toward an ethical imagination

Something is missing.

Its absence presses, nags, irritates, makes itself felt. A here arrives to averted voices, elsewhere glances, necessary busyness—the daily labor of being and surviving.

Still, something is missing.

To be a writer in this space, and from this space, means encountering and tangling with that impossible demand: that one be “committed,” that one “generate intervention,” that one change the world one has inherited. Given this impossible demand, one’s frames can seem narrow, one’s aesthetic choice limited, one’s aesthetic strategies constricting, one’s ethical imagination cramped, if not impossible.

(Perhaps I try to excuse my own silences.)

Still, something is missing.
A “we” assembled during one crisis, in 2007-2008, to try to remember, salvage, and, perhaps, imagine a Kenya that had seemed newly possible in 2003. Little of what we wrote and imagined harkened back to 1963. We were, to put it crudely, Fanonian: finding and attempting to fulfill our historical mission. As with all such assemblages, alliances were inchoate, pulled in different directions, marked by different urgencies: those 2008 imaginings were more invested in cessation and survival than futurity.

Still, the urgencies of survival can produce—and have produced—powerful ethical imaginations that continue to feed us, direct us, inspire us.

I am struggling to hold onto a “we” formation that is worth remembering, one that I hope can still do some work, can still imagine a different better

In conversation with Dr. Mshai Mwangola, two versions of Yvonne Owuor’s Dust emerged. For me, the novel ends in dispersal, disintegration, as those never imagined by, and unimaginable within, project Kenya seek other elsewheres where they might be possible.

Mshai saw Justina giving birth to twin children in Nairobi. Justina, now a mother, is an artist; Odidi, their executed father, was an engineer. These are children born to dreamers, makers. For Mshai, this was a moment of hope, a sentence one could cling to, a necessary small gem.

Possibility from unlikely spaces.

Part of Dust’s mission is to insist on the labor of the makers, the creators: Ajany who sculpts, Ali Dida Hada who sings, Odidi who engineers, Justina who paints. Nyipir: the horse-riding man bearing the flag whose image will sear itself into imaginations as the emblem of freedom. Dust insists on the ethical imagination of its makers, imaginations that confront childhood nightmares, state corruption, everyday killability. If Dust is a call to ethical memory, it is also a call to ethical action, a pulling toward an ethical imagination.

This is a difficult imagination, almost unimaginable.

Kenya’s young writers are now working with and on the catastrophe: form dissolves, post-apocalyptic futures are envisioned, poetry emerges as a long, continuous wail. We are in the season of elegies from which it seems no possible futures can be envisioned.

Pleasure has become unthinkable—the erotic Audre Lorde writes about as an ethical demand, a refusal to accept the quotidian as a place of endless depredation, seems unimaginable.

Laughs are stained with bitterness.
If something was salvaged in 2008, what was it that was salvaged? What visions and versions of a possible “we” emerged, still exist, if at all?

The demand, and desire, to “save” Kenya seemed to exist in suspended time: jobs were put on hold, lives set on pause, dreams stored for a different not-yet. And the end of that particular intensification of killability returned us, scarred and bruised, to an interrupted quotidian.

It was a time-bound intensification of killability, but neither the beginning nor the end.

We remain in the season of killability.
I have yet to write the word Somali.

To do so now feels like an “event.” It is a word that occupies all the ellipses of this writing, haunting its opening, its margins, its spaces, and its still-to-be-written. Somali has become an unspeakable word, a haunting word, a question that haunts whatever invocations of Kenyan-ness might circulate and be claimed. We have watched as coalitional ethno-nationalisms turn Eastleigh into a ghetto—and we must use ghetto in the historically accurate way, as a place used to confine undesirable populations, a place of arbitrary and violent invasion by state agents. We have watched as a sports stadium is gazetted into a prison and now functions as a concentration camp: a place of “screening” and torture. We have watched as public modes of transportation refuse entry to Somalis, as police so terrorize families that women would rather leap off balconies than engage them. We have watched as constitutional provision after constitutional provision is violated, gutted, abandoned, as fear mounts and indifference seems a necessary protection.

Is this, I wonder, the Kenya we thought worth saving?

And still I skirt around what I really want to ask.
Where is our ethical imagination?

I pose this question to Kenya’s writers and thinkers and cultural producers, to those who have large and small platforms, mainstream newspaper columns and twitter accounts, ready-made congregations and spectacle-assembling audiences.

How might placing what’s happening to Somalis in Kenya–the arrests, the extortion, the torture, the unmaking, the unhumaning–at the heart of our interventions and critiques shape our ethical frames? What demands might we be able to make–on the state and on each other–if we refuse to accept #kasaraniconcentrationcamp as normal, inevitable, or ordinary? How might we cultivate and nurture imaginations that are capacious, life-enhancing, life-affirming?

The hope with which many of us assembled in 2007 and 2008 to insist that Kenya was worth saving is needed just as much now. Each day #kasaraniconcentrationcamp continues is yet another day that our ethical possibilities diminish.

We continue to lose the soul of what we might have once aspired to be, to cede too much ground to the unhumaning imperatives that will so easily consume us if we let them.

3 thoughts on “toward an ethical imagination

  1. I wanted to say, before anybody else says “young people” that there is a poem by Grace Nichols called, “I am a long memoried woman”. In my “older age” long memory, this Somali thing is a deja vu, exactly as it is happening now. Round ups and cleansing. In the eighties… Yet my question is not one of age or rage. It is one of ethics and courage to call out what is wrong and unjust. Hear me out and let not this “age thing” be used to divide and rule the minds of those who will to see and who have the courage to say no to rot. Mandela and Maya Angelou taught us that it is the mind and heart of beauty, not the number. Hear me!

    Ma ya – (These)

    I have over a life-time
    Written my resting place
    Let me go now–

    I want music and dance like waterfalls
    And magnolia lilies swaying
    And my friends and families all around

    Lay me in a reed casket
    And play me, “Mississippi Goddam”
    Or let me in a soft willow casket
    Drift away
    Hearing play sweet soulful music in my ear
    And wish those kind and gentle that I leave behind
    (For I want nought of ugliness)
    And pray they will send me white, sweet, fresh smelling lilies
    Won’t you?
    Wrapped in the quest of what is true and just
    And speak it clearly
    And quietly
    Yet no too quietly that it cannot be heard
    And do dry those tears, now, if you’d mind
    I have done my every bit
    And it is in fact, my turn, to bid you goodbye
    And wish you, the very same
    It will not be long now
    That we will not belong

    1. Thank you for this reminder–that there is more than silence, that there is memory, compassion, writing to sustain, imaginations at work. It is so very necessary.

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