On Mercy Keino

In July 2011, Kenyan newspapers reported that Mercy Keino, a University of Nairobi student, had been found dead on Waiyaki Way, a busy Kenyan highway. Mercy had last been seen at a party in an affluent neighborhood adjacent to the highway. As I start to write this, I realize that of the various narratives circulating about Mercy, only three seem undisputable: she was a student, she went to a party, she was found dead.

As Mercy’s story has unfolded, she has become subject to multiple conflicting narratives and competing attachments. She was, in some stories, a good Christian girl who did not drink or party. Simultaneously, she was a wild party animal, a “type” of campus girl. She was engaged to be married. And she had “been seen” with “certain kinds of men.” As Kenne Mwikya points out (via email), Mercy has also been claimed by the male leaders in the university, as one of “their women.”

Indeed, the most consistent thread attached to Mercy is her proximity to male bodies—the daughter of her father, the woman engaged to a man, the partying student with male friends, the vulnerable university woman under the care of male university officials, the victim of harsh bodyguards (at the party). She incarnates, in all these narratives, an object lesson to young women everywhere: choose your male protectors carefully.

Simultaneously, she represents an ongoing lesson in Kenyan modernities: education and urbanization endanger young women. Indeed, living endangers young women. While I have no intention of minimizing women’s vulnerabilities—in 2005, a Kenyan woman was raped every 30 minutes—I do want to ask how Mercy’s story functions today.

At this moment, Kenya is being compelled to think about women leaders more seriously than ever before, this, in part, because of the constitutional requirement that no one gender (we’re still operating in a binary system here) can hold more than 2/3 of any public offices. Let me skirt the math issue for a moment (and its various diasporic branchings to fractioned bodies). This requirement is causing “consternation and discomfiture,” with many (male and some female) voices calling it unreasonable and irrational and unfair—how dare we be compelled to vote for women? (Patriarchy is, as always, blind to its own contradictions.) I am tempted to ask loudly and repeatedly where these voices were when they were busy debating the Constitution.

Given this context, Mercy’s story can be used in many ways, not least to discredit women as leaders, this, in part, because Mercy embodies the figure of the woman as leader: she was highly educated, was planning to study even further, and was respectably engaged (I don’t like the suture of heternormativity and politics, but I’m not silly enough to ignore it). Given how long it might actually take to fulfill the 2/3 requirement—we are talking about 15-20 years of ongoing implementation—Mercy is precisely the kind of figure we are scrutinizing, fairly or not. And she is being found lacking.

After her death, the mainstream press ran stories about wild campus girls, young women who are little more than avaricious prostitutes—nothing I saw bothered to trace the economic conditions of campus students, especially dwindling state support for higher education over the past 20 years or so that has made campus increasingly difficult, even as Nairobi and other campus locations have become increasingly expensive. Instead, there seemed to be a concerted effort to undermine women’s education as a project of nation building. It was unclear, in fact, if women on campus actually go to classes. (Given various inconsistent affirmative action measures focused on women, these arguments about what women actually do on campus merit more scrutiny.)

One would have to read these stories alongside all the other normalizing and patriarchal narratives about women in the mainstream press (relentless!) to register the kind of gender work that is in circulation: women are unreliable and unfaithful but also marriage-minded (even desperate) in their pursuit of men. Women who succeed are lonely or avaricious, happy to look after their boy toy boyfriends. It is not, I hasten to add, that these narratives are new; rather, I am interested in how they shape public perceptions about women as intellectuals, as leaders, as citizens. I am interested in how one might read about women vying for political positions alongside articles of women as “lesser,” “weaker,” infinitely vulnerable, and incredibly corruptible. (I note, in passing, that not a single one of the “blogs” featured on the Daily Nation is authored by a woman.)

What, I wonder, is the afterlife of Mercy Keino? Not in ghostly form, though that might be interesting, but as a figure who incarnates young Kenyan women at this moment? What might be at stake in remembering and forgetting her? To what uses will she be put and by whom? How do narratives of her vulnerability and of (male) politicians’ duplicity help to secure gendered narratives of patriarchal power? What do these narratives of patriarchal power help to secure? What do they mask over?

What kind of gender work is going on in Kenya today through the figure of Mercy Keino—both remembered and forgotten? What forms of identification and disavowal are newly available through her? And here, I want to implicate myself in the narratives emerging about her.

I read about Mercy while my mother was visiting me. I wondered at the time what kind of campus woman attended a party without understanding the protocols of such attendance—there would be alcohol, men, flirtation, forms of seduction and coercion. While I felt the circumstances of her death were tragic, I wondered about her “character.” Since I’ve been back in Nairobi, enmeshed in ongoing discussions and debates about gender work here, I’ve re-thought how I approached her narrative—my assumptions, my too-hasty conclusions. There is a particular kind of gender work happening in Kenya—it takes being here, engaging it in all its complexity, to begin asking what I think are better questions.