Locating War

On October 21, 1952, a day after the official start of the emergency in Kenya, colonial forces bulldozed my maternal grandfather’s stone house. My grandfather had, by this time, already been arrested and placed in detention, along with many other Kenyan men. His crime? He taught in an independent school in Githunguri. This scene is imprinted in my mind—it is a story my mother has recounted several times. Only seven years old at the time, this was her inauguration into “the political,” a primal scene if you will: the trauma of realizing her state as a colonial subject. Indeed, her constant recounting of this scene as I grew up might be considered a “symptom” of trauma, even as the recounting has eased somewhat since Moi left power, but that’s another discussion.

Because of this much-told story, I grew up understanding that the most violent of state actions was destroying a house. And while time and more knowledge have modified this narrative somewhat, it’s also true that my academic interests in the black diaspora and postcolonial studies have tended to buttress this belief as I read in the historical records of houses and homes being repeatedly destroyed, literally and symbolically.

Kenya (or is it Kenya?) is bombing residences in Somalia and demolishing houses in Nairobi. Both in the name of security. At the same time, failing to recognize the implications of its actions, the Kenyan government is asking, incredulously, what makes young men join Al Shabaab. How dare young Kenyan men across a range of ethnicities join a militant terrorist organization? Why aren’t these young men loyal to the country of their birth?

What I trace here is only the tip of a large iceberg: one would have to consider the Kenyan state’s neglect of the Coastal region, a place where talk of secession is rife; the Kenyan state’s neglect and abuse of Northern Kenya, a place considered so remote that when residents from there travel to Nairobi or other southern regions they claim they are “traveling to Kenya”; the chronic unemployment and underemployment of young people that has existed at least since the 1980s, when the first word I learned about the Kenyan labor market was “tarmacking”; the prolonged and incessant state-sanctioned violence against young men in “informal settlements,” including mostly undocumented but all too real incidences of police brutality and, for lack of a better term, assassinations.

Precarious life, indeed.

For all the discussion of securing Kenya by rendering Kenyans homeless, it is worth noting that these are not new initiatives. So-called informal settlements, or, in donor language, slums, have been repeated targets of state violence: homes have been pulled down too repeatedly for me to recount. All in the name of “development” that was never forthcoming and was never intended to help those who resided there. In its sanitized version of Nairobi, Vision 2030 is precisely about eliminating the poor and working classes from Nairobi’s glossy urban surfaces, even as it relies on their labor to construct houses, drive cars, raise children, and provide sexual outlets.

I invoke Vision 2030 because I want to suggest that what is being done now in the name of “security” has long been envisioned by those planning Kenya’s future. At its core, Vision 2030 is based on unremitting violence against those considered Kenya’s underclass. The “we” imagined as a “middle-class” nation is precisely for the scrubbed and polished children of the already-secure upper-middle- and middle-class. Vision 2030 Kenya is a no future scenario for many residents of informal settlements.

For those who grew up in Moi’s Kenya, state-sanctioned violence as a security measure is nothing new. Much was done against Kenyan citizens in the name of security. What’s surprising is that no commentators I have seen are willing to connect Moi’s state-sanctioned violence to Kibaki’s state-sanctioned violence. War has become the perfect alibi. And Kibaki, in all-too-typical fashion, remains silent as Kenyans are displaced, rendered homeless. Of course, we should not be surprised, given that we still have internally displaced Kenyans in camps close to four years after the PEV. That, for me, is Kibaki’s legacy.

While some popular discussions of these state-sanctioned “evictions” have expressed outrage, many others, too many, have bought into the paranoid state. Kenya “must remain” secure. Nothing must compromise Kenya. There is a stubborn blindness to the state’s actions, an unwillingness to consider how citizens become disenchanted and radicalized. How should one respond to state-sanctioned violence? Why does the state imagine that it has carte blanche to treat its residents as it pleases? How might we understand the Kibaki years as ushering in what, in another context, Chandan Reddy aptly terms freedom with violence: the ostensible liberation from Moi coupled with the economic and ethno-political violences under Kibaki?

And what happens when the state wages war against its own residents?

The “Draft National Policy on Human Rights 2010” has these impressive sentences:

This policy adopts the definition that, human rights are universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions and omissions that interfere with fundamental freedoms, entitlements and human dignity. These rights are enshrined in the Kenya Constitution, other national laws, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other International and Regional human rights instruments.

As with many other laws and policies in Kenya, the document is wide-ranging, ambitious, even inspirational. We write good documents. But, as always, the disconnect between what we write and how we live suggests that, as Wambui Mwangi often remarks, we are a nation of master fiction writers.

And still war rages against Somalia and against Kenyan residents.

It is not clear to me what can or should be said.

After he was released from British-run detention camps, my grandfather rebuilt his stone house. I have no idea whether it resembled the first stone house, and I’ve never had the courage to ask my mother. For him, freedom was materialized in the building of that house. His grave is a few feet from the house. Close to 30 years after his death, that proximity keeps him alive.

4 thoughts on “Locating War

  1. I tried to find more on the Mombasa Republican Party and their Pwani c Kenya campaign—this, of course, after news articles and frightening footage of young men being forced onto police trucks at the Coast.

    It brings me back to spaces, the notion of spaces that are sure of their Kenyanness. It reminds me not only of secessionist sentiment at the Coast, but also secessionist jokes in Kisumu town—jokes alluding to the fact that this town used to be in Uganda, even though we know M7, the president of Uganda, is a dictator and worse. But every now and then I’d hear those jokes growing up. Jokes that perform imaginary cartography. What does it mean for certain spaces to be sure of their Kenyanness and for others to stutter step, to doubt themselves, even?


    First let me say that I hear you.

    And let me lay this story side by side with yours: what the colonial government started, successive Kenyan ones have kept going. My own family’s been involved in an unusually and we suspect corruptly prolonged court case dating back to my father’s run-ins with the Moi government. The sort of case where you present all evidence that you own the property you’re living on and they keep ruling against you—and you appeal endlessly. Till money runs out.


    The war didn’t usher us into violence. We were already in violence. The very way we live is sustained by violence—the sort of violence we are taught and told not to see.

  2. I think the new Constitution gives some hope because human rights and principles such as non-discrimination are now clearly enshrined in it and we have a legal way of contesting state violence.

  3. I was struck by the DN’s “Dispatches from the front” today, which also locate “Kenya” in contrast to the occupied land in banal/sanitized accounts of contrasts in diet, clothing, and consumer products. “[G]reen vegetables and packed juice are a sign of recent interaction with civilisation”. War as a boring business trip.

    (I troll these pages obsessively because they ring so true to me but have never commented until now… thanks!)

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