The “Time” of Report Realism

Aaron’s thinking (and re-thinking) about the “when” of writing (routed through Adorno, in which case, one can add the “if” of writing) has prompted me to return to the problem of report realism and, more specifically, the problem of time, of “when,” in report realism. “Report realism” weds itself to the “verifiable,” and, by verifiable, I mean language and incidents that stay well within the lines of report structures (naming the problem or problem population, mapping out the problem and its implications, producing a strategy or work plan, implementing the work plan, evaluating the results). Reports provide the frames through which subjects and problems accrue “legibility” in Kenyan writing. This “accrue” matters, because it depends on a lag, on the “time” of the report.

A clarification: I am not claiming that writers wait for reports to be written so that they can write about events. Instead, the world of possible subjects, topics, characters, and events, the legible world of the imagination, is deeply saturated by a report imaginary and time lag, where time lag refers to the time it takes for a problem or subject or character or event to accrue enough “weight” to be represented. (I’m thinking about this because a character like Akai seems “impossible” in Kenyan fiction because she has not “accrued” enough “weight” to become “legible.”)

I’m also thinking of the “time lag” of the report-a phrase I’m using very imprecisely to suggest something about feeling and empathy, about the subjects and characters for whom one can feel (which is broader than Butler’s “mourn for”)—to consider what happens when a report is “obstructed” or “blocked,” not allowed to populate imaginations and ethical practices.
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I’m trying to figure out why Kenya’s creative spaces, the ones I belong to, have been mostly silent about the ongoing “security operation,” the daily harassment and profiling of Somalis, the creation of a “camp for detainees” in the heart of Nairobi, and the various violations of constitutionally-guaranteed rights. I’m trying to figure out why writers who could so easily, so readily, imagine deaths and killing and violation and destruction during the PEV, and who so quickly, with and without information, mobilized to write, to imagine, to publish, to work against disposability and killability, are now so silent.

Silence means many things: many of us are exhausted from fighting battles that we keep losing; many of us are in shock, as friends and colleagues we loved and treasured have thrown their lot in with a death-promoting, killing-defending state; many of us are traumatized, unable to find the words or forms to write or speak, unable to imagine ways of being present; many of us are in hiding, trying, desperately, to stay alive, to marshal energy to emerge with newer, and better strategies. Many of us are simply silent. And I do not know how to parse that silence. It is a frightening silence, especially in a country that has waged war against Somalis since its inception.
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Twitter chatter reflects discussions happening in Kenya’s legislatures, where distinctions between Kenya Somalis and Somali Somalis jostle with distinctions between Kenyans and Somalis. Often, the two bleed into each other, as Somalis in parliament keep being forced to say “not all Somalis,” often in ways that are anti-refugee and anti-human rights. In the discussions I have seen, Somalis are defined as “not”: “not all Somalis,” “not Kenyan Somalis,” “not legal Somalis,” “not good Somalis.” So much so that it becomes difficult to imagine any Somali who is not, in some way, defined in relation to a “not.” (One sees, here, the state’s investment in subjecting populations as it demands compliance and allegiance, neither of which are any guarantee against disposability.)
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This train of thought started because I thought of the now-withheld Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Report, which notes,

The Commission finds that Northern Kenya (comprising formerly of North Eastern Province, Upper Eastern and North Rift) has been the epicenter of gross violations of human rights by state security agencies. Almost without exception, security operations in Northern Kenya has been accompanied by massacres of largely innocent citizens, systematic and widespread torture, rape and sexual violence of girls and women, looting and burning of property and the killing and confiscation of cattle.

The Commission finds that state security agencies have as a matter of course in dealing with banditry and maintaining peace and order employed collective punishment against communities regardless of the guilt or innocence of individual members of such communities.

Volume 2A of the Report details (ambivalently, and in a pro-state way), the devastation of the so-called Shifta War, a four-year conflict between the Kenyan state and residents of Northern Kenya.

The Borana people of Isiolo . . . have a special name for the Shifta War years: Daaba. The simple translation of Daaba is “when time stopped.”

A government policy of forced villagisation created what were, in effect, detention camps. Over 2,000 people were killed in direct engagement with the state military in Isiolo, but many others “may have died from malnutrition, poor health and general illness visited upon them in the villages.”

General accounts indicate that dysentery, pneumonia and malaria frequently swept through the camps. Epidemics of highly contagious, tuberculosis presented particular problems and quarantine areas (“tuberculosis manhattans”) were created in the compounds. Starvation was a serious problem. The only food on offer in the camps was ugali; the stiff maize-based porridge that many Northerners found unpalatable and unfamiliar. As Hassan Liban plaintively explained it, “they gave us ugali and we could not eat it.”

Others recount,

Leader of Evidence: You did indicate that some people were given poisoned meat. Is what you wrote true? Do you know about this?
Hassan Kuno Ali: It is true. When they came, they injected the animal with poison. They then slaughtered the animals and gave the meat to the people. When people ate the meat, they slept and could not wake up. They died.
Leader of Evidence: Who poisoned the meat?
Hassan Kuno Ali: It was the police and the army personnel.

Archival material from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom suggests that the Government of Kenya was indeed poisoning water sources as a way of limiting the movement of people and their herds and enabling security forces to patrol smaller and more contained areas.

The TJRC Report does not have a public life. The only report to attempt to account for Northern Kenya has no public life. This absence has made Northern Kenya “unimaginable” and “unverifiable,” never part of the story that’s told about Kenyan.

One might argue that the state could not make public and keep alive a report that, at least in a few places, centers Northern Kenya and Somalis as particular targets of state oppression and ethnocide.
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In a sense, the “Shifta war,” and the Somalis implicated in it, have become part of Kenya’s unimaginable, available to ethnocidal and genocidal imaginations. They have become part of Kenya’s “unverifiable,” subject to report realism’s demands and obfuscations.

Because the “Shifta wars” never happened in Kenya’s imagining of itself, they do not need redress and, worse, as we are seeing, the series of discriminations they enabled lend themselves to the indiscriminate ethno-religious profiling of all Somalis, the “not” that interrupts Somali and Kenyan. (The “not” that declares “verifying documents” cannot verify. The “not” that makes Somalis killable and disposable.)

And because Somalis remain outside of Kenya’s imagining of itself, they remain unrepresented, badly represented, or unrepresentable within a large body of Kenyan writing and literature, rarely present with the same force or pull as those groups framed as embodying Kenya’s histories, struggles, victories, and futures.
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The “time-lag” of “report realism” is only one of the ethical problems of this frame (genre? practice? habit?). I extend the “frame” of “report realism” to suggest the labor of the imagination in cultivating ethical orientations (a formulation I take from Martha Nussbaum). And to suggest what is foreclosed, from ethics and the imagination, when report realism provides privileged access to legibility.

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