09.17.08

Last week, members of a church in Limuru were captured by our ever-present, prurient media hurling stones and insults at one another, ostensibly over the church leadership. One sequence featured a young man whipping an older man.

Welcome to Sunday.

My mother tells me that particular area has had long-standing rivalries dating back to the late colonial period. Families hand down stories of those neighbors and church members who colluded with the colonial government, who betrayed or tortured or killed family members.

Even in Githunguri, where she is from, she tells me that “people are known,” “families identified,” and given the opportunity, 50-year old rivalries are re-ignited, debts settled.
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My grandfather kept a family diary, a record of births, deaths, the emergency, independent Kenya. I want it. I have asked for it. I might get it.
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I have never asked my mother about her nightmares, whether she has them or how she stopped having them. The stories are ritualistic: they took away my father, they displayed dead bodies at the gates outside school, they bulldozed my father’s house.

Colonial history continues to mark the present vividly.

Because I grew up with these stories and histories, can repeat them in detail, the postcolonial continues to be a useful, an affective, a deeply felt and useful category for me. Post, not as what is past, but as what lingers into and flavors the present.

Because I grew up with these stories and histories, I have a different relationship to Kenya, to the past, to knowledge than those who do not have the same memories, the same legacies. The postcolonial fractures. And this, what might be termed the melancholy of postcoloniality is not quite, or not only what Paul Gilroy imagines.
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We whisper a lot here, and we laugh, but we rarely talk. And Kenyatta’s demand that we move on and forget the past—how ironic that our present politicians are using the same tired line—has been one of the most unsteady foundations of this nation.

I am not claiming that all acts of violence in Kenya derive from extended histories or long-held rivalries. But histories layer, pile on top of each other, are always, and inevitably, palimpsestic.
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My mother has chosen to pass on histories without names. Her gift to us, her children, has been to allow us to go to Githunguri without resentment. I’m not sure what this has cost us or her. But I do know what it has enabled.

To consider this kind of forgetting, this “not passing on” as a gift requires us to re-think what we lament as Kenya’s amnesiac tendencies, what our leaders ask us to forget, presume we will forget, believe we have already forgotten.

We believe, or at least I do, that the injunction to forget is dangerous, injurious, infantilizing, and at times it is.

Yet, I must now ask how these men and women, the independence-era generation learned to manage the past, learned what to pass on and what to hold back, learned to give us enough without leaving us embittered and paranoid.

2 thoughts on “09.17.08

  1. Have just read the posts you’ve written while in Nairobi and find myself moved and anxious. Anxious because I would like nothing better than for these to become a book of essays on ‘re-turn’ as you put it. Your eye, the way you are having to contend and shape shift, your awareness of the different languages, all this is so important now – especially I think because any other writing you do after being in Kenya longer will be very different from this. The hordes are at your gate, waving rungus and screaming for a book!

  2. Sorry, many apologies.

    I have to budget my internet time, so have been lax in responding.

    A book there will not be. At least not of this. What this record might be, is, will become, we shall see.

    I rather like its ephemeral life–until I get tired of this blog and delete it or wordpress kick me off or life takes over, as it is wont to do.

    I will say my reading has changed since I’ve been home–more official documents than ever before, less literature, less “theory,” and my poor theory-heavy brain is being made to do heavy lifting in the “real world.”

    We shall see how that shapes my prose.

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