There is no “great” “Shifta War” novel, no “unforgettable” Wagalla Massacre film, no public memorial to the many Somalis murdered and erased by the Kenyan state. One might speculate that Somalis have been unmade as subjects and communities who have suffered harm, who suffer harm, and who can suffer harm. Framed, variously, as “anti-Kenyan,” “illegal,” “alien,” “terrorists,” Somalis are framed as unassimilable to a “project Kenya” that is, at base, devoted to keeping Somalis killable. In a very important way, Kenyan-ness is defined against Somali-ness, even as Kenyan-ness requires disposable Somali communities, lives, and bodies.
Consider, for instance, the ongoing “crackdown,” “lockdown,” “security operation” being carried out in Eastleigh. Mainstream reporting has claimed that Eastleigh is being reclaimed “by Kenya,” identifying Somali residents as “suspects,” “foreigners,” and “terror threats.” Xenophobia is one way to frame these accusations, but it fails to capture the ideological and affective labor of war on terror frames that deny suspects any recognition as right-bearing subjects. War on terror frames augment and intensify the Kenyan state’s ongoing war against Somalis, helping, as well, to legitimate this war within a global sphere dedicated to “fighting terror.” Note, for instance, that “foreign envoys” are cited as affirming their support “in eliminating terror threats in the country.” (The statement is so vague as to be meaningless, even as its very vagueness can be marshaled to support the government’s actions.)
To “support . . . eliminating terror threats” in this context requires unseeing, unhearing, and uncaring about those framed as creating or, in this case, bearing terror in their very identities, histories, cultures, and relationships. To be Somali in Kenya now is to be a terrorist, to be suspected of being a terrorist, or to be suspected of having ties to terrorism. Twitter chatter accuses Somalis in Eastleigh of “harboring” terrorists. Those speaking against the state’s actions—its violations of constitutionally-guaranteed rights and multiple human rights—are framed as “terrorist sympathizers.”
When it comes to Somalis in Kenya, what remains now is “muscle memory”: state-sanctioned physical movements and affective dispositions devoted to maintaining Somali disposability. It is an interpellative memory that trains non-Somali Kenyans how they should (un)feel about and act toward Somalis. This “muscle memory” is activated and sustained by the ongoing consolidation of identity politics—the belief and practice that one’s identity dictates and constrains one’s politics—that, again, understands Somalis as terror-bearing bodies and communities. It’s worth noting that in marking Somalis as terror-bearing, the state displaces its own violence while retroactively justifying historical violence against Somalis. In a future anterior sense, Somalis will always have been those with terror-bearing bodies, an ideological construction that sustains the “muscle memory” at work now.