Welcome Mourning

In a ghoulish video somewhere, I hold a dead man’s photograph and precede a coffin processional, a scene I remember too well from a long-ago production of Oliver Twist. The suit is navy blue—a color I associate with funerals and detest. It’s easier, now, to let Oliver Twist color my imagination of that day, to imagine it as wintry and wet, desolate and grainy. To forget the smell of incense, the reading of scripture, the voices lifted in dutiful comfort. Lovely—I barely remember the song now. I remember being told I read the scriptures well: minor accomplishments that mark the process of public grieving.

I mention to my mother that I shall be attending a memorial service—she says, “now, you are fully back in Kenya.” I am struck by this sense that being Kenyan has something to do with our collective rituals of mourning: the funeral announcements, the meetings, the parts named to be recognizable. That, in fact, without these ritual parts—many of them relatively recent (I wonder, for instance, when it became ritual to have radios announce death and funeral arrangements)—something has not yet ended satisfactorily. One must have a “fitting” send off. (A train of association leads me to custom-fitted suits—in Nairobi, mine were tailored for two funerals and a wedding—I wore black to the wedding.)

I returned to Kenya through mourning, trying to write my way through and beyond the protocols I had inherited. And it is, perhaps, the experience of mourning that first defined my relationship to Kenya. In some vague memory, Kenyatta’s death is the first television image I recall. I might not have pierced my screen memories—instead, his death and funeral were replayed so often on television, time might collapse, and the sediment of latter years might claim to pierce the unremembered and the forgotten.

It seems obvious by now to claim that mourning—as ritual, as performance, as habit, as protocol—enacts powerful work in collectivizing. “A nation mourns,” we read or hear or see or remember. The grainy footage of such remembering-by-others trains us into our mourning positions—to be a nation, to belong, is to have the capacity to mourn collectively.

When I started writing this post several weeks ago, I had hoped to think about the relationship between “return” and “mourning,” here, perhaps a long-delayed response to Saidiya Hartman about the “impossible” feeling of return, the being-made-strange that happens when one cannot mourn, or does not mourn as one should. I think about the mourning that happens for an object or situation that is mistaken as mourning for another object or situation—it is why I think words like “habit” and “performance” can be useful in discussing mourning. Collective mourning is an aggregation of situated performances—the time of its happening is often more important than the object or event around which clustering happens.

I was feeling rather “clever.”

And then news of Wambui Otieno Mbugua’s death arrives, and I am struggling to explain my sense of loss.

With the grace of hindsight, I understand that Wambui, through what some call the SM Otieno case, guided my way into the politics of intimacy. I think about her claim that SM told her where he wanted to be buried and the court’s decision to disregard this intimate conversation. Without Wambui in my personal-collective history, I would never have had a way to understand or appreciate LGBTI claims for partner rights. Or, put another way, I would not have been able to translate them into paradigms that make sense.

In many ways, and I recognize this only now, Wambui’s life offered me (and others) one of the first opportunities to think about marriage and intimacy, about the claims of the couple as they intersect with the claims of the clan, about the importance of space, about rituals and performances of mourning.

Without Wambui, I would not have been able to come to feminism as I did. I would not have been able to understand the gendering of testimony, the acoustics of gender, the importance of bodies as they matter and mutter. Without Wambui, I would not have been able to appreciate how nations feel and act on their feelings.

There are the things I can enumerate in her name—and many others that I cannot, because I cannot know them.

Kenya mourns for Wambui Otieno Mbugua.

I mourn for Wambui Otieno Mbugua.

3 thoughts on “Welcome Mourning

  1. When I think about the meanings of Wambui Otieno’s life, I think about space. The taking up of. The speaking in. The taboo breaking. The contestation of. She showed generations of Kenyan women that they could redefine space with their bodies, with their voices.

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