“Life Must Go On”: Truncated Mourning and Kenyan Abjects

We withhold eulogies from two groups: those we believe to have been truly evil and those who have no value. To eulogize is to add value, to account for another’s life, to claim it continues to offer sustenance. To live in expectation of a eulogy is to understand one’s life as having had value, to understand oneself as having fulfilled an obligation, having lived as one should have.

To eulogize is to write and rewrite, to translate another’s life into one’s own terms. And, often, not to read the script that may have been written and overwritten. A eulogy is a palimpsest with strict rules.

Yet we rarely ask about the conditions of livability that enable or disenable living, for to do so would break the rules of the eulogy, which must confirm, above all else, the absolute value of life and living. Much like the end of the sentence confers meaning on the sentence, the end of living, signified by the eulogy, confers meaning on having lived.

Withholding a eulogy means acknowledging that not all lives gain value, most especially not at the end.
* * *
“I will not ride in your taxi. I will not give you money to buy bows and arrows so you can kill us.”—Anon

The current debate over amnesty is also an implicit debate about culpability. In identifying those who caused harm we absolve those of us who, like Lady Macbeth, experienced the violence as a phantom sensation.

I return to this site of violence and the incomplete, impossible, and now truncated act of mourning to forestall a now that rushes to catch up: an economy that, some say, has “bounced back”; a social world that revels in its banal excesses; chance meetings with friends who are “doing well” and “still doing well,” despite “minor bumps during that period.”

To these encounters I bring the sense of panic fostered by distance, the desire to know the stories I could not have been told, the frightened will to go to “those places,” to see “those people,” and the fear that the smell of rancid flesh hangs in the air. To these encounters I bring something unresolved and unresolvable, a kernel that will not dissolve, that I hold sacred, an impossible ability to transform mourning into melancholia.

I worry that the cries of “never again” conceal insidious motives, weapons hoarded in readiness, vehicles at the ready to evacuate “our people,” blacksmiths at the ready to turn hoes into swords.

What I imagine seems ridiculous under the clear skies, in the warm air, amidst the Vaseline-bright faces of those who still have a future. But I resist the pressure to move on, to believe that life must continue.
* * *
I remain stuck at “Must” in “Life Must Go On.” Whose life? How does this palliative collude in the obscene reasoning behind the post-election violence? Even then, the logic was that life must go on. Mine, not yours. Yours, not mine.

It is this that the PEV has created: a choosing, that one’s life exists, obscenely, and necessarily, at the cost of another. It is less the novelty of this much-explored idea than its application here, now.

But also, the impossible response. One cannot answer that life “must” not go on, the double negative already indicates the difficulty of this reasoning, and the sentence must then be reconfigured as always elliptical:

One’s [own] life must go on . . .
* * *
I must admit that I find it difficult to turn away from the sun, the endless green, the avocado tree outside, the warm stones that beckon, that seduce, the eden-like environment that I have missed.

I have been eating small sweet bananas, one of my favorite treats. I had a mango—a fruit I refuse to eat when in the States because I am afraid my taste buds will be sullied.

Despite my constant eating, and I eat a lot, I am losing weight, now that I am out of the corn-infused land—is it really this simple?

There is something good about being here, in my mother’s house, surrounded by relatives, to inhabit a multi-generationality that seems more important than ever. To ground my thinking, my feeling, to replenish something I had not realized was so parched.
* * *
Had I the money, I might buy a Datsun. Kenyans of a certain generation will recognize the reference.
* * *
My almost 3-year old niece cries occasionally. Sometimes she fake cries. My 3-year old nephew cries, too. More than she does. I see, now, why psychoanalysts have focused on children to negotiate the maze of psychic life. (With Freud, I confess that the topographical image is necessarily inadequate, though Minotaurs may lurk.)

I had thought that crying could be orchestrated, a piano sniffle gaining in a fast-paced crescendo reaching an ear-destroying fortissimo followed by a gradual slowing down and quieting off.

Any parent knows that I am wrong.

The cries come quickly and stop quickly. Or extend in full volume for longer than can be imagined. Or linger softly, for a while.

I remain entranced by the cries that seem to start, and just as quickly stop, what I think of as truncated cries, lacking the appropriate temporality to be, to my mind, satisfying. Perhaps I have watched too many films in which the protagonists cry for days on end, complain about dehydration, drink water, and cry some more.
* * *
What does truncated crying, or truncated mourning, tell us about the value of another’s life? How does mourning add value to life?

I have speculated for many months that Kenyans have not yet mourned, and being here worries me that we are in a holding pattern.

Abject: dirt, filth, vomit, that which is, must be, expelled, lacking in value

To describe the PEV victims as abject is to register one side of the story, how their attackers might have perceived them. Yet another side of the story registers how our frantic pace and wagging tongues continue to abjectify.

And we do abjectify when the names and numbers we mention continue to be used to stoke slow-burning, and long-lasting embers.

I crave the kind of mourning that, like the celebration over Olympic successes, brings us together, teaches us that any life, no matter whose, is equally valuable.

But this is not a lesson that we have learned through 45 years of independence, and it is naïve to imagine that what I considered to be unprecedented, unthinkable, an epistemological crisis, a rupture, registered the same way for other people.

I have to factor in distance.
* * *
A good friend, also home temporarily, tells me Kenya feels “edgy.”
* * *
Mourning gives meaning both to lives that have gone and those that continue. It acknowledges that we cannot speak for the dead.

I continue to hope that a certain kind of mourning, a kind of crying yet to happen will be enough to ease what lingers, to dissipate the smoke.

According to Freud, mourning means that one has let go of one’s love object, one is ready to love again. Amidst our courts and inquiries and leaked documents and secret conversations and accusations and counter-accusations and smiling and drinking and partying, and the frantic pace of life that must go on, I am yet to hear of love.

To say this is to risk being called naïve.

We need to embrace certain kinds of naïveté.
* * *
I do not believe we can turn historical abjects, the dead, into subjects. On this, I disagree with historians. I’m not convinced that we can or should claim agency on behalf of those who are no longer with us. Perhaps because I take as a matter of fact that people live and act, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. The question of whether recognizing others’ agency is sufficient to de-abjectify remains open.

I take more seriously, even earnestly, the injunction not to abjectify the living, to create conditions that de-abjectify.

And it is this that, I think, remains difficult: how to acknowledge the kinds of losses that cannot be fixed by Kshs 10,000; how to acknowledge the kinds of unspoken feelings that suffuse the air; how to pay attention to the national arrhythmia.