Until his death in 1990, my father was an obstetrician-gynecologist with a practice in Pangani-Eastleigh. As I understood and continue to understand his work, he brought children into the world through a complex magic that ensured mothers and their children survived and thrived. Many, if not most, of his patients were Somali. When I visited him at work, I was always impressed by his tenderness, his amazing ability to make his patients—mothers, fathers, children—love him. And love him they did. Eastleigh, my father’s Eastleigh, taught me how to think about life and death, about kinship and labor, about cultural exchange based on mutual reciprocity.
I learned to think about what it meant to make life, to enable living, to incarnate promise as, in, and through my father’s Somali clients, patients, friends. For me, the very notion of life and living is incarnated as Somali.
From May 1994 through July 1995, I worked at the family business, as a low-level clerk. Business is not quite the right word when one works in and around medicine: one is confronted with the quotidian business of life and death, birth and demise. As much is demystified as is further mystified. It was one thing to watch my father with his clients, patients, friends; it was another thing to interact with them in his absence.
Perhaps my favorite part of the job was going to the nursery to look at newborns. Many, perhaps most, newborns are unsightly. Not yet ready to be presented to the world. But every so often a baby incarnates everything we want to believe about newborns as gifts from the gods. I remember two newborns whose being in the world took my breath away. Again, Somali bodies, lives.
I sent an email to a dear friend today. It was difficult to write. Let me copy what I wrote.
Most of my father’s clients were Somalis. Most of the hospital’s patients were Somali. But patients is not right: the women giving birth to Somali children. I worked there, briefly, after high school, in 1994. Today, the children I saw born are old enough to be killed in Eastleigh.
I’m finding this very difficult to write, but I think it needs to be said. Were I selfish, I’d say we are killing my father’s lifework–the relationships he forged, the communities he served and loved. I think I need to be this selfish for now. I’m grateful he’s not here to watch this. To watch us kill the people he helped bring into this world
This is how I come to Eastleigh: as a son and worker, a hovering presence at life and death, an intimate stranger.
Because I come to Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—through bio-medicine, through my father’s emergency calls in the middle of the night, his joy when life thrived, his anxieties when life faltered, his sorrow when life ended; because I understand Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—through bio-medical struggles to “make live,” to prolong health, to “make generations”; because I come to Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—through the culture-bridging practices demonstrated by my father’s practice, practices that made palpable the ethics of care, emphasizing collectivity-making as a desire for others to thrive, I am struggling to understand how Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—has become available for genocidal imaginations.
If there’s a question, it has to do with how places and populations become killable: the relationship between ecocide and genocide. I am looking neither for a historical explanation nor a conceptual one. No answer should suffice. There should be something impossible about making others killable. I want to insist there should be. To be naïve, if only for a moment.
Those who track longer Kenyan histories will tell me what’s happening is not new. And will point out, rightly, that Somalis are only one group among the many in Kenya’s history and present who have been made killable. Indeed, at a certain moment in our too-recent history, the term citizen translated, loosely, as killable.
In an extended, ongoing email conversation, I tell friends that I am interested in Something Else Not Violence, by which I hope to describe a process through which violation and injury fail to register as requiring action or even notice.
From friends and colleagues, teachers and mentors, scholars and critics, archives and research, I have learned the vocabularies that efface violence: friendship, intimacy, pedagogy, acculturation, civilization, religious conversion, justice, redress, protection, conservation, pleasure, fun, duty, responsibility, hygiene, health, patriotism, love. I have wondered if we make killable more often in the name of love than of hate or indifference. And, if so, how to think about the pull of love and the pull to love as difficult and dangerous. How to write a love story in the register of the killable. As a narrative of killability.
I have wanted to believe that naming something as violence accomplishes some work, even as we seem to back off, to name our acts and beliefs as Something Else Not Violence. Something Else Not Violence enables killing and killability. I am not thinking about euphemism, precisely, because euphemism recognizes what is being hidden or attenuated. Instead, I am interested in the un-naming of violence, the unrecognizability of genocidal imaginations.
I have been trying to write about this Something Else Not Violence for a few days, now. It frightens me. It frightens me because I don’t know. Wait. Let me be more honest: I don’t want to think about violence. I don’t want to think about how its naming and un-naming, its legibility and illegibility, permits us to make ourselves and other killable. I don’t want to be in a space where others try to convince me about the rightness of killability.
But our histories and loyalties do not permit us to evade our presents so readily. The eardrum-destroying music of the Eastleigh No. 6 and 9 matatus continues to throb in memory, if nowhere else: a beat in the blood. The smells and sights of Eastleigh continue to shape my visual imagination of what collectivity might look like. The life-giving, life-enhancing, and pain-amelioration I witnessed at my parents’ practice continue to direct how I think about life, love, death, kinship, care, intimacy, loss, grief, collectivity.
Eastleigh is part of my imaginative and affective terroir.
Form tells its own story, and I realize how close this writing skates to the obituary/eulogy. Perhaps to suggest that a genocidal imagination has won and all I can do is mourn the passing of a place I once knew.
I write to friends that I do not know how to inhabit the “us” we are becoming, or, perhaps, have always been: at home with this Something Else Not Violence, bound by a genocidal imagination. This “us” from which it is difficult to extricate myself as it labors in my name: Kenyan citizen.