In A Letter to Mariama Ba, Kenyan scholar and activist Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira presents us with a generous and generative way to reflect on histories and practices of African intimacy. Her generosity manifests itself through a genuine care about and curiosity toward anomalously intimate figures. I present, here, less a reading, and more a show and tell that might lead to a reading.
Kabira opens A Letter to Mariama Ba by asking Ba to look up a man she once knew, a man whose mysteries she still ponders.
I would . . . like you to check for me a thing or two about a man named Wanyahunyu. When I was a little girl, and that is over fifty years ago, I used to see him working in his garden which was near our home in Raini Njeke, Limuru. I used to see him cultivating the maize plantation, cutting the hedges, tending the crops, and cutting firewood which he would then put on his shoulders, take it somewhere at the end of his shamba . . ., then slowly put the bundle on the ground. I used to see him go down to the stream, which was not very far from his shamba, and come up carrying a bucket of water on his shoulders.
Labor provides the point of entry for this gendered performance, a labor performed alone, repetitively, and which allows for points of cross-identification and gender questioning. An aside, deviations from gendered labor mark queering in Kenyatta and Fanon, as ways to mark and manage queerness—we call this repetition a pattern and we follow patterns to weave histories.
Kabira knows this stream because she would visit it as a girl, “fill” her pot with the “sweet and crystal clear water,” “balance” the pot on her “head,” and “walk . . . home.” Her own girlness was predicated on these performances of labor, an argument I track elsewhere on what it means to “feel” like a “real” girl.
Subtle differences count: he carries his water in bucket; she carries hers in a pot. He carries his on his shoulders; she balances hers on her head. But his labor troubles her as it does not accede to the demands of gender differentiation. He works as a man and as a woman. She is fascinated, intrigued by the possibilities of cross- and anti-gender identification.
I have jumped ahead. Let me follow, instead, this little path she has created.
This path leads to Wanyahunyu’s home, a home that unsettles Kabira’s notion of a home.
One day, I decided to go and find out where Wanyahunyu stayed. I walked over to where I used to see bundles of firewood. As I stood there, I saw a big iron sheet with a hole in it. I knelt down on it and looked through the hole. As I was doing so, a man came out of the hole and said, ‘Waigua atia Wanjiku?’ . . . a friendly Gikuyu greeting, but I was too startled and scared to answer.
He is friendly. He knows her. She initiates contact and remains curious, admitting she never again approached him but she continued to watch him, and to wonder.
She wonders about this man who abjures male privilege.
Wanyahunyu lived in a world where he had choices; that is, he could choose a woman while according to Gikuyu tradition, women waited to be chosen. The clan would identity a woman for a man if the man did not identify one for himself. He could even inherit a woman—his brother’s, and even his father’s younger wives.
In this world of gender privilege, what is it to choose something other than the privilege of masculinity? Though, of course, that choice is itself subtended by masculine privilege.
Kabira struggles to find a term to describe Wanyahunyu. He is not a widower, nor is he a bachelor, because the term bachelor, she writes, “seems to indicate some choice, some feelings, some good living.” In contrast, Wanyahunyu “seemed to have sworn his loyalty to poverty.” A poverty that is linked, in some fundamental way, to his intimate choices and labor practices. Wanyahunyu “fetched water and collected firewood. These were female roles in the village as they were in all other Gikuyu villages. They were jobs associated with women.”
Even though I will not do so here, it is worth lingering over Kabira’s description of the “bachelor” as an altogether different position from that occupied by Wanyahunyu. His forms of labor direct, rather than dictate, his practices of sociality. And though we don’t learn much about them, we do learn that he works alone and/or associates with women. When Wanyahunyu can no longer take care of himself, he turns to “Monica,” a woman who embodies hospitality. Kabira writes, “he found himself in Monica’s house,” and so while it is difficult to understand who reached out to whom, thus complicating my use of “turns,” it is also clear that women accept him, that his ungendered and degendering forms of masculinity do some social labor.
Several things can be said about this figure. I will be schematic rather than expository, and restrict myself to three or four.
Wanyahunyu is the first male figure mentioned in Kabira’s Letter. Given Kabira’s well-known activism, I wonder how to read his authorizing effect on her life, the kinds of permissions he granted her to envision and re-envision gender. And also how he allows her to imagine forming alliances with men, alliances that extend gendered relations in new, productive, politically affirming ways.
Elsewhere, I have suggested that functionalist histories of queer figures tell incomplete stories and may obscure how queering happens. Wanyahunyu has no ritual role in this village, no ceremonial purpose, and is, at least in Kabira’s telling, a figure of curiosity rather than renown. He is not “important” in the sense that functionalist paradigms might want to assert. How do we understand this kind of quotidian queerness, these departures grounded in labor practices and intimate detachment? (Detachment is not the right word, but few words are right to describe this figure.)
I am struck, here, by the tenderness Kabira displays toward this figure, a tenderness that is lacking in Kenyatta, where such figures merit derision and fear (they are teased for their ungendered labor and killed for their isolation), and also lacking in Mbiti, for whom gender and humanity itself are conveyed through hetero-marriage. For these foundational authors, Wanyahunyu represents the un-Gikuyu, the un-masculine, the un-social, the un-African, and the un-human. For Kabira, and this speaks, I think, to the heart of her feminist politics, Wanyahunyu represents a question, and questions are extensions of possibilities.
Why did he live in a hole? What did he think about when he was underground? What did he think about his relatives and neighbours when he was on earth? Did he talk to God of the Agikuyu, the God of Kirinyaga? What did he tell Him? Did Wanyahunyu know his own mother? His father? What did he think about them? Did he experience love in this world? What did he think about women? Did he ever have a woman? What I mean is, did he ever love a woman whom he wished could be his companion? Did he have any of these feelings? What did he think about children? What does he think about this world? What was his philosophy of life? Why did he live in a hole alone until he was nearly eighty years?
I opened by mentioning Kabira’s generosity, and I want to mark her questions as incredibly wonderful sites of generosity. One (ungenerous) reading would be to ask why she frames her questions around forms of hetero-desire. I find this reading ungenerous because it aligns queerness with homo-ness, and I much prefer thinking of queerness as question marks. And the queerness does not only extend to desire, though that is central, but to forms of belief, practices of familial intimacy, orientations toward and around the world, notions of home and homeliness.
Rather than dismissing Wanyahunyu as anomalous, strange, pathological, lacking in some way, Kabira takes him as a starting point from which to probe received histories of masculinity and intimacy and Gikuyuness.
Taking Wanyhunyu as a central figure for a queer project entails marking the normalizing project of much Africanist production—marked here as Kenyatta and Mbiti, though it might extend to Fanon and Blyden—and also enlarging the scope of much Africanist queer work, focused as it is on same-sex intimacies. How do we think about figures who undo or at least trouble the histories of intimacy we might want to claim? Indeed, in what sense might Wanyahunyu disrupt my own sense of the term intimacy? What kind of space-clearing might Wanyahunyu provide?
In ongoing work, I have focused on the figure of the urban prostitute as extending intimate potential in Kenya by disrupting and rearranging ethno-racial practices of intimacy. It is difficult to talk about Wanyahunyu’s intimate disruptions, in part because Kenya’s ethno-racial histories have been so intent on making such figures invisible. And though I will not follow this argument here, such figures continue to be rendered invisible in nation-building histories.
As this disorganized post might suggest, I do not yet have a real way to think of this figure. And I wonder if part of his queerness rests in his resistance to being read into particular kinds of ethno-histories and also particular kinds of intimate histories. How might this resistance to reading, resistance to incorporation, and yet full incorporation—Wanyahunyu, after all, lives in holes in the ground, our ground—demand particular kinds of responses? Here, I have taken one step.