My father played piano. It was haunted. His eyes would be intent on the page, never looking down at his hands, his feet on the pedals, keeping strict time, his face studious, never smiling. His pleasure came from getting it right.

He loved to play Für Elise. Never once did he vary the tempo or alter the dynamics. Never once did he improvise on a written piece of music. As it was written so it was to be played. Always.

He was haunted, like so many other Makerere men of his generation, by the ghosts of English instructors who insisted on properness. His English was denuded of Muranga and Nyeri, his affect proper, even in matters of traditional ritual. Before my circumcision at 13, for instance, he might as well have told me to keep a stiff upper lip.

Not surprisingly, when he bought a VCR in 1981, one of the first movies he owned was My Fair Lady, which remained a staple in our household, and, in retrospect, was an allegory for his life.

My father’s haunting is not unique. He was part of a haunted generation, a generation whose haunting we have inherited.

The phantom has a name: What Will They Think. I call it John, for short.

John haunts our utterances and our actions.

It is startling that even progressive, politically minded Kenyans are haunted by this phantom, are paranoid, always seem to be aware of the schoolmarmish John peeking over our shoulders, silently approving but mostly disapproving. And this anxiety over getting “it” right, over pleasing the never-pleased John is crippling.

Thus, we have, in one iteration, philosophers asking why we don’t have our own Hegel or Kant. We have historians asking for our E.P. Thompson, scientists asking for our Einstein. In the popular media, we are told how to dress “like” English ladies and gentlemen, which means we should dress like characters in James Bond movies.

A recent article on Valentine’s Day tells us about flowers and candy and champagne, and we cultivate our Britishisms, no matter how incongruous they make us sound. Old Chap, gel, and so on. Even our Americanisms, no matter how silly we sound.

It is not simply a matter of mimicry, which has its uses. It is, rather, that this haunting means we can never fully look at each other, never really see each other, never really hold hands, because we are always lagged, a step behind, hoping the phantom will materialize and finally smile.

So pervasive is this phantom that even our acts of cultural, anti-imperial resistance are self-consciously performative. We perform resistance for John because we want a reaction. We need a reaction. Without John’s reaction, some small part of us cannot come into being, cannot function.

Paradoxically, we relish being chastised by John’s proxy, the so-called western countries, because this proves that we are being noticed.

Let’s follow this path carefully. Watch for the thorns.

John is a phantom. It does not sediment into a proper name, a proper location, or even a specific country. In Freudian terms, we might speak of John as an idealized father, a super-ego, an impossible imperative to be ordered and orderly. But where the super-ego can save us from our worst excesses, John hobbles us.

John hobbles us because we lose the scene of responsibility, the being-here-together that we need to work and live and love. Instead, we are here with cricked necks, always looking anxiously to see whether or not the ever-disapproving John will approve.

We write book reviews that lambaste John’s proxies for “not getting it right.” We do not write for each other. We, and I am very guilty of this, rail against the continued neo-imperialisms that scar us, but we write, less frequently, to build and fortify ourselves.

We become collaborators in gestures of continual resistance, misunderstanding shared outrage for foundation building. And when it dissipates, as it does, or when we are seduced by the slight twitch on John’s face that might break into a smile, our foundations dissolve.

We need a politics of outrage. But we need to recognize that it is a flimsy foundation.

What does it mean to refuse this haunting, or, more realistically, to live with it but not to be crippled by it? How do we face each other, write for each other, build institutions for and with each other? And how do we avoid having our cultural and intellectual production reduced to a reaction to John’s haunting? Should we cultivate indifference?

Ultimately, John doesn’t care. It is a phantom we cultivate by offering unsolicited and unneeded libations.

This work has been happening. To offer just two examples, Betty Wamalwa’s beautiful choreopoem “Cut off My Tongue” sings with a distinctly Kenyan accent, about Kenyans, and to Kenyans. Its language, staging, execution, and very conception force us to look at each other, even when we might prefer to look past each other. “Cut Off My Tongue” is not exclusionary, not an ode to Kenyan exceptionalism. It is grounded in Kenya, for Kenyans, and welcomes those who want to engage with us.

Muthoni Garland’s recently launched series of children’s book similarly tell Kenyan stories in Kenyan space. I cannot overstate how excited I was to buy these books for my nieces last Christmas—to be fair, I bought only one, but then I made my mother buy the rest!

My 3-year old niece, Kelita, insisted on hearing these stories over and over and over. She has memorized them. I cannot begin to fathom how this experience will shape her life, but it will. She is reading books written in Kenyan accents by Kenyans for Kenyans. And learning, as she must, that “the book,” that object we still hold sacred in Kenya, can be a structure we occupy with fluency and grace as readers and writers, producers and consumers.

We will not exorcise John. To my mind, this is one of the enduring fallacies promulgated by the Ngugi generation. And each attempt at exorcism only got more desperate and continued to give John what it needed to transmit across generations, so that we have to deal with it now.

We might even need John, as one more ghost in our pantheon of ancestors.

But we need not be hobbled by John. We need not look over our shoulders.

Instead, we can draw inspiration from Langston Hughes, who understood we are better when we look at and to each other. I can do no better than end with Hughes’s words from “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926).

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.


6 thoughts on “Hauntings

  1. This John, will he come with me to the grave? I’ve been trying to shake him off for God knows how long, he’s still here. Watching and disapproving.

  2. First time here. I liked this post. For most of my life I found it a struggle to connect or be part of a certain history. I guess you could say I was struggling to write my narrative. A child of two worlds- accepted by none; conflicting history- do I believe my paternal ascendant’s version of events over my maternal’s?

    Then I got older and suddenly realised it doesn’t matter! Being Kenyan is something each individual defines for him/herself- in my opinion it’s an abtract definition. Who or what is more Kenyan than the other?

    It’d be interesting to get your POV?

    Great blog. I’m glad I stumbled upon it.

  3. Worlds fracture and split, don’t they? And this is part of the problem. How to negotiate between allegiances and attachments, both the ones we cultivate and the ones that, leech-like, stick on us.

    Gikuyu first or Kenyan
    urban or rural
    nationalist or cosmopolitan

    And those are the easier ones. I once had a debate about whether heterosexuality made someone more Kenyan-my interlocutor seemed to think so.

    This is the problem: if one is to engage with the world at all, one’s own definition of oneself will always rub up against other people’s definitions and attachments, and these can’t simply be ignored or disavowed. We have to negotiate them in some way.

    Answers? I have none. I’m still negotiating.

  4. I just dug back and found this. I will looking for your post on Kenyan exceptionalism—I wrote one myself, but it was horrid. I need to read yours again so I can write about the sort of exceptionalism going on in the current war(s) we’re fighting.

    But now that I have read this I am haunted. I have never really taken Kenyanness too serious (let’s say I find patriotism and citizenship cagey). But this image of your dad playing the piano…man, that IS me with the English language for the longest time—haunted by too many rulers to the back of my hand…till there was no need for the ruler no more (see, my brain is saying “bad grammar”).

    Onward! not to decolonization, but to silently thinking about this some more.

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