unhoming kenyan women

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s short story “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Taking different forms, this sentence runs through a wide body of writing by Kenyan women.

Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed features a female teacher who is forcibly abducted and raped by the male head of state. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poem, “The Way You Felt Remains,” describes a public encounter where a young woman encounters a “chokora” who gropes her in public, unsolicited. Sitawa Namwalie’s “Let’s Speak a Simple Truth,” notes that, “the average man can without much planning / Take by force most average women in the world.”

Repeatedly, Kenyan women’s writing bears witness to a society where women’s bodies are considered available to all men, a society where a woman’s consent is considered irrelevant.

In fact, the question of women’s consent is considered irrelevant in our National Assembly. During the recent discussions of the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. John Murithi Waiganjo (Ol Joro Orok, TNA) described intercourse as “enjoy[ing] the facilities,” rendering women as inert structures.

Hon. Jimmy Angwenyi (Kitutu Chache North, TNA) insisted that marriage voided the need for women’s consent, arguing, “We are talking about somebody you persuaded to move from her parents’ home to your home. When she moved from her parents’ home to your home, that was when she accepted you. Therefore, every time you need that thing, she should accept.” Men’s needs take priority over women’s will and desire.

Further contributing to this line of thinking, Hon. Makai Mulu (Kitui Central, WDM-K) argued for a “cultural exemption,” saying, “in the Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question.”

Engaging these voices, Hon. Priscilla Nyokabi Kanyua (Othaya, TNA) reminded the National Assembly, “Our African cultures actually protected their women. The reason why we are here 1000 years after the discovery of man is because Africa protected women.”

If we turn to the body of writing by Kenyan men, the notion of bodily integrity is well articulated. Maina wa Kinyatti’s Kenya: A Prison Diary rails against the humiliation of being searched by prison guards. In Three Days on the Cross, Wahome Mutahi has nightmares that he is being sexually violated while in prison. Onduko bw’Atebe’s award-winning Verdict of Death features the dashing protagonist being brutally attacked and raped in prison.

Across a broad range of works set in prison, Kenyan men demonstrate that they know what it feels like to be vulnerable, to fear for their bodily integrity, to lack consent.

Across a broad range of writing—on twitter, on blogs, in poems, in novels, in non-fiction—Kenyan women describe their everyday lives as gendered prisons, where they are vulnerable, subject to bodily violations in private and public contexts, where their consent is taken for granted, their bodies mishandled by friends, acquaintances, intimates, and strangers.

At a historical moment when Kenyan politics is consumed by the question of security, we might pause to ask why so many Kenyan women feel insecure in public and private spaces: walking on public streets, taking public transport, attending colleges and universities, visiting friends and relatives, hosting guests at home.

During the debate about the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. Aden Duale (Dujis, URP) argued that questions of domestic violence were minor. Kenya, he claimed, had “more serious issues” to contend with, including terrorism and food insecurity. It should strike us as odd that women’s security in our homes is deemed unimportant. In fact, it should strike us as obscene and unacceptable.

It should be unacceptable that Kenyan women feel they must submit to bodily violations to participate in public and private life. It should be unacceptable that section 28 of our constitution, which guarantees inherent dignity to everyone, should be suspended when it comes to Kenyan women. It should be unacceptable that women’s bodies are considered available for men’s use and consumption. It should be unacceptable that we mute women’s voices when they attempt to assert their rights to dignity and bodily integrity.

Kenyan author and activist Shailja Patel has said, “Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.”

Kenya is full of homeless women, unhomed by official parliamentary discussions, unhomed by misogynist radio shows, unhomed by public spaces full of unwanted touch by strangers, unhomed in private spaces full of unwanted touch by friends and acquaintances, unhomed by a country that discusses women as property.

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Let’s pledge to make this sentence unthinkable.

intimacy, believability, violation

At first, I had titled this post, “And Who Are We Now?” Now, I want to re-title it “affect, gender, violation.” In truth, it might be a post about the sounds that have yet to be invented. Certainly, it is about the tear produced when the intimate sphere—of friends, acquaintances, comrades, colleagues, peers, families, lovers, tricks—encounters ethical demands. Even as the possibility of that tear—it might be a rupture or a fracture or a wound—should compel us to consider how we are able to conceive of unethical intimacy, intimacy outside of ethical frameworks and demands. This post is about well-tended silences, about too-ready shoulders, about violations framed as “inevitable,” if not normal, about the “this is Kenya” that excuses and reasons away and sustains our unethical relationships to each other. This post is about the witnesses we have unbelieved, the witnesses we refused to support, the witnesses we charged to change the world, and subsequently abandoned. It is about patriarchy’s smile and feminist killjoys. It is, finally, about who we want to be.

i. what if?
What if sexual violation were not framed as a tax that Kenyan women must pay to be in public? What if sexual humiliation were not deemed a necessary rite of passage for Kenyan women?

ii. he said/she . . .
An impossible lie is taken as the grounds for an unethical argument.

iii. liberation and freedom
become impossible words in institutional frameworks, a language that cannot survive the pragmatic stifling of believing in unmaking systems. A trio of words: corroboration, substantiation, triangulation. A trio of system-supporting, freedom-unimagining words. The tone, we are told, is measured, refusing “hysteria.” We praise women for “avoiding hysteria.” We nod approvingly. Until their critiques begin to sound “hysterical.” (Watch for the turn.) As though the goal of women building state-engaging institutions were to make women less credible. A fault line appears.

iv. an unsent email
Thank you for your email. I agree with so much of what you say, that I think to push back in any way might be churlish. But I think what’s at stake—and we might clarify what’s at stake more carefully—demands that we be precise and rigorous in our thinking toward a better ethical us, if, in fact, that is the goal. I think it’s important to return to Professor Mwangi’s question: do we, as those assembled here, have a current sexual assault policy? While I’m encouraged by the various voices that have said they are personally against sexual assault in any way, I worry that the broader question remains unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable, relegated to the unethical fiction of he said/she said, which presumes sides should be taken. I worry, that is, that the way sides are being taken has assumed the form of for sexual assault/against sexual assault, and I think we need to clarify that kind of side taking.

As a thinker on emotion and language, I try to pay attention to the kinds of positions imagined and realized by the words we use. I note that Muthoni Wanyeki’s email is deemed “wise” and full of “gravitas,” implicitly (and, actually, very explicitly) positioning many other emails on this thread as “out of bounds,” “foolish,” “immature,” “unthought,” and, perhaps, “hysterical.” Credibility, in this instance, becomes hinged on “proper” affective responses. I can only suggest, here, the dangers of taking as credible those voices that appear to be the most detached or reasonable. As though anger or sadness or rage at injustice or violation are, somehow, irrelevant or illegitimate. This is worrying.

Part of what we celebrate in this motley assemblage of writers, activists, and intellectuals is precisely how different forms of writing can help us feel our way into those histories, situations, and settings discredited by mainstream channels. At our best, we take seriously the imaginative and the affective as political sensibilities, not to be tamed by institutional policies or strategies, but to hold whatever institutional demands might exist to more exacting standards. That is, I would argue that we hold legal institutions accountable to our affective and political sensibilities rather than conceding that their priorities and demands take precedence. Certainly, the long histories of global activism would have gotten nowhere had they decided that the formal mechanisms available were infallible.

It is precisely because we know about these long histories of entanglement with formal institutions—the police, the courts, the state, regional and international bodies—that we turn to community accountability, where the question of who we are and who we want to be takes priority—indeed, must take priority—over whatever forms of state management claim we are or should be. I should note, here, that these questions are very real for many of us deemed disposable by state actions and inactions in national and regional contexts.

Those of us who followed debates on the Sexual Offences Act and those now following debates on the Domestic Violence Bill know the contempt with which women’s claims of injury are met. Those who make laws have said marital rape cannot exist—because men pay dowry. They have said that domestic violence against a spouse cannot exist because beating a woman demonstrates love. None of this is fabricated—it’s in the publicly-available Hansards. These are the waters we swim in. It is radically unclear to me what we gain by refusing to acknowledge our contexts and by trying to imagine that those contexts might not matter.

It should not escape our attention that much of the writing generated on this group in 2008 needed to circulate outside of Kenya because the local media abrogated their responsibilities to tell the truth. It should not escape our notice that the tools most celebrated as coming from Kenya—Ushahidi, for one—find alternative, non-mainstream methods of gathering and disseminating data. It really must not escape our attention that mainstream channels refused to reckon with the massive ethical problem of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp.

I have worried that much of our conversation on this thread—in addition to ignoring Professor Mwangi’s question—has also tried to outsource collective ethical work to the courts, to legal systems, to anything out there, as though we might be safer if we refuse to outline our own ethical stakes and strategies. What would happen if we did not outsource the work we need to do on ourselves to these external systems? If, instead of retreating to various “I” statements—I stand with Tony, I stand with Shailja, I stand with Truth, I stand with Convenience—we took seriously the labor of being a “we,” of thinking collectively of what it means to be in a collective sense?

Because, you see, what we’re discussing on here has implications for other spaces, other events, other scenarios. It is, even now, generating structures and patterns of shame and silence, demanding, as Kenya always demands, that women be more resilient, accept damage and violation as a necessary tax, live in an ordinary circumscribed, at every turn, by the possibility of a violence described as “simply how things are,” on the one hand, and, “simply how men are,” on the other. Again, we must contend with the waters in which we swim.

And, frankly, if as Muthoni Wanyeki’s email suggests, the waters in which we swim are full of failure when institutional frameworks are followed—note how often the possibility of failure comes up in that email—then it seems to me that our ethical frameworks need to operate on different registers. Indeed, that very email suggests as much.

The ethical moment is always the moment of the impossible choice: Antigone teaches us as much. To side with the power and legibility of patriarchal authority incarnated in the figure of Creon or to choose to bury a figure now excluded from power’s approbation? We need not reach to Antigone. We can, in fact, look to Yvonne Owuor’s Dust, which asks which versions of Kenyan history can gain a hearing. And concludes, I think, by saying Kenya chooses silence. We might understand the final dissemination of characters in the novel as suggesting that no ethical claims can be made in or on Kenya.

It’s easy to claim that we are against sexual assault when it lives “out there,” in some court case that we read about from a distance and weigh with objectivity. It’s much more difficult when, as in this case, we are stuck in the muck, facing difficult ethical questions about where we live, how we live in that space, who we are, and who we want to be. We cannot afford to outsource this ethical work. We can choose to ignore it, to say it doesn’t matter, and that is a choice. If that is the choice, let us be explicit about it.

v. a handy alibi
I learn that Kenya, in concert with other African countries, has refused to defend or protect queer lives. It has, in fact, affirmed that such lives are unimagined, unimaginable, and, therefore, disposable.

A wife speaks, defending her husband. A friend speaks, defending a married man. Marriage speaks with its always-winning hand.

vi. a chorus of male legislators
Hon. Gumbo: [I]n our houses a lot of our female spouses like to follow the Mexican soaps. You go home and want to also watch another programme and the remote is in their hands and this brings friction. These are the realities of our times and there are people who have been denied some important things just because they wanted to change the channels so that the Mexican soaps cannot be watched.

(Laughter)

Hon. Waiganjo: We are giving a policeman the judgement of suspicion. What we are saying is that an amorous policeman can come to your house and arrest you, without even a complaint because he suspects that you are abusing your wife. He can take you to a police station, deny you bail, run back to your house, get your wife and pretend that he is taking her to a safe shelter, enjoy the facilities, return your wife in the morning and release you without preferring any charges against you.

(Laughter)

Hon. A.B. Duale: How do you define “economic” abuse as a form of violence? We do not want to create laws to manage our bedrooms and sitting rooms. We have more serious issues to do with terrorism, food insecurity, the devolved system of government, among others.

In this Bill, violence is defined as “emotional or psychological abuse”. Let me know the emotional bit of it. Of course, people do cry. When you sit with your other half and say good words and that person gets touched and emotionally breaks down, would it be an offence? The Chair of the Committee must address such aspects. There is also the aspect of intimidation. As you carried yourself to your bedroom, you meet your wife and she says: “The way my husband looked at me, that was intimidation.” On that basis, you go to jail.

Hon. Midiwo: If you talk about emotional abuse or psychological abuse— For example, if you were in your house for a moment and your opposite was in her bad days, you will find that she is not talking to you. Therefore, you would know that you will not take fish that day and she does not care. Would I accuse her for domestic violence?

(Laughter)

This law can go either way. Any man or any woman who is here knows our opposites are quite often in bad moods. You cannot predict them because when you go home— There are very few days you would find her in good moods and I agree with hon. A.B. Duale – like this one. But on some days, we talk here and I go home tired after having quarreled with hon. A.B. Duale and I want to sleep— I can be sued for domestic violence.

Hon. Mulu: If you go and you are told that for the next two weeks you cannot enjoy what you paid to enjoy, it becomes very tricky.

Hon. Speaker, in the Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question. . . . To us, we cannot term sexual abuse as violence.

Hon. Speaker, I think we need to come up with a clause which takes care of cultural exemptions. That is because we all come from different cultures. In some cultures, it is a demonstration of love when you do a bit of beating to your wife.

Hon. Members: Yes!

Hon. Mulu: Hon. Speaker, if you do not do it, you are seen not to love your wife.

Hon. Angwenyi: Let us not enact laws which will destroy our family fabric and destroy the country. These are some of the kind of laws that have allowed some Kenyans to embrace gay practices. Hon. Speaker, just imagine a man looking at you and thinking that you are beautiful because the law allows it!

(Laughter)

vii. ululation

It will be a place
Where women will shed tears of joy
Blowing their horns
As they dance singing with jubilation;
Their streams of bitter tears will find
An outlet to the lake
And the reeds will tremble in the wind
As the women dance and sing
Whistling at the fountain of sparkling beauty
Where their broken spirits
Will be revived at the life-given fountain—Rebeka Njau, The Sacred Seed

What would a movement bent on the freedom of women of color look like?—Cherríe Moraga

Every oppressed group needs to imagine through the help of history and mythology a world where our oppression did not seem the preordained order.—Cherríe Moraga

What might our relationships with one another look like if we did not feel we had to protect ourselves from the violent recriminations of our fathers, brothers, bosses, governors? What might our sexuality look like?—Cherríe Moraga

Women, especially, are not allowed to break down, because doing so confirms every prejudice men have of women as hysterical, unpredictable, or worse, unreliable. Most of the successful women I know are dormant volcanoes, all smooth and calm on the outside, and waiting to explode on the inside. But they dare not admit it.—Rasna Warah

Kenya, it seems, is on the verge of moral bankruptcy. Ethical behaviour has become a thing of the remote past. It is as if we Kenyans have no heart, no soul, and no consciousness. We are a dead society. We cannot weep for another; we cannot feel another’s pain.—Rasna Warah

viii. a child says
the emperor has no clothes

We are told not to be like children, to be adults, to stand in the streets and cheer at the lies that will save our lives, if not our worlds.

ix. and yet
why believe the killing lie that promises it will not kill you?

x. amidst all this
one fights to imagine the possibility of freedom

blackness, mathematics, fabulation: speculation

A recent issue of The Black Scholar, edited by Alexander Weheliye, explores the relationship between black studies & black life. As many of the contributors argue, this relationship is about the knowledge structures and practices central to the ongoing problem of how to frame, understand, and engage the world we’ve inherited as modern, the world “modernity made.” We might describe this as the world that made blackness by unmaking black life, the world that created blackness as a speculative form: to be speculated upon and to speculate on its own life-making possibilities. Different kinds of imaginative leaps meet in speculation, and while “speculation” is not one of the key terms of the issue, it assembles and orients many of the articles, especially those by Tavia Nyong’o, Katherine McKittrick, C. Riley Snorton, and Denise Ferreira da Silva. I’m especially interested in articles by Nyong’o and McKittrick, because they press on one of my ongoing questions about what McKittrick terms, “origin stories”: simply, what are the genealogies of blackness? Where do we start? How do we start? And, once we’ve started, how do we proceed?

To answer these questions, McKittrick turns to the black archival presence found in “documents and ledgers”: “the list, the breathless numbers, the absolutely economic, the mathematics of the unliving.” It is a formula-generating mathematics that creates “historic blackness” for the New World—the world modernity made—a history that is, simultaneously, an unhistory (the Negro has no history), an unmaking served by economic attachment: “belongs to, bequeathed to, to be sold to.” As McKittrick writes, “New world blackness arrives through the ordinary, proved, former, certified, nearly worn worn-out archives of ledgers, accounts, price tags, and descriptors of economic worth and financial probability.” The commodity that speaks—this commodity that Marx made unspeakable.

What kind of origin story is this?

The brutalities of transatlantic slavery, summed up in archival histories that give us a bit of (asterisked-violated) blackness, put meaningful demands on our scholarly and activist questions. While the tenets and the lingering histories of slavery and colonialism produced modernity as and with and through blackness, this sense of time- space is interrupted by a more weighty, and seemingly truthful (truthful and truth-telling because iterated as scientific, proven, certified, objective), underside—where black is naturally malignant and therefore worthy of violation; where black is violated because black is naturally violent; where black is naturally unbelievable and is therefore naturally empty and violated; where black is naturally less-than-human and starving to death and violated; where black is naturally dysselected, unsurviving, swallowed up; where black is same and always and dead and dying; where black is complex and difficult and too much to bear and violated. The tolls of death and violence, housed in the archive, affirm black death. The tolls cast black as impossibly human and provide the conditions through which black history is currently told and studied. The death toll becomes the source.

How, given this unmaking work of the numbers archive, can black life, black survival, black being be narrated or imagined from such sources? Or, as McKittrick asks, “How do we ethically engage with mathematical and numerical certainties that compile, affirm, and honor bits and pieces of black death?”

At a historical moment when, to cite Simone Browne, humans are being turned into data, a moment when the logics and practices of the ledger and fungibility have found new opportunities in the bio-cataloguing of human life known as “biometrics”—recall, here, that Nigeria has partnered with Mastercard to issue “new” biometric identification documents—the “bits and pieces” of “black death” return garbed in bio-technological management. The logics and practices that unmade/unmake black life—the “mathematics” of modernity—return to “secure” what can only be the persistent unmaking of black life. As McKittrick puts it more elegantly, “it is challenging to think outside the interlocking data of black erasure, un-freedom, and anti-black violence,” especially as so many claims for justice today depend on assembling data on “black erasure, un-freedom, and anti-black violence.” How might black studies think with the mathematics of black life without reproducing the violent production of blackness as and through mathematics?

What if we trust the lies—she says she was born free—and begin to count it all differently?
—K. McKittrick

McKittrick meets Nyong’o at “the lie,” at the moment when the speculative logic of slavery meets the speculative leap into black life forms. In “Unburdening Representation,” Nyong’o reclaims the “gap” between the two meanings of representation—to depict and to stand for—as a space of “fabulation,” and, more specifically, “Afro-fabulation.” “A fabulist,” argues Nyong’o, “is a teller of tales, but he or she also discloses the powers of the false to create new possibilities.” A “teller of tales,” a storyteller and a liar, one who disrupts “the hostile and constraining conditions” of “emergence into representation.” “Possibility,” for Nyong’o is found at the “seam” or “joint,” the place Brent Edwards terms décalage, between the two forms of representation:

This misalignment of political and artistic representation is exploited by Afro-fabulation, which is thus not properly speaking solely an aesthetic strategy, or a political one, but a tactic for taking up the time and space between them.

“taking up the time and space between them.” One recalls that the archives that produce blackness in the New World deny that those termed black can represent—Phyllis (misspelled last name) cannot be a poet, declares Jefferson, and black figures cannot stand for those who can be citizens: I’m time-sliding to write this—themselves and others. Within the field of representation—within the oscillating meaning of that term—blackness will always have been a negation, an impossibility, what cannot stand “as” and “for” us. (Here, one might think about the African rejection of blackness as “not us.” The impossible chasm of blackness.)

Mining the gap (note the labor metaphor), Afro-fabulation “is always seeking to cobble something together, to produce connections and relations, however much the resultant seams show.” I want to think with Nyong’os metaphors here—I really should call him Tavia, but since I used McKittrick, protocol applies—of “cobbling,” and “connections and relations,” and “seams.” Of the various economies of motion and mobility (cobblers, shoes, the obsession with shoes in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy); and food, the cobbler as an assemblage of excess fruit, a sweetener, a palate cleanser, an act of love; “connections and relations,” the languages of invented kinship, fabulated genealogy, geographical assemblage (Glissant, Brand); and seams, which always lead me to clothing, the gorgeousness of Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings, the labor of the clothed and the unclothed slave body, the joins and joints of black labor, the uneven, the sutured, the knitted, the broken, that which enables “motion.” The seam that shows—the labor that refuses invisibility. The “lie” that refuses the truth-owning of data-production.

Speculation returns again, as that which joins McKittrick’s “mathematics” to Nyong’o’s “fabulation,” as part of the “demonic ground” where narrative does not supplant or unmake mathematics. Instead, the “speculative” becomes part of the asymptotic narration, the gap in representation—the gap in the archive, the gap in the lie, the gap that is the lie—through which and into which black life finds an “origin story” within life-unmaking blackness. Speculation, or the speculative, might be a method that reads into and past the data-affirming archive to see what black life forms might emerge, what acts of making and unmaking, what ways the human might emerge and undo the regime of Man.

Speculation is also a mode of being-present where one is impossible. It is the acts of appearance and disappearance, the haunting and the spook, the resistant object to cite Fred Moten, that inhabits what Christina Sharpe terms being “in the wake.” #staywoke, we say on twitter: remain conscious, aware, inhabit the insomnia that might (this is always speculative) save a black life, give a black life new form.

Learning from McKittrick and Nyong’o, I want to imagine “speculation” as a term central to black life and black studies, foundational to blackness as negation and possibility, a leap across and into the asymptote.

ALLEGED SEXUAL VIOLENCE COMMITTED BY TONY MOCHAMA UPON THE PERSON OF SHAILJA PATEL

Date: Thursday September 25

Contact: Ann Njogu, Chair, CREAW, Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women
Mobile: 0722 768 381
http://www.creawkenya.org

On Saturday September 20th, Standard Group columnist Mr. Tony Mochama is alleged to have committed an indecent act upon the person of poet and activist Shailja Patel, at a gathering in the home of Professor Wambui Mwangi in Spring Valley, Nairobi.

Today at 12 noon, Ms. Patel filed a police report at Spring Valley Police Station. She was accompanied by her lawyer Ann Njogu, Chair of CREAW (Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women), high Court Advocate Betty Kaari Murungi, Executive Director of COVAW Joan Nyanyuki, representatives from FIDA, and friends and supporters.

Ms. Patel had previously stated that she would seek restorative community justice rather than engaging the judicial system. Following consultation with civil society colleagues and consideration of all parties involved, she decided to file a police report for the following reasons.

1) To facilitate the need for corroboration, substantiation, triangulation.

2) To support the decades of work of Kenya’s women’s movement has spent to improve reporting procedures for SGBV survivors.

3) To move forward policy and practice on on sexual violence in public life on the basis of evidence.

4) The women’s movement has fought hard and long for sexual violence to be treated like the crime that it is. We must uphold that struggle by being as rigorous as possible when we make our claims and the demands thereof.

Ms. Patel said:

“Each time a man sexually harasses or assaults a woman with no consequences, he is emboldened to repeat and escalate that behaviour. It becomes a pattern. Sexual predators are not born; they are the product of patriarchies and rape cultures that teach men they are entitled to the bodies of all women.

“When a man invades a woman’s body space without her invitation, touches, grabs and gropes her without her consent, he violates her sovereignty of person. He evicts her from her own body. Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.

“Let us stand with all victims and survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Let us create a society where sexual violence is unknown.”

Whither Justice?

On Saturday, September 20, Mr. Tony Mochama, a columnist with Kenya’s Standard Group, Secretary of PEN Kenya, and holder of a Morland Writing Scholarship, sexually assaulted a woman during a gathering of Kenyan and international poets. Mr. Mochama is a well-known figure in Kenya’s literary circles: he has hosted open mics, promotes literary culture in his work for PEN Kenya, and travels abroad regularly as an ambassador for Kenyan literature. Beyond his own accomplishments and labor, Mr. Mochama represents us. An us that encompasses all Kenyan literary workers, cultural producers, and cultural administrators. Quite simply: he is one of Kenya’s faces.

What are we to do when one of our collective faces commits sexual assault? How do we face that aspect of ourselves?

Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti argued that the African sense of self could be found in the formulation, “I am because we are.” Extrapolating from Mbiti, we can say that the self, the individual, exists within multiple networks and embeddings, all of which provide legibility, livability, and, most importantly, produce and demand ethical orientations. More simply: what injures one of us, injures us all.

If the damage is not only to the poet Mr. Mochama assaulted—who must not be forgotten—but also to our collective sense of self, how are we to address this assault? How can we take collective responsibility and imagine forms of accountability that produce a more ethical “we”?

If, in his role as PEN Kenya’s secretary, Mr. Mochama travels to Kenya’s schools, who are we sending to those schools? If, in his role as a Morland Writing Scholar, Mr. Mochama represents African writing, who are we saying represents African writing? If, in his role as a columnist for the Standard Group, Mr. Mochama publishes articles, who are we saying writes us and circulates among us?

Quite simply, if Mr. Mochama is the mirror we look into to see our faces, what faces are we seeing? And are those the faces we want to see?

I have used a collective we to emphasize the role of community accountability. As “advanced and theorized by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence,”

Community accountability is a community-based strategy, rather than a police/prison-based strategy, to address violence within our communities. Community accountability is a process which a community – a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood, etc – work together to do the following things :

Create and affirm VALUES AND PRACTICES that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability

Provide SAFETY AND SUPPORT to community members who are violently targeted that RESPECTS THEIR SELF-DETERMINATION

Develop sustainable strategies to ADDRESS COMMUNITY MEMBERS’ ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior.

Commit to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to TRANSFORM THE POLITICAL CONDITIONS that reinforce oppression and violence.

Community Accountability refuses to privatize relations of damage—a privatization that happens when damage is framed as a relationship between assaulter, assault victim, and police-state mechanisms. Community Accountability acknowledges that damage is never private, that it is embedded within historical, cultural, and ideological frameworks. And it seeks to unmake those frameworks that make damage not only ordinary, but also inevitable.

And, so, this is a call: if you are reading this, will you help unmake the frameworks that make sexual assault not only ordinary, but also inevitable in Kenya and elsewhere?

Sunday Reflections

We hope that we can give you something, something, whatever it is that you need tonight.
—Nina Simone

They are shooting us down one by one. Don’t forget that.
–Nina Simone

I’m not gonna be suicidal, if I can help it.
–Bernice Johnson Reagon

My favorite Nina Simone moment features her beginning and then refusing to continue a song. The song opens, “ My father always promised me / we would live in France (‘you know you don’t believe that’) / We’d go boating on the Seine / and I would learn to dance.” After a few more bars, she stops singing, and says, “I don’t want to sing this song. It’s not me. My father always promised me that we would be free, but he did not promise me that we would live in France.” She continues, “He promised me that we would live in peace. And that, maybe I can still get.” No matter how many times I encounter this little moment, I am arrested by its by its truthtelling, by the force of its demand. Put crudely, it might be something like “freedom, not fantasy.” But that’s not quite right.

Perhaps I glom onto this moment because my father’s word was mobility, never freedom. His advice: “make yourself as mobile as possible; make it possible to move anywhere in the world, to build a life anywhere.” It was advice rooted in the career-destroying repression of Moi’s Kenya. I wonder, in retrospect, if this was his dream: to live anywhere but here. And if the obligations of marriage and children made a certain trajectory of the world impossible. In memory, he did not like to travel. At least, it seems, not as much as my mother. Though I think he was restless, unsettled. There’s a restlessness about being in place that does not stem from a desire to travel elsewhere. It might be a longing for a different kind of world, a different set of affective possibilities.

Freedom has always been my mother’s word: wiathi. Self rule. It is anchored in Kenya’s political history. It suggests the cessation of death-making horror. The ability to make choices—no matter how circumscribed. And the freedom to fight and keep fighting. “Keguro,” she told me recently, “I am a fighter. I have always been a fighter.” At other times, she describes herself as a “survivor.” These are not rhetorical flourishes. But this is her story to tell, not mine. We do not envision freedom in the same way—but this is the word she gave me. A vernacular. As with my father, it was a word that mattered under Moi’s regime. For her, wiathi was incarnated at the moment of independence. It has always been freedom from colonial rule, a singular moment, frozen in time, a rupture. A particular energy from that moment.

In her lexicon, wiathi is not yet here.

In 1985, she attended the UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi. I first heard the words to “We Shall Overcome” then. By heard, I mean this is when the words first stuck—words she sang as she picked me up from primary school. Recently, we have been talking about women’s history. She dug up a diary from the conference. A young, radiantly beautiful, solemn Winnie Mandela adorns the diary’s front, background to a title: Women of Southern African: Struggles and Achievements. The diary runs from July 1985 to July 1986. Individual calendar pages alternate with pictures and profiles of women from Southern Africa: Ida Jimmy from Namibia, Julia Zvobgo from Zimbabwe, Ruth Chinamano from Zimbabwe, Abigail Somanje from Zambia, Victoria Chitepo from Zimbabwe, Sally Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Charlotte Maxeke from South Africa, Naomi Nhiwatiwa from Zimbabwe, Jane Ngwenya from Zimbabwe, Mbuya Nehanda from the Shona resistance to colonialism, Lydia Chikwavaire from Zimbabwe, Sarah Kachingwe from Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Sibeko from South Africa, Freda Williams from Namibia, Lilian Ngoyi from South Africa, Chita Honwana from Mozambique, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele from South Africa, Tendai Bare from Zimbabwe, Ellen Nomsa Musialele from Namibia, Winnie Mandela from South Africa, and, on the final page, the women who conceived of and produced the diary: Joyze Chenzire Mutasa from Zimbabwe, Fran Willard from the U.K., and Stephanie Leland from the U.K.

A particularly poignant entry on Angola reads:

Angolan women cannot work in peace. Continued attacks from the racist South African regime make the mobilization of women in defense of their lives and of national territory an ever-present necessity.

FAPLA (People’s Armed Force for the Liberation of Angola) and ODP (People’s Defence Organization) have both men and women in service. Protection of fields, crops, homes, schools and hospitals is a vital part of the work.

Angola has a rich history of events in which women in arms took part, like Queen Ginga, Deolinda Rodrigues and Helena de Almeida who, through their example, serve as an incentive to the present generation engaged in the struggle to defend Angola’s territorial integrity.

The Square of Heroines inaugurated on March 2, Angola Women’s Day, honours the memory of five founder members of OMA—Deolina Rodrigues, Lucretia Paim, Irene Cohen, Egracia dos Santo and Teresa Alfonso who was killed on March 12 1967 while on an important military mission of the MPLA in the Northern Region of Angola.

Along with profiles of individual women and brief histories of ongoing struggles, the diary also features pictures of women’s cooperatives from across Southern Africa: women pounding maize in Mozambique, women participating in a peace march in Angola, the Asakhani Women’s Co-op in Zimbabwe cooking meals for the elderly, women working in a peanut factory in Zimbabwe, women sewing in Angola, and women making bricks in Swaziland (among many other images).

Wiathi is my mother’s word.

As I look at these images and profiles almost 30 years later, I wonder, abstractly, about the women depicted in them. The many I do not know (that’s most of them). Bernice Johnson Reagon is in my head:

There are some grey haired women I see running around occasionally, and we have to talk to those folks about how come they didn’t commit suicide forty years ago. Don’t take everything they say because some of the stuff they gave up to stay around ain’t worth considering. But be sure to get on your agenda some old people and try to figure out what it will be like if you are a raging radical fifty years from today.

The diary is empty. My mother kept it, but never wrote in it. We might read this as “conference swag,” those peculiar items we collect to say, “I was there,” but never use. I think, here, of the many tote bags from academic conferences that I was glad to leave behind.

Still.

I envision the diary as a kind of dream journal: a place for women who attended the conference to write down their freedom dreams. To imagine the world they were making as a possibility. The blank pages disturb me.

Perhaps freedom dreams are always cessation dreams. We celebrate when the worst of the present ends. And we struggle to imagine the after of overcoming—that “someday.” And, perhaps, we dare not write down how we imagine that “someday,” a task we leave to those who dare imagine a “beyond.”

Perhaps we leave blank pages to invite futures—somedays—that we do not yet know how to imagine.

African Queer Studies

The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.
—Saidiya Hartman

Like many other book-reading people, my path into queerness was as much intellectual as it was libidinal. In my Christian “youth,” I devoured articles in evangelical publications about the “scourge” of homosexuality. My body had yet to catch up with my brain, so I understood this as a purely intellectual exercise. After all, the anti-Christ was a “homosexual,” and so one had to learn as much as possible about this condition to combat it—the conflation is deliberate. The only other sources of information were my mother’s 1970s psychology textbooks, which had nothing good to say about “the vice.”

My exit from Kenya and entry into a U.S. university allowed for questions I did not know I had to find expression. The B&N in downtown Pittsburgh had a small, but exciting, Lesbian and Gay section, where I acquired my first copies of Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, Patrick Merla’s Boys Like Us, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Warrior, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Tobias’s The Best Little Boy in the World, and Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind. I don’t recall now whether it was in downtown Pittsburgh or in Squirrel Hill where I also picked up E. Lynn Harris, Thom Gunn, James Earl Hardy, and the life-saving Gay and Lesbian Poetry of Our Time edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin. Other anthologies followed. And a RuPaul autobiography!

Once I’d finally found the courage, I started to haunt the surprisingly useful LGBT section at the Catholic university I attended. One had to tread warily, to make sure no one was looking, to look away as books were being checked out. If B&N provided narrative and poetic foundations, the library began to fill these out across time and space. A partial list of names: Eve Sedgwick, John Bosworth, David Greenberg, Karla Jay, Diana Fuss, Kaja Silverman, Jonathan Dollimore, Judith Butler, Alan Bray, Alan Sinfield, Stephen Murray, Judy Grahn, George Chauncey, Jr. And all of this created—or coincided with—other hungers for more familiar geographies, for the black and postcolonial, if not for the African.

It was the black and postcolonial that started making trouble.

Two brief articles on African “homosexualities” stand out in memory: a survey of African homosexualities by Wayne Dynes, with the subtitle “An Unnecessary Controversy,” and an essay by Deborah Amory arguing for the importance of same-sex research in African studies. Dynes provided a bibliography of (mostly) colonial-era ethnographic sources that, he claimed, demonstrated the presence of same-sex relations in Africa. Whereas I could discuss the Molly houses in Alan Bray’s England with great facility, the contested meanings of same-sex acts in the Medieval period with some confidence thanks to Bosworth, and even the legislative shifts, class contests, and English-Irish disputes that led to Wilde’s imprisonment, Dyne’s cursory method left me with little-to-nothing. I do not contest the usefulness of bibliographies; I do object to the tone of “An Unnecessary Controversy,” which presumes the undisputed truth value of the bibliographic sources.

Since she provided the language, let me use Kath Weston’s words:

In the international arena, the “salvage anthropology” of indigenous homosexualities remains largely insulated from important new theoretical work on postcolonial relations. The story is a familiar one in the annals of the discipline: well-meaning ethnographers rush out to record “traditional” practices and rituals before the latter change or disappear. At their worst, these efforts repackage colonial discourse (e.g. “primitive” societies) for consumption by Anglo-European audiences. At their best, they resurrect the vision of the Noble Savage living in a Noble Society that provides an honored place for at least some forms of transgendering or same-sex sexual activity.[1]

Weston’s 1993 critique is still urgently needed as Dynes’s “method” of uncritically citing colonial-era records has been widely adopted across academic and activist spaces. The routine citations of “x ethnic group embraced sexual/gender dissidence” continue to reproduce ethno-national, a-contextual versions of Africa and African knowledge. Often lacking from such discussions is an awareness, or even interest, in the Africanist scholarship describing the making of ethno-nationalist groups during colonial modernity (in Kenya, the work of Bethwell Ogot, Gideon Were, Tabitha Kanogo); the geo-historical shifts in the meanings of gender and sexuality under colonial modernity (discussed by Oyewumi, Amadiume, Nzweku among others); and the limitations of colonial-era ethnography (discussed by many people, including Talal Asad, Maxwell Owusu, and Johannes Fabian). Of even less interest to various advocates of this method is the notion that African diversities exist: while some populations may have embraced forms of sexual and gender dissidence, others might not. How might such distinctions be analytically useful?

In contrast to Dynes’s polemic, Amory’s brief survey of a still-emergent field imagined Queer Africa (still known as “homosexual Africa”) as a problem to be considered, one whose consideration would draw on the “importance of situated knowledges,” emphasizing “the emergence of specific discourses and representations (including academic theories) within their historical and political contexts of production.”[2] It detailed the exigencies and contexts of the research—the growth and spread of “political homophobia” in Africa, the quotidian violence directed against gays and lesbians in Africa, and the “emergence of post-colonial gay and lesbian identities and liberation movements around the world.” In a characterization of African Queer studies that still holds true, Amory writes, “What we are witnessing, then, are two related but distinct developments in African Studies (and around the world): one branch of research documents and theorizes diverse African histories of sexuality and gender, while another articulates emerging postcolonial liberation movements organized around lesbian and gay identities and rights.” Today, we might ask about the relationship between liberation-minded and neoliberal models of queer organizing in Africa.

The one, troubling note on which Dynes and Amory agreed was that “homophobia,” not “homosexuality,” had been “brought” to Africa by colonialism or, put more aptly, institutionalized through colonial bureaucratic procedures. This claim runs through much activist and academic literature by key figures including Sylvia Tamale, Marc Epprecht, and Neville Hoad. This claim is true to the extent that the archives of colonial bureaucracy are much more accessible than, say, what is now considered “customary law” or “tradition” across a range of African groups.[3] And, certainly, if we are to speak across the nation-wide and state-wide prohibitions against homosexuality, we must turn, first, to the colonial documents that imagined and forged the bounded territories we now describe as countries. And, even when we turn to “customary law,” or even “African philosophy,” we must contend with the processes of (often missionary) education, whether explicit in the sense that writers attended missionary schools or implicit in the sense that missionaries were instrumental in translating and transcribing many African languages and concepts. While I understand (and value) the polemical work of this claim—that “homophobia, not homosexuality” is a western import—its repetition, to the point where it’s dogma now, is, frankly, irritating. It is ahistorical and untheorized.

To preview a later argument: if African studies is to learn anything from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, it surely must be that a deeply genealogical method is needed to understand how certain figures become imbued with, and represent, the intimate anxieties of their geo-histories. Focusing on the acceptability of homosexual acts and identities leaves unexplored other histories of intimate dissidence and policing. African queer histories are impoverished by this inattention to specific histories of unlivability and disposability.

By no means am I claiming that Dynes and Amory were the first to write on queer Africa. Simply, they are the names that stuck in my mind. Also, I read them because they spoke about a somewhat familiar geography. I was interested in Queer studies, but I had charted a different path that went through Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer and ended with Reginald Shepherd and Carl Philips.

When I finally turned to African Queer studies in grad school—in part because an earlier trajectory had proved impossible—it was with a different sense of the labor. By that point, the schism between LGBTI studies and Queer studies had widened considerably, so much so that they might have been speaking different languages—often, they were. My interest in psychoanalysis had deepened. Under the influence of my advisors, and because I had access to an amazing library, I had become newly interested in the problem of the archive. With a mass of new key terms—intimacy, public, colonial modernity, subjectification, allochrony—and with new (to me) scholarship to build on by Neville Hoad, Rudi Bleys, Megan Vaughan, Gaurav Desai, Siobhan Somerville (at the time, I was also in a year-long postcolonial reading group led by Ania Loomba that incarnated true interdisciplinarity), I turned to sexology’s archives. The shape of the previous sentence, with all its awkward embedding and squashing tries to convey the immense rush (excitement and headache) of this moment. Fabian and Hoad and Loomba had taught me how to ask about the developmental logics and scales that defined “the human.” The African appeared in sexology’s archives as hypo- and hyper-developed: too uncivilized to be homosexual, a condition that afflicted the “over-civilized” races, and too excessively bodily not to be queer (the too-large penises, too-large clitorises, too much appetite). Broadly, Africa appeared in the sexological archives Foucault had used, the archives on which much Queer studies depended. To his four categories—the homosexual, the masturbating child, the hysterical woman, and the Malthusian couple—one could very easily have added “the primitive.”

How had this “fifth” figure escaped Queer theory’s gaze? How had the foundational works that built on Foucault simply ignored this figure? And, if it was to be used, how was it to be used?

One might argue that the figure of the “primitive” or “savage,” to the extent that it was enfleshed in captured, enslaved, and destroyed bodies, made unhuman through the logics of accumulation, fungibility, and dispossession, could not allow many of the fictions of Queer studies to exist. What, after all, is an identitarian/anti-identitarian or anti-social/communitarian claim when applied to the unhuman?

Again, I get ahead of myself.

Those entering Queer African studies now encounter a richly conceived field shaped by multiple collaborations among artists, activists, and academics. The recently published Queer African Reader, edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas, models a continent-wide and diasporic example of this work. It follows similar anthologies from South Africa, including Sex and Politics in South Africa, edited by Graeme Reid, Neville Hoad, and Karen Martin. As it travels through popular culture, legal cultures, life narratives, organizational politics, and the politics of representation, it models the ethics of dissensus, as contributors debate the pasts, presents, and futures of queer (the term is also debated) lives, politics, and aesthetics. We might say that in this volume, peer review emerges not as a silent (invisible) background, but as vigorous, visible conversation. Amending myself, I’d now say that “theory” is enacted as practice—the academic in me would still have liked/would like to see some of these theoretical stakes outlined more clearly, but this is a deeply theorized volume.

In what might be considered the “homosexual-focused” branch of African Queer studies, Neville Hoad has offered what I consider the defining statement of this scholarship:

“homosexuality” is one of the many imaginary contents, fantasies, or significations (sometimes in the negative, sometimes not) that circulate in the production of African sovereignties and identities in their representations by Africans and others[4]

As I wrote in a review of the book, “This claim re-visions V. Y. Mudimbe’s classic argument on the ‘invention’ of Africa by emphasizing the foundational role of embodied, intimate practices.” Hoad’s argument has gained in strength since African Intimacies was published, as Nigeria, Uganda, and now Kenya have proposed or passed legislation defining national and African identity against “homosexuality.” Even as “homosexuality” floats as a contested term in much of this legislation. One notes, for instance, that the law has invented a punishable category known as “the intention to commit homosexuality,” where, ostensibly, desire, or what it “read as desire,” is punishable.[5]

Hoad’s literary and cultural scholarship joins work by Jarrod Hayes on the Maghreb, Brenna Munro on South Africa, and, Chantal Zabus on Africa. In sociology and anthropology—more broadly ethnographic approaches—books by Zethu Matebeni, Ashley Currier, Amanda Swarr, and Rudy Gaudio detail life stories, community formations, and political organizing. Located squarely in history, Marc Epprecht’s Hungochani is the finest historical study of southern African homosexualities. This, I must note, is a rather idiosyncratic sampling of an increasing body of work. In privileging book-length works, I have left out important scholarship by Lindsey Green-Simms, Unoma Azuah, Desiree Lewis, T.J. Tallie, Xavier Livermon, Serena Dankwa, Robert Lorway (who has a forthcoming book on Namibia), Sikhumbuzo Mngadi, Thabo Mbisi, Zackie Achmat, and Vasu Reddy. The South-Africa-based journals Agenda and Feminist Africa continue to support a range of queer-themed scholarship.

Let me emphasize again that this is a fairly idiosyncratic list. (Yes, I see you Cheryl Stobie and Henriette Gunkel.)

Rather schematically, the list is dominated by scholars who work on South Africa or southern Africa. So much so, that Queer Africa is too easily conflated with Queer South Africa. Or, as I suggest in work that I’m tired of trying to get published, two notions of Africa emerge: the homophilic South Africa and the homophobic elsewhere. (Brenna Munro’s book is exemplary in contesting the notion of a homophilic South Africa; but because it’s set in South Africa, it simply produces South Africa as both homophilic and homophobic.) My sense is that this focus on South Africa has taken on a disciplinary lens, or, more aptly, a framing lens: scholarship that does not follow a certain South African framing—a focus on legislation, the role of the nation, the post-apartheid racial stakes—simply becomes illegible. (For instance, I’m yet to see any work that considers the place of ethnicity and inter-ethnic negotiations around sexuality.)

My other sense is that Queer African studies has yet to grapple with its theoretical foundations. On the one hand, theoretical questions emerge from the archives we engage. And so I note that archived are still being assembled. At the same time, I worry about the ease with which certain white figures of Queer studies are taken up or discarded while Black Queer studies is rarely engaged. (Some of this, I suspect, stems from the U.S.-centric nature of Black Queer studies, but surely that limitation should also apply to foundational work in Queer studies. And, I would add, we need a conversation between Queer African studies and Queer Caribbean studies. These conversations happen informally—we certainly read each other—but we have yet to figure out where to meet in conceptual space.)
*
And, so, a turn. I’m going to try to learn from (mainstream) Queer studies and Black Queer studies (especially in its diasporic and Caribbean forms) to pose some theoretical questions African Queer studies might want to ask at some point. Perhaps idiosyncratically, I’m going to privilege African philosophy as a place from which to ask these questions.
*
Feminism and Postcolonial studies were my first encounters with the “problem” of the human. Did the “human” include “women” and the “less civilized races”? These are the questions that drew me (and keep me) in Black Diaspora studies and Queer studies, both of which, in their most radical (at the root) articulations, continue to ask how the human is envisioned and how the human can be re-envisioned. What notion of the human, for instance, is invoked in “human rights”? What version of the human circulates in mainstream ontology? What versions of the human ground disciplinary and interdisciplinary formations? What genealogies and genres of the human are in play when Africa is invoked?

The argument that colonial modernity introduced homophobia rather than homosexuality into African cultures is often based on troubling ethnographic evidence, as I have already said. Repetition is not bad. The peculiar taxonomic gaze that always already knows how to see Africa has been so dominated by particular categories of sexual and gender dissidence: difference (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex) that it has not stopped to ask how else genealogies of African sexual and gender dissidence might be read within Africanist paradigms of personhood. As philosopher Leke Adeofe asks, “What is a person in the African view?”[6]

(I shall avoid going down the Blyden/Mbiti route as I’ve been there several times. I shall note, only, that their work remains foundational to African philosophy.)

In a widely cited (and debated) statement, Ifeanyi Menkiti argues, “personhood is the sort of thing which has to be achieved, the sort of thing at which individuals could fail.”[7] Complementing Menkiti, Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani argues, “the important question is not at what point in time an individual becomes a person, but rather what constitutes the completeness of humanhood.”[8] Several terms are in play here: individual, person, human, achievement, failure, and completeness. To these, we must add the dynamic between individual and community, or what Blyden would term “duty.” Segun Gbadegesin writes, A person whose existence and personality are dependent on the community is expected in turn to contribute to the continued existence of the community. . . . The crown of personal life is to be useful to one’s community. The meaning of one’s life is therefore measured by one’s commitment to social ideals and communal existence.[9] Across many philosophers, this “commitment to social ideals and communal existence” is measured in intimate terms. Thus, representing many other positions, Kwasi Wireu summarizes, “being married with children well raised is part of the necessary conditions for personhood in the normative sense. A non-marrying, non-procreative person, however normal otherwise—not to talk of a Casanova equivalent—can permanently forget any prospect of this type of recognition in traditional Akan society. The only conceivable exceptions will be ones based on the noblest of alternative life commitments.”[10] Now, to some extent, I’ve stacked the deck. Producing out-of-context quotations to prove a point is wildly irresponsible. That said, a remarkable consistency emerges across a range of African philosophers working across Akan philosophy, Yoruba philosophy, Igbo philosophy, the Sotho-based Ubuntu philosophy, and Luo philosophy about the centrality of hetero-reproduction in conferring “full” personhood.

Given what we know about the range of diverse arrangements across Africa through which hetero-reproduction could happen—here, Nkiru Nzwegu’s scholarship on woman-woman marriage among the Igbo is exemplary, as she explains how a woman could marry another woman, who would then take a male lover to impregnate her—we might need to ask, more deeply, what constitutes intimate failure. What figures incarnated the intimate anxieties:failures we now associate with the queer? What figures “failed” to achieve “full” personhood? In my cursory reading (okay, some quite extensive), a few figures keep cropping up. One study claims that bachelors could exist because their married status depended on their economic status, but that “spinsters” were unthinkable. Other work singles out loners as “cursed people.” While yet other work speaks about people with disabilities. In an African studies still dominated by the importance of communitarianism and kinship, we might ask about the figures who fail to appear on genealogical trees and the figures who fail to repopulate those trees. Paying particular attention to how diverse communities organize their senses of self and community, confer personhood and status, we might look for those figures excluded from these designations.

By no means is what I’m suggesting easy. And, in fact, it would trouble the genealogies of African queerness that so many of us want to claim for political reasons. Asking contemporary queer movements to trace their histories not to same-sex desiring ancestors but to histories of intimate failure and incomplete personhood, that is, to histories of disposability, seems unhelpful, if not destructive. And, perhaps, that is not what I’m suggesting. At the very least, I am suggesting that a theorized African Queer studies should account, in some way, for the various intellectual genealogies of personhood and intimacy found within Africanist thinking.


[1] Kath Weston, “Lesbian/Gay Studies in the House of Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 22(1993):344-45. It’s worth clarifying that Dynes is not an ethnographer.

[2] Deborah P. Amory, “’Homosexuality’ in Africa: Issues and Debates,” Issue 25.1 (1997). Amory’s “‘Mashoga, Mabasha, and Magai’: Homosexuality on the East African Coast” remains a model of careful scholarship, attentive to place and history.

[3] As philosopher Nkiru Nzwegu points out, much of what is now called “customary law” emerges from the collusion between colonial-era ethnographers, bureaucrats, and the male leaders who were presumed to be in authority because of the patriarchal frames presumed by colonial authorities.

[4] Neville Hoad, African Intimacies

[5] The question of how this “desire” is to be read must be asked.

[6] Leke Adeofe, “Personal Identity in African Metaphysics”

[7] Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, “On the Normative Conception of a Person”

[8] Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani, “African Conceptions of a Person: A Critical Survey”

[9] Segun Gbadegesin, “Ènìyàn: The Yoruba Concept of a Person”

[10] Kwasi Wiredu, “The Moral Foundations of an African Culture”