Knowing Ourselves/Knowing Others

Knowing me, knowing you (ah-haa)
There is nothing we can do.

In early 2008, a consensus seemed to emerge among members of the Concerned Kenyan Writers collective (CKW), to which I then belonged: Kenya’s post-election violence had been caused, in part, because we did not know each other well enough, or at least well enough to prevent violence. Thus ensued an ongoing socio-ethnographic project to discover ourselves: we would travel in and out of the environments we knew well and didn’t know at all, track down originary and strange narratives, map our ongoing diversities and hybridities, discover and re-discover a Kenya we could share as a shared, contingent, dynamic project. The work emerging from this moment—Stephen Partington’s How to Euthanise a Cactus; the two-volume edition of Kwani? 5; Sitawa Namwalie’s Cut Off My Tongue; Tony Mochama’s Road to Eldoret; and even traces of Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write about This Place—expressed an optimism in this socio-ethnographic project as it sought to capture a diverse, hybrid Kenya. Indeed, the final lines of Binyavanga’s book express this optimism in this socio-ethnographesis. Taking Kenyan music at the dawn of Kenya’s independence as his paradigm, Binyavanga writes,

Right at the beginning, in our first popular Independence music, before the flag was up, Kenyans had already found a coherent platform to carry our diversity and complexity in sound.

We fail to trust that we knew ourselves to be possible from the beginning.

If, looking at cultural projects–histories of migration and urbanity, histories of education–and creating new socio-ethnographies–tracking urban and rural diversities–we could learn enough about each other, the thinking went, then we could create new(er) or better forms of being together.

This optimism in an ethical socio-ethnography continues today in a project such as Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s This Kenyan Life, which seeks to document 200 days with differently geographical Kenyan populations, and in socio-cultural events that promote ethno-cultural acts in interculturative settings, such as the many poetry events that regularly encourage poets to read/speak in various ethnic languages. Here, the collective sounding of our difference and particularity ostensibly creates a sonic collectivity, bound, we might say, by the aesthetics of sound: we might not understand individual words, but gathering to listen to each other forges bonds beyond denotation. We encounter each other on aesthetic grounds and create modes of togetherness.

A recent conversation on twitter has emphasized this socio-ethnographic project, now routed through language. Names will remain anonymous. If only, one person said, we could learn each other’s languages, then our own ethno-regionalisms and ethno-nationalisms might be reconfigured. Here, the experience of language, understood, broadly, as a world view, might help to create a shared social world, help to forestall violence. If this project seems different from the kind of socio-ethnographic project that assembles information because learning languages is more intimate, it still participates in the same socio-ethnographic logic.

The problem remains that we don’t know each other well enough.
I have sketched a rude and incomplete version of a long, complicated, and contested process to ask where we are now as Kenya approaches the next election in March 2013. By one measure, that of cultural output, we have succeeded. We now have many documents, creative and otherwise, that track our disparate and intersecting histories; we have created multi-ethnic and multi-cultural collectives that collaborate on a range of projects; our circles have expanded. Kenya has never appeared as diverse.

By other measures, the legal struggles over the post-election violence and the ongoing campaigns for the elections, we have failed. Our ethno-nationalisms and ethno-regionalisms have never felt as fierce or as defensive; rumors abound of massive arsenals hoarded up; and while what is called “hate speech” might not be as conspicuous—or identified as such—modes of ethno-regional policing have intensified. More than once, campaigning politicians have uttered versions of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and “if you’re not with us, you will be disciplined.”

What we hoped would be a cultural intervention into the political now seems naïve, even as what feels like legal interventions into the political have taken tenuous hold—we have a “new” constitution, for instance. Whether it will allow genuine change in how power is administered or merely relocate this administration remains an open question. Certainly, the war against Somalis and Somalia over the past few years; the increased militarization of everyday life; the ongoing, unspoken war against young men in slums, none of these inspire much confidence.

I range too widely here. Let me return to our socio-ethnographic projects.
I have worried about this socio-ethnographic project since 2008: while I shared and continue to share its broader aims to create more layered histories that privilege our diversities and foreground our interculturative worlds, I remain unconvinced by its assumptions and methods.

To claim that, in 2008, we “did not know each other well enough” erases longer, interculturative Kenyan histories, installing a too-convenient amnesia into a national narrative. We forget or erase how previous generations of Kenyans learned to think of themselves as Kenyan in schools, militaries, unions, and marketplaces. We forget, or fail to register, that our parents are often fluent or conversant with several ethno-regional languages. We assume that the politically created and sanctioned ethno-regionalisms and ethno-nationalisms are more ideological than material.

More broadly, we forget—because ideology teaches us to forget—that ethno-regionalisms and ethno-nationalism are ideological projects that obscure our real materialities. Thus, Gikuyu-ness, Luo-ness, Swahili-ness, Luhya-ness, Maasai-ness emerge as “real” identities, rather than as fractured, contingent formations produced by the ravages of colonial modernity. We erase familiar histories of mixing and mingling: even today, many Gikuyu families can trace Maasai ancestors, among many others; my great grandfather had at least one Kamba wife. My simple point is this: the ideological production of ethnicity as purity need not, and, indeed, rarely has a material basis. It is the function of ethno-nationalist ideology to privilege fiction over materiality, to refuse complex histories in favor of mythical origins. Fictional origins “guarantee” a collectivity that can be invoked and shared. As many African American authors discovered, fact can rarely contest myth. In Ashis Nandy’s terms, one needs myth to fight myth.

I am very invested in this myth vs. myth paradigm, for I think one needs to fight strategic fictions with strategic fictions.

I must confess, also, that my distrust of socio-ethnographic projects stems from my engagement with postcolonial studies and queer studies: in both fields, data collection is strongly tied to managing populations by assigning spatio-temporal taxonomies and “taxing” those so identified. Colonial archives are hungry for “information” that can be used to manage populations. Granted, those from whom such information is acquired negotiate such demands in complex ways: they lie, make up, fabricate, fictionalize.

And socio-ethnographic projects can be useful in helping to contest ethno-regional and ethno-national formations. But I think our faith in them was misplaced.

I worry that we lost creative ways to imagine ourselves, or did not dare to think of creative ways to engage the political. This is not to say we have not written fiction or poetry. But if one takes Kwani? 6 as an example, a special issue dedicated to writers under 30, the lines between figures feel all-too-familiar: the rich against the poor; the politicians against the people; the rural people engaged in fixed locations; the urban people negotiating ethno-racial complexities, but still marked in their fixities; the moral against the immoral. If, collectively, the stories imagine Kenya, it is as a socio-ethnographic project, even as individual pieces might play more obviously with allegory and myth. Fixities proliferate.
One could read the past few years differently, as a problem of scale and intensity rather than method: we have not done enough to know each other. We have not done our jobs well enough. The socio-ethnographic will succeed given time.

It might.

Yet, I worry.

Friends report the intensification of ethno-regional and ethno-national affiliations, even among those we believed beyond such feeling. It’s dangerous to take such anecdotes as evidence of failure—that we failed to become the people we wanted to be. To make such a leap might be to surrender too easily to pessimism, to believe “nothing changes.” Yet, to ignore such evidence strikes me as even more foolhardy.

By no means am I suggesting that better strategic fictions would have “fixed” something, preventing the intensification of ethno-nationalisms. I am very bad at playing the too-common Kenyan game of name a problem: name a solution. And, ultimately, I’m interested in proliferating our cultural and political strategies, not adjudicating among them.
And, so, ABBA: I am struck by that “ah-haa.” It opens something that the subsequent line shuts down. One might imagine that “ah-haa” extending the time of possibility, leading to other places. One can also mis-hear the song. For many years, I misremembered the line after the “ah-haa” as “there ain’t nothing we can’t do,” making it more U.S. than it is. Perhaps because youth is optimistic and has bad hearing.

Yet, if bad hearing and mishearing can allow for something—this indefinite word must do here—something that allows other worlds to emerge as possibility, then I’m all for it.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: