Quotidian Interruptus

It’s raining in Nairobi, on Friday, during rush hour. Time extends in auto and human traffic. Burst sewage lines block pedestrian paths: we are all cars now, or pedestrians, depending on how one gauges being from speed. The four-minute ride that takes me home takes half an hour. All of this is normal rain-panic.

Still, there’s an edge.

The complex where I buy groceries has instituted “car checks.” Trunks/boots are being opened, subjected to ineffectual scrutiny. A forty-second search by a barely-trained security officer. The mall I use for wifi has instituted personal searches: a man runs a wand over me, looks inside my bag; there are lines to go into the mall. Inside, it is quieter than usual—that means nothing, though I am told malls and pubs are emptier than usual. At the mall, the power goes out twice. Quiet conversation continues—this is nothing new. A friend tells me that a major mall was evacuated. A few days ago MPesa was down. Money is being lost.

Quotidian modes of interruption—cuts to power, excessive traffic, fireworks at Diwali—become newly threatening, sources of edginess. After all, the action films we love so much in Kenya have taught us how to watch for signs of trouble.

We are watchful.

Other reports swirl: Somali and Muslim-looking men being denied access to public transport, women in buibuis being spat on, incidents of physical harassment (beatings and so on). These live in the realm of the witnessed, the observed, the barely documented.

Unwholesome appetites are being cultivated. Listen to Jerry Okungu from the Nairobi Star fanning the flames:

For so long, Kenya had adopted a dangerous attitude towards the war in Somalia. We allowed an influx of undocumented refugees into our borders. We allowed questionable investments into our economy. Right now many parts of Nairobi have become mini Mogadishu. The Central Business District is a no-go area. Every hotel and restaurant you go to is full of this ethnic community who idle all day drinking coffee when other Kenyans are busy working. The Jamia Mosque is no longer a Kenyan Muslim Mosque. It was taken over by foreigners a long time ago. If you go to Eastleigh, Embakasi estates and up market suburbs of Nairobi including South C areas, you would be forgiven for thinking that you are in Somalia.

Right now, 80% of Forex Bureaus are owned and manned by foreign Somalis with some starting a 24 hour business. Is Kenyan planning to vet all the millions of Somali nationals it allowed to move here with ease just a few years ago? What will it do with these foreigners that it gave Kenyan ID cards and passports?

The dilemma Kenya has is that it cannot differentiate between Kenyan Somalis and Somali Somalis. They look alike, speak the same language, same religion and share the same clan naming system. Any mass screening of all Somalis will definitely raffle the feathers of genuine Kenyan Somalis.

Therefore in fighting the Al Shabaab militias inside Somalia, Kenyan authorities must appreciate the fact that an arm of the enemy that may be equally dangerous is actually within our borders, has become our business partner and even enjoying sensitive and influential leadership positions here at home.

While it is gratifying to see genuine and peace loving Somalis in Somalia embrace Kenyan forces, the same cannot be said of Kenyan Somalis, some of them even members of the Kenyan Parliament that are always too eager to oppose any security measures against militias that may be Somalis themselves.

The lazy, idle, and somehow very wealthy Somalis who exploit Kenya. One wonders if Okungu has been reading Mein Kampf. One wonders what this kind of incitement to hate is doing published in a national newspaper.

It is not that these sentiments are new—to believe that is to erase longer, volatile histories. It is that they are newly available, having moved from casual bar chat and whispers to the forefront of a war effort. Sentiments are being massed, herded in the direction of ethnic cleansing. It feels unrelenting.

And it is raining in Nairobi.

Since the PEV, many of us have wondered how to build and sustain a kind of Kenyan-ness strong enough to support political dissent. Many Kenyans vested faith in the new (already compromised) constitution as the instrument that would help create a sense of “We the People.” Still, ethno-political tensions continued to simmer—rumors of weapons being bought and stocked, of clandestine, well-funded ethnic cabals developing strategies to stay in power. Something like the PEV felt inevitable—this time shifting from “panga power” to automatic guns. Ethno-fissures in a precariously sutured national façade.

Over the past week, these ethno-fissures have been less apparent, not healed, but filled in by an intensified Somali-phobia. The not-yet-ethnic (in the magic 42 and the sacred 5) and never-national (too border-town) Somali have become the target of a powerful ethno-nationalism, a strange ethno-nationalism in that it is not simply one major ethnic group against another—so, not Rwanda or Bosnia—but an aggregation of ethnic groups massed into an affect-nation.

We are Kenyans because we are “not-Somali” and we “fear,” “hate,” “despise,” or are otherwise “suspicious of” the Somali. One could add other ways we feel toward the Somali. Even the milder sentiment, “there is good reason to be cautious of,” with its bureaucratic register, lives in the same affect-compound as the rest. Just as Najivunia Kuwa MKenya imagines a nation into place through pride, the complex of negative sentiments around Somalis stitch together an ethno-nation. It is not that we have resolved, finally, the ethnic divisions among us, but a strategy has been found to manage them.

I thought that Al Shabaab named the killable, but I might have been premature. In Okungu, Somali names the killable, the destroyable, that which, to use Mathiu’s terms, can and should be hammered. Ironically, this war has finally included Somalis in Kenya’s nation-building project, only as that which must be ejected violently.

It continues to rain.

5 thoughts on “Quotidian Interruptus

  1. Jerry Okungu is certainly taking note of Nazi propaganda. Remember that according to the Nazi propaganda machine the Jews were supposedly in the ghettoes, but at the same time wealthy enough to be secretly running Germany; they supposedly only married among themselves, but at the same time they were raping German women and thereby outbreeding everyone else; they supposedly were so rooted in Judaism and Jewish culture that they didn’t partake in German culture, but at the same time they were rootless cosmopolitans who precisely because they didn’t have an allegiance to anything/anywhere, least of all Germany, were working against the German nation.

    I could go on. And on.

    Jerry Okungu gives us the Kenyan version of Nazi propaganda films. Somalis are lazy and somehow wealthy enough to secretly (or rather very openly) be running the show in Kenya. Funny how he prefers the Somalis in Somalia to those in Kenya — the ones in Somalia are far away for his comfort. They are thankful to the Kenyan Army.

    You are spot on: this kind of rhetoric is hate speech at it’s purest. But as you wrote in the other post, we have cropped the borders of hate speech to fit those of general elections, so that hate speech is attached to who’s running for office and speech related to violence in relation to election. I would add that hate speech also only seems to apply mostly to Luo vs Kikuyus and with a few other communities thrown in — testament to those most vested in seeking power, no?

    But Somalis? Nope. The hate seems to be going around very dangerously. Very ethnic cleansing like hate speech and actions.

  2. I think what continues to get me is the pleasure many Kenyans are taking in the war and in xenophobia. The pleasure of the spectacle of suffering and the anticipation of death. I’m framing this through the black diaspora histories I know and scholarship by Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe. How might one account for that pleasure? For the little thrill of excitement that runs up spines when the words “Somali” and “Al Shabaab” and “terrorist” are said or written? There is something ghoulish to it, even if it’s not new.

    Mob justice in Kenya has always had elements of pleasure–it’s never simply been rage or justice: the spectacle and experience of “hammering” a wrongdoer to death is a source of immense psychic gratification–there are as many smiles and laughs in such scenes as there are faces twisted in rage. And perhaps paying attention to the pleasures of the mob–the pleasures created by mobbing, even–as the scene and site of justice in Kenya might help provide a language (if not explanation) for the current bloodlust.

  3. Is it just my gaydar or does this Bwire terrorist guy exude an element of kuchuness. Not stereotyping , but his poses , head high glances , tightly crossed legs etc, in most images i have seen of him in his scarlet red jumper are little nuances i have recognised of gay men i encounter , including myself.Not that it matters. Or does it? Is there an element of self hate and turning to religion and denial that is the usual journey of young black gay men before we are accepting of ourselves? Just saying.

  4. I have confessed several times that he is “pretty,” a term I now use with alarming frequency. And there’s something to his particular and peculiar ecstasy–his smiles, his responses, his sense of having a mission–that resonates with the kind of spiritual/sexual nexus you suggest. Even as he has been mapped as implicitly queer–the “wife” who was never or rarely seen, for instance.

    But your comment is more complex than that and leads me to re-think some of my own formulations about militarized masculinities–as forms of masculinization, yes, but now thinking about the work that masculinization might do for kuchu figures, even and perhaps especially through non-state formations. Much to think about.

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