Kenyan Masculinity

I am eager to burn
this threadbare masculinity,
this perpetual black suit
I have outgrown.
—Essex Hemphill

Mutahi Ngunyi fascinates me, about as much as he infuriates me. He is a provocative thinker with, I am told, a loyal fan base. A friend tells me that “people read him” and “respond to him,” even “take him seriously.” And it is this last I cannot do. He is smart—that is mildly condescending, but there’s no way to write it without it being so. And disappointing.

His provocations are entertaining and limited and, sometimes, so conservative they make my teeth hurt. I would say ideologically violent, but that might be aligning writer and person too much. Perhaps, and I would like to believe this, he gets carried away by his own cleverness. I hope so, but even that cannot excuse some statements.

As a prelude to a post, the above might be considered petty. But we poltergeists can only slam doors and rattle walls, not least in the presence of those who ghost us.

Ngunyi opens his recent “letter” to Kenyan men by creating Kenyan men. Here are the first few paragraphs:

This is a letter to the men of Kenya. And with your permission, allow me to include Hon Martha Karua.

I will go straight to the point. Good people, you need to get angry. No. You need to explode with ‘‘holy’’ anger. Last year you wasted your anger butchering one another. And you did this for two ungrateful men. That was foolish.

This time you should get angry and do the right thing. Your duty is to God, your woman and to country. Get angry for country; get angry for your woman. Forget the cantankerous politician and tribe.

One could write about the ongoing masculinization of Martha Karua, which serves, in good patriarchal fashion, to highlight the “lack” that is other women—most notably, the women who recently called the sex boycott.

One could note the “Good people” trope, though my irritation with certain left-over British affectations is my own issue, and I have my own U.S. affectations that are, no doubt, just as irritating.

One could note the ongoing reduction of the post-election violence to a contest over “two men,” an interpretation that is dangerously partial, and ignores the webs of political filiation and affiliation, the complex, tangled brambles of political action that do not map neatly onto Kibaki or Raila, no matter how much the official discourse terms it so.

I am—how do I feel? Enraged? Disappointed? Chastened? Saddened?—I am touched most by the creation of Kenyan men whose “duty is to God, your woman and to country.”

I am not religious.

I am not heterosexual.

I am ambivalent about patriotism.

In fact, I refuse to accept this “duty,” to accept the way it interpellates “Kenyan men,” and in refusing to be its addressee, even though I am its reader, I ghost myself even as I am ghosted by it.

It is, in fact, a silly call to duty. One marked by Ngunyi’s love for bombast, I assume, rather than any deep devotion on his part to creating the perfect Christian patriarchal nation of patriots.

Bombast has consequences.

Right now, gay and lesbian Kenyans are having their intimate lives exposed online—I will not call this being outed, as I am not sure any of them are “closeted” (and whether that term can live outside a “western” context is a whole other issue). As queer Kenyans become more visible, we pay for that visibility, in part by being made public and also by being ghosted.

I have no desire to claim queer men are “also” men. In fact, I have no interest in defending “masculinity” on such limited terms.

The term that infuriates me—ahh, that’s how I feel—is “duty.” It infuriates me because over the past many years, some of us have been trying to re-think “Kenyan duty,” to re-work its contours, and to advance a notion of citizenship that moves beyond religious devotion and the confines of hetero-kinship

What binds us as Kenyans cannot be, and should not be, that we believe in and practice forms of religion or hetero-patriarchy. That version of Kenyan-ness too easily slides into religious intolerance toward and hetero-patriarchal violence against queer Kenyans.

More, as we have learned from feminist scholars, invocations of “proper” masculinity and “proper” manhood create gendered straitjackets, and calls to action that require us to don straitjackets are calls to inaction.

No doubt, Ngunyi intends his call to Kenyan men to mimic, perhaps parody, the women’s recent call to action. Yet the parody falls flat because he calls Kenyan men to don the straitjacket of heteropatriarchy, one that puts women in their place. Note, “your women,” signed, sealed, delivered, yours.

I am a humorless feminist. I accept this designation. Because heteropatriarchy, whether sold as silliness or parody or good fun, is never amusing, never funny, never interesting. It’s crass and powerful. It ghosts. And while some of us have no problem living as phantoms, others of us do.

This letter to Kenyan men binds politics to heteropatriarchy, makes visible their mutual embedding, and ghosts those of us who refuse to wear the “threadbare masculinity” Ngunyi advocates.

Ngunyi is merely symptomatic, though, of a broader structure in Kenyan written journalism that is ruled by heteropatriarchy, a structure in which women are schooled on “how” to be women available to men and men are schooled on how to be heteropatriarchal men. It is a written structure in which every newspaper reading is not only a painful exercise in normalization but, and this is what burns, a pro-masculinist, anti-feminist screed, under the guise of “African gender.” To read a Kenyan newspaper as a gender progressive is to walk on thorns that still pierce through calluses.

To accept the masculinity that Ngunyi advocates requires abandoning any sense of masculine diversity, accepting that we occupy only the most narrow, most trite definitions of national masculinity, and that we can make no space for difference.

And it is this last that might be the biggest problem: to read the PEV as a battle led by two obsolescent men is to miss the ongoing struggles over difference that provided the fertile ground, the still fertile ground, for battles and wars. And to erase difference in creating a national masculinity simply continues to water this ground.

We have done a bad job in listening for the dead. We do an even worse job as we continue to ghost the living.

5 thoughts on “Kenyan Masculinity

  1. Great piece, Kegurom though whatever happened to ‘my country, right or wrong’? Blinding patriotism is how everyone should roll! Just curious though, can you talk a little more about outing and its ‘Western’ context? This is something I was always curious about…

    PS I am finishing up some last minute stuff so it will take me a while to write a piece on Zungu that you deserve. Oh, and I am heading down to DC for the summer, so if you are in the MD area maybe we can hang out (that may have sounded like a come on, but I assure you it is not :)!).

  2. Somewhere in the brain files, I have a post about homosexuality being un-African, and why I now defend that position, or am at least more amenable to it. It has something to do with naming and history and structures of sexual identity and identification–let’s not forget that Sedgwick opens by claiming the importance of hetero/homo binaries in western history. To what extent, then, is the closet also a product of western history? Then there’s a hop-skip-jump to the effects of globalization and how sexual practices and identities and identifications travel-but I’m not an anthropologist, so leave that discussion to someone else.

    I’ll be between Kenya and MD for summer–shoot me an email. I am mostly avuncular.

    I read Warigi’s diatribe and thought it silly. But I had papers to grade and let it slide. Ngunyi I feel more about, because I do respect his brain, and believe he’s being lazy and irresponsible.

  3. Agreed with every word until I got to:

    “Because heteropatriarchy, whether sold as silliness or parody or good fun, is never amusing, never funny, never interesting. It’s crass and powerful. It ghosts. And while some of us have no problem living as phantoms, others of us do.”

    One – heteropatriarchy has no need to sell itself, or be sold. It is the water we swim in.

    Two – “never amusing, never funny,” I frequently find HP (bottle, sauce and label) hilarious. It’s possible – even necessary – to locate the veins of the risible within the ore of the repellent.

    Three – “never interesting” Then why write about it? Power – the creation, enaction and maintenance thereof – *has* to interest those of us who live under it. Even if that interest goes only as far as identifying survival techniques. To be “uninterested” in power is an affectation of the privileged.

  4. I was thinking about how to extend the metaphor and, thus, locate an anxiety within heteropatriarchy. That it is the water in which we swim. But it is also the bottled water that is relentlessly advertised, and this is what is so interesting when we think of what is being sold as heteropatriarchy–that it must circulate and, indeed, overcirculate, and that process is intriguing to follow.

    I’m still toying with being a humorless feminist–the idea, but also the affect. How often we are invited to laugh at the not-laughable, which is different, I think, from laughing at heteropatriarchy’s inflated claims, for which viagra is an apt metonym.

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