It has been many years since I passed that stretch of road from Githunguri to Nairobi that is suffused with the smell of coffee plants at nighttime, a sweet smell of shit, death, decay, and acid. At night coffee plants release carbon dioxide, and it is not pretty. It is, in fact, one of the most nausea-inducing memories from my childhood. In recent years, this smell has become layered with histories of loss—Githunguri is no longer “home” to my grandparents; it is where they are buried, along with my uncles and cousins, and my return to colonial histories of death and dying, killing and being killed, lets me imagine that coffee plants are sucking up and expelling histories of loss.
But there is something peculiar about this smell. I have passed through other coffee plantations, at night, but this particular sickly smell is rooted, in my memory, on that particular stretch of road. And so it might not be the smell of coffee at night, but the smell of coffee combined with something else on that particular stretch of road. It might be a rooted smell.
Roots are tangled systems that earth and unearth histories, are history-making and history-keeping, not always available to be unearthed or unearthed deep enough—even when uprooting, we may never get to the root of the root, and will always search for what Kenyatta described as miri ya mikongoe, the root of the fictional tree, or what I sometimes think of as the phantom root of ethno-histories.
Phantoms are rooted, of course. Found in this location and not that, haunting this spot and not that, bound to this history and not that, much like the smell that, in memory, lives along a particular stretch of road and returns me to 6 or 7, the age when smell burned itself into memory.
Here I might be digging around, finding the best angle at which to approach the phantom-ness of queer rooting-those elusive bits that yield reluctantly, in shards and fragments, on the borders of paper-wood-skin cells, and whose finding yields abrasive pleasure. To be reminded of where one-ness experiences from-ness demands sloughed-skin, and returning to that founding denuding produces new sensitivities, even and especially to that potent mix of paper-wood-skin cells, the womb-ing with a denuding caress.
When I started writing this piece a week ago, before the two conferences fried my brain and left me metaphor, I was thinking around action and location, about the provinces of queer activism and the provinciality of queer radicalism.
I have been working through my frustration at what seems like slow-slow action in Kenya, among Kenya’s queers—as shogeek points out, we seem driven by fear. I have been waiting for what I have learned “counts” as radical actions—rooted and uprooting actions.
What is the queer equivalent of uprooting railway lines?
Yet in attending to other uprootings, here where I am, I so easily miss the rootings and uprootings of queer Kenyan life there, where I am not, or am virtually and affectively.
And this is difficult to navigate: that my own rootings and uprootings make it difficult, sometimes impossible, to recognize other rootings and uprootings, and that I have yet to figure out how to navigate multiple root systems from different plantings and graftings.
As I mentioned: metaphor.
A few months ago, a wise friend noted that the most urgent task among Kenyan queers might not be to overturn or challenge laws, as urgent as that task remains, but to build up our networks of attachment and affiliation, to create elaborate root systems that could survive the violent uprootings aimed at us, and already at work.
At the time, I was not as receptive to that idea. I wanted to see queers lifting railway lines—and I still do.
Yet, I continue to think that I must refuse to privilege my own deracinations as models for other modes of living—there are and continue to be costs I pay, attachments I forgo, modes of living that must remain impossible, to enable other possibilities. This can be mentioned, but not written about, at least not now, not yet, perhaps never.
Deracination may be good to think with—it is impossible to live with.
So, I turn to roots and rooting, root-systems and root-navigations, to thinking about Adrienne Rich’s politics of location, and to the Kenyan-bred intimacies that sustain rooting and uprooting and root and uproot.
But while I want to recognize the power and foreignness of Kenyan root systems, I also need to embed queer action and inaction in what I know of Kenyan action and inaction: political action is so often foreclosed, made difficult to imagine, that we have whole groups of people who believe all action must be surreptitious. We may be the country of the bar rant and power-point presentation, as Martin Kimani argues, but we are also the country of a thousand operations carried out in the shadows, so shadowy that they never gain substance.
I’m yet to work out how to think about the relationship between shadow and substance, and the impossibility of acting that happens under the guise of action. And, of course, the fear that keeps us shadowed and shadowy, lacking substance, and thus easy to ignore.
Shailja Patel, with whom I had a lovely, albeit too brief gab, mentioned the impossible structure of Kenyan activism: visibility or effectiveness.
It is one that many of us continue to navigate.
A friend has mentioned how “out” I am, how “visible,” and I tell her it’s because I am not. I am not to the extent that I dissolve in Kenya, vanish into crowds, vanish into all the men who look like me, become just another black face in a crowd of blackness. I do not ask for this, of course, but I welcome the (uncertain) safety of anonymity.
This is not to say I do not appear in public settings as a queer—I am willing and available to perform queerness when asked, even in the form of confession. That this is not asked speaks to something deeply structural, of course.
That certain of my writing is published and valued, and not the queer critiques, speaks, also, to a structure of normativity that envelops even politically radical spaces, or spaces that think of themselves in that way.
Of course how that queerness is performed is yet another factor: I am not inclined to discuss fisting and group sex to credential something about queerness, nor am I willing to display my cockring collection to prove something. Something about inhabiting root systems and trying to navigate them has made my musings earthy in a more abstract way, and the shock-queerings of my early 20s have given way to something else. That time may have dulled me remains a possibility, though I view all such narratives of decline with great suspicion.
I view with suspicion even my own confession that time may have made me more textured.
To ask that even our demands for political action attend to locale and location, to soil-types and earth-densities, to mineral content and water sources, to histories of mulching and fertilizing, might be to push metaphor to the realm of the absurd, to think organicity into action. It might be to complicate that “make” in the notion that “we make” our history. But it might also be to complicate that notion of fabrication, to insist that it be embedded within the materials and locations that enable making and fabrication.