Navel gazing has a bad rap. Some navels are infinitely fascinating. I find it easier to begin with a series of modified clichés before I venture into my own navel gazing.
For the past year, I have been reluctant to touch the subject of Kenyan politics. It has felt ever more distant from my everyday life, acquiring a mirage-like unreality. Yet, like the mirage, it haunts me, shimmering just ahead in fantasies of what might be, could be, shall be.
History has taught me to fear what might happen: the casual and strategic violence that happens to queer individuals during elections; the local resentments that acquire shades of ethnicity; the hoarding and looting and abuse of resources. In my affective memory, election translates into violence. Not only the acts of ethnic cleansing, but the ideological fractures that sunder relations between friends and neighbors and colleagues.
Even as the media speaks of new possibilities, as the politicians promise change, new governance (as a student of modernism and colonialism, I receive word of the “new” with a great deal of skepticism), restless ghosts haunt our political imagination—those who died for justice, because of injustice, and those who, lacking any political flesh, float as brown and red specters. We are, I think, a nation too much at ease with ghosting.
It would be too easy to claim that some of us are more haunted than others. Just as, I think, it would be counterproductive to assert that some of us pay more attention to the chicken bones. I am reminded of the Everett Standa poem in which the speaker yearns to learn how to ignore the world—the specters of the modern. Teach me, he begs. I fear we have learned the lesson all too well.
From a certain perspective, I am a muddled alarmist: after all, the people with whom I grew up and attended school are “doing well.” My historical class interests are “protected.” (If nothing else, deconstruction has taught me to be honest about origins, even as I critique them.) Were I to adopt my father’s conservative perspective, I would claim that success comes to those who work for it. (I am, perhaps, off topic. So be it.)
Another way to approach the matter would be to claim that the urgencies of the post-independence moment are such that the political biographies of the nationalist moment are insufficient and inadequate, and this inadequacy explains why their continual deployment can only result in failure. Kenya, in her 40s, can no longer don the accoutrement of a previous time,
This, it seems to me, is what is most urgent and troubling about our current political moment: as it fractures along ethnic and class lines, it is doomed to be a continual re-staging. Once in power, the narrative goes, we will enjoy as others have enjoyed. The feast grows stale, the food unpalatable, the cooks weary, yet the desire remains. One might write of ethnic gluttony, with a lamentable lack of taste buds.
Yet, as I wrote a while ago in my former residence (rip) apathy kills, as does indifference, and skepticism wounds. I am a fan of critique, which engages to transform. And I am cheered by the multiple innovative ways Kenyans are engaging and shaping their collective futures. I am heartened by citizen activism, tickled that a queer conference took place in Nairobi, ecstatic that the best minds of my generation have begun to envision and enact presents that I can only imagine.
And so I re-turn to the political with a sense of wary enthusiasm, re-oriented, even as I keep looking sideways. I have come to think of the political as a persistent crick in the neck, the awkward yet somehow pleasurable craning that might be termed awareness.