“Suspicious People”

Today we know very well that it is not necessary to be wounded by a bullet in order to suffer from the fact of war in body as well as in mind. –Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Meanwhile, CID director Ndegwa Muhoro is asking you to remain vigilant and report any suspicious people to the authorities as the war against the Alshabaab continues.—Nairobi Star, November 14, 2011

Nairobi is full of suspicious activity. We carry around anonymous brown envelopes, lug around strangely bulging bags, and, even in the hottest weather, swan around in heavy leather jackets. We stand too close to each other, block busy pavements chatting with each other, wear dark shades inside matatus, and lean in to whisper to each other much too often. We loiter with intent. We walk too fast, walk too slowly, pause, stop, speed up, slow down, talk too loudly, talk too softly, talk in languages other than English and Kiswahili. We wear designer brands on barely-there salaries. And talk on our cellphones all the time. Our internet cafés are always full. Too full. And we walk through sidestreets all the time.

Much of what we do in Nairobi comes under the heading “suspicious.”

But we have been asked not to report “suspicious activity,” but “suspicious people.” The “people” is important, because it marks, in advance, a category of people: the stranger, as Sara Ahmed argues, is not the one who is not known. But the one who is known too well to be strange, that is, not like us. For those in the States, this language is all-too-familiar. It is the rhetoric wielded by “nice people like us” who “really like everyone” but “would feel more comfortable” if the “Arab-looking person” was searched or, better yet, chose to take another flight. This is not “prejudice,” simply “good caution.” After all, “nice people like us” have “obligations”: jobs, families, civic labor. And it would be tragic to endanger all of those.

Yet, as Kweli writes, we have ways of handling “suspicious people” in Kenya. Mwizi or witch. We stone and necklace some. Others we simply burn. While CID Director Ndegwa Muhoro has encouraged “you” (how can one not hear Althusser here?) to “report . . . to the authorities,” the fear and contempt with which the police are viewed suggests that no such reporting will happen. Or, if it does, it will be as an explanation for acts of violence carried out in the name of “defending” Kenya.

What might it mean to understand oneself as a “non-suspicious person”? What technologies of visibility and surveillance are pressed into service to inhabit this position as one above suspicion? What ways of looking and acting and being assure one that one is non-suspicious?

I remain interested in how the fact of being at war lodges itself in the quotidian: in the forms of freedom and practices of bodily integrity we have given up so readily; in the forms of surveillance that we now practice on each other; in the expressions of contempt toward Somalis that have moved from whispers among friends to openly hostile acts of spitting; in the forms of economic jealousy expressed against Somali-owned businesses and residential areas; in the re-consolidation of Christianity as a state religion—Kweyu’s “85% Christian” is not only about “the gays,” but also about this war; in the friendships that have been created and fissured by this war, or are now sustained (if tenuously) by not talking about this war; in state-sanctioned acts of violence—see, for instance, the residences demolished in the name of “safeguarding” Kenya.

Indeed, for all our declarations of “never again” after the PEV, we continue to inhabit its logic and practices of violence.

Sitawa Namwalie implores us to remember:

The carcass of the house stands still
Sentinel to a rage set free

Windows gouged out
Blinded to keep secrets of terror alive

Hollow doors open wide
Tribute to Africa’s tribal scream

The roof couldn’t take it
She flew away, escaped the stalking beast of grief

Walls stand brooding alone
The carcass of the house still stands

The carcass of the house stands still

We live in the time of vultures. Having forgotten those we barely buried, we scout for new prey to feed hungers we are only too proud to own, even as we wonder why we smell of death and decay.

5 thoughts on ““Suspicious People”

  1. With loans still to be repaid, class mobility halted in its tracks, and structures that look like they were hit by bombs.

    I didn’t want to blog this–but what I saw reminded me of stories my mother has told me. In 1952, the British government demolished my grandfather’s stone house. It’s one of my mother’s most vivid memories and, through her, mine.

    History collapsed on itself.

  2. This situation sends shivers down my spine. An acquaintance of mine said recently that she was ‘glad that Kenya was united on this issue’…united in war. How beautiful indeed.
    Meanwhile, the voices of those who oppose it are barely heard.

  3. One of the things I’ve been trying to track is how this war is functioning to “unite” Kenyans and what that means: it is also about defining “good” Kenyans vs. “bad” Kenyans. Those for the war are “good,” those not “bad,” and, as you say, barely heard. There’s something frightening about the consensus being advertised as “what Kenyans want.” I’m not sure there’s space to dissent–though many of us are trying very hard to create and inhabit that space.

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