Karibu Kenya?

In reviving the traditional meaning of an expression and in restoring a memorable heritage to its former dignity, we have been eager to propose simultaneously, beyond the old word, an original concept of hospitality, of the duty (devoir) of hospitality, and of the right (droit) to hospitality. What then would such a concept be? How might it be adapted to the pressing urgencies which summon and overwhelm us? How might it respond to unprecedented tragedies and injunctions which serve to constrain and hinder it?
—Jacques Derrida, “On Cosmopolitanism”

All refugees and asylum seekers living in urban areas have been directed to move to camps in North Eastern and Rift Valley provinces.
—Dave Opiyo, Daily Nation, December 19, 2012

What is the status of Kenyan hospitality?

At first blush, the question might seem impertinent, if not unimportant. After all, who diagnoses “hospitality” and what does it mean to diagnose “hospitality”? Yet, I think this question must be asked, as must the question of who “deserves” hospitality. I want to start from the question of hospitality to reflect on the place of Somalis in Kenya today. I want to think about Somalis within Kenyan practices of, and beliefs in, hospitality. I want to ask about the status of that karibu we seem so willing to extend to the right kinds of visitors.

Karibu is in trouble.

But perhaps karibu has always been a troubled practice, withdrawn as easily as it is granted, and sustained only within a market logic: to extract money. Like hakuna matata, karibu might be a tourism-inspired fantasy. The welcome is not insincere, but it is strategic, and limited. Extended only until the money ends. I have started from a false place, by presuming a welcoming us and a welcomed them. This is not the place to start with Somalis in Kenya, but it might be the only place left now.

Accretive anti-Somali rhetoric has effectively de-nationalized all Somalis: birth certificates, national IDs, and government-issued passports are no longer enough to certify Kenyan Somali-ness. An intensified xenophobia has already marked such forms of documented belonging false: they were bought, faked, stolen. They document a lie—an impossible identity. If this seems too abstract, consider this scenario: anti-Somali vigilantes will not pause to check whether those phenotypically or culturally identifiable as Somali are “legal” before they attack. Once the first blow has landed, one can never be Paul before the Romans: one can never claim to be a citizen before a court that must recognize that status.

I am tracking a logic that, along with friends, I have been terming a “genocidal imaginary” that, borrowing from and in league with a “developmental imaginary,” frames the world within a problem:solution model. The development imaginary diagnoses and frames problems and proposes solutions. This is the dominant imaginary in Kenya today. One can no longer diagnose a problem without prescribing a solution. Within the development imaginary, the social is a problem to be solved, even as the impossibility of the problem guarantees a speculative market logic. Investing in unsolvable problems creates and sustains multiple economies.

The problem:solution model of the development imaginary slides, too easily, into a genocidal imaginary. In the genocidal imaginary, those identified as causing problems are eliminated. Made ungeographic and unthinkable. Even as that disappearance is figured as an act of (exhausted) compassion. We have given until there’s nothing left to give.

Yet, exhausted compassion is only one avenue to erasing karibu.

Over the past few years, the terms Somali, Refugee, and Terrorist have become synonyms, creating Somali:Refugee:Terrorist. I have noted this previouslyrepetition is necessary and useful. Something has happened to our karibu: it has been unmasked and attenuated.

We pride ourselves on our hospitality. Listen to Binyavanga describe dancing the dombolo:

If you ask me now, I’ll tell you this is everything that matters. So this is why we move like this? We affirm a common purpose; any doubts about others’ motives fade if we are all pieces of one movement. . . . Our shells crack, and we spill out and mingle.

Listen to Shailja chastise a lack of hospitality:

We cringe in silent shame for you when you don’t offer
food or drink. Eat before us without sharing. Serve
yourselves first. Insult us without knowing.

Two white Americans said to me, when I shared my
doughnut with them:

We’ve never seen anyone cut a doughnut into three pieces.

We calibrate hunger precisely. Define enough differently
from you. Enough is what’s available, shared between
everyone present. We are incapable of saying, as you can
so easily:

Sorry, there’s not enough for you. (“The Making [Migrant Song]”)

The examples can be multiplied. Across a range of spaces, we have described ourselves as the karibu people, the people of hospitality. We are “friendly” and “warm” and “welcoming.” Karibu Kenya.

Karibu means welcome, or we use it that way. It can also mean “close,” when describing proximity. To be close to something or someone. It is an invitation to proximity. An invitation to the intimacy created by proximity. An invitation never extended to Northern Kenya and never to Somalis.

If we approach karibu (welcome:closeness:intimacy) from Somalis in Kenya, karibu becomes quite strange. Perhaps karibu is a tourist fiction, created to lure those who want to spend money. If this is so, then shouldn’t the rich economy of Eastleigh be welcomed? Friends and family frequently show off goods from there. If karibu is, borrowing from Binyavanga, a dance where “we spill out and mingle,” then how do we explain our continual othering of Somalis as those whose “shells” cannot “crack”? As those who are inassimilable to project Kenya? How do we explain a Kenyan-ness that guards its borders jealously against Somalis already-always identified as border-people?

Does starting from Somali-ness expose the gaping chasm beneath karibu? Indeed, must we get rid of Somalis to maintain the fiction of our hospitality?

What does it mean to protect Kenyan-ness and, more specifically, urban Kenya and Kenyan-ness from Somalis? For whom must these ideas and spaces be protected? And how does a genocidal imaginary undergird attempts to “remove” Somalis from “urban centers.” I’m tempted to say that “genocidal imaginary” is a stretch. But Nazi Germany must be invoked. And not in a gratuitous way. Nazi Germany has taught us to flinch when a government, any government, juxtaposes “removal” or “repatriation” and “camp.”

What does it mean to claim that Somalis have outstayed their karibu? Given our ethno-nationalist and ethno-regional obsessions with ethno-cide, what does it mean to “clear” Somalis from urban areas? What does it mean to “manage” others by moving them to “camps”? What must we forget to believe that such a “solution” makes sense? What must we desire to justify such an action? What does it mean to claim Somali-ness now if one is in Eastleigh?

Karibu is troubled. Welcome and hospitality, closeness and intimacy, these are threatened. Perhaps they have always been. Perhaps starting from Somali-ness merely exposes karibu’s fictionality. Just as the post-election violence exposed karibu’s fictionality. It, too, must be invoked, because we continue to inhabit its ethnocidal logic.

Put more simply: what the Kenyan government is doing is wrong.

4 thoughts on “Karibu Kenya?

  1. Some of Kenya’s top chess players (three of them ranked within the top 10 nationally) happen to be of Somali origin. And now a dozen of them have been asked to ‘go back to camp’ and ‘leave nairobi’ immediately. They are not looking for terrorists, they just want the Somalis to pack up and go. These are players who I have known for more than 10 years. Meeting them every weekend. the national chess federation has sent a letter to the immigration ministry explaining these fellas are an asset but they don’t give a damn.

    • Thanks for this comment. We need to hear more of these stories. We need to understand the evil that is happening. We need to understand the lives we are destroying. And the institutions we are destroying. And the pleasures we are losing. And the talent we are losing. And the intelligence. And our already-fragile sense of shared humanity.

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