Mutahi’s Nightmares

Another nightmare would follow. A Korean homosexual midget was raping him. The man had walked through the wall and he stood there stroking his goatee. And there he was shrunk with fright . . . the Korean came closer, his eyes becoming more and more bloodshot . . . his face became menacing . . . other midgets, both male and female appeared . . . they began to make perverted love . . . Nakaru was powerless . . . the Korean was approaching . . . he started stroking him . . . Nakaru could not move his hands . . . he heard the Korean howl with laughter and excitement as he reached orgasm . . . Nakaru cried with anger, shame and pain . . . he woke up from the dream and saw that he was still in the cell. (Wahome Mutahi, Three Days on the Cross)

What is this Korean homosexual midget rapist doing in Wahome Mutahi’s fictional exposé of Kenya’s “secret” torture prisons?

Until his death, Mutahi was a leading satirist in Kenya, the man to whom some turned for entertainment. His prose tracked the adventures of an everyman negotiating the dense scapes of urban and rural, domestic and public, politics and culture. He was popular and made me laugh about 2% of the time (not a bad record).

What Mutahi could get away with in the space of a column, he cannot in the length of a book. In a column, the punchy joke can be the point, the little humorous failing a punctuation mark, the anecdote the narrative. Mutahi’s novels are almost unreadable: the dialogue much like that of a high school play, the narrative action a parody of itself, the characters caricatures, the entire effect cringe-worthy.

It is clear that this midget Korean homosexual rapist scene is supposed to be funny, a moment of comic relief as the narrative approaches its denouement. There is, in fact, a tradition of “the midget” as “comic relief” within Kenya’s popular culture. I can only assume that the Korean angle reflects a cringe-inducing anti-Asian discrimination donned as a badge of honor by some Kenyans (a former roommate proudly uses the term “ching-chong” to refer to Asians and proudly sings her Kenyan-ness—I generalize, I know). The character’s homosexuality is one more ingredient to demonstrate his otherness—as is his goatee, stroked mysteriously before the assault.

This nightmarish figure launches the most extreme assault on imprisoned political masculinity in Mutahi’s novel. It embodies, in its grotesque otherness, the ultimate torture that a guest of the government can imagine, the supreme nightmare in which political masculinity is violated, fucked by a nightmarish foreignness. Indeed, so nightmarish is the encounter that it must be rendered elliptical, left for us to un-imagine. It is less important we know what the Korean midget homosexual with the goatee does and more crucial we understand that this nightmarish figure lies at the edges of the non-protecting government. This nightmare emerges from a tortured imagination—Nakaru has been beaten by government agents.

Much more can be written about this scene—and will be in another version of this writing. For now, I return to the question that animates this project: under what circumstances does the figure of the homosexual emerge in Kenya’s prison writing and what ends does he serve? (I have yet to come across any lesbians; most prison narratives are authored by men.)

A proper answer to this question would require tracing the transnational circulation of the homosexual figure in prison narratives (in film, novels, music) and how that circulation functions in Mutahi’s 1980s Kenya. It also has to do with the traffic across genres—from the crime fiction beloved in Kenya to the political narratives of illegal imprisonment to James Hadley Chase soft porn to the Kung Fu movies that created generic Asians in the Kenyan imaginary.

An improper answer—what can be accomplished within a blog post—might dwell on the government’s ability to create infinitely vulnerable citizens via torture, a vulnerability that is physical and psychic, with the figure of the rapist homosexual embodying the elliptical nightmare encounter. An encounter with this figure is the nightmare threatened when the government withdraws its protections.
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For some time now, I have distanced myself from the sterile debate on whether or not homosexuals existed in pre-colonial Africa. I read the scholarship and am grateful for it, but have no real investment in staking a position. Instead, following Chris Dunton’s seminal work, I am interested in the labor the homosexual figure performs when it becomes visible.

I am especially interested in its relation to political masculinities: why it recurs in prison writing by Kenyan progressives, and is always compromised and tainted, when not nightmarish and threatening. How, in fact, does the figure of the homosexual occupy Kenya’s political psyche, a psyche that has been most visible in prison-based narratives?
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After several tries at a semi-ending, let me try the laugh Mutahi imagines eliciting.

I picture Mutahi’s ideal reader: critical of the government, though not necessarily progressive; comfortable in his masculinity, and willing to accept Martha Karua as a “lesser man”; a little past the days when drinking two crates of beer was an achievement, doing so, now, only on select boys weekends out; interested in football, not rugby, but with an occasional glance at basketball; fluent in Nairobi, though not foolish enough to believe fluency wards off all attackers. He has read Grisham and Ludlum, because they were the thing to read; knows of James Hadley Chase and Harold Robbins (or similar writers); consumes the newspapers avidly, but always has bar friends who know the “real” story. Sneers at the men who buy suits full price; has a tailor and a preferred mitumba dealer.

On reading this scene, he wince-laughs, that peculiarly male reaction to seeing someone get kneed in the groin. Assures himself that all homosexuals are Korean midgets—easily beaten in a fight. Sips his drink. Shoves his hand down his crotch, and continues reading.

He dozes off, and dreams.