kenya’s memory work

What do we want from each other
after we have told our stories
– Audre Lorde, “There are No Honest Poems about Dead Women”

Memory, that vast orchard of myriad, variegated moments, appears to undergo an endless replanting.
—John Keene, Annotations

Memory work is myth-building and myth-busting, story-making and story-unmaking, a stitching and patching, cutting and pasting, and never as patchy and cut-pasted as when it’s collective memory work. I come looking for a “we” I have already known, a flavor as familiar as the forgotten sensation of Nyayo-era school milk.

A fabulation:

In pre-colonial times, different communities lived in harmony within their socio-cultural, physical and natural environment. However, the situation changed drastically with the onset of colonialism, which imposed foreign languages, values, beliefs, lifestyles and traditions. Colonialism suppressed indigenous elements of culture and heritage and alienated Kenyans from many of their cultural practices. Moreover, the colonizers imposed various legislations and institutions with the objective of protecting their own cultural, political and economic interests.
—National Policy on Culture and Heritage, 2009

Historical Faction:

This book has little entertainment value. . . . This book has been written to put in record the events that happened in Wagalla massacre in 1984. I have described the actual events as told to me by survivors over a period of twenty years. I was six years old in 1984. The horrendous stories of Wagalla, of how men from my family were detained, tortured and killed formed part of my social education as I grew up.
– S. Abdi Sheikh, Blood on the Runway: The Wagalla Massacre of 1984


Sometimes it is important to be personal.
– Carole Boyce Davies &
Elaine Savory Fido,
Out of the Kumbla

Writing as Re-vision:

Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.
– Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”

Through their daily lives, through their families and their communities, in ritual and belief, in their travels, their struggles, and their travails, African women, as historical subjects, were active agents in the making of the colonial world.

Women’s colonial histories, moreover, challenge the chronological boundaries that have framed African colonial history generally, boundaries based largely on formal political markers, such as a decisive military defeat, a treaty of “protection,” or the hoisting of the flag of independence. For the most part, such markers are not gender-neutral, but rather signify definitive moments in the colonial histories of male political elites.
– Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi,
“Women in African Colonial Histories: An Introduction”

Research and investigations conducted by the Commission coupled with the testimonies it received, shows that widespread and systematic use of torture occurred in the following contexts:

  • during the Shifta War;
  • in the aftermath of the 1982 attempted coup;
  • between 1982 and 1991 purposely to quell dissenting political voices and as part of the crackdown on Mwakenya;
  • between 1993 to 1997 as part of the crackdown on the February Eighteenth Revolutionary Army (FERA);
  • in 1997 following a raid on a police station in Likoni; and
  • most recently in 2008 during Operation Okoa Maisha, a security operation to flush out members of the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) in the Mount Elgon region.

– TJRC Report, Vol 1


the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
– Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”

where one starts

Memory Work

Did my ancestors kiss
to share love and passion
that warmed, pulsated
between them?
– Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, “Hybrid Love”

The carcass of the house stands still.
– Sitawa Namwalie, Cut Off My Tongue

Ours, too, is an age of propaganda.
– C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins

the voices of women victims of the violence have almost completely faded away
– Rasna Warah, Red Soil and Roasted Maize

If you do not like it, you will have to fight it the way one fights myths: by building or resurrecting more convincing myths.
—Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy

The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation.
– Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

I fantasize that one day male public intellectuals might write about Kenya as if women live here.
– Shailja Patel


it is not enough to acknowledge that what happened did or did not happen as it is said or documented to have happened, just as it is not enough to acknowledge that injury and impoverishment are persistently multigenerational and compounded

what story suffices, what feeling, what compensation

living in the fissures of our ongoing undoing, burns from ropes we did not know we were pulling on teams we did not choose, but never for them

and now
there is

the prose is meticulous, the sentences polished, the syntax elegant, the spaces between the commas immaculate, as the words cut and tear and break and shatter and fragment and explode

and still
the question
of where it begins

memory work

James Baldwin writes, “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch” (Nobody Knows My Name). Released as Kenya “turns” 50, the TJRC report documents what we have done to and with ourselves. It traces, in some detail, what we “have done with independence.”

what we have done
with independence

It’s tempting to read the TJRC report as documenting what has been done with freedom, as absenting agents, displacing responsibility, or even, in one vein, of documenting the absence of freedom, as a report on unfreedom, but that lets us off the hook

Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me. I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.
-James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

Uhuru ni Kazi

the work of seeking independence
is ongoing

because the work of domination
is ongoing

uhuru ni kazi

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: