Fear & Stuckness

I dream of your freedom
as my victory
– Audre Lorde, “For Assata”

The peculiar insistence that Kenyans move on diagnoses a state of stuckness, a leaning in and now digging into as trained dispositions return and words and actions we once thought banished recur with force and vigor. “Move on” also has a peculiar globalizing history, as a phrase associated with police procedurals: “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” Nothing to see, a demand that eyes be averted, minds be engaged elsewhere, the “here” made into the “not-here.” One notes the not-here to which we are directed: Vision2030, the glittering city on the hill, incarnated, partially, as the Konza Techno City, which will “create” and “provide” and “innovate” and “transform.”

Move on. Nothing to see “here.”

What would it mean to see “here”? This “here” is especially interesting given that the newly released TJRC report only goes up to 2008. Writing in the Nation, Kwendo Opanga warns,

My concern is that the possibility exists that if the truth is not handled properly it could become a monster that would burden and haunt us with the ghosts of the past forever or, worse, turn the present into a hell that consumes us all. We must be careful as a country not to expend a substantial part of our time and resources on excavating the past to the detriment of building the future.

Following Opanga’s logic, dwelling in the past might take up too much energy, even as remaining in this “here” seems impossible. We must be future-directed, but, curiously, in a way that does not account for the past or the present. How does one “move on” from a past deemed too impossible to encounter and from a present considered too impossible to inhabit?

As I keep thinking about these temporalities we are being told not to encounter, not to think about, not to act on, I’m struck by the rhetoric and experience of fear. Many accounts suggest that Kenyans voted as they did because they were “afraid” Kenya might not survive the elections. The banning of Shackles of Doom suggested that Ministry of Education officials were afraid that “certain communities,” might be upset by being depicted in unflattering ways. Euphemism is also about fear. The mysterious deaths of Saitoti and Kilonzo, powerful men, have ratcheted up fears that no one is safe. The word “disappeared” has returned with acute force. Ongoing efforts to silence activists on social media—on twitter and Facebook—have stifled possibilities for robust political engagements. And now, we who write monitor our words and sentences, afraid of ever-watching power and of each other.

Locked in our dark, unspoken, airless fears, we are urged to move on from a “here” that we are not allowed to acknowledge exists to a future blueprinted in “innovation” and “transformation.”

How does one move on from a not-here?

One symptom of our fear—and it must be called fear—is a persistent claim that we are “amnesiac” or “apathetic” or “indifferent.” This claim has been repeated with such force and persistence for so long that it now circulates as a kind of common sense.1 Kenyans are “amnesiac.” Kenyans “move on.” Kenyans are “apathetic.” The persistence of the repetition suggests that it can also be read as a symptom: who are these Kenyans who are “amnesiac”? Who are these Kenyans who have forgotten? Who are these Kenyans who are apathetic? Before names are named and fingers pointed, it might be worth thinking about how silence in public means.

Rather than ask why Kenyans are amnesiac, we might ask: what is said in public? What is not said in public? What might be said in private? How do we read those micro-confessions: “I can talk to you because you are not like the rest of them.” Where is talking happening? Where is silence happening? What are the conditions that permit talking and silence?

It might well be that many people are “amnesiac” and “apathetic,” but those claims can also be scrutinized for what they might miss about the shaping of publics and the circulation of sentiment. Where do we feel safe and with whom? How is that “we” shaped and fractured by our feelings of safety and danger, by our convictions of where we will be heard and not heard? How do we deal with what Audre Lorde describes as “the weight of hearing”?2

What would it mean to feel hearing? To encounter the selves and histories and presents given to us from within our fractures and secrets?

What is it to re-encounter fear as a condition of living and working? What is it to embrace familiar, if unused, dispositions and habits to manage such fear? To become exhausted by anger and rage? To worry about the fragility of coalition? To sustain hope in what feel like the ephemeralities of talking and writing and thinking? To build affective capacities for dwelling in a “here” that is “not-here”?

What is it to make demands on each other? What kind of demands can be made? What demands can be made in a climate dominated by fear? What demands placed on our time, our loyalties, our obligations, our fractured collectivities? What is it to know, also, that our silence will not protect us?

Lorde’s much-cited statement that silence will not protect us has been taken as a call for confession, a call to speak out. it’s also about the damage silence creates for collectivities and coalitions, about simmering, unspoken rage and envy, about living and working with people we cannot trust want freedom for all of us in the same way. It is about the fragility of an “us” sustained by a damaging silence. It’s about the risk of trying to be “together,” of building toward an us.

Loving in the war years
calls for this kind of risking
– Cherríe Moraga, “Loving in the War Years”


1. But, as Kara Keeling asks, “How can subaltern common senses that elude consent to domination and exploitation, that create an alternative to existing power relations be crafted?” (The Witches Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense [Durham: Duke University Press, 2007], Kindle Edition).
2. Audre Lorde, “Outlines,” in Our Dead Behind Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 10.