I know two facts about my grandfather: he used to be a cook and he had a bullet lodged in his body. He was a taciturn man, given to short replies, using grunts to converse, seemingly displeased with the course of his life. Yet, given he had two wives and twelve children, that my aunts, uncles, and cousins rank among some of the most beautiful and charming people I know, I suspect he may have had hidden depths.
His occupation as a cook was not uncommon for Gikuyu men. Ads enticing would-be settlers to the colonies praised the ready supply of cheap, malleable labor. On the ground reports from early settlers and visitors, William Routledge, Elspeth Huxley, and Richard Meinertzhagen, for instance, emphasized the availability of Gikuyu labor. Gikuyu men, as Carolyn Martin Shaw claims, were considered neuter, unlike the virile Maasai. As such, they were considered ideal household servants, posing no threat to white women.
Given the relative absence of land—my limited knowledge tells me my grandfather did not come from wealth—a position as a cook, working in a town or city, supporting a family in the countryside, would have seemed an attractive, or at least reasonable proposition. He embodied, quite literally, a newly made colonial subject. He belongs to the first generation of men whose encounters with colonialism offered new ways of being gendered.
What was it like to grow up with one set of gendered expectations only to encounter a world in which they no longer made sense or, in some cases, were no longer possible? How did one negotiate the values attached to gendered practices as they changed, when earning capacity, for example, competed against cattle raids? Or in more familiar terms, money came against muscles? How did one manage the transition from cook in the city to polygamous husband in the country? (As an aside, these questions are central to my dissertation.) Here, it might be worth noting that Okonkwo’s tragedy is nothing if not about his struggle to define gendered identity in a changing world. And this also applies to his grandson Obi in No Longer at Ease.
In recent years, I have wondered about my grandfather’s profession, about the link between cooking and bullets. Of course, the association makes sense given the role house servants played in the Mau Mau war. Cooks and houseboys often provided access to settlers’ houses, many times taking the lead in brutal attacks. Such acts were probably a complex blend of nationalist sentiments—volitional and coerced—and gendered rage. Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy is the classic text of gendered ambivalence and frustration. It is also my choice for a novel to be read alongside Things Fall Apart.
Was my grandfather shot by colonial guards or anti-colonial forces? Was his bullet, to over-simplify the matter, the mark of a coward or a hero? Now, I have no investment in the terms “coward” and “hero.” I consider them to be dangerous fictions. On the other hand, I am interested in how they circulate and provide social legibility. I am especially interested in how they provide us with a language through which to understand the relationship between gender and belonging. Both terms have a distinct relation to nationalist histories, one that follows them no matter where they are deployed. Rescuing cats from trees builds nations. But I stray.
Had I the patience, I would trace more carefully, or at least more imaginatively, the flights in and out of masculinity marked by the confluence of cooking and bullets. I might outline how masculinity and ethnicity, colonial and postcolonial identities can be embedded in the flesh. (Of course, I really just want MMK to reinforce and build on my shaky foundations.) I might begin trying to map the transition from having a thorn in the flesh to having a bullet in the flesh, from being a thorn in the flesh to being a bullet in the flesh.
To think about how these supplements and irritants, natural and man-made, gendered suppositories, one might say, form an essential part of the queer histories I have tried to imagine and claim, histories of unstable masculinities, ambivalent belonging, contested spaces. To think, too, about how these histories of en-fleshment function, even when denuded of verbs.
Ultimately, I am interested in the uneven transmission (my director’s term) of masculinities, the competing modes of practicing gender that continue to shape African masculinities.