At first I wanted to write a different kind of opening, to begin with a confession.
Instead of thinking about my love for Kenya, or its absence, I started thinking about Kenya’s love for me, or its absence. And this gets hairy. I do not feel Kenya loves me and I certainly don’t feel love for Kenya.
But what is this “entity” called Kenya that I feel should be capable of love? And is that even a reasonable expectation for something held together, in part, by a fragile document that is followed selectively? What is it that “does not love me” and that, in turn I “cannot love?” What is it that I feel “does not love me?”
To answer this final question requires thinking of Kenya through a series of hauntings and possessions, to abuse empathy and displace the living and dead, the attacked and abused, the assassinated and in hiding, and to see myself in them. Yet to do so also requires turning away from other hauntings, other possessions, in which I can so easily be the “doing well” and “doing very well,” the “making it” and “the made,” the “secure” and the “very secure.” To attach to the former kind of possession, in other words, means that I choose to attach myself to one narrative and not to another. And this choice determines, then, how I can feel Kenya feels about me.
Perhaps “love” is the wrong demand. I am expecting the wrong “thing” and Kenya, in turn, might be expecting the wrong thing. After all, we recite a loyalty pledge, not a love pledge. Yet, loyalty, so steeped in a different age, invoking military metaphors, seems inadequate to describe this “thing” between Kenya and me, or this thing I expect and can’t seem to feel I receive.
How does one feel a nation?
In writing that I don’t feel Kenya loves me, I try to express that I don’t feel desirable, desired, or in less sexualized language, valued. Valued both in terms of the skills I have and can use in Kenya, for Kenya, and valued for the potential I could bring to Kenya, if allowed. Let me dwell on the latter, for a moment.
How does one come to feel valued by a nation? How does Kenya demonstrate it values us? How does Kenya demonstrate it values me? And, again, I return to the question of what it is that I want to value me. How would I feel that Kenya valued me? In part, the question is narcissistic, to the extent that the abstract nation might not feel obligated to value each citizen. That, in fact, to ask Kenya for proof that it values me is absurd.
Yet it strikes me that Kenya has no problem devaluing me. Every random assassination of every young man and woman tells me Kenya does not value me. Every threat against defenders of civil rights assures me that I have no worth. Every blackmail attempt and bashing of queers confirms that I am devalued. Every instance of gender-based violence and domestic violence proves I am devalued.
Value and devaluation accrete as we forge affiliations with each other, as we attach ourselves to each other, outside of the unfulfilled promises of our constitution. There are, perhaps paradoxically, forms of Kenyan-ness that come into being and are practiced outside state sanction, besides the constitution, and these are important and vital. We have found ways to value ourselves faced with an indifferent and apathetic Kenya. The relation of that “we” to something called “Kenyan-ness” remains to be thought.
But I want to return to that thickness, that sponginess, that remarkable tangle of emotions and expectations that we term “love” because “value” does not have the same valence as love. Value does not capture what Lauren Berlant terms “cruel optimism,” that ongoing attachment to objects and situations that continue to wound us, our hopes that the wounding will cease, even as we decay in unloving miasmas.
And here, I must confess, that “un-loving Kenya” is a process rather than a state. I cannot become indifferent. As though I am breaking up, I keep returning to ask “why?” I find myself trying to un-love, because I believe that continuing to love Kenya will destroy something, something vital, or will free me up so I can cathect onto something else, something that will love me back.
I have realized that it is Kenya I need to un-love, or at least I need to find a way to manage Kenya’s un-loving me.
I pledged my loyalty, not my love, but I made the mistake of thinking the two were the same: that I had pledged love, not loyalty, and that my pledge encouraged reciprocation. I began to expect that loving Kenya meant Kenya had to love me back. It doesn’t.
Against all evidence, I insisted that a love relationship existed, a relationship of care and attachment, a relationship in which we both gave and received, in which we shared a vision of creating a tomorrow for both of us. Only to realize, too late, that queer bodies have no future in Kenya. We are written out of official documents, do not exist and so legislation does not need to address us. Some of us have been fighting for queer equality. We are ghosts without quiddity or agency, without even the power to slam doors and rattle houses. We are being un-loved.
It is a cruel un-loving.
It is cruel because Kenya holds me in its embrace, wraps me in its histories and documents, refuses to let go and continues to be un-loving. And I, fool that I am, keep believing that one day the force of my attachment will compel love, that one day I will feel that Kenya feels love for me.
It is an odd position to be in, to be held in and to need Kenya’s un-loving embrace. As I’ve written previously, one doesn’t write a “Dear John” letter to one’s nation.
I’m still stuck at the question of what Kenya “is,” what feelings to have toward its fleshy abstraction, fleshy in a suffocating way, so that I feel its weight and presence around me, its un-loving presence, even when I I most want to get away.