Refuge in Distance

I want to take refuge in distance. I want to occupy the position of the Kenyan abroad, that fabled creature who stares at his goldfish while sipping healthy drinks with added chemicals.

Distance would allow me to assume the pose of rationality and objectivity. In response to the question, “what’s going on in your country?” Distance would have a historical analysis, shaped by facts, bolstered by figures, outlined in rich empirical detail, with a strong narrative finish. Approved for Publication.

Distance would provide me with an alibi, allow me to prove that my years abroad have removed the African from Africa, have made him respectable, civilized, able to privilege reason over passion. I would finally be de-tribalized, scrubbed clean of shameful alliances and attachment. Having achieved distance, I would talk knowledgeably about the “construction” of ethnicity, eschewing the nastiness of the term “tribe,” with its echoes of half-clothed natives waving pangas.

You see, when one lives away from home, one is offered the false options of being sophisticated or tribal, having a global vision or being hopelessly outdated.

I’ve never been very fashionable.

Many years ago, a black scholar told me that the word “tribe” was a European invention. It was degrading, not something I should use to describe myself or my kin-attachments. Instead, he said, I should speak of my ethnic-nation. Then, and now, I resisted the call to be de-tribalized, to be “ethnicized.” My reluctance came from the productive ways in which I felt “tribe” functioned.

Because I am a literary scholar, stories are crucial to how I imagine and engage the world. Through stories, I can move through time, understand ethics and morality, fabricate the worlds I want to inhabit. For me, tribe is the site of story. It is the place where I learn that Gikuyu and Mumbi had ten daughters, but only count nine; that the Akamba were birthed from a knee; that the Maasai were lowered by the deity on a cowskin; that Lwanda Magere was felled by his shadow.

Each of these stories, opened a new world for me, made me long to know the men and women who recited them, loved them, passed them on. Made me desire to meet the children shaped in the crucible of such tales. I knew that I had my own stories. I knew my classmates had their own. I also knew that we would share these stories, laugh at each others’ jokes and idiosyncrasies. That we would each pretend to be Lwanda Magere; that the relationship between Waiyaki wa Hinga and Richard Meinertzhagen afforded more opportunities for imaginative play than any notion of cowboys and Indians.

Tribe was the place where we created and shared worlds. It was where I learned to value gap-toothed smiles and beaded hair. It was where I learned that I need not suffer because my own people were terrible dancers. I could learn from those who had perfected the dance. I learned that I need not go without because my people had not mastered the drum. I could let my body dance to the rhythms of others.

Tribe taught me that the distinction between my people and others could be a source of pleasurable tension, the anticipation before a first meeting, the assurance of welcome, the taste of new, unfamiliar, and unfailingly delicious cuisine.

Tribe has never been an abstraction. It has been embedded in the way I move, the way I dance, the food I eat, the expressions I use, my taste in men, my love for myth.

So, you see, I cannot distance myself from the language of tribe, I cannot disentangle the threads that fabricate me.

* * *
My allegiances lie, however, in the direction of the time before tribalism. Historians have taught us that modern tribes should be considered modern entities, forged in the precarious histories of empire building and colonization. I hold on to the notion that before we were forced to think of ourselves as fragile and xenophobic units, we understood ourselves to have contingent and innovative alliances.

I want to recover the idea of tribe as a unit of heterogeneity and invention, idiosyncratic in its multiple manifestations, powerful in its ability to look beyond its borders, to be open to possibility and potential.

* * *
Yet, I have to acknowledge the privilege of distance that allows for such an interpretation. Were I riding on a matatu, subject to the whims and passions of panga-wielding men, my name would be my tribe would be my possible death sentence. Distance allows for potential, dreams, fantasies.

We have to recognize, though, that what we see as failures of leadership have also been failures of the imagination. Our leaders fall into old habits because they cannot imagine themselves otherwise. We fall into old habits because we dare not step out of what is sanctioned.

I worry that as we strive for unity in the coming months, we will fall into the comforts of who we have been and who we claim to be. I worry that we will embrace the conservatisms of family and ethnicity, conservatisms that often blame social disruption on failed morals, the evils introduced especially through gender and sexual politics.

We might, instead, risk freedom.

* * *
Against the desire to close ranks, we might, counterintuitively, pursue freedoms and alliances that we have never dared, content, as we have been, in the old pieties of knowing who we are and where we belong.

We might risk promiscuous comminglings and inauspicious exchanges. We might dare to tell old stories in new ways, hear new stories in old ways. We might dare to speak to old neighbors, cultivate new ones.

We might understand freedom not as the right to be left alone but as the ethical imperative to learn how to live together. We might embrace the difficulty of this undertaking, the necessity, the impossibility.

10 thoughts on “Refuge in Distance

  1. I will write a ‘proper’ comment when I get past the whole ‘refuge in distance’… refuge in distance. :(

    How goes my favourite Prof?

  2. I have the absurd luxury of saying I am tired. Which is why I keep repeating myself in every post.

    How are you? At home? Still in the UK? You and yours are safe?

  3. I keep typing and deleting and typing and deleting my response to this post.

    I have struggled to create distance between myself and what is happening in Kenya this past week. Not physical distance, but mental distance. Else I think, sometimes, that I will go mad.

    Tribe as the site of story. I’m taking that back with me to my hiding place, to gaze at, to turn over, to pull apart and put together again.

  4. I keep thinking about what I am now terming “stubborn attachments,” not in their idiosyncratic singularity but, more crucially, in their capacity to shape our experiences of the world. For that reason, I am reluctant to disavow certain attachments, certain histories, in favor of a collective imagination, precisely because I believe such an imagination will be stunted and denuded.

    In truth, I should write another post, but other duties call.

  5. I think that is partly what Samatar was suggesting in that quote fragment… ‘clanism’ in that context is the modern tribe, after colonialism and after-after, not “before” when clan/kinship was something – “generative” to quote one of your fav. terms – and contingent and flexible.

    And, oh, I was taken by Kole Omotoso’s essay resisting the imperative to be “post-tribal” – take a look.

    The term “gabila” (tribe in arabic) is still used despite the academic eschewing of that word.

  6. Thanks for the clarification, texter. I think what is difficult for all of us, not just academics, is trying to figure out the multiple temporalities in which we live and speak. Tribe, and perhaps clan, signifies in different ways to the pre-independence (my grandparents), independence-era (my parents) and post-independence generations (my siblings and myself). And, of course, these designations are further modified by spatial relations (urban, rural, semi- or peri-urban, semi- or peri-rural, international, within Africa, in Europe, Asia, the US).

    This, no doubt, is why people like us have jobs.

    Thanks for the Omotoso reference, will look it up.

  7. I must confess, as a certain kind of humanist, I’m not really interested in the distinction between the objective and the subjective. When it comes to human relations, as opposed to, say, the weight of calcium protons, I am much more invested in agreeable attachments, fostering connections, even the pleasurable frictions of living together (see my post on diaspora and frottage).

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