The “Situations Vacant” board at Sarit Centre is filled with letters of recommendation given to maids and gardeners and ayahs and drivers and accountants and secretaries and clerks and teachers by former employers, many expatriate, some not.
Each letter has the same formula: “Name, Id. No. worked for us from 200x-200y. Employee was loyal and hardworking. Please hire them. Signed reassuringly foreign name.”
For the hapless expatriate, the reassuring foreign name allows a sigh of relief: this is not keeping up with the Joneses, more managing with the Smiths. For the more traveled, the formulaic nature of the letters produces distrust.
What strikes me about these letters—and official documents such as CVs and employee profiles—is how privacy functions in Kenya. There’s no or little personal space. I’m over this now. Matatu rides cure a lot.
It is, rather, that ID numbers and passport numbers circulate easily, as ready and worthless forms of currency, though required when one is stopped by a policeman or enters certain buildings. Newspapers regularly print ID and passport numbers. As though to say these state-sanctioned forms of “this is who you are” are always inadequate.
One’s CV lists one’s age and marital status: one needs no further evidence of heteronormativity. We are single, married, widowed, or divorced. All the time.
How we relate to how the state names us, produces us, to its persistent hailing, this continues to be thought and negotiated.
We could read this board in more economic terms: that the “informal” sector on which Kenya, read Sarit Centre going Kenyans, depends on has such a surfeit of labor that “vacant” translates as “available.” This is not a misreading, a misunderstanding of what “vacant” means. It is a commentary on how material conditions re-fashion language.
In more prosaic terms, we could ask about the distinction between what the board is meant for and how it’s used. As simple as this distinction might seem, it’s possible to write an entire narrative about Kenya based on use and mis-use. One might ask what happened to traffic lights when car hijackers took over our roads in the 1990s.
The reading of “vacant” as “available” also speaks to how forms of global circulation create a dependent underclass: it is telling that the names on the letters are recognizably expatriate, not signed by Otieno or Macharia, but Smith, Jurgen, Schmidt, Giovanni. Those here on 3-month, 6-month, 9-month, and 3-year contracts hire, write letters, and pass on.
What they are passing on is not simply a recommendation, a name and ID number, but a way of life, a mode of being expatriate: one needs a maid, a gardener, a driver, an ayah, a secretary, a clerk.
This “Situation Vacant” board teaches those who use it, workers and employers, how to reproduce a social order, teaches us who look at it how a social order is created and persists.
It is late, I have just eaten dinner, and my brain is dead. So, a few notes.
How do we read the state-sponsored identities alongside the expatriate produced identities? What is the relationship between ID No. and job description? What kind of subject emerges in these letters?
How do we read these recommendation letters, whether real or not, as a genre? Teju once asked how we might read 419 letters as genres. This possibility continues to intrigue me.
What narratives surround these letters? How do they get to the board? Do those who post them monitor them to make sure they are still visible? Which ones get covered over? Do those who post have a strategy? Do drivers post next to gardeners? How successful are these letters? What do they accomplish simply by existing on the board?
What social and economic narratives emerge and are possible when vacant equals available?