Let’s begin with a much-rehearsed scene: the first visa interview when one is a student.
Q: And what are your plans when you complete your degree?
A: I will come home to help build my country.
The answer is required, and is uttered, sometimes, with sincerity.
This performance has been going on for as long as I can remember. Been-tos, joss-koms, and never-beens train visa novices in appropriate affect. Stand like this. Use this kind of tone. Don’t appear shifty. You can be nervous, not twitchy. And, always, say you want to “come home to help build Kenya.”
Apart from this response satisfying some bureaucratic requirement (as an aside, some higher education advocates believe this question should be abolished and smart higher education students should be encouraged to stay in the States), it also satisfies an ideological positioning.
Its persistence over the past 30-40 years, always asked, and, to my knowledge, in the same tone, suggests that the relationship between Kenyan students and the United States has remained unchanged for the past 30-40 years. Kenya is still in need of “building” and only knowledge acquired from abroad will suffice. (That this fantasy is enacted in unofficial online discussions merits attention, if not discussion.)
The staging of this question, the ritual call and response, helps me stage an inchoate throwing together of ideas about attachment and belonging, responsibility and patriotism, how to think about owing and owning Kenya, feeling and unfeeling Kenya. I want to register a certain impossibility, insofar as I can discern its contours.
Metaphor will fail and must be made visible.
Over the past few years, I have been interested in using metaphors related to textiles (broadly conceived): weaving, fabricating, warp and weft, and so on. In part, this strategy registers my desire to move away from the bio-reproductive implications of hybridity (beloved in postcolonial and diasporic studies), and to think more deliberately about the “labor” of living together, the labor of negotiating space and time and belonging and attachment.
This is not to say the process of creating hybrids does not entail labor, but that labor is often forgotten in discourses that privilege hybridity, and while hybridity might not always emerge from hetero-sex frameworks, a certain forgetting allows hetero-sex to lie at the unacknowledged heart of hybridity discourses. (If this framing seems too telegraphic, wait for the book.)
What sets of feelings, attachments, and obligations are made visible in that rehearsed response: “I will come home to build my country?”
That it is rehearsed does not preclude it making visible something about how we relate to Kenya.
The visa-granting official never asks “why.”
Why, under Moi’s repressive regime, would you want to come back? Why, under the Kibabi-Raila debacle would you choose to come back?
Many of us also never ask why before we leave the country.
On arriving elsewhere, why begins to crowd us. New friends and strangers continually ask if we plan to return “home.” And, for some of us, the question leads us to “why.” Others of us are led to that why by declarations from other Kenyans. Declarations that “home is best” or “kimbo is better than olive oil.”
And that why elicits a range of reactions—some of which I have documented elsewhere.
These reactions are best thought of as clusters, and they include sediments of feelings, perhaps now atrophied, but still available: love, patriotism, devotion. Wounded attachments, created in the wrangling of social and legal legislation: I think, for instance, about how the Sexual Offenses Act and the Marriage Bill re-figure my embodied/desiring relationship to Kenya. Prosthetic forms of mediated proximity, in which we are attached through those who are more fully embedded in Kenya’s dailyness. One could continue to create categories.
It is these clusters of attachments that give force to the formulaic “I will return to build my country.”
That “return” is more metaphoric today need not signify.
We who “return” do so for a host of reasons, clusters of attachments and obligations, inchoate desires for vaguely defined futures. We are “betrayed” by our “returns”: by taking up projects about or in relation to Kenya, no matter how jaded we profess ourselves to be, or indifferent, or detached. It might be that patriotism has little to do with love and loyalty and might be described, instead, as the relationships that cluster and mingle among clusters.
The Kenyan government is turning to “the bank of diaspora,” and I continue to ask why Kenyans abroad should invest money in a country that welcomes economic investment while disregarding political, social, and cultural critiques.
Why send $15 to Nairobi when it is better spent at the local bathhouse?
Why go through the government when Kiva exists?
But this is not a groundless why. It is a why based on evidence. It is a why that stems from seeing returnees frustrated and embittered, building tree houses and secret tunnels in Kenya, turned away from building Kenya to building in Kenya, a fine distinction that can only be understood with references to secret vaults and hoarded assets.
Those whose political commitments drive them to build get mired in potholes and are blamed for causing traffic jams. To make the metaphor naked: we love to malign our activists, those “do-gooder nuisances” who refuse to “be quiet” and “let us build.”
Returnees embrace a paranoid secret citizenship.
Shhh. I’m not allowed to write more. Not if I want entrance to hush hush parties.
It is never quite clear to me what “my” in “my country” signifies, not when the ostensible object of the possessive is constantly being looted. It is a wish-filled my that fantasizes about ownership, an affect-receptacle, a “my” comprised of how one is supposed to feel about a fantasy object.
All nations are fantasy objects, of course.
Travel makes fantasy objects more palpable. This might be why so many of us remember Kenya as flavor: mango, sugarcane, passion fruit.
Finally, a note on method.
I have been thinking of using colloidal as a metaphor to describe much of my current thinking. I’m still processing a lot of information, mostly on Jamaica, but also on queer theory and politics, and my writing is marked by suspensions that have yet to take shape, yet to settle.
I am also thinking about method as I prepare for my class next semester on the Harlem Renaissance. More on that later in the summer.
Although it has taken me a while to learn, I trust my colloidal moments. Ideas take time to emerge, develop, settle. Whether I should then inflict such moments on others is a whole other question.
Now I must begin packing my builder’s tools.