That “odd” Note

In a mostly persuasive article in the Nation, Peter Mwaura argues that Kibaki’s “true legacy” is freedom of expression. He offers, as evidence, that this freedom gave Kenyans such latitude that the president was not spared. Indeed, Mwaura contends, it is an index of Kibaki’s success that he has been, at times, the victim of granting such freedom.

I am interested, though, in the final paragraphs of the article, in which Mwaura delves into strange, and telling, territory:

MR KIBAKI REMOVED AN INTRUSIVE and meddlesome government off our backs. He provided us with an enabling environment to be ourselves, to be what we wanted to be.

All his five years as president were characterised by unprecedented freedom, even freedom for his ministers to run their ministries. In fact, his often quoted “insults” including pumbavu and mavi ya kuku were given in the same spirit of freedom of expression enjoyed by other citizens, no matter how unbecoming the usage of such words may seem.

At the same time, his outspokenness about who are and who are not members of his family was part of that freedom. It was also an attempt to uphold family values, to state that even families have a right to freedom (from idle gossip and calumny).

By categorically stating who his family members were and denying insinuations that there was a second wife (even in a society where polygamy is acceptable and respectable in many quarters), he boosted Kenyan family values that have been constantly watered down by creeping permissiveness.

A queer reading, that is to say an “interested” reading, might consider this movement from government in the first quoted paragraph to family in the final one; the implicit, though by no means surreptitious claim that government is invested in promoting “Kenyan family values.”

Here, “creeping permissiveness” becomes the enemy of “government,” of “Kenyan family values,” a contentless abstraction that carries unbearable weight (after all, as Lee Edelman asks, who would dare to be “against” family?).

In slightly more academic terms, we might think of how the act of “categorically stating” one’s family members constitutes them as family members (as a “man” speaks, so it shall be). Lacking in Mwaura’s analysis is any sense of whether Kibaki’s performative is adequate to the task of defining intimate relations: is family and are family values reducible to this declarative act? Here, I’m thinking of the scores of men who all-too-willingly disavow fatherhood—it’s not mine! Is this declaration sufficient to define the complicated terrain of intimacy? Asked another way, does Mwaura want to argue that the government is invested in protecting and promoting specific family values that find their realization and exemplar in the form of the church-sanctioned monogamous family secured, in turn, by what we might term, tongue in cheek, the “Law of the Father?”

And, how do we understand the claim that Kibaki allowed us to “be what we wanted to be” alongside the all-too-familiar complaint of “creeping permissiveness?” What is the relationship between citizen-defined intimacy and state-sanctioned intimacy?

What is it about the domain of the intimate that so often produces this strange disjuncture between “freedom” and “permissiveness,” between intimate practices and family values? Why doesn’t freedom of expression, which Mwaura wants to praise, extend to the domain of the intimate? Why must this domain be policed above all else?

I ask these questions to think about the presents we will be creating in the aftermath of this election, presents that have the potential to recognize and work with what might be termed, adapting Bruce Robbins’s apt phrase, “already existing intimacies”: it might be possible, instead of upholding mythical “family values,” secured by the word of a benevolent patriarch, to conceive of public and private modes of intimate life that reflect our rich diversity.