dying beautifully

You will be told the death was staged: humans do not die that way, blood does not move like that, limbs do not separate from bodies so easily, headless bodies appear only in fantastic stories, children do not die, explosives do not sound like that, sand does not interact that way with blood, a dead hand cannot possibly pose that way, real tears are never so eloquent, real men don’t cry, and only fools die when the sun is shining.

You will be told that war is glorious hues of color pinned on a hero’s chest, newly-composed marches that energize tramping feet, a light display more elegant than fireworks and more sublime than shooting stars, a muse that inspires empire-building epics, an endless source of scripts for global blockbusters, a necessary economy boost, a book that is unputdownable.

Walking into an art exhibition, you will be told about the new war-inspired techniques: paint extracted from lachrymal glands at the point of death, brushes created from delicate pre-pubescent eyelashes, splatter techniques modeled on rocket-splashed blood; you will learn about the underground market in “found art” that specializes in children’s shoes, quilts made from stolen burial shrouds, intricately layered loops of cries captured from the last 3 seconds before death, primitive sculptures made from pure blood-saturated soil. A clever artist will use all the available photographs of the war-killed to create a collage that honors the armament factories that sustain great economies.

Acting schools across the world will use footage of the dying to instruct students: fall this way, watch the blood fly out of you that way, feel your limbs detach this way, experience your flesh melting that way, demonstrate pain this way, illustrate loss that way, practice how to die beautifully.

And because acting students who have watched footage of the dying learn how to die beautifully, flinging limbs this way and that, decapitating their heads this way and that, spilling blood this way and that, those who watch them learn that dying is an art, begin to evaluate when dying is real, proclaim, with confidence, that some forms of dying do not look real, that some dying looks fake.

You will be told that children do not die that way, that they must have been trained by amateur acting coaches, that those are child-sized adults whose flailing limbs betray them, that such overacting is emotional manipulation, that the figure of the child should not be used to sway political decisions, that children cannot be aware they are dying, that the rules of war are child-friendly, that it is obscene to mention children in plush conference rooms full of strategists and world leaders bedeviled by moral dilemmas.

Children die so beautifully: untutored bodies fly in missile trajectories, young blood shimmers in sun waves, flexible limbs dance away from flying bodies, weightless tears prism rainbows, beautiful screams instruct birdsong, and muses weep because they do not know how to inspire such beauty.

We kill them because they die so beautifully.

“these are the materials”

but this is not a bad dream of mine                    these are the materials
–Adrienne Rich

Two page of silence punctuate an elegiac essay, a tribute from a loving wife to a now-gone husband. One enters the post-elliptic somewhere in a conversation—one is tempted to write “somewhere in the middle” or “somewhere close to the beginning” or “somewhere close to the end,” an ordering of temporality that misunderstands the ongoing conversation, the ordering of timbre and tone, the sequence of pause and repetition. And the cut.

What happens to names when time stops?
—Susan Howe

:a wall of names: a grave of names: a funeral of names : a massacre of names: a genocide of names: a killing of names: a murder of names: an extinction of names:

Now, we count in hundreds: the days since girls were taken in Chibok; the days since #kasaraniconcentrationcamp was opened; the bodies of the mounting dead in #Gaza, #Lamu, #elsewhere. Counting has become difficult: in books, captives mark days on walls and floors to “orient” themselves.


We who count from outside seek order. We want to believe that time passes at the same rate on the inside as it does on the outside. Despite knowing better, we want to believe in a shared experience of time. To forget, if we can, that time stretches and bends and tears and ruptures. That time pulls and lags and pauses and cuts. That violent time ravages bodies.

(but, now, I want bodies to tell a different kind of story—and must check that desire)
I do not like, and might actively resent, Adrienne Rich’s poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” It feels laden, heavy, weighed down, lagging, time extending, time ravaging. And Rich’s reminder—“these are the materials”—does not help. What is it to write with “the materials” at hand? To write with(in) the archives of disposability? To read:hear:see:feel how disposability is envisioned, created, distributed, destroying?

These are the materials:

These are the materials:

These are the materials:

These are the materials:

“these are the materials”
This register is dismissed as “sentimental.”

One should cite from the philosophers of war, the policy makers of war, the treaty breakers of war, the death-machine suppliers of war, the economists of war. Perhaps begin with the observation that “perpetual peace” is impossible, and then move to “war is politics by other means,” and then, citation by citation, unsee the unmaking of life we describe as war, adopt accounting procedures produced by insurance companies, slave ship captains, concentration camp philosophers, genocidal settlers, ecocidal profiteers, and powerful men with moral dilemmas.

“these are [also] the materials”
“Then there are the phrases I seize in order to distort them”—Rosmarie Waldrop

“We learn to value being loved as an advantage that allows us to renounce other advantages”—Sigmund Freud

“An accumulation of simultaneous deaths strikes us as something utterly terrible”—Sigmund Freud

“Death can now no longer be denied; we are obliged to believe in it”—Sigmund Freud

“Even today, what our children learn as global history in school is essentially a sequence of genocides”—Sigmund Freud

Freud will argue that the drive toward destruction—the death drive—can be countered by the drive toward attachment—the erotic drive. Writing on war, he will insist that he is a theoretician: he has no “practical” lessons to offer. And if one objects to his developmental logic—that war and violence are “regressions” to more “primitive” selves—one also finds oneself startled (is that the right word?) by how inarticulate war makes Freud. He is “disillusioned” by the failed/failing promise of “civilization,” even as he invests boundless faith in “reason.”

A self-declared pacifist, Freud seems unable to theorize war. His attempts to think about war are, Maud Ellman writes, “laboured and apologetic,” “offered with a sense of resignation.” A self-declared pacifist, I am unable to be articulate about war. I cannot read “great” war journalism or fiction: death-fertilized eloquence.
and then, there are the poets who valorize death
“I have dreamt many times of a new sacred haven for women: a safe and holy place where the women will pour out their thoughts, their cries and their joy”—Rebeka Njau

There is no redeeming vision in Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, at least none for women. The two most powerful women, the immortal Anyanwu and the pattern maker Mary, one of her descendants, exist as memories, pathways, in the final book in the series. And while some women have power at the end, they are subject to a patriarchal order, a world where the most powerful survive. A world where power is genocidal.
It will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple
–Adrienne Rich, “Final Notations”

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.