Sitting in Fire

We survived Kenyatta
We survived Moi
We might survive Kibaki
Will we survive ourselves?
—Anonymous

An old man sits inside flames as they lick at his body. They kiss, suck, gulp, swallow, eat him alive, and he does not move. He does not scream. He sits inside them. Resigned. Impotent. He does not resist.

This is not a metaphor.

The old man has been accused of witchcraft by villagers in a region of Kisii, and the partial video of his execution—we are spared his death throes—is online. I cannot reproduce it here, and I watched it with the greatest reluctance, because I had to. I had to see what we Kenyans can do to each other, are doing to each other.

A young man, slightly younger than me, in the full power of youth and rage, kicks and thrashes this human faggot, screaming at him. A crowd watches. No one intervenes. No one seems to question the rightness of this execution, this murder, this sacrifice.

In one venal moment, every sentimental idea about respecting old men and women in Kenya is torn away, another national façade destroyed. We burn our old men and women alive.

This is not staged.

The hand that records the video is steady, capturing the film greedily, almost lovingly, as though it is a picture of a baby learning to walk. There is no shock, no apparent affect in the film-making hand, no shaking, no seeming reluctance to capture this scene, this desecration, this obscenity. And we who watch it from the seeming safety of computer mediation witness and partake in this ritual.

We have watched videos of men being beheaded and young women being caned. These have been difficult, but mediated by their foreignness. We know about Kenyan violence—about the petty thieves lynched, the villagers macheted to death, about women and children burned in churches. We have pictures and evidence.

This old man won’t let me go.

He sits inside the fire. He rocks, barely, but is silent. He does not try to move away. He feels his flesh being eaten by flames, feels himself turning to blister, to raw flesh, to ash, and sits. Sits and burns. Smells his flesh turning into charcoal. Smells his flesh bubble and sizzle and melt and char and ash. And knows that there will no scars. And knows that in the watching crowd are men, women, and children whose names he knows, whose houses he can identify, whose houses he can recall, whose hospitality he may have enjoyed, and to whom he may have extended hospitality.

He sits in the engulfing flames. Silent. Aware that his burning flesh represents the negation of any and every social contract. Aware that his death, his sacrifice, enables a society to forge collective bonds, that human sacrifice is one of the obscene secrets that binds communities, that his torture will produce a form of social cohesion based on murder and fear.

This is not a metaphor. This is not a scene from a movie. This will not let me go.

I wish I did not understand the terrible logic of his murder. I wish I could unthink all the reasons why his death is necessary. I wish my knowledge of Kenya would make it impossible for me to understand his murder, his sacrifice, his death. I wish I could dismiss this video as some terrible aberration.

A friend asks me to speak to a doctor about the extent of the man’s burns. We speak of burns in discussing scars and survivors. I don’t know what a doctor can tell me about roasting humans.

This old man sits inside his burning skin.

What is that moment when one realizes life is not possible? When the social so violently ejects one, abjects one, that the only possible response is a non-response, even to the smell and feel and taste of one’s own burning flesh?

Burning is not hanging, or being shot. This old man is not a Ken Saro-Wiwa character who insists on being executed: kill me, is that demand, but kill me quick.

He dies slowly. Painfully. A physical pain no doubt exacerbated by knowing that those who knew him, perhaps loved him, now disavow him. He dies having lost all value, knowing that his life has counted for nothing, and seeing and hearing his community disown him, demand his death.

Let us be clear about this: this was not a random attack by government forces nor by vigilantes, be it mungiki or forces from Mt. Elgon. This incident was not caused by cattle raiders or even part of a longstanding inter-ethnic feud.

Members of a village identified fellow villagers as witches and proceeded to beat and burn them alive. One of them, or a steady outsider, filmed this spectacle, and it is now available online, in crisp, clear detail, so that we netizens can watch it again and again and again.

We need to watch this video. Kenyans need to watch this video. We need to understand that our most potent threat does not lie outside of ourselves, and those ethno-cocoons to which we so easily retreat do not offer safety.

Home is not safe.

The video does not show the final moments of this old man’s death. Did he scream then? Or did he sit silent until the end?

What is that moment when social death is so palpable that physical dying, roasting alive, elicits no visible reaction, no visible resistance? What is that moment when we witness social death turn into physical death and do nothing?

It is tempting to think of these villagers as monsters, as extraordinary. They are not.

Kenya is haunted with the ghosts of those we have killed and forgotten and with the living bodies of the socially dead, those who have no recourse to the law or to the community, who understand their forms of living to be impossible.

This old man will not let go of me—and I need to hold on to him.

We need to hold on to this old man as he sits in a fire and burns to death.

2 thoughts on “Sitting in Fire

  1. Ah. But Keguro, this scene is repeated all over this continent. The witch-hunters target older folk. If you have the bad luck to have outlived your contemporaries, people will decide you’ve lived longer ’cause you’ve sucked their lives away via witchcraft. I have a friend (not Kenyan) whose mother-in-law moved to the city because she was being threatened in the rural area where she had lived all her life.

    Know someone at Universiteit van Stellenbosch who did a thesis on incidence of such murders in countries that recognize (in their laws) witchcraft vs. those that do not. Think it was SA vs. Cameroon. One takes the western tack and totally ignores this vital aspect of African life, leaving those feeling beleaguered to figure out a way to undo the spell. The other acknowledges this reality and has institutional frameworks through which one can seek redress e.g. presenting evidence and fines being paid to bewitched families.

  2. I think, for me, it was several things coming together when I saw that video.

    1. The way Kenyans seem able to effortlessly separate forms of violence: burning in a church, bad; burning old people, good. This is crude, of course, but there’s a certain way we make violence banal and in so doing continue to perpetuate it. We have yet to have a considered dialogue on violence and rights and so on.

    2. The ongoing myths we continue to circulate about “home” and “kinship,” and, those implicit comparisons we make with an “uncaring West” in which “old people are discarded.” There’s a way in which this rhetoric of spatially-defined kin relations is deeply troubling, conceptually and historically and politically.

    3. Now I’m thinking about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a short story in which a village’s survival is predicated on human sacrifice, and all the villagers participate in it, willingly and with joy, because it lets them survive.

    I’d prefer not to think of this incidence as exceptional, but, rather, as an example, as paradigmatic, in fact, of something about violence in Kenya: how banal and necessary it is for whatever reason. And to register both the limits of the politics of outrage (which you, rightly, call me out for) and the need to engage in a politics of witness.

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