Jela si Pahala

We make concealment happen; it is not natural but rather names and organizes where racial-sexual differention happens.
—Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds

How do we think the possibility and the law of outlawed, impossible things?
—Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness”

I have been watching and re-watching KTN’s special report on sex in Kenyan prisons, especially from 5:10-6:45: Sakina’s testimony. Kind friends have transcribed her testimony and it appears below, untranslated.

SA: Sakina
R: Reporter

SA: Jela si pahala kwa sababu sisi wenyewe sisi mashoga twaonewa, nimekataa, na kutandikwa na kufanyiwa unyonge wa unyama na kuumwa hivi maalama hizi maalama chungu mzima zimenijaa, asema kwa sababu wewe ni shoga, utajiju, ukienda ukimwaambia askari, askari mimi mbona naonewa hivi ama kwa sababu mimi ni shoga ndio naonewa hivi, askari anakwambia lipa deni mimi usiniletee ujinga kama huo, nendeni huko mkaongelee huko mkamalizianie huko, saa nyegine moyo-roho yangu haitaki, wajua saa ingine wataka saa ingine hautaki, sasa wajua naye vile nafsi naye inaamka, saa ingine wataka saa ingine hautaki

R: Naam, we kwako-

SA: Na sasa venye mtu sasa, sa venye wewe wataka ndio mtu naye hakutaki basi, na saa yenye hutaki ndio mtu anakulazimisha


SA: Anakwaambia kama unataka kula hapa chakula vizuri vizuri paka nilale na wewe ndio niku-nikupe

R: Unakumbuka umelala na wanaume wangapi?

SA: Haa-watu elfu mbili na-(Laughs)-wanakupa chakula, kwa mfano ukipewa paka hivi mapeni, askari jela ashakuja kukuny’anga’nya, amekupokonya, ameshakuny’anga’nya, anakwambia mbona huku, mbona wafanya biashara hii, huku pesa watoa wapi, hebu leta hii pesa ama tukutandike, sasa wewe ukiskia hivyo wampa yeye zile pesa

Asked about the possibility of AIDS infection

SA: Roho yangu iko juu yaani naogopa nashikwa na stress nasema sasa hapa nikijipata ninao ndio basi itabidi niambukizane chungu mzima nitafanya nini, kama ni kufa nife na wengi nisife mimi peke yangu

And another version:

Sakina – Jela si pahala, sababu sisi weneywe sisi mashoga twaonewa. Nimekataa na kutandikwa na kufanyiwa unyonge na unyama na kuumwa hivi maalama hizi maalama chungu nzima zimenijaa.

Wanasema ooh, sababu wewe ni shoga utajijo. Ukienda ukimwambia askari, askari mi mbona naonewa hivi, ama kwa sababu mi ni shoga ndio naonewa hivi. Askari anakuambia lipa deni, mimi usiniletee ujinga kama huo. Endeni huko mkaongee huko mkamalizanie huko.

Saa nyingine roho yangu haitaki, wajua saa nyingine wataka saa nyingine hautaki. Sasa na unajua na yeye vile nafsi nayo inaamka. Saa nyingine wataka saa nyingine hautaki. Mhmmm.

Lulu – Naam we kwa …..

Sakina – Na haswa vile mtu, saa enye wewe wataka ndio mtu hataki basi. Na saa enye hautaki ndio mtu basi yuakulazimisha.

Anakuambia oooh, kama unataka kula hapa vyakula vizuri mpaka nilale na wewe ndio niku- nikupe.

Sakina – aaah, watu elfu mbili na.

Wanakupa chakula, ale ukipewa mpaka hivi mapeni. Askari jela ashakuja kukunyang’anya. Amekupokonya, ameshakunyang’anya. Anakuambia huku mbona wafanya biashara hiii, huku pesa watoa wapi, hebu lete hii pesa ama tukutandike. Sasa wewe ukisikia hivyo wampa zile pesa.

Sakina – roho yangu iko juu, yaani naogopa nashikwa na stress nasema sasa hapa nikijipata nina do inabidi basi niambukizane. Chungu nzima ntafanya nini? Kama ni kufa nife na wengi, nisife mi pekee yangu.

Here’s what was offered in English subtitles. Three statements.

“Prison is not a good place . . . we homosexuals are denied our rights . . .”
“ . . . if you want to live well you have to sleep with somebody . . .”
“ [I have slept with] about 2,000 men . . . I have to do it everyday . . . but I don’t care whether I get infected or not . . .”

I’m hoping, first, that the sheer physical distinction in word count—how much space it occupies on the page/screen—will tell one kind of story about how queer testimony is unheard, made concealed, rendered ungeographic, to use McKittrick’s wonderful concept. We know prisoners are “disappeared.” This distinction between what Sakina says and what is made available as translated testimony illustrates part of this disappearance.

What is disappeared matters.

As the report opens, the reporter frames the story as one about “men” who went into jail “normal” and emerged completely changed, unable to be “men” anymore. While gender seems to be the focus here—Sakina is clearly female-identified in the report—sexuality cannot be far behind. It is suggested (the passive matters) that prison turned Sakina into Sakina: a queer gender-bender. The threat of prison, then, is that it unmakes masculinities, renders gender unstable.

This framing is only part of the violence of the report.

The report says, “we homosexuals are denied our rights”

Sakina says (pardon my inexact translation):

we homosexuals (“washoga”) are victimized; I have refused, and been beaten, and been brutalized, and been bitten. These marks, these marks [on my body] have been caused by (and cause me) excruciating pain. . . . When I seek help from the prison guards, they dismiss my complaints and tell me to deal with the situation myself . . .

Sakina reports rape and violence and abuse: her scars record this violence. The subtitles translate this report of pain into an inadequate, sanitized language of rights.

But the report wants to make sure we don’t sympathize with Sakina, and this becomes clear when the subject of HIV/AIDS comes up.

Here’s the English subtitle: “I don’t care whether I get infected or not.”

Here’s what Sakina says, courtesy of another kind translation:

“My heart is racing. I’m afraid. I’m stressed out. Now, here, if I find out that I have it, I’ll then start to pass it on to others. What else would I do? If I’m to die I’ll take others with me. And not die alone.”

As the translation indicates, Sakina worries about infection, a lot. “I’ll take others with me.” It’s a curious way to position prison economies of sexual violence and sexual negotiation. The tv report wants us to hear callousness: the terrible queer who runs around infecting others. This terribleness is not absent from Sakina’s story or demeanor. Revenge fantasies abound: you raped me, you forced me, if I die, you die. We die together. Part of me would like Sakina not to be the potential death-carrying, avenging queer. I realize I want her to be “likable” so a certain argument can take shape. I want Sakina to be “relatable.”

Jela si pahala.

Sakina is appetite and survival: saa ingine wataka, saa ingine hutaki. Sakina is desire and its violation: saa nyingine wataka, saa nyingine hutaki. Sakina is the impossibility of translating from an un-place, an un-time, an un-becoming.

Two statements come together in this un-making: jela si pahala and mimi ni shoga, the ungeographic of prison and the unbeing of queerness. How else to read “jail is not a place” and “I am [a] queer.” How does what is not allowed to exist live in an ungeography?

I am uneasy about the turns I am making here, about the violence of abstraction, even as I understand that abstraction to enact a labor of re-enfleshing. I want to hold on to the “we” that McKittrick gives, “We make concealment happen,” even, and perhaps especially, when we try not to. So I will attempt to do something quite wrong. A redemptive turn, if you will.

Nisife mimi peke yangu. I will (mis)translate this through Hemphill into a different kind of wish: “Don’t let it be loneliness / that kills us.”

2 thoughts on “Jela si Pahala

  1. Thank you for the efforts you & your friends deployed reinstating the truth as to a couple of aspects of an Africa I know very little of.

    The very kind of 1st-hand (or even a good 2nd) testimony that a North-Western African most likely wouldn’t get his eyes & ears on through conventional media, notably concerning the issues addressed in a documentary more or less reporting on how gays, bi’s &/or queers fare when incarcerated, in the Eastern Sub-Saharan nation otherwise known as Kenya.

    I Neither write nor speak Swahili. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident your lively description enabled me to picture faithfully if not correctly the reality, even as drastically severed as it is to me.

    Of course, as an African, I’d rather have my continent displayed in a more flattering light. However, this has the merit to enable wider & deeper understanding of my Motherland, be it on a faraway side of Her…

    Besides, since no Moroccan TV is likely to shoot nor air a similar documentary anytime soon, both KTN’s special report & your work on it sound so close to home, to what the Moroccan street knows about these issues, as does probably most of Africa…

    Finally, your writing wasn’t the worst part of the experience. By far…

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