Kenyan Cosmopolitanism

The Waki Report consistently uses the term “cosmopolitan” to describe multi-ethnic communities. For instance, in describing Nakuru district, the report states that it “remains one of Kenya’s most cosmopolitan where most of Kenya’s ethnic communities are found” (98). What is the labor of the term “cosmopolitan” here? What does this particular appropriation of the term mean? How does this usage intersect with and interrupt other uses of the term cosmopolitan, many of which are based on inter-national rather than intra-national movement?

Certainly, this intra- and inter- distinction need not hold. Afro-diasporic writers of the late nineteenth century at least through the late 1920s used the term “cosmopolitan” to re-fashion discourses of miscegenation and also, we might argue, to assert their inter-intra heritages. In Contending Forces and Of One Blood, for instance, Pauline Hopkins traces the inter-intra formation of Afro-diasporic blackness, providing, at the same time, a biological model for cosmopolitanism (and it’s important that it’s not hybridity she theorizes and advocates, but cosmopolitanism—why this is so remains to be explained).

What might be termed bio-cosmopolitanism becomes one of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s signature moves as she re-frames and re-values national blackness. (The article on this is still in process.)

Is it possible to envision, conceive of, theorize something called bio-cosmopolitanism? What happens to the body in discourses of cosmopolitanism? What are the intimate presumptions of cosmopolitanism, for to be “at home in the world” or, in some formulations, to be “un-homed in the world” is a kind of intimate negotiation that involves fashioning and re-fashioning the world, stretching and molding the meanings of home, home-liness, and un-homed.
And so back to Nakuru district, this site of Kenya cosmopolitanism. I’m not yet sure if cosmopolitanism just is or whether it has to be set in motion; whether or not it is conscious; if all multi-neighborhoods or regions can be or should be considered “cosmopolitan.” Yet, I admit, these questions arise from my own particular contexts in which I think more often about inter- and intra- and multi- and wrestle with how these formations-formulations intersect with internationalism, globalization, cosmopolitanism, and similar terms.

I’m not sure I have a handle on cosmopolitanism—am not sure if there is a way to get a handle on it. I continue to wonder whether there’s such a thing as African cosmopolitanism that would be related to and yet not reducible to Afro-cosmopolitanism. Is there a cosmopolitanism that operates out of a different knowledge economy than the clichés of cosmopolitanism would presume?

One way to read Nakuru’s cosmopolitan status—which, in the Report, is based on the African residents not the Euro-American tourists—is to think about what it means to take African ethnicity seriously, as worthy of consideration as race or religion in other contexts, to challenge the lamentable assumption that ethnic difference is reducible to petty squabbles among siblings. To think through ethnicity, not around it, as so many of us are wont.
There are other meanings of cosmopolitanism, as Derrida reminds us. And these interest me much more within an African context. Cosmopolitanism as a space of refuge—a city that offers refuge—and cosmopolitanism as a hospitable space.

This latter description interests me very much given that we Kenyans are famed for our hospitality—the truth status of this claim no longer troubles me that much. Is this what we mean when we term Nakuru cosmopolitan? That it is a hospitable place of refuge? And is this what we lost during the PEV?

Was the PEV the loss of cosmopolitanism?
You see, I have not yet moved from January 2008. I don’t understand what happened. And it’s not a matter of facts—I have read analysis after analysis, report after report and I still don’t understand. I would like to say evil exists and move on. But this is inadequate.

This is the question: what made people like me erase their histories of conviviality and rape and torture and kill each other? What turned cosmopolitan districts like Nakuru into ethno-genocidal zones? Is there a structural weakness to Kenyan cosmopolitanism, to the presumed social contracts that anchor and secure it?

For the past 10 months, I have been a blind man touching the elephant’s many parts, and I’m still to discover what I’m touching, holding, feeling. I have been told by many people that to do so is a privilege, for life continues, and we must act: wake up, go to work, return home, go out, come back, buy, sell, come back.

But every time I try to move, I touch yet another part of the elephant. So I keep asking myself what it is that I am touching and how it compares to what I have touched before.

Skin may have memory, but mine remains stubbornly amnesiac.

How to understand the deliberate madness, that awesome blend of rational irrationality that erases histories of conviviality? How does one crawl into the skin of people like me and what price must one pay to do so?
People like me.

The simile forges a relationship—and I do treat it as a simile. It forges a relationship because speaking from the distance of horror fueled by the fear of taint produces a certain stance in the world, a distancing that for all its rightness—and it’s so appealing to stand on the side of right—orders the world in a way I’m not comfortable occupying.
I have just finished reading a powerful, forthcoming article on suffering and justice that focuses on the State’s role in providing justice, ensuring justice has a voice. I was moved to tears, to awe, stunned into silence. This article is, in some measure, a response to my own vacillations around the problem of justice.

I asked,

How to distinguish between the foundation one stands on and the window one shoots through.
I have a problem distinguishing the merely guilty from the truly guilty, the guilty from the very guilty, thinking about how to apportion responsibility. When do our ethnocentric conversations become dangerous? At what point do circulating and disseminating stereotypes turn poisonous? What conversation triggers what action?

Perhaps my interlocutors are right and I’m simply waffling around language, creating elaborate metaphors when the issues of right and wrong, justice and injustice are much clearer, more precise.

The Waki Report is clear: We Must Punish Impunity.

Why, then, do I tremble when I hear politicians and civil society leaders chanting “to the full extent of the law”? Why do I worry that our long and inglorious history of unjust justice taints what we might even conceive of as justice? Why do I fear that resentment and revenge have already tainted justice, overwhelmed its capacity to continue building a necessary us? Why do I wonder whether justice administered is self-consciousness denied, self-awareness blinded, questions left unanswered, rot left slumbering?

I don’t have answers.

But we cannot, must not believe that the many reports produced have answered all our questions. We cannot, must not believe that implementing these reports’ recommendations will suffice to fix what ails us. We cannot, must not believe that the kind of self-conscious analyses we need will arise after justice has been served.
What then?

I began with a discussion of cosmopolitanism and I return to it now.

None of the reports—the KHRC Reports, Kriegler, Waki—offer a vision of the futures we can inhabit and create. This is not their task. It is our task.

We have to ask who we want to be—not take for granted that we are and will continue to be. We need to move past the belief that our essential innocence and inherent goodness will be enough to stave off what has ailed us in the past. We need to decide how the forms of justice we administer will shape us and form us. We need to decide how our forms of justice will restore and re-create Kenyan cosmopolitanism.

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