Unprotected Territories

As yet more articles flood the newspapers about Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, and Raila Odinga, I wonder about the names and lives of former residents from Kiang’ombe and Mitumba whose houses have been torn down by the government. Strikingly, while press coverage of Syokimau, a middle-class enclave, has offered story after story of bank loans and title deeds and land allocation, has asked us to empathize with these hard-working Kenyans who had realized their Kenyan dream of owning land and building a house, coverage of Kiang’ombe and Mitumba remains elusive—hundreds left homeless, thousands left homeles, families left homeless. We get numbers but few faces, few voices, few stories that would make us feel anything other than pity and contempt.

Slums and shanties do not count as residences, certainly not as homes, within a certain national, which is to say, middle-class, imagination. They are, at best, reservoirs, holding places from which labor arrives and to which it returns. Worse, unlike the NGO-beloved and, thus, income-producing Kibera, a place that now has more white people than black, and I mean color in registers other than the literal, a place frequented by tour operators, Kiang’ombe and Mitumba are not considered rich economic resources, even as the labor created and provided by the residents of these areas is incalculable.

A much-needed return to Fanon provides necessary language.

[W]hen the colonist speaks of the colonized he uses zoological terms. Allusion is made to the slithery movements of the yellow race, the odors from the “native” quarters, to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething, and the gesticulations. In his endeavors at description and finding the right word, the colonist refers constantly to the bestiary. The European seldom has a problem with figures of speech. But the colonized, who immediately grasp the intention of the colonist and the exact case being made against them, know instantly what he is thinking. This explosive population growth, those hysterical masses, those blank faces, those shapeless, obese bodies, this headless tailless cohort, these children who seem not to belong to anyone, this indolence sprawling under the sun, this vegetating existence, all this is part of the colonial vocabulary. (Wretched of the Earth, 6-7; my emphasis)

There’s a reason why the term “neo-colonial” was so popular for those who read Fanon in the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Then, as now, it was clear that the state was more invested in protecting the wealthy than it was in any mode of equitable redistribution. It is impossible to read about Kiang’ombe and Mitumba without remembering that MP Harun Mwau, an incredibly wealthy man who, somehow, evaded the Forbes list, was recently declared innocent by parliament of all accusations leveled against him, the chief one being that he is a leading global drug trafficker.

Friends have asked, and I echo, “I wonder how much that cost him.”

I bring up colonialist vocabulary in part because of the names of these now-demolished residences. Kiang’ombe translates, roughly, as “of the cow” and Mitumba refers to the trade in second-hand clothes from Europe and the U.S. Certainly, Kiang’ombe can have many different meanings: given that cows still represent wealth and prosperity, the name is aspirational: the place of the cow is the place of wealth and prosperity and security, but to see this would require using frames other than those readily available. It would mean valuing the individuals who inhabit Kiang’ombe as wealth producers, as important as Harun Mwau.

Mitumba is a cross-class phenomenon, one of the few ways that many Kenyans afford to dress stylishly and decently, often in brand name or off-brand clothes. Mitumba names, not only clothing, then, but multiple strategies of striving and aspiration and beautification and affiliation. It is, to appropriate Matt Hart’s language, a “vernacular glue” that binds multiple Kenyas and multiple Kenyans. Needless to say, Mitumba does not occupy the same economy as clothing sold at Junction or Galleria or Westgate or Yaya or Village Market, places where one can buy an “affordable” suit for more than what many people make in a month. The Mitumba economy occupies a space of coalition unrecognizable by the wealthy and powerful.

In the metaphorical register I’m using here, to demolish Mitumba is to devalue the labor Mitumba accomplishes in binding Kenyans.

But then I fear that the abstraction of metaphor might be as violent as the erasures taking place right now, as houses are demolished, lives devalued, Kenyans rendered “un-resident” and nameless, devoid of story or belonging. Even as upper-middle- and middle-class malls “protect us” from threats “out there.”

Thus it is that those internally displaced by post-election violence, ostensibly a time when security broke down, have been joined by those displaced by demolitions carried out in the name of security.

And those who thought they were “safe” because they are not Somali or do not look Somali are discovering otherwise. Those who continue to beat the war drums and insist that Kenya “must be secure” . . .

I’m sorry. I thought I could complete the previous sentence.

It is raining in Nairobi—we are in the midst of the so-called short rains. In the name of security, we are demolishing houses that provide shelter from the rain, no matter how partially. An outbreak of cholera and typhoid has been reported. We continue to worry about election violence in 2012, even as its markers—ethnic hatred, home demolition, politicians’ apathy, police-sanctioned violence, political criminality, upper-middle- and middle-class indifference—continue to proliferate.

4 thoughts on “Unprotected Territories

  1. Thus it is that those internally displaced by post-election violence, ostensibly a time when security broke down, have been joined by those displaced by demolitions carried out in the name of security.

    I feel these words. The parallel you draw here between these demolitions and IDPs is (I don’t really have the right word in all the languages I speak) potent.

    Like you, I noticed—and you and I have talked this before—the way we are invited by Kenyan media to view ourselves through middle and upper class frames. There is a certain upweke ni uvundo going on here—shame in Mitumba and pride in Syokimau.

  2. Part of what’s happening is also a consolidation of a historically-defined class structure, to the extent that the past 4 decades are a historical period. The ever-elusive search for class mobility through education and property ownership and even urbanization is being (or has been) gutted in ways whose implications we have yet to realize. Class positions are ossifying and, as the barrier to class mobility gets even higher, many are prepared to pay too much to enter into it–this is one reason why apartments now go for obscene amounts.

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