City Mall Nakumatt. All the quotations exhort those browsing to read, promising the sorts of thing that such things promise. Some of the names are familiar—Katherine Mansfield, William Styron, John Ruskin. The rest elude me. Helpful annotations make them legible: American essayist, American novelist, American this, American that, English this, and, surprisingly, Chinese that.

Not a single quotation is by an African author.

A creature of (terrible) habits, I have come to the mall, a space I find conceptually interesting. Graduate school habits remain, so I go to malls on weekdays, at hours when most 9-5 people are at work. At such times, malls have different ecologies: the moms who lunch, the seniors who exercise, the tourists, the job seekers. Malls feel less frantic, less harried than during holidays and weekends. At least, this is how I explain this (terrible) habit.

A man—the original version of this had “gentleman”—sits at a table, takes out his phone, looks irritated when a female server approaches to offer a menu. In what I am told is Kenyan vernacular, he does not look at her. Kenyans, I am told, do not look at wait staff. Wait staff must be unimagined as human, as worth seeing.

Malls are a kind of sameness, and this one is not particularly interesting. Perhaps its bland availability most closely approximates what I came to excavate, a name from childhood—Nyali. Incarnated in this particular artifact might be an unfettered delight that once existed, a carefree laugh of the kind I no longer remember enjoying.

Nostalgia might be this impossible search for what one is told must have existed.
Here, at the Gateway to the World, the Door of No Return feels pressing, present in the hues and shades and physiognomies around me, present in the lingua franca that here, perhaps more than elsewhere, lives as a borrowing and an imposition, a stealing and a surviving, a trade language accented by coffles and whips. To become Mswahili, a book tells me, is to be deracinated, to refuse to follow the ethno-legalisms and ethno-rituals that sustain a precarious, ever-unraveling we:us.

To be here, at the Door of No Return, might be to ask how one inhabits the black body, how one “takes part in its mask, its performance.”

Part of what I have wanted is to follow the traces that might unmake this:here as inevitable, to find a wedge that might begin to chip away at those ossifications that started as strategies.
I return, again, to Nobody Knows My Name, a book in which Baldwin tries, repeatedly, to (re)claim an American-ness that he insists is in his blood, an American-ness that he cannot escape. Belonging and attachment wrestle in Baldwin, in a way that they do not in Audre Lorde. Her too-recent immigrant sensibility, to put it crudely, her proximity to the Door of No Return, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for her to claim the promises that Baldwin and, before him, Hughes and Du Bois, claims as his inheritance. But, perhaps, women are always disinherited from promises men claim so easily, too easily. Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood struggles to find a genre within which women in the Americas can survive, let alone thrive. Which leads me back, oddly, to Nobody Knows My Name, a quest narrative looking for the languages and sensations that might make the U.S. possible for Baldwin.
Water Memories:

Water memories are forbidden memories, forbidding memories, disciplined memories, impossible memories. Lines on a map show where people like me might have been taken—stolen, coffled, traded. Other lines, hidden lines, unspeakable lines, exist as traces in many elsewheres I was trained to unrecognize. “We” is a huddling together, a house with no exits, no travel paths, no water memories. Water memories are slip-away memories, wash-away memories, trace-erasing memories.

The road knows that where you find yourself you are.
–Dionne Brand

Every family has stories of the disappeared, the not-talked-about, the grief- or fear- or rage-inducing names, the lingering unforgotten, the shame, the scar, the oozing wound. One learns to unsay particular names, to erase the brief shadows that every so often haunt faces that have forgotten to forget.

Water memories might name a particular fantasy of unforgetting. A wish that something might wash up on time’s shore.
What would one do if one encountered a trace from the forgotten?

More than once, in other elsewheres, I have seen faces I know how to recognize. Traces of long-forgotten migrations, past-unmaking thefts. An idea that we might once have been legible to each other in other ways. We meet, instead, in this stranger-making present. We trade nods or avert gazes, rub suddenly salt-encrusted eyes.

Some of us want entry into the home and nation that are signified by these romances.
–Dionne Brand

A cut at the root.

Picture a root system shaped by terror. Everywhere growths certain that most will not survive, hoping that some might. Multiply this image, forest it. Listen to the song-making leaves, to the song-fleeing wind. Stand in this moment, not because you can, but because you must.
The ocean is more disturbed today, more insistent as it swells and carries, moves and unsettles. Nearby, ocean-born children play with such ease, such fearlessness. I wonder how many generations it takes for terror to dissipate. Slavery on this coast was formally abolished in 1907. The dispossessed linger, those saved from slave-bearing ships only to encounter the ethno-nationalist independent state that refuses to grant attachment, belonging, legibility.

What do those washing their feet in the ocean hope to wash away?

What do those looking out over the ocean hope to find?

Perhaps the terra-memories I cling to, the land-soil green I profess, can only be imagined because of water memories: the land also has its terrors.

There are ways of constructing the world—that is, of putting it together each morning, what it should look like piece by piece—and I don’t feel that I share this with the people in my small town.
–Dionne Brand

A slash at the root.

The bars on the windows here echo the former prison this restaurant abuts. Patterns linger across geographies, cross-fertilize, become traces and memories.

And what this place was called in its own language I do not know.
–Dionne Brand

20 hours into a too-long train trip, I remain entranced by trees.

We have stopped again—I’m not sure where. We keep stopping at seemingly random place, made even more random by the uneven lengths of the stops. A minute here, twenty there, two hours wherever. Sometimes, if you look out of the window fast enough, a name appears, train towers in various states of use and disuse, curious, indifferent, and hostile faces.

Geographies unfold—this is the promise of the train trip: a geography will unfold.

We pass through water-parched lands that stripped water memories from the stolen. Water memories might linger in long-lived trees.

Mello, Mello PQ

a b c d e f g
h i j k
mello mello pq
—singing the alphabet

A few hours away from Mombasa, the train was delayed in a small town for about two hours. Young men from the town were playing volleyball, a sight that seemed to enrapture the Australian tourists on the train. As though to damage that rapture, a man with a guitar showed up to “hakuna matata” and “buffalo soldier” away any pleasure that might still be found in those songs. About 45 minutes into their play, a small group of children outside my window began to produce a national vernacular: they started attempting to sing the national anthem. A little earlier, one of them had attempted to start singing another song—one I did not recognize—but none of the others had joined in. But something about the anthem compelled participation, as one, and then more voices joined in. It was, I thought, an odd choice, but perhaps its origins as a lullaby linger in some way, making it available as a different structure of feeling.

That they tried to sing the anthem was unusual in itself, but not particularly noteworthy. It became noteworthy because of how many times they tried to sing it: starting over and over, mostly in Swahili, but at least once in English. The third line, “haki iwe ngao na mlinzi,” kept coming out as a version of “mello, mello pq,” garbled, cobbled together, a fiction, while the final lines, “ natukaye na uhuru / amani na undugu / raha tupate na ustawi,” simply would not come. Instead, they kept substituting, “nchi yetu ya Kenya/ tunayoipenda / tuwe tayari kuilinda.”

The children were young, yes, but certainly old enough to know the words to an anthem mastered by 5-year olds. More jarring, was that this particular unfluency followed rapid conversations in musical, colloquial Swahili. What was it, I wondered, about this particularly bureaucratic form of Swahili that made it forgettable, impossible, infinitely substitutable?

But, also, what is it about now that makes uhuru (liberty/freedom), amani (peace), undugu (fraternity), raha (joy/happiness), and ustawi (prosperity) so impossible to contemplate? What is it that makes togetherness so difficult to imagine, and, consequently, a kind of “mello, mello pq”? As opposed to togetherness, one gets a jingoistic nationalism, dedicated to loving the country and, as a result, defending it. This might be termed the quotidian life of militarization.

One might say that I’m making too much of this small moment. Perhaps I am. Samuel Delany teaches me that shifts in the nature of the social, in possibilities for togetherness, take place as shifts within discourse, within what is said, what it is possible to say, what it is possible to imagine saying. And the by-now multiple-year shift to “Kenya must be defended,” which takes Somalia (or unfriendly figures within Somalia, terrorists and pirates) as that against which Kenya must defend itself, has shaped languages and imaginations, displacing certain imaginative and ethical possibilities.

One sees these narrowed possibilities—the visual is key here, as metaphor and evidence—in the now widely-deployed (military metaphors must be used) “security discourse.” A range of actual and self-anointed security experts now pronounce, unceasingly, on “what Kenya needs.” Across a range of media, “security failures” and “insecurity” traffic as a new, powerful vernacular, whether discussing security as an ethno-nationalist problem (“we must arm ourselves against those others out to destroy us”), taking security as the key facet of the 41 v. 1 narrative (“arm the young men to protect or destroy”), or framing security as a problem of the everyday (“we must all be on the alert”). Security becomes the bribe paid to extorting police so that they will not harass and rape vulnerable Somalis; it becomes the equality-unimagining advice given to women (“dress like this,” walk like this,” don’t go here or there”).

Security discourse has become an unimagining of possibilities. A turtling in, it cannot admit that freedom matters, that a togetherness is possible based on amity rather than fear and intimidation. It swallows other languages, other world-envisioning, world-making possibilities, creating itself as the only thing (what’s the right word here?) that merits attention.

On twitter, one sees #tribekenya, a failed attempt to forge an ethno-national collectivity, more pernicious, I think, than the forced collectivity of #weareone. These might be called failed performatives, as they attempt to sew together pieces that simply will not fit, materials that cannot possibly stick together. Here, I do not mean that togetherness is unimaginable or even impossible. Rather, I mean that peformatives that ignore the material conditions within which they are embedded must fail.

Such performatives become mello, mello pq, garbled versions of futures that seem even more distant.

To speak of imagination and freedom now, in Kenya and elsewhere, is to speak in mello, mello pq, to speak a garbled language that has no place in a public discourse consumed by security, insecurity, unsecurity, and securitization. Those of us who insist on freedom and imagination are deemed irrelevant idealists, precisely because our terms do not come with huge security-buying, security-enhancing budgets. Nor do they come with the approbation of international partners.

Security discourse is seductive—it makes one feel grown-up, relevant, as though one is participating in a “national conversation” about “important matters.” It is, also, at least in this particular case, an imagination-eating discourse, so consuming that it does not leave space for any other kind of thinking, feeling, being.

And so our public imaginations are narrow—how to survive, destroy, replace. Our public discourses are narrow—how to arrest, destroy, profit. Our public assemblies are narrow—hymns to ethno-patriarchal, ethno-nationalist fantasies. And those who dare to imagine other worlds, other possibilities, creep away, remain silent, feel the weight of their irrelevance.

At a moment when fantasies of togetherness have been replaced with ethno-nationalist and ethno-patriarchal militarization in the name of “security,” those of us attempting to imagine other possibilities might struggle to turn off, turn away, turn inward, turn anywhere that might detoxify our dreams, nurture our fantasies, make attachment hurt less.


What happens if you stand in a moment like this?
—Dionne Brand

I sit looking at recovered and restored cannons, next to one of the phallic memorials with which men like to be remembered, marveling, not for the first time, at the memory-making, memory-stealing, memory-hoarding capacities of war. We live in aggressively militarized times, when the distinction between the war-killed and the peace-killed becomes insignificant, a bureaucratic exercise in tallying and official declarations—“war has not been officially declared.” Monuments to phallic death, with their pre—viagra fantasies of eternal erections, become newly threatening.

A monument to an obsolescent empire becomes a daily reminder of perpetual war.

I’m struck, again, by how much I loathe the unethical references to “THE GREAT WAR” and “WORLD WAR,” labels that minimize the death-making of “skirmishes,” “rebellions,” “riots,” “uprisings,” “clashes.” One keeps asking how a war is to be understood, what losses count, what monument-making (un)remembers.

A man sits astride a cannon.

I enter Fort Jesus.
In conversation with Yvonne Owuor, I discover that, despite my protests otherwise, I am also a descendant of the waters. English came on a ship, we say. And while I am standing on the ruins of an empire the Portuguese were never able to hold and build, I feel the weight of all the recovered and restored cannons I can see. Looking out from the fort’s ramparts onto the ocean, seeing the defending carronades—guns with heavy bore, developed in 1779 by the British Navy, for short range battering of ships and buildings—I begin to see the fantasies that fueled empire building. Looking out from here, it seems possible, and even inevitable, to desire all that one surveys.
Polite signs everywhere bear elaborate names—“Passage of the Steps,” “Passage of the Arches”—and even more polite warnings that “graffiti” and suchlike will destroy “our heritage.” I smile at every little bit of defacing graffiti I see, every “X WAS HERE,” even as those names—Mary, Steve, John, Moses—testify to imperial success.

A room titled “Portuguese Paintings” grants gravitas to crudely executed 500-year-old graffiti. Even crude graffiti racializes. I’m grateful for the insistence with which so many have insisted on penciling their names on this room’s walls, a riposte to the crude images, a list of names from those whose ancestors would never have been deemed able to write, draw, imagine, respond.
The Fort is a series of warrens: too-high stairs and too-low doorways that lead to more stairs and more doorways. A guide leads schoolchildren aged, perhaps, from 6 to 9: he uses a random “uingereza” to describe those who once populated this place, and I wonder if, for him, that name captures all whiteness.

A brief, educational exhibition on slavery begins,

After consistent struggle by individuals, the abolitionists, religious and other relevant groups, slavery was gradually abolished in different parts of the world.

A list of names follows: England, France, the U.S.A., Zanzibar, Mauritania

As always: where is Haiti?

To ask, “where is Haiti?” is to ask a paradigm-changing question, one that foregrounds black resistance, black collaboration, black agency, black history making, black world-making. It is a dangerous question. A question that colonial-era museums, such as this one, cannot allow.

Founded in 1960, this museum attempts to mask the end of empire. From 1895 to 1958, the British used it as a prison. Little remains from that period. The carefully-curated museum, assembled from donations by British-sounding names, traces a history of the region from the 8th century through the 19th, a period of invasions: here, one sees the Arabs, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the English, and, rarely, an item that might be identified as “indigenous” or “local.” An emergent Kenya exists nowhere in this memory-making place. It is, in fact, against project Kenya. Against an imagination that sees this space free from domination.

The displayed objects are discrete: one is not to imagine this region as a vibrant place of exchange and travel, a place of mixing and blending, a place where lives were made and remade, pasts forgotten and presents imagined.

As I look at “bullet pouches” from the 19th Century, two young women enter the exhibition space. One poses in front of multiple objects while the other takes photographs. They are absolutely uninterested in the displayed objects, in this plunder framed as history. I approve. There is nothing for them here.

As I prepare to leave, a sign catches my eye, a translation from an inscription now too faded to read: It says that a twenty-seven-year-old Fransisco de Seixas de Cabriene was commander of this fort. That he came to subject the people of the Coast, to quell rebellions, to inflect punishment, to chastise locals, to make them pay tribute.

Another museum, another group of school-age children. How, I wonder, will they remember this trip.
I now carry Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return with me, a work that Baldwin could not—was not permitted to—imagine.

History, after all, is a permission giver.

Brand offers me water memories. I came to the coast even though—or perhaps because—I hate beaches. If I believed more in wind-persistent-memories, I might say that sand, that most abrasive of soils, more easily retains the pain- and loss-memories of the snatched away, the neck collared, the names erased because their burden could not be borne. Water memories are steal-away memories, stolen-away memories, soul-stealing memories.

Sirens linger on soul-abrading sand.

Ukimwi Upo

The sign blares down a street—Makadara, I believe—at least three times. A declarative. It’s situated next to a youth centre (I want to write center). Ukimwi Upo. I’m reading Michael Nava’s Goldenboy, an AIDS novel from the midst of the plague—1988. The main character, Henry Rios, a lawyer, has taken on a case to repay a favor to another lawyer, a friend dying from AIDS. He has also fallen in love with a younger man, a 22-year-old who has been diagnosed as positive. The novel is pedagogical: Henry kisses his friend and his new lover, but, when offered bareback sex of the “you can always pull out before you shoot” variety, he refuses. You will be tempted, the book says, but you can be smart: you can say no.

Ukimwi Upo sounds fatalistic—I see no ads for condoms, no advice about testing, none of the resources that I take for granted as life-saving, as life-enhancing, as life-sustaining. How is one to read these repetitions? Especially when they are so concentrated—so noticeable because they are so concentrated? I did not walk much—probably 2 hours or so—but I did not notice the ads elsewhere. One notices what presses on one. This is a strategy, and, given how crowded this particular street seemed, how full of young life, perhaps it makes sense to concentrate the signage there.

Signs are also population-making, subject-producing. And I wonder about the kinds of populations being created by these particular signs, by their peculiar concentration.

I wonder, as well, about their tone. Ukimwi Upo. AIDS Exists. Or, if one presses, AIDS Is. Or AIDS Is Here. Translated into English, I can hear the prophetic, the seer, the blind sage screaming out warnings.
Men on the street ask to change the dollars they are positive I have.
Other signs.

The signs are insistent, weaving James Gichuru Rd. in Nairobi and Nkrumah St. in Mombasa. When I first returned to Kenya, I noticed the PLOTS FOR SALE signs everywhere.
the young woman serving me says she hopes I’m not writing a book as she doesn’t want to appear as a character. I assure here that I don’t write about people I meet. A promise I break when, a second later, as she takes my order, I mention I’m vegetarian.

“What happened to men eating beef?”
Men still eat beef, I respond.
“Okay, competition is getting tougher,” she flounces.

An interruption because her final comment is so cryptic. Has my pink scarf has given me away? That I am unmasked as queer? Or is it that there is some competition for beef–or beef-eating men–of which I am blissfully unaware?
Perhaps I noticed the Plots For Sale signs because of the For Sale signs that filled Maryland when I arrived there in January 2009, after the market crashed. Speaking with friends based elsewhere, I tried to describe the mass of “SALE” signs accompanied by “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.” These signs signaled a certain failure into which I had inserted myself. The Plots For Sale signs along the roads into and out of the Rift Valley similarly felt like failures, especially because I was surrounded by people for whom plot accumulation was a game, severed from any ethical consideration. Plot accumulation did not care for how any piece of land came to be plotted—how it was acquired, how it was divided, how it was written and written over. The plot imaginary, as I thought of it then, incarnated one of the worst aspects of ethics-free capitalism: the vast failure of an ethical imagination.
The news this morning tells me that human rights defenders in Mombasa tried to hold a peaceful demonstration. They were teargassed and some were arrested. Even though I receive the news in the past tense, I delay my exit from the hotel, unsure of my geography. When I finally leave, I adopt the same careless wayward strolling that, somehow, has kept me safe in multiple cities.
Unlike others I know, I have never been a picaro.
The PLOT NOT FOR SALE signs contain, within them, an entire history of the emergence of Kenya—of stolen lands, unfair contracts, the minutia of colonial bureaucracy, the acquisitive hunger of the newly independent, the many lives of dispossession in the names of progress, development, settlement, resettlement.

A name: Mpeketoni

It appears three or four times in the Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission: one of many names for historical injustice. A cry from a persistent wound. A barely-there disturbance from a place considered a solution. A struggling indigeneity.

A stray comment: about this, we shall pray.

Mpeketoni has become a changing body count—over 35, over 42, over 47, over 48 killed. The deaths from some attacks are multi-generational—they do not sit neatly in instant ledgers.

Mpeketoni has become a ghostly story to chase, a crude tool in the hands of otherwise indifferent politicians. Forgotten as it’s taken up. Because some deaths—many deaths—cannot be allowed to take attention away from “larger issues.” Like so many other Kenyas, Mpeketoni calls out to be enfleshed—but with what flesh? The obscene red-green-black-white that has already taken so much?

Too much.

I do not know how to think of Mpeketoni—of its long histories and entanglements, of its intimacies and privations, of its making and unmaking, of the ethno-nationalisms and ethno-indigeneities with which our truncated imaginations populate it. Multiple imaginations—mine included—continue to attempt to wield Mpeketoni in ways that unimagine it, unpopulate it, undo its being before our competing imaginations.

We plot it.
Certain places are unimaginable. I marvel at the courage of Gloria Wekker and Omi Tinsley, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, Alex Haley and M. NourbeSe Philip—those who dare to imagine the slave ship. Not only as it stole, killed, and delivered, but also as it sailed, as it ate flesh and muscle, as it transformed resistant subjects into resistant objects.

A block.

Hortense Spillers says “that”—let the referents accumulate, agglutinate, remain unspeakable—is “unimaginable” from this distance. She means something, I think, about the quality of the imagination it might take to inhabit “thingness,” “thinghood,” the shifting of being that is more than discursive.

I return, over and over, to this “unimaginable,” hoping that if I can bear it for just a little longer each time, I can apprehend the unhumaning practices of our dilating present.
Perhaps what stays with me from the signs is UPO rather than UKIMWI. That insistent, persistent, dilating now. That “exists,” that “is,” that “is here.”

It presses.


Everywhere he turns, the revenant finds himself reflected.
–James Baldwin

By the time I post this, it will have been a few days since the attack on Mpeketoni, Lamu. By now, I assume anger will be more directed, grief more sedimented, mourning in progress, as waves of feeling assume more legible configurations. I had planned this trip to Mombasa before Mpeketoni, hoping to find ghosts from another time, muscle-making memory.

Mombasa exists as bone—deep certainty: flashes from a multi-family trip, a train journey, yellow scrambled eggs, a plane trip; another trip, later, in a fantasy family unit where I was the only child, a tan that did not fade; and yet another trip, by bus, white sands, a picture I used to attract gay men in the U.S. Mombasa exists as the high school trip I did not take, the sex-saturated space described by Richard Meinertzhagen and Evelyn Waugh, later to be repeated by sex tourist sites and half-policed by a sex-sells, tourism-money-loving state. It exists, metonymically, as the place that produced the guy with the largest cock in bible school.

It takes new shape now—as I wait to board the train—as the sullen beauty of the young man mopping the floor, as sound bites from an overly-loud TV, as the two navy-blue-suit-wearing men gnawing through boiled maize, as a train that was canceled on Friday and re-booked for Monday. As a cascade of memories from public sex sites that describe cruisy bathrooms in train stations, anonymous encounters in train berths, impossible promises of reciprocal desire.

A train—not mine—is on the platform. I suspect it dates from the 60s or 70s. Its rust-embossed roof and glass-free windows do not inspire confidence. I imagine that what is now the Railway Restaurant—my current perch—might once have been a waiting room, filled with the aggravatingly apprehensive voices of those attempting to civilize through plunder, to rape and reform.
A man enters the restaurant, beckons a staff member as one would a recalcitrant child, demands milk.
Don’t take the train, a friend warns. It will be unlike any other train experience you’ve ever had.
As you arrive into Penn Station, Baltimore, from the south—D.C., Virginia, other souths—the train begins to sway violently, enough to make the unaware standing stumble, even fall. One enters Baltimore on a shudder, a gasp, a sharp exhale. Trains teach you how to ride them. They produce bodily dispositions—ways of standing, holding, sitting, swaying. They produce time and space, the shape and feel of travel, the experience of geography, of the geographic and the un-geographic.

The un-geographic because a random website advertising this particular train ride invites potential tourists to live out their colonial fantasies. Fantasies sustained by the English-only signs at the station, by the broken clock in front of me, permanently stuck on two past two, by the strange wood paneling.


The resonant voice of the train announcer—a resonance more than familiar from Baltimore’s Penn Station—“trains” me. Unlike flight announcers, who always sound tinny and frantic, train announcers resound with the confidence of long-lived mountains, sure of their authority. A good train announcer inspires awe and confidence; an average one provokes anxiety; I have yet to encounter one who is less than average. Perhaps it is that train conductors produce geography, seemingly with the ease of a deity shaping a world. Places seem to fall out of their mouths only to appear in unfolding landscapes and seascapes and cityscapes and otherscapes.

And, here, with the exception of the Mombasa-bound train I am on, the announcements for all the local commuter trains have rung out with a place-conjuring Swahili:

Tafadhali, Sikizeni
Sikizeni, Sikizeni
Kahawa, Kikuyu, Kibera, Ruiru, Embakasi

I’m in a private berth, a wonderful luxury, were it not for the loud laughter from other, too-near berths. Still. This is more privacy than I’ve ever had on a plane. And I was in boarding school. I know how to sleep with others.
I have switched from purple to pink ink and will, at some point, switch to black.

Already, a little mosquito has kissed me.
Again, I am reading Baldwin. This time, “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”
An interruption: dinner

    Minestrone soup from a packet—I know my knorr
    Beef Stongnoff
    Veg Fried Rice
    Mashed Potato

Our server, Mirriam, is a woman with a story. She strides magnificently, sullenly, serving plain white rice and tasteless vegetables. The meat follows, served by Charles.

An obnoxious white woman keeps saying, “asante sana, kijana,” proud that she has mastered this infantilizing patter. Every so often, she fouls the air with her speech.

Mirriam smiles—she has found Kikuyu-speaking passengers. The trip, delayed at this point, offers her a glimpse of something familiar. The vegetables are tasteless. In this, the trip—still to leave the station—reminds me of recent plane trips. I eat because I want to sleep, not because the food is especially good or interesting. The fruit salad consists of—count them—six pieces of fruit—papaya, watermelon, and tangerine. One imagines this particular version of a fruit salad failing an audition for fruit salad. The couple seated at my table—I’m politely ignoring them while eavesdropping—are unimpressed by the meal. “This is not coffee,” the black man guide announces to his white woman companion. English is not her first language, her accent announces. Their conversation is one of those wonders of half-sentences and benign intentions that sustain tourism.

After an indifferent dinner, I am more than ready to return to my berth. To wait for the train to depart from Nairobi.
Now, hours away from Mombasa, the soil outside is redder than I had imagined. Here, in the median between train tracks and road, the trees are smaller, diminished, poisoned.
I come looking for a particular silence granted to the stranger.

Return to Bomas

A convenient lie: I am here to remember how to think about movement. Bomas—already anglicized by the addition of that pluralizing “s”—is a factional space, an idea of a multi-traditional Kenya imagined as an assemblage of “traditional villages” and “authentic dances.” While I know—with bone-deep certainty—that I have been in this space as a child with my family, that knowing is suffocated by memories of uniform-clad children on a school trip to Bomas. Tradition becomes institutionally produced and reinforced, from home to school. I have come here many decades after unlearning those lessons to look for “something.” I imagine it to be a history of movement, a language of performance, a peculiar excavation that pursues fluencies I never had, but was always assumed to own and desire.

I come to this space searching for a “Kenya worth saving.”
Perhaps I am borrowing memories-in-formation: a family has invaded my previously quiet perch, the 2 children aged perhaps 6 or 7; on the drive in, I saw a school bus and, from my perch, I can hear the screams—or are they shouts?—of playing children. We are, in many ways, the memories-in-making that we borrow, or cannibalize. Even as memory lingers to be reactivated. And while I’d like to dismiss this space as “tourist,” the sea of Kenyan faces around me—the physical vernaculars I know so well, the varieties of language, the body postures—suggest otherwise, makes me realize the powerful making of a certain ethno-traditional version of Kenyan-ness, the persistence of what I once imbibed.
I do not smile at children.
Bomas also lives as other memories: in family photographs, where my parents socialized with others like them, members of the emergent professional class. I know its architecture, and not simply from the numerous times I’ve seen it on TV. I know, as I enter the performance hall, the entrances the dancers use to access the performance stage. I know the bar-adjacent spaces that young professionals haunted. Thinking of these photographs, I muse on the varieties of pedagogy Bomas offered, as a place where tradition was ambered in empty pasts and re-imagined during cocktail hours.
While waiting to see dancers, I venture to the TRADITIONAL VILLAGES section—the viewing price is included in the entry ticket. The path into the village is festooned with, first, many children on an enclosed playground to the right, presumably bought here by the school bus I saw earlier, who are dressed in identical, institutional maroon tracksuits, very similar to those I wore in high school. Past the children, a sad collection of curio stalls, perhaps six. A man standing by them serenades those on the path on a marimba. This is, perhaps, the first musical thing I have encountered so far. Past the man, to my right, I encounter a government-issued white board, of the kind so often labeled, MINISTRY OF . . . . It reads,


The signs outside the TRADITIONAL HUTS indicate that THE PATROLIST COMMUNITIES include the

    Boran Community
    Rendile Community
    Sakuya Community
    Somali Community
    Gabbra Community

The signs on the dwellings are identified in strict kin terms: Husband’s Hut, 1st Wife’s Hut, 2nd Wife’s Hut, Sons’ Hut, 1st Wife’s Granary, and so on. While the dwellings are in excellent condition, they are dead inside. They were never built to be inhabited. Nor do they allow one to imagine them as ever habitable. The group of undergrad-age tourists (volunteers?) in front of me dart in and out of buildings, snapping photographs of these dead monuments to a never-was.

I leave the PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES, and the imposing white government-issue board, and proceed to follow other geo-histories. As I walk along, various openings appear to my left and rights, some with careful signs:

    Kikuyu Village
    Meru Village
    Taita Village
    Iteso Village
    Luhya Village

I wonder about which “communities” are allowed to have “villages” and which ones are not, that is, if we take “villages” to signify a kind of spatial and political organization instead of a random collection of family units. The white, government-issue board designating northern Kenya seems more ominous now: that region, what we know as the Northern Frontier District, must be “organized” by the state to exist as part of Kenya.

As with the PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES, these villages follow an ethno-kinship polygamous logic:

    Grandmother’s Hut
    First Wife’s Hut
    Second Wife’s Hut
    Husband’s Hut
    Sons’ Hut

The metonymic logic is never explained; as a result, homestead becomes village, homestead become ethnicity: diversity is abolished.

Diversity is not quite the right word: I mean something closer to culture—the entirety of a way of life that might include prophets and healers, the mad and the disabled, the loners and the other-desiring; it might include spaces for dancing and play and feasting; it might allow one to envision the complex political imagination of “traditional” ethnic formations.

I wander into unmarked “villages,” marked only as ethno-patriarchal—a husband with many wives and a son. I think about the labor of erasure. But, no, not yet.

The signage is fairly new—it does not look weathered and is, in fact, incredibly legible. Seeing this, I do not understand why “Granary” is sometimes spelled “Grannery.” Or why, in the Kisii Village, what I think should be a “Cattle Shed” is spelled “Cattle Shade.”

But, perhaps, this has always been the ideological labor of spaces like these—to show a past that’s now past, to unthink and unimagine “that” Kenya.

I wonder, now, if what populated my childhood imagination after I visited Bomas was less reverence for the past and, instead, a deep sense of bewilderment, as I was unable to envision, via Bomas, a past worth recalling. Modernizing Kenya—the Kenya of emergent professionals at cocktail hours and school children on trips to Bomas—was predicated on learning to see the “tradition” imaged at Bomas as dead, quaint, a history from which we had emerged and a background against which we could stage insouciant modernities.

As I leave this part of Bomas, I stop to look at a labeled tree:

English Name: Silver Oak
Scientific Name: Brachylaena huillensis

A quick google check tells me that this tree has many names in Kenya’s languages:

Muuku (Kamba)
Muhuhu (Swahili)
Muhugu (Kikuyu)
Diamagaldad (Nandi)

No ethnic names “mar” the “traditional villages.” They incarnate a post-ethnic vision of Kenya that does not need to be interrupted by geo-ethnic specificity. All that’s needed is an insistently patriarchal, polygamous order.
But I came for movement, for dancing.
I enter the dance hall, positioning myself far away from watching tourists and the close to two hundred primary school children. Announcements issue from an unclear sound system, welcoming guests, announcing the dances that will be performed, locating them in various ethno-geographic terms: a dance from the Busia region of Western Kenya; a dance from the Embu and Meru people who live on the slopes of Mt. Kenya; a dance by Maasai Morans that demonstrates their jumping abilities; a taarab dance from the Coast performed by young women.

I notice that all the dances center on celebration: weddings, parties, praise ceremonies. Echoing the tourist fantasy incarnated in “Hakuna Matata,” which is also performed. There are, perhaps, thirty tourists here and at least two hundred Kenyan school children, along with about twenty or so Kenyan adults. I think about the fantasy that is being produced of Kenya.

But, perhaps, a multi-ethnic: post-ethnic Kenya can only exist as a fantasy of happy natives. Perhaps, this fantasy can do some work in helping to imagine a Kenya that is not about endurance, survival, grinding down.

I get ahead of myself. I return to the notes I took yesterday.
A troop of 14 dancers and three drummers enter, ostensibly performing a dance from Busia—the sound system does not permit me to hear the name of the dance. It is performed during happy occasions. The dancers’ faces are dour, their movements labored. Perhaps they are saving their energy for later dances, for more ecstatic moments. The dancing reminds me of a dance competition I attended at Sarakasi Dome, where those performing similarly lacked energy, conviction, vitality. Perhaps I am asking for too much? Perhaps I am missing the intricate choreography of movement? Perhaps I simply don’t know how to read energy, how to measure its ebbs and flows—certainly, there appear to be more ecstatic moments. Still, I can’t help feeling that I’ve seen far better dancing from high school students during the Kenya Music Festival. The singing seems interminable, the dancing even more so. I want it to stop. Or, I want something better. (Perhaps if the male dancers were more naked, less skinny, less bored.)

(I look through the Traditional Dances of Kenya booklet that I bought for Kshs 200, but I cannot identify the dance.)

A wave of applause from the audience—from tourists and primary school children.

Now, a performance of percussion instruments—again, I miss from where. But I don’t think I came for ethno-particularity.

The percussion performance is preceded—accompanied—by a melodic accompaniment that might have been penned by any student of harmony—I doubt its “traditional nature.”

Still, the percussionists are skilled, subtle in a way that I have always found lacking in U.S. rock music—an approach to percussion that over-privileges speed and volume, often lacking the intricate interlacing that my ears hear as a vernacular.
An obligatory song: “welcome to Kenya, welcome bwana, come see the animals, come see the ocean” and then the even more obligatory “Hakuna Matata.”

These tourism-sustaining fantasies, these productions ossified Kenya, depopulated, unimaginable.
A dance—Mwinjiro—from the Embu and Meru people who live on the “slopes of mount Kenya.” A dance that praises elders—the announcer says something about “fertility,” but I can’t quite hear it. Drums traditionally played by men. Long thin drums are positioned like over-long phalluses, the heads of which are beaten. The choreography reminds me of a porn script in search of a position. Pounding. And now pelvic thrusts. A fall to the ground. Switch to another position. More pounding. More pelvic thrusts. More falling down. Let’s just call this the sex dance in praise of elders.


And now Mwomboko: rhythm and movements adapted from western dances. Performed during happy occasions—accompanied by an accordion (WTF?) and a triangle-like instrument to keep time (the Gikuyu are not drum people). The dance is intricate, the steps complex, often unpredictable. At least, I can’t quite figure out what happens when. The music—the singing—grates.

As the dancers leave the arena, their faces are full of relief, as though glad to be done with another obligatory performance. I see none of the excitement and anticipation I remember from school competitions.

And now, Orutu—the Luo from Lake Victoria—performed during happy occasions. I must confess, my ears are more attuned to this music, more seduced by its promise—unlike much Gikuyu music, it does not sound lazy or bored.

A dancer catches and re-catches my eye—the shortest of the men, and the most exuberant. In dance after dance, he seems determined to have a good time.
The dancers return to grab visitors from the crowd—a guaranteed crowd pleaser. (erase this) And the crowd goes wild! (No longer watching this portion of the dancing.)
Taarab—from the coast, done only by “a few female dancers.” Gorgeous. Simply stunningly elegant. Subtle and generous.
Eunoto, by the Maasai. Another dance of celebration. The dance is ostensibly famous because of how high the young men dance. I am captured, instead, by the flirtation games, by how the young men flick their hair in young women’s faces to indicate interest, to seduce. This, I think, is part of what I came looking for. Desire in vernacular. It is a seduction dance, in which young men compete for young women’s attention and interest, staging mock fights and mock acts of claiming.

The suitable-for-children booklet describes it thus: “characterized by impressive dancing of the young Moran warriors while girls sing in their praise.” I marvel, again, at the ethno-patriarchal focus.
At this point, the watching children are bored restless, swapping seats, throwing items at each other, wondering, perhaps, why they are here and for how much longer they must endure this “education.” Some, a few, are captured, are moving in their seats, losing themselves when the rhythms become available.

How will this be remembered, I wonder. As what kinds of fragments, what movements reproduced on foreign dance floors, what ways of walking, talking acting?

What is moving “after” Bomas?
And now, an acrobatic show. I didn’t come for this, but I linger.
I return from Bomas unsure of what I experienced. Though I don’t remember my earliest trips there, little of what I experienced today seems to have changed—the dancers might have changed, the villages refurbished, but I feel as though I’ve seen it all before.

At first, I think it’s the strange mélange of performances that has so confused me. But that can’t be right, as I saw an equally wide and varied range of movements when I attended the Kenya Music Festival in the 90s. I know how to process multi-diversities, how to weave them together. But this remains stubbornly unweavable, disparate strands of something that cannot possible co-exist.

Perhaps in the space of now—the space of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp—I am only able to see Kenya as a disparate collection of randomly-assembled objects, none of which want to stay together.

And while, on foreign dance floors, I have borrowed from here and there, stitching together a Bomas-country to inhabit rhythms that country never envisioned, I now find my feet leaden, weighted down by the unpromise of that Bomas-country, that impossible past that cannot yield any possible futures.

“thebeautifulonesarehere” (with thanks to Lebo Ntladi)

1. Openings

A stare—let us not call it a gaze—is solicited. Staring is persistent attention, bafflement, return. Again and again, “what is this?” and “how is it calling to me?” and “why is it calling to me?”

The siren song of visual objects.

I encountered Lebo Ntladi’s “thebeautifulonesarehere,” one of four in a series, at the Critically Queer exhibition curated by Jabu Pereira at the University of Cape Town. “Encounter” does not quite capture the multiple times I returned to look at the photograph, captured, first, by the recognizability of a human form, face-to-chest, and then by its dispersal into space, its accumulation of known and unknown cityscapes and landscapes, its vibrant colors and geometries, its making and unmaking of gendered (and other) possibilities.

Captured, I begged Lebo to send me photos of the work so I could try “thinking with it.” Lebo graciously agreed, sending me digital files of the entire series and ways of framing the entire project.

This particular encounter, these textual fragments, might be considered attempts at joining an ongoing conversation.

2. Framing

My name is Kelebogile Ntladi, I am a social documentary and portrait photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thebeautifulonesarehere are photographic portraits, an ongoing body of work about identity. As someone who is a masculine presenting female, I often feel uncomfortable in public spaces, more than often lately in clubs, social events, parties, where there is a large black male presence. A constant discomfort every time someone male feels the need to establish their presence, in whichever way, as the Alpha male. It could be through a handshake, a shove, disapproving comments or more violent actions. I had often assumed that people in my own age group, mid twenties, and younger are generations more open, knowledgeable and understand different gender identities.

These collages are made from photos I took of various spaces in Johannesburg, the city and surrounding areas. Barbershops, inner-city schools, fences, abandoned buildings, the morgue, caskets, portraits of fashion, queers, and self portraits. I worked in layers. I drew portraits on paper of humans with animal-like features, horns, ears and trunks. I then added objects relating to science fiction or technology, sunglass like, futuristic frames. In each image I tried to make reference to urban cultural norms, body piercing, robotics, jewellery or “swag’. The second layer involved cutting the photographs and creating the collage, I like to work with images or spaces that I can control, structure and deconstruct. I chose a colour closer to gold referencing the history of Africa, The looting of wealth and identity and the reclaiming of that wealth and identity in the future.

One of the themes around this work is Afro-futurism, described as a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines science fiction, fantasy and afro centricity and can be identified as artistic, scientific and spiritual. Created to debate and interrogate the struggles of people of the African Diaspora by envisioning a utopia in the future where people of colour will have advanced technologically, socially, culturally and beyond current dystopian realities.

3. Frames
Lebo provides expansive frames: the public making, unmaking, and policing of gender; the (queer) optimism invested in generational change and youth cultures; the personing of geography and the geography of personing, and, here, it might not be out of turn to add (im)personation and (un)personing; the person-producing and person-disrupting possibilities of collage; and the liberationist possibilities of Afro-futurism.

Given Lebo’s frames—the beautiful and indispensable theorizing of “thebeautifulonesarehere”—my fragments, still trying to emerge, might be read as (mostly unnecessary) footnotes, attempts to catch up with the intelligence of the work and the artist.

4. Face-ing
I search my research files frantically, looking for thinking on “the face,” the “African face,” “face-ing,” and, possibly, “face-me(a)nt.” Sexology has taught me how to think about “the African body,” the genital-as-person metonym. Metonymy is spatial displacement, but to use synecdoche, ostensibly a more accurate term, demands that I accept an impossible relationship between racist representations and the people represented, that I accept the fiction and faction of human-unmaking representations.

I cannot do this.

One notes that African faces appear in colonial archives as relations of proximity to (idealized) European faces. These relations of proximity will be called “tribe.” Or, faces appear as the absence of light—as “darkness,” “blackness,” “night,” “unfathomable.” Or, faces appear as affect-bearers, as “horror,” “blankness,” “terror,” “rage,” an excess of emotion—but they cannot blush. The face as “mask-like,” the face as “masking,” the face as “mask.” The face as “shrunken head,” as “trophy,” as evidence of primal violence and ancestor veneration. The face is always appearing as a series of effects on the watcher—“I was scared”; “I was disturbed”; “I was restless”; “I was excited”; “I was aroused”; “I was disgusted.” It is a face of spectacular effects, wild and brutal and inhuman and unhuman. And a face that, years ago when I was thinking with images, did not exist to be read, a face that unappeared in liberatory and progressive attempts to discuss the harm enacted on black bodies. With a caveat that the face cannot be read in isolation—one must look at the slope of the neck, the angle of the torso, the torques that show and hide.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the family of a murdered lesbian, Andritha Thapelo Morifi, gazed out of their sorrow. The poses were familiar—I have seen them in many Kenyan portraits: arms folded in front of the body, body arranged in school-trained angles, face aware of, but not sure how to interact with, the camera. The formal postures of grief.

I spent many years looking at photographs from my grandfather’s funeral in 1983. Perhaps I was trying to erase the experience of seeing his cotton-stuffed nostrils through the little glass pane in the coffin. Perhaps I wanted to recapture the red-eyed vulnerability on grown-up faces that seemed to disappear after the funeral. Those images taught me about the choreography of grief, about the postures of mourning, postures I recognized in the Critically Queer exhibition.

Behind these postures, histories of (dis)engaging from intrusive gazes.

5. Unlearning
Lebo’s images pose other questions, removing me—removing us—from the face-posture normativities that we know so well, and know not at all. The fluencies I have cultivated begin to unravel: I search for different words, different frames, different possibilities.

Katherine McKittrick teaches me that to say gender is spatial—or geographic—is to say that gender is always produced within and around space, even as gender produces the space around it. Space engenders and gender spatializes.

Kelebogile Ntladi, "thebeautifulonesarehere"

Two mirror images “face” this image, green reflecting into green, and, if one looks closely, a human-like figure turned toward or facing distant houses that, despite their distance, loom large in this green imagination. A tent-like shape (a shelter?) “centers” the face, an off-center “nose” that anchors and disrupts the ostensible symmetry of the mirrored images. A split nose. A history of harm. But also all the possibilities of green—as stolen, as fertile, as fading, as reclaimed. The “off-center” histories that make green so contested.

Atop the face, a helmet—curved like a bull’s horns, shaped like a gladiator’s implement, at once past and future, traditional and futuristic. High school history returns to whisper about Shaka Zulu’s “bull horn” formation—the word “assegai” lingers. My masculinist fantasies—filled with Klingon warriors—reach for two male-looking figures. On the right horn, a figure who appears to be running away from this helmet masculinity, trying to emerge and depart, balanced, on the right shoulder, by a half-face that looks out from an “engulfing darkness.”

I’m trying to “face” this figure, trying to unlearn my need to “face” it, which is to say, to gender its facing.

Symmetry returns, again, in the ear-like or hair-like protrusions that (un)balance the horns. Extending from the green in the face, the extensions look leaf-like, fall leaves, leaves in transition. As with the “face,” where green space gives way to human-made structures, the ear-like:hair-like structures inhabit flux—the asymmetrical vertical and diagonal lines, as with the mirror-image face, refuses the organization of symmetry, the taxonomic boast that to see a half is to see the whole.

A necklace-laced opening flirts with the unmaking labor of necklacing.

I’m still looking for a language to describe this photograph’s doing and undoing, its fantasies and its desires, its histories and presents. The rich, desert-like background it inhabits and emerges from.

This was not the image hanging in the gallery.

6. Re-framing
Before I learn to unlearn, I ask Lebo if the photographs engage with, or respond to, Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born.

A quick no.

7. Re-turns
Arrested, I linger. Become overwhelmed. Turn away—glance back. Stare again.

Kelebogile Ntladi, Thebeautifulonesarehere, photographic collage, 2014 (4)
Perhaps it is the text, “choice”; “CLASSIC HAIR CUTTING.” The promise of feminist freedom jostles against neoliberal agency—eroding subjects mutter, “I chose this.” A memory intrudes—the smell of barber shops, line drawings of hairstyles that my father taught me to ignore, desperate attempts to recapture River Road barbers in downtown Pittsburgh.

A nipple—is it a nipple?—peeks.

A “face” takes shape as an un-face, as the obscene inside of skin. The word “flay” rushes up from my archives.

Layers make “fore” and “back” difficult to assign. “Face” folds into “face”—a forehead-covering eye mask (or is it?); nose-like features build on each other, white-edged repetitions.

(I’m still trying to “face” this image)

My efforts to “face” this image, my failures to “face” it, make me think of Simone Browne’s work on face-discerning technologies, and their failures. The face-making labor of surveillance technologies: the unfacing labor of surveillance technologies. Which faces register and which ones “error.” The alien-ness of the “non-face.”

The symmetrical, collarbone-adjacent flashes of skin tug at my frames, muttering that this figure is too humanoid not to have human-like features. My failures to “face” this figure, then, resonate as ethical failures to “face” the other.

Lebo’s techno-face reminds us that gender-fuck and gender-play unsettle the “face-ing” of gender legibility.

(a sliver from a tv show: “is this a man or a woman?” screamed to a rapacious crowd)

Among many other things, gender-legibility circulates as a persistent demand, the place where “the human” is personed, or (im)personates.

8. Critical Aids

How does being beyond recognition open or close the field of political possibility?
—Kylie Thomas, Queer African Reader

To reveal the ways in which I am affected by a photograph is to be exposed, describing what I see is an act that ‘outs’ me, one that positions my intimate self in a public sphere. ‘Giving myself up’ before a photograph is also to occupy a subject position beyond or outside of my own.
–Kylie Thomas, Queer African Reader

This thing that I am has no name. At least not in the language of my people; the language of the people of my grandmother; those of my mother and those with whom I share similar identity documents. Pardon me if to claim a people is to implicate myself in an imaginary collective that can never be mine. Forgive what appears as a dis-connect from obvious modes of intelligibility. Pardon me if to use the pronoun “my” is to situate myself in a position of possession; a possession that appears as an exaggeration. But this is necessary.
–Neo Musangi, “In Time and Space”

A map, then, is only a life of conversations about a forgotten list of irretrievable selves.
–Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return

Africa has to mean a present and a future home again for those who strive for a freedom linked to the freedom of others like and unlike us.
–Pumla Gqola, “The Time Again for an Africanist Imagination”

Seeing an image means not dying.
–Marie-José Mondzain, “What does Seeing an Image Mean?”

9. Futures
This will be a full nine. To reach ten suggests a closure that must be inconceivable when futures must be imagined. And so ten, the roundness, the completion, must be deferred. Forgive the ethnographic lapse.

Collage can be experienced as violent assembly. Reading Kylie Thomas’s writing on how violence is memorialized in Zanele Muholi’s photographs returns me to the white edges in the second image, the traces of tearing; makes me see the barbed-wire fence that makes the blue sky background seem impossible; suggests cutting and jostling, struggles for space, struggles in space.

Struggle is an optimistic word.

If struggle names present conditions of un-freedom, it also points toward futures saturated by freedom. The futures Lebo’s work anticipates—beyond the violence of gendering and the violence against non-normative manifestations of gender—remain marked by struggle, marked by tears and scratches and scars. Marked by familiar cityscapes and landscapes, histories and presents of prohibition and access. This image, these images, enter the future bearing their histories.


*the images here appear courtesy of Lebo Ntladi, with Lebo’s permission. I asked.

Intimate Uganda (with thanks to Dr. Stella Nyanzi)

Uganda has been part of my dreamscapes for as long as I can remember. Before school geography mapped Uganda, I knew it as the place that produced my father, the place inscribed in the Makerere-flavored textbooks in the living room, the place where intellectuals were made, where thinking was possible. It was a place that transformed simple Kenyan herdsboys—no matter how elite their high school education—into doctors and professors and writers, healers and thinkers and dreamers. The place from which a young man whose (older) face I now bear wrote letters to a young woman, imagining the (truncated) future they would build. Uganda, in one particular imagining, was an intimacy-making space, a life-producing space, a world-building space.

My father never spoke of his time at Makerere—my retrospective fantasies unsee the racist textbooks that described “Bantu anatomy” and “the African mind,” enabling other fantasies that build on the usable to imagine the possible.

In a way I can barely apprehend, Uganda lies at the center of my possible.
Uganda has been much in the gay press, mostly press from Europe and the U.S., and also, more generally, on international email groups and in many outraged tweets from around the globe. At a historical moment when gay marriage is becoming increasingly possible across the U.S.—a phenomenon those of us outside the U.S. are urged to interpret as globally progressive, the direction that “history” and “development” should head—Uganda has become the obstinate little cousin, the tantrum-throwing space that insists homosexuality is un-African or, more prosaically, anti-national. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 (AHA 2014), recently signed into law by president Yoweri Museveni, is a historical burr in the world-liberal project. At least, this is the story in the liberal gay press.

On a recent panel, Dr. Stella Nyanzi—who insists I call her Stella, but this is Africa, and professional titles matter, so I insist on that Dr.—announced that she would not discuss AHA 2014, in part because it was expected of her during a queer conference, especially on a panel dedicated to legal matters. The overwhelming international focus on AHA 2014, she explained, imagined Uganda as a one-act space, refusing to see the constellation of laws emerging from, and re-imagining, Uganda. What, she asked, would happen if those focusing on intimate Uganda paid attention to the Anti-Pornography Act, the Public Order Management Act, and the pending Patriotism Bill? To these, we might add the Marriage and Divorce Bill and the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill.

Dr. Nyanzi’s colleague, Sandra Ntebi, reminded us about queer legislative victories in Uganda, in Mukasa and Another v Attorney General (2008) and Kasha Jacqueline et al. v Rolling Stone and Giles Muhame (2010). One notes, in fact, that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the Marriage and the Divorce Bill, and the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill were introduced into parliament after (or around when) Victor Mukasa secured a legal victory against the state. One notes, also, that these legal victories, not to mention the vibrant Ugandan queer organizing and coalition building, have been absent in international coverage intent on robbing Ugandans of the capacity to organize or strategize—not to mention U.S.-centered coverage of Uganda interested primarily in what U.S. preachers do when they travel.
Feminist historians of Africa have discussed the changing meanings of public space and public intimacy during colonial modernity. I continue to learn from Luise White about the roles sex workers played in imagining and creating Nairobi’s urban space. Scholars from other spaces have noted that women in rapidly urbanizing Africa were considered morally impure. Having removed themselves from ethno-national enclaves and participating in the various promiscuities that mark urban exchange—conversations with strangers, sharing public transport with strangers, trading with strangers—these women imagined and created socialities that threatened ethno-national imaginations and formations.

Colonial archives depict threatened male ethno-national leaders who wanted to impede women’s mobility and dictate their clothing options—what to wear and when. Simultaneously, colonial leaders and missionaries similarly wanted to direct women’s lives. Combing through the archives, one finds patriarchal collusion between ethno-national leaders and colonial administrators, both of whom focused on controlling how and when women occupied and traveled through space.

If queer studies has taught me to think about intimate publics—I think especially of Samuel Delany’s Time Square Red, Time Square Blue, Pat Califia’s Public Sex, Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Diasporas, and Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy—engaging with Africanist archives—fiction by Cyprian Ekwensi and Veronique Tadjo, poetry by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo and Micere Mugo, history by Kenda Mutongi and Nakanyike Musisi—has taught me to think about public intimacies. Combined, queer studies and Africanist archives, have taught me to think about how publics are produced and sustained, how space is not simply inhabited but actively generated and modified by the bodies allowed and forbidden to circulate in that space, how space is gendered and monitored, occupied and emptied, made possible and impossible.
From Dr. Nyanzi, I also learn the use of circuitous paths, of non-linear approaches, about how knowledge-making layers and cuts.
Speculating on the-then Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2011, I argued,

it aims to re-organize and discipline the public and private life of intimacy. Arguably, this Bill refuses the distinction between public and private life by turning all intimate acts and spaces into objects of surveillance

This understanding can be extended to the Public Order Management Act, which attempts to define—and restrict—the meanings of “public meetings” and political discourse. In broad strokes, the Act restricts public meetings—an assembly of three or more people in a “public space” “at which the principles, policy, actions or failure of any government, political party or political organisation, whether or not that party or organisation is registered under any law, are discussed.” A “public meeting” may also be one

held to form pressure groups to submit petitions to any person or to mobilise or demonstrate support for or opposition to the views, principles, policy, actions or omissions of any person or body of persons or institution, including any government administration or government institution.

Such meetings, if held in “public spaces,” require permission from the Inspector General of Police. I leave others to parse the specifics of this law and the varying and shifting meanings of “public.” Rather crudely, though, this Act attempts to manage the possibility of political publics, of publics becoming political. To use a different language, it attempts to monitor (and manage) the public-making labor of consciousness raising.

If the Public Order Management Act attempts to control the meanings of “public” and “political,” the Anti-Pornography Act attempts to police public and private expression, mobility, and desire. Known casually as the “miniskirt law,” the Act attempts to regulate what appears and circulates in public and private.

Definitions matter here. As written in the Bill (and subsequently modified in the Act),

“pornography” means any cultural practice, radio or television programme, writing, publication, advertisement, broadcast upload on internet, display, entertainment, music, dance, picture, audio or video recording, show, exhibition or any combination of the preceding that depicts—

    (a) a person engaged in explicit sexual activities or conduct;
    (b) sexual parts of a person including breasts, thighs, buttocks or genitalia;
    (c) erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement; or
    (d) any indecent act or behaviour tending to corrupt morals

Importantly, “pornography” does not include teaching aides or “any act or behaviour between spouses or couples performed in fulfillment of their conjugal rights and responsibilities, where such matters remain strictly private.”
In their classic Pornography and Civil Rights, Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argue that in the U.S.,

Law has traditionally considered pornography to be a question of private virtue and public morality, not personal injury and collective abuse. The law on pornography has been the law of morals regulation, not the law of public safety, personal security, or civil equality. When pornography is debated, in or out of court, the issue has been whether government should be in the business of making sure only nice things are said and seen about sex, not whether government should remedy the exploitation of the powerless for the profit and enjoyment of the powerful. Whether pornography is detrimental to “the social fabric” has therefore been considered; whether particular individuals or definable groups are hurt by it has not been, not really.

Despite the Ugandan law’s very expansive definition of “pornography”—it extends beyond the too-cynical “you know it when you see it,” while also absolutely relying on the policing eye to “pornographize” (to coin an ugly term)—it depends, ultimately, on a notion of moral regulation, as seen in (d), refusing to consider the notion of “harm” or “violence,” except in the abstract.

MacKinnon and Dworkin frame pornography as anti-woman; the Ugandan legislation against pornography is anti-woman.

Note, for instance, how MacKinnon and Dworkin define pornography:

(1) Pornography is the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted, whether in pictures or in words, that also includes one or more of the following:

    (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities; or
    (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or
    (iii) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or
    (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or
    (v) women are presented in postures of sexual submission; or
    (vi) women’s body parts – including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, and buttocks – are exhibited, such that women are reduced to those parts; or
    (vii) women are presented as whores by nature; or
    (viii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or
    (ix) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, abasement, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.

(2) The use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women in (1) (i-ix) above is pornography for purposes of subsections (1) – (p) of this statute.

Where MacKinnon and Dworkin’s labor to increase women’s possibilities and freedoms, to remove women from an always-pornographizing public gaze, the Ugandan legislation, especially with its focus on “breasts, thighs, and buttocks,” turns every woman’s body into a potential pornographic spectacle. The Ugandan legislation makes public space less safe for women, a space of continual surveillance and management.

(I think it’s worth noting that visual pornography circulated in a very different way in the 1970s and early 1980s, as a kind of shared vernacular in public venues, so MacKinnon and Dworkin are writing into a differently understood space. While my politics incline toward the pro-pornography feminism of Gayle Rubin and Samuel Delany, it’s worth noting that even that strand of thinking is firmly against harm to women.)
Following the Act’s broad definition of “pornography,” what follows is fairly standard—prohibitions against making or distributing pornography, especially child pornography. But a few provisions are worth noting:

15 (1) Where information is brought to the attention of the court that there exists in premises, an object or material containing pornography or an act or event of a pornographic nature, the court shall issue a warrant for the seizure of the object or material and for the arrest of the person promoting the material or object.

(2) An authorized person in possession of a search warrant issued by the court may enter any premises and inspect any object or material including any computer, and seize the object, material or gadget for the purpose of giving effect to this act.

Given the capacious definition of “pornography,” what exactly would acquiring such a warrant require? Note, for instance, that much international culture features breasts, thighs, and buttocks—ranging from travel shows to music videos. Anyone scrolling through my internet history, for instance, would find the multiple instances where I have watched RuPaul’s “Peanut Butter,” which is certainly a buffet of thighs and buttocks. Based on this “evidence,” the state would have the right to comb through the entire content of my hard drive.

Section 17 of the Act is equally troubling.

17. (1) An Internet Service Provider (ISP) who . . . permits to be uploaded or downloaded through its service, any content of a pornographic nature, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine . . . or imprisonment not exceeding five years or both.

If the overly-broad definition of “pornography” attempts to control what might appear in “public,” Sections 15 and 17 attempt to control what might be consumed “in private.” The private—one’s home, one’s computer, however it may be defined—becomes subject not only to the state’s gaze, but to its right to invade at any arbitrary moment (subject to a warrant, the evidence for which seems entirely too idiosyncratic).

A necessary note: in the Act, “pornography” is defined as

any representation through publication, cinematography, indecent show, information technology or by whatever means, of a person engaged in real or stimulated [sic] explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement

This definition appears to be much more limited–and sensible. Still, it is informed by the thinking in the Bill, and one could argue that the broadness of “any representation” includes the earlier, too-broad definition. If the explicit attack against women’s bodies is absent from this definition, it can still be seen as what is to be regulated, as noted in the Ugandan press’s discussion of this Act as the “ban on miniskirts.” One notes that miniskirts are nowhere mentioned in the Act.
No doubt, many other paths can be taken to approach the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 (AHA 2014). I have chosen this broad management of spatial possibilities to explore how AHA 2014 figures into how legislative processes imagine Uganda broadly. Approaching the AHA 2014 in this way also skirts, I hope, the “gay marriage” and “African homophobia” frames through which it’s been apprehended, frames that disembed AHA 2014 from other intimacy-making and intimacy-regulating legislation.
And, so, a few words on AHA 2014.

Before president Museveni signed the Bill into law, a special panel of scientists was convened to provide “guidance.” Perhaps this happened to counter suggestions that the Bill had been engineered, and was mostly driven, by religious groups. The assembled scientists concluded that homosexuality is neither “a disease” nor “an abnormality,” a noncommittal response that did not support the Bill. In a curious turn, the scientific report was read as supporting the Bill—it’s heartening to note that the scientists responded that their work had been misread and misused.

Much can be written about AHA 2014, and I fear I am becoming interminable. So, a few quick notes.

As with the Anti-Pornography Act, definitions are crucial in AHA 2014.

“sexual act” includes—

    (a) physical sexual activity that does not necessarily culminate in intercourse and may include the touching of another’s breast, vagina, penis or anus;
    (b) stimulation or penetration of a vagina or mouth or anus or any part of the body of any person, however slight by a sexual organ;
    (c) the unlawful use of any object or organ by a person on another person’s sexual organ or anus or mouth;

“sexual organ” means a vagina, penis or any artificial sexual contraption;

“touching” includes touching—

    (a) with any part of the body;
    (b) with anything else;
    (c) through anything;

and in particular includes touching amounting to penetration of any sexual organ, anus or mouth.

To use an absurd example: my touching a friend’s sex toy—be it a cock ring or a dildo—might, in a very strict reading of this definition, be considered a “sex act.” One notes the proliferation of “any” and the strategic use of “anything,” which has the overall effect of giving the state and its agents control over the meanings of “sexual act,” “sexual organ,” and “touching.”

This absolute—if absurd—control over meaning is central to how the state imagines homosexuality.

2. The offence of homosexuality.
(1) A person commits the offence of homosexuality if—

    (a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption;
    (b) he or she uses any object or sexual contraption to penetrate or stimulate sexual organ of a person of the same sex;
    (c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.

I get stuck on 2.c, on the state granting itself (and its agents) the ability to interpret sexual intent. (I will not cite the obligatory Foucault passage, but will place his name here to mark the trail of my thinking.)

To return to a slightly earlier moment, this will to interpret intent extends the patriarchal collusion between colonial administrators and ethno-national leaders as they sought to control women’s bodies and movements: when, for instance, they claimed that wearing “western-style clothing” indicated that women were sex workers or that men who wore western-style clothing were attempting to conceal venereal disease. To this historical context, I would add the pressures of our surveillance now, when “development” and “progress” proceed by accumulating bio-data, by using technologies that try to detect “suspicious people,” when the securitized gaze is omnipresent.

What are the possibilities for Ugandan intimacy now?
The histories I know best, and the art from those histories, teaches me that, sometimes, the embattled survive, and even thrive. We here:now celebrate those moments of survival, even as we mourn the many gone who linger as an ethical demand, who ask us to make livability possible.

Speaking in South Africa, Sandra Ntebi described fragmenting coalitions, panic-stricken queers seeking exile, refuge, possibility. I heard anger and exhaustion, a desire to fight and to have a life. Strategies to create safety and to build coalitions. The need for exit plans and the courage to stay.

I return to those few, fragile photos of my father as a student in Makerere. I wonder, now, about the dreams that kept him there, about the scars that made Makerere unspeakable, about the shapes of fantasies spun from his silences that populate my imagination. From those fantasies, I attempt to distill the usable so I can imagine the possible.

toward an ethical imagination

Something is missing.

Its absence presses, nags, irritates, makes itself felt. A here arrives to averted voices, elsewhere glances, necessary busyness—the daily labor of being and surviving.

Still, something is missing.

To be a writer in this space, and from this space, means encountering and tangling with that impossible demand: that one be “committed,” that one “generate intervention,” that one change the world one has inherited. Given this impossible demand, one’s frames can seem narrow, one’s aesthetic choice limited, one’s aesthetic strategies constricting, one’s ethical imagination cramped, if not impossible.

(Perhaps I try to excuse my own silences.)

Still, something is missing.
A “we” assembled during one crisis, in 2007-2008, to try to remember, salvage, and, perhaps, imagine a Kenya that had seemed newly possible in 2003. Little of what we wrote and imagined harkened back to 1963. We were, to put it crudely, Fanonian: finding and attempting to fulfill our historical mission. As with all such assemblages, alliances were inchoate, pulled in different directions, marked by different urgencies: those 2008 imaginings were more invested in cessation and survival than futurity.

Still, the urgencies of survival can produce—and have produced—powerful ethical imaginations that continue to feed us, direct us, inspire us.

I am struggling to hold onto a “we” formation that is worth remembering, one that I hope can still do some work, can still imagine a different better

In conversation with Dr. Mshai Mwangola, two versions of Yvonne Owuor’s Dust emerged. For me, the novel ends in dispersal, disintegration, as those never imagined by, and unimaginable within, project Kenya seek other elsewheres where they might be possible.

Mshai saw Justina giving birth to twin children in Nairobi. Justina, now a mother, is an artist; Odidi, their executed father, was an engineer. These are children born to dreamers, makers. For Mshai, this was a moment of hope, a sentence one could cling to, a necessary small gem.

Possibility from unlikely spaces.

Part of Dust’s mission is to insist on the labor of the makers, the creators: Ajany who sculpts, Ali Dida Hada who sings, Odidi who engineers, Justina who paints. Nyipir: the horse-riding man bearing the flag whose image will sear itself into imaginations as the emblem of freedom. Dust insists on the ethical imagination of its makers, imaginations that confront childhood nightmares, state corruption, everyday killability. If Dust is a call to ethical memory, it is also a call to ethical action, a pulling toward an ethical imagination.

This is a difficult imagination, almost unimaginable.

Kenya’s young writers are now working with and on the catastrophe: form dissolves, post-apocalyptic futures are envisioned, poetry emerges as a long, continuous wail. We are in the season of elegies from which it seems no possible futures can be envisioned.

Pleasure has become unthinkable—the erotic Audre Lorde writes about as an ethical demand, a refusal to accept the quotidian as a place of endless depredation, seems unimaginable.

Laughs are stained with bitterness.
If something was salvaged in 2008, what was it that was salvaged? What visions and versions of a possible “we” emerged, still exist, if at all?

The demand, and desire, to “save” Kenya seemed to exist in suspended time: jobs were put on hold, lives set on pause, dreams stored for a different not-yet. And the end of that particular intensification of killability returned us, scarred and bruised, to an interrupted quotidian.

It was a time-bound intensification of killability, but neither the beginning nor the end.

We remain in the season of killability.
I have yet to write the word Somali.

To do so now feels like an “event.” It is a word that occupies all the ellipses of this writing, haunting its opening, its margins, its spaces, and its still-to-be-written. Somali has become an unspeakable word, a haunting word, a question that haunts whatever invocations of Kenyan-ness might circulate and be claimed. We have watched as coalitional ethno-nationalisms turn Eastleigh into a ghetto—and we must use ghetto in the historically accurate way, as a place used to confine undesirable populations, a place of arbitrary and violent invasion by state agents. We have watched as a sports stadium is gazetted into a prison and now functions as a concentration camp: a place of “screening” and torture. We have watched as public modes of transportation refuse entry to Somalis, as police so terrorize families that women would rather leap off balconies than engage them. We have watched as constitutional provision after constitutional provision is violated, gutted, abandoned, as fear mounts and indifference seems a necessary protection.

Is this, I wonder, the Kenya we thought worth saving?

And still I skirt around what I really want to ask.
Where is our ethical imagination?

I pose this question to Kenya’s writers and thinkers and cultural producers, to those who have large and small platforms, mainstream newspaper columns and twitter accounts, ready-made congregations and spectacle-assembling audiences.

How might placing what’s happening to Somalis in Kenya–the arrests, the extortion, the torture, the unmaking, the unhumaning–at the heart of our interventions and critiques shape our ethical frames? What demands might we be able to make–on the state and on each other–if we refuse to accept #kasaraniconcentrationcamp as normal, inevitable, or ordinary? How might we cultivate and nurture imaginations that are capacious, life-enhancing, life-affirming?

The hope with which many of us assembled in 2007 and 2008 to insist that Kenya was worth saving is needed just as much now. Each day #kasaraniconcentrationcamp continues is yet another day that our ethical possibilities diminish.

We continue to lose the soul of what we might have once aspired to be, to cede too much ground to the unhumaning imperatives that will so easily consume us if we let them.