Faced with the culture kiboko, one can respond via culture and circumvent claims that progressive critiques are foreign impositions. I return to this basic insight every time I write on tradition within contemporary Africa.
The strategy does not always work. At times, one must position oneself elsewhere to understand the here. But not always.
Here are a series of steps in and out of the culture circle.
Antinomian: adj. Opposed to the obligatoriness of the moral law (OED)
Antinomianism: Avowed rejection of the moral law (OED)
I first came across the word Antinomian in Susan Howe’s poetry. Howe described women who embraced ecstasy and professed direct revelation from God, challenging the moral strictures of American Puritans.
Antinomian allowed me to think about gender and spirituality.
It provided a name for my nagging sense of how one might negotiate with inherited traditions by tracing the unmarked narrative thread. Robert Frost may have his roads. I am interested in narrative threads, those dangling strings that lead circuitously into uncharted waters. One mixes metaphors when undertaking such perilous tasks.
One does not seek gold in hidden places. Rather, one seeks refuge.
Gikuyu myths speak of the nine full clans, kenda mũiyũru, to trace the lineage from Gikuyu and Mumbi. These clans, myth says, came from the first 9 daughters of the tribe. Myth tells us there were ten daughters.
We do not say ten daughters as, according to tradition, we do not count. Counting suggests that one is dissatisfied with God’s largesse. One insults blessings when one counts.
Another explanation is that numbers cannot substitute for names. We may speak of the nine full clans, but we provide the names of ten daughters: Wangari, Wangeci, Wangui, Wambura, Wanjeeri, Wairimu, Wanjiru, Wanjiku, Wambui, Wamuyu.
Wamuyu stands out.
According to myth, Gikuyu and Mumbi could not find men to marry their daughers. They asked God to provide men, and he provided 9 men.
Wamuyu conceived outside of this sanctioned pairing. We do not know the circumstances. Did she share one of her sister’s husbands? Was her child the product of incest? Did she consort with enemies? Was her lover a foreigner?
Nine full clans: women with sanctioned male partners.
One other clan: mysteries abound.
One need not be counted to have a name. I struggle to make sense of this insight.
Wamuyu represents the proper name of an improper relationship to ethnic identity.
She points to a different way of conceiving ethnicity: one can be improperly ethnic, but still have a name within the annals of myth, or proper history.
It is not surprising that she does not live within the pages of Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya. In Kenyatta’s telling, this model of sexual impropriety cannot be part of the Gikuyu nation he creates. His vision and version of history must discipline gender transgression to secure nationalist goals.
Wamuyu: a model of gendered transgression.
I have been asked to speculate on Gikuyu identity. In the first version of this writing, I conveyed my ambivalence through a series of densely elliptical formulations. I concluded that piece,
An acquaintance accuses me of a certain literary terrorism: densely elliptical work. I often imagine that were I to elaborate, I would never stop writing and my shriveled corpse would curl up like a comma.
It was a non-ending. Perhaps to signify my intention to continue writing.
Even this version is but one of many parts in a larger conversation.
Wamuyu represents a position within the culture circle. One that must be named but not necessarily counted. To count Wamuyu would be to invoke destruction. But she must be named as part of the Gikuyu. One cannot discount her.
Here, I raise a question of value that I cannot elaborate. I can only name its necessity.
In naming Wamuyu, I pull her out of myth and into history, out of Kenyatta’s invisibility and into my necessity.
As I told one of my students: one must go broad and look sideways.
This work continues.