Forgetting Internally Displaced Kenyans

Since 2008, when Raila and Kibaki signed the power-sharing accord, Kenyans have tried very hard to forget the internally displaced. We did so, in part, by adopting the legally correct name, internally displaced, and then stripping them of any belonging by terming them people. Not Kenyans, but people.

Internally Displaced People.

This (un)naming helped us to forget them. And we had help, as we learned to criminalize them. Over the past two years, we have heard accounts of rape at IDP camps and about stubborn IDPs who reject help. If IDPs merited our compassion in early 2008, now they have “proven” themselves to be lazy, criminal, stubborn—it is “their own fault” that they are IDPs. Their presence elicits irritation, not compassion.

No one will say this. No one can say this. But this circulates as a kind of knowing. You know what “those people” are like. Echoes of how they came to be displaced haunt their presence. “Those People.” They used to be our people.

No longer Kenyans—no longer able to feel and act as Kenyans—the internally displaced are zombies, those who, we whisper, “survived, but maybe should not have.” Because we do not want those who survive to remind us of our complicity.

Our emails, text messages, blog posts, telephone conversations, and silence in the face of prejudice created the conditions for what happened. And our demands that “those responsible” be brought to justice, while necessary, also betray our ongoing unease, our psychic torment, at our own complicity.

It is difficult to live with the guilt of what we let happen.

It is even more difficult because the displacement took place during our annual rituals of return and re-connection.

During the December through January holidays, Kenyans reconnect with friends and family. It is a period of profound renewal, when we reaffirm the ties that sustain us, pledge to remain connected, promise to remember that we are collectives.

Private allegiances—those we owe to friends and families—merge with a public consciousness. We suture private and public forms of belonging. And even those who “do not travel” send text messages or money or good wishes or desire such connections. The desire to belong can be as powerful as belonging itself.

The holidays renew our faith in our collective Kenyan-ness. Whereas the U.S. holiday season begins with Thanksgiving, the Kenyan one begins with Jamhuri Day, our independence day, on December 12. Our holidays begin with and celebrate political liberation.

Internally Displaced Kenyans rupture these claims.

Their brutally truncated rituals of reconciliation and affirmation offer alternative trajectories, unbearable truths. Some of them are displaced because husbands abandoned their wives: families in law fractured under ethnic and class demands. Bonds we held to be unassailable—the good will of the season, the renewal of citizenship, the melding of the private and the public—were hacked, burned, brutalized, understood as items that had a market value.

Barter trade: a machete for a head.

And the people Wambui Mwangi calls “internally misplaced” remind us. They remind us that our rituals of renewal and reconciliation are fragile. That we inhabit strategic fictions to manage the world around us. That we meet once a year because we can suspend our grievances and quarrels for brief periods. They remind us that the thing we call Kenyan-ness fractures under market-driven pressures. And that it is as subtended by rivalry, jealousy, spite, and hatred, as it is by peace, love, and unity.

To celebrate the holidays, we must forget the internally misplaced. Forget that they are Kenyans. Name them people.

As we name them people, we normalize their deracination, understand it as typical, part of Kenya, not as the gross anomaly that it should be.

We have practiced. Kenya, after all, is the regional host to refugees. I have no doubt that an obscene document somewhere lists a refugee’s daily requirements: this much land, this much water, this much food, this much attention. And notes, as is appropriate, the amount of profit to be made.

In conversation with filmmaker Patrick Mureithi, we pondered what it means to normalize the internally displaced. How it allow us to envision new, more flexible understandings of Kenyan-ness.

New trajectories have emerged—how to (un)make a Kenyan.

Official reports indicate at least 600,000 Kenyans were displaced. Available reports remain fuzzy, speaking of households rather than individuals–what is a destroyed household? Emerging reports claim that poisoned maize has been circulated to IDP camps.

If we can erase them, maybe we can forget. They should not have cheated death, something whispers. Someone is listening.

Our national discourse of moving toward Vision 2030 is predicated on erasing roadblocks—knocking down “unsightly” kiosks, eliminating the urban poor, paving over potholes, becoming an image conceived by officials who live in leafy suburbs.

The internally displaced are an impediment to memory, a scar, a blot, a reminder that should not be. Their presence disturbs the holidays. Disturbs the rituals of connection we prize so much. The strategic fictions on which so much depends.

Their presence also prohibits another ritual of nation-building: mourning. Kenyans are very good at mourning. We cry in multiple-part harmonies. Throw ourselves into graves—not hard enough to damage ourselves, but a funeral-derived bruise or scar is a trophy. We weave intimacies around the dead. We remind ourselves how much they were loved and cherished. And, like those pesky holidays when we have to meet, we meet during funerals. They are a national occupation, quite unlike anything else.

The internally displaced—survivors from a past we want to forget—interrupt our mourning rituals. Their presence means we cannot move on to other objects, other trajectories, that we must keep looking behind, that we remain tethered to ugly feelings, to our own unattractive reflections.

It is easier to smash mirrors.

A few months ago, I remembered that I had forgotten about the Internally Displaced Kenyans. And I began to ask what it means to forget. How such forgetting happens. What is accomplished by such forgetting. But also what it means to remember Kenyans who are still with us, still alive. Because forgetting suggests that they are already gone, ejected from a Kenyan-ness we once shared. A Kenyan-ness that remains wounded, even if band-aided by a new constitution.