Urinating in public is now subject to a fine. Perhaps it always was. I’m told the fine is now imposed. My next sentence ought to have the word exposed. I wonder how this fining works: if caught in the act, does one stop mid-stream? Does one complete the process because the fine is worth it, given the pleasure of an emptied bladder? What are the politics and aesthetics of male public urination?
One could create a typology of urinators and their watchers.
He stands under a bridge, hidden. He has lost some of the pleasure of watching his steaming, streaming arc, and cranes his neck about anxiously, looking for the ever-present, appear-suddenly City Council askari. He wonders whether he can charm the askari, and what favors he might be asked to perform.
He stands along the busy highway along rush hour. He dares us to look at his pitiful drops. As we watch, we wonder why he couldn’t wait until he got home. Surely, those little drips don’t need to be displayed in public. But he knows this is one performance of masculinity. Pee in public. Along a highway. During rush hour.
One could write about distance.
He stands close to the bush, his hands folded over his penis, making sure that prying eyes will not see size or shape or circumcision status. He creates mystery, hoping that the right eyes will watch, the right body become curious, the right person be seduced. He is the mysterious pisser.
He stands two meters away from the wall, one hand casually handling his pissing peter. He wants us to marvel that he has a penis. The fact of having a penis outweighs such minor concerns as size or circumcision status. He does this everyday on the way home from his job as a messenger, the job where those in skirts, those without penises, dare to tell him what to do. He is a man! Look!
One could write about age.
He is ten and he has to go. Now. Quickly. It will not wait. And it is raining. He stands at the edge of the ditch along the highway, pulls his penis out from the side of his shorts. This has to be carefully choreographed. The distance between penis and fabric carefully calibrated so that he doesn’t piss on his pants. It’s raining. He’s pissing.
One could write about those who piss in public only at night, those who must wait for daylight, those who piss only in bushes, those who piss against walls. One could write about the men who piss while standing shoulder to shoulder: the brotherhood of pissers. About the men who police their fellow pissers, checking to see whether they are cut or hung or clean or aroused or worth seducing.
One could write about the foreign men who recount the joys of watching Kenyan men pissing and washing themselves in public, the men who stand with their dollars and euros watching for the men who can be paid to masturbate for a foreign camera, or more.
One could write a history of men in Nairobi based on public urination. It would be a history of space and government—about how the incredibly filthy public toilets of yore demanded we create other spaces of sociality. It would be a history of distances, of getting from here to there, of the time it takes to wait and the time it takes to go. It would be a history of diuretics—our relationship to tea, soda, water, and beer. It would be a history of those who wait and those who can’t, those who dare and those who must, those who perform and those who are compelled.
If urine stains could talk, what would they tell us about the history of this city? What would be the history of bodily salts and semen-tinged fluids? Of venereal-stained fluids and antibiotic-laced relief? What would be the tale of spatters and streams? Of paint jobs interrupted and colors that can’t mask smell?
Following weekends, the sidewalk outside the campus bar smells of puke. After a year away in Amherst, I return to a smell that I have not missed. The smell disturbs me, not because of what it is or what caused it, but because of what is missing.
When I return to Nairobi, I realize what’s missing: piss. The smell of piss.
I have mentioned that I want to write about public piss to several people, reactions vary. Some are intrigued by the perverse possibilities (“will there be pictures?”); others can’t quite grasp why this most banal of activities, though now illegal, captures my attention (“aiii, you’re crazy!”); still, others attempt to dissuade me, convinced that the topic lacks elegance or interest (“everyone pisses, what’s interesting about it?”)
It’s precisely the negotiation between the banality of public pissing and its now public policing by the city that intrigues me. It has gained new visibility, as policing tends to do; become less common in some places—depending on the time of day, alley-ways are noticeably devoid of pissers; become an activity of those who are aware they are watched, those who debate between need and law.
And the needs vary.
For some, it is the need, haja, the press that cannot wait, and that one does not have the money to use the piss-for-pay toilets. And here a complex of issues arises: if one paid for tea, should one really have to pay to piss?
For others, it’s a necessary performance of masculinity in an urban environment that can be emasculating, where one’s lean, muscled torso is subject to the whims of yet another tumbo mbele whose gachungwa flirts with hungry eyes and whips off skin with her cat-o-nine tongue.
Still, for others, it’s that the distance between here and the next available facility is too far, though a toilet may be nearby. Class dictates where and whether one may go. One speaks of amber resistance.
And, for some, it’s an ongoing competition: to see how far the stream will go this time. How far up the wall, how far into the valley, how far into the river. The perverse pleasure of believing, rightly or not, that one’s piss is part of the city and will be ingested by its residents.
I was here.
Between the grace of the public performer and the awkwardness of the haja the choreography of right and right now.