diary, 8/08-12/08

09.29.08

In 1978, The Nairobi Times Magazine published a special issue focused on Jomo Kenyatta’s death. Titled “The Last Farewell,” the issue begins from 1952, with Kenyatta as “Freedom Fighter,” displays various family portraits of Kenyatta with his extensive family, and features various portraits of his corpse.

There is much to be written about how this moment of collective grief forged a transient nation, as moments of grief do. Indeed, this special issue should be considered one of the founding documents of the new, post-Kenyatta Kenya. The Kenya I have always known.

Page 10 and 11 feature photographs of the funeral. The accompanying text, I reproduce in full:

FAREWELL TO MZEE JOMO KENYATTA
Thursday, August 31, 1978

President Kenyatta’s body is laid to rest in a special mausoleum, Parliament grounds . . . One of the eulogies is read by the President, Mr. Daniel Arap Moi . . . After the late President’s body is laid to rest, his widow, Mama Ngina receives his commander-in-chief’s cap, his Presidential Standard and the National Flag.

Page 12 features an excerpt from the ongoing comic The Phantom, by Lee Falk and Sy Barry. In this particular episode, this white masked character, the African-based batman, pursues a white monster called HZZ, who has just invaded and is about to destroy an African village.

Page 13 of this special issue features a comic of Hägar The Horrible by Dik Browne. The comic is hilarious. And I can’t reproduce it.

Page 14 features a crossword puzzle by S.D.B., and the first clue across is “Look scared of a European?” The answer consists of 4 words, with the word lengths, 5,2,3,4.

I’m not sure what phrase describes fear of Europeans.

To credit the magazine’s designers with intent goes against the Barthesian in me, but interesting possibilities emerge when we consider the narrative the entire magazine tells.

The abrupt switch in tone from Kenyatta’s funeral to the colonial fantasy pretensions of The Phantom suggests a narrative of regression. The death of Kenya’s first president, a nationalist upstart, speaks to a colonial fantasy that the new nation would regress following independence, that, as some whites prophesied, the new Kenya would abort if led by blacks.

The monstrousness of HZZ (and we really enter into the monstrousness of the acronymed in the late 70s and early 80s), which is to be pursued by a white masked crusader, a white man saving blacks from white monstrosity, that this fantasy subtends the scene of Kenyatta’s death, such an ideological (mis)reading might tell a useful story about then, about there.

While The Phantom tells a story of imperial nostalgia, Hägar continues a story of conquest, the Vikings humanized, made sympathetic. And Funny. Very Funny.

It’s difficult to explain how these tonal shifts function: that we turn from mourning to a neo-imperial fantasy to conquest humor. This is not simply the “amnesia” of which so many of us complain. Because we are being asked not simply to forget but to re-write, to re-imagine, to be nostalgic for white men saving us from white monsters. And to laugh about it.

But Hägar is not the end, for we must now turn to the crossword puzzle: “Look scared of a European?” 4 words.

At Kenyatta’s death, we are left with this clue.

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