Thoughts on Sinai

Informalisation of the economy has bred careless behaviour, indiscipline, and disorderliness. The way we drive unnecessarily aggressively and without regard to traffic regulations, our propensity to walk on the road rather than the footpath, the matatu playing loud music and making maximum noise with the horn in silence zones, are all examples of lack of discipline in contemporary society.—Jaindi Kisero

The point is that the Sinai pipeline tragedy was not an accident. It is the reward of impunity.

We tend to think of impunity as a culture associated with the high-and-mighty who regularly get away with mass murder and grand larceny.

But the fact is that the culture of impunity extends right to the bottom of the pile.—Macharia Gaitho

Slum dwellers go by many names: maid, ayah, domestic; petty trader, informal trader, the guy who makes things; unskilled labor, factory workers, exploited masses; my first sexual experience, my husband’s piece on the side, my wife’s satisfaction, my heart’s desire. They are intimately familiar with our lives and habits, knowing where we hide our booze, where we “store” the sugar and flour, how often we have sex, even the shape and quality of our bowel movements. They know how to detect lust and avarice, compassion and corruption. For too many of us, they are object lessons—“there but for the grace of . . .” while for others of us they are destinies. To them, we tell secrets that we believe will not travel where they matter.

Slum dwellers matter too much, and not at all.

What, then, does it mean to mourn as a nation for slum dwellers?

It is a gesture that means too much, and nothing at all.
Beginning tomorrow, more precisely Friday, I will be surrounded by poetry at the Hay Festival: workshops with Yusef Komunyakaa and Ben Okri and, later, conversations with Komunyakaa, Okri, Sitawa Namwalie, and the many other Kenyan poets who will be there. One or several of these poets will have taken up the incredible, perhaps impossible, challenge of writing about Sinai: mountain and slum, site of redemption and loss, site of plenty and sacrifice.

Moses descended from Sinai to smite idolaters. Kenya’s politicos descend on Sinai for photo ops. Serpents crawled along staffs, got tired of hanging out, and went hunting.
I want to stay, for a while, with the intimacies we share. I want, in other words, to refuse the “them” and “they” and “slumdweller” designations that have saturated the media and this post. I want, also, to unsettle the “we” understood as a “nation,” the “we are Kenyans together” that feels craven and opportunistic. Nations may be conjured up at sites of collective mourning, but they just as quickly fragment and dissipate. I want to avoid, as well, the too-easy turn from grief to grievance.

I want to stay with the intimacies we share to unsettle ongoing consolidations and sedimentations, especially the very frightening rhetorics of personal responsibility advanced by Gaitho and Kisero. And I also want to stay with the intimacies we share to avoid Moses-like pronouncements about sin and impunity.
Our intimates have died.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Sinai

  1. Being Kenya is as a whole defined as personal responsibility — even when Kenyan Pipeline Corp comes out and says there were irregularities that may have caused this.

    These statements of personal responsibility nick me in the jugular. How much longer must we say that Kenyan citizenship is a one sided relationship between the subject and a conveniently absent state? Of course the state is very present when it has to collect revenue and such; when a local invents an ecotoilet and the local MP shows up for the photo op, etc.

    Maybe we should paraphrase Lacan’s “there is no sexual relationship” (the antagonism between the sexes is not external but rather internal, meaning it is the constitutive noncoincidence of the One with itself) and say that “there is no Kenyan citizenship” (no relationship between the Kenyan state and its subjects, but rather the subject is wholly responsible for itself). Those subjects who magically succeed to make themselves upstanding members of society are crowned model citizens, while those who have to live, work and exist in the underbelly, the shadow economy of the respectable economy we all readily think of get the titles you speak of: slumdwellers, whore, maid.

  2. I was trying to think around (away from) state failure and state mediation, in part to register the thickness of our intimate socialities I was also trying to get away from the scenes of spectacle, whether from the “it’s their fault” angle or from the “we must help them” angle, both of which traffic in similar affective economies.

    I find it fascinating the relationship you map, via Lacan, between subject and citizen. And I wonder about the kinds of subject-making and subject-undoing processes bound up in the term “slumdweller”: Kibera, for instance, has more white people than black, now. A lot of money is being spent to keep it as Kibera–a place of subjectification, with all the rich meanings of that term.

    A cold has fried my brain–let me try to respond when I can think.

  3. Its the same all over the Third World. No different. Including ruptured fuel and liquid chemical pipelines catching fire and causing havoc.

  4. Eddie, while I think it’s useful to embed this Sinai incident within ongoing global histories of scarcity and exploitation, I think there’s something about the here-ness and now-ness of each particular incident or situation that merits its own scrutiny. It is a very strange thing to find oneself asked to mourn for the dead that one was encouraged or directed to ignore while they were alive. I think it is this I am trying to parse in some way.

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