Return to Bomas

A convenient lie: I am here to remember how to think about movement. Bomas—already anglicized by the addition of that pluralizing “s”—is a factional space, an idea of a multi-traditional Kenya imagined as an assemblage of “traditional villages” and “authentic dances.” While I know—with bone-deep certainty—that I have been in this space as a child with my family, that knowing is suffocated by memories of uniform-clad children on a school trip to Bomas. Tradition becomes institutionally produced and reinforced, from home to school. I have come here many decades after unlearning those lessons to look for “something.” I imagine it to be a history of movement, a language of performance, a peculiar excavation that pursues fluencies I never had, but was always assumed to own and desire.

I come to this space searching for a “Kenya worth saving.”
*
Perhaps I am borrowing memories-in-formation: a family has invaded my previously quiet perch, the 2 children aged perhaps 6 or 7; on the drive in, I saw a school bus and, from my perch, I can hear the screams—or are they shouts?—of playing children. We are, in many ways, the memories-in-making that we borrow, or cannibalize. Even as memory lingers to be reactivated. And while I’d like to dismiss this space as “tourist,” the sea of Kenyan faces around me—the physical vernaculars I know so well, the varieties of language, the body postures—suggest otherwise, makes me realize the powerful making of a certain ethno-traditional version of Kenyan-ness, the persistence of what I once imbibed.
*
I do not smile at children.
*
Bomas also lives as other memories: in family photographs, where my parents socialized with others like them, members of the emergent professional class. I know its architecture, and not simply from the numerous times I’ve seen it on TV. I know, as I enter the performance hall, the entrances the dancers use to access the performance stage. I know the bar-adjacent spaces that young professionals haunted. Thinking of these photographs, I muse on the varieties of pedagogy Bomas offered, as a place where tradition was ambered in empty pasts and re-imagined during cocktail hours.
*
While waiting to see dancers, I venture to the TRADITIONAL VILLAGES section—the viewing price is included in the entry ticket. The path into the village is festooned with, first, many children on an enclosed playground to the right, presumably bought here by the school bus I saw earlier, who are dressed in identical, institutional maroon tracksuits, very similar to those I wore in high school. Past the children, a sad collection of curio stalls, perhaps six. A man standing by them serenades those on the path on a marimba. This is, perhaps, the first musical thing I have encountered so far. Past the man, to my right, I encounter a government-issued white board, of the kind so often labeled, MINISTRY OF . . . . It reads,

THE
PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES
FROM NORTHERN KENYA
TRADITIONAL HUTS

The signs outside the TRADITIONAL HUTS indicate that THE PATROLIST COMMUNITIES include the

    Boran Community
    Rendile Community
    Sakuya Community
    Somali Community
    Gabbra Community

The signs on the dwellings are identified in strict kin terms: Husband’s Hut, 1st Wife’s Hut, 2nd Wife’s Hut, Sons’ Hut, 1st Wife’s Granary, and so on. While the dwellings are in excellent condition, they are dead inside. They were never built to be inhabited. Nor do they allow one to imagine them as ever habitable. The group of undergrad-age tourists (volunteers?) in front of me dart in and out of buildings, snapping photographs of these dead monuments to a never-was.

I leave the PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES, and the imposing white government-issue board, and proceed to follow other geo-histories. As I walk along, various openings appear to my left and rights, some with careful signs:

    Kikuyu Village
    Meru Village
    Taita Village
    Iteso Village
    Luhya Village

I wonder about which “communities” are allowed to have “villages” and which ones are not, that is, if we take “villages” to signify a kind of spatial and political organization instead of a random collection of family units. The white, government-issue board designating northern Kenya seems more ominous now: that region, what we know as the Northern Frontier District, must be “organized” by the state to exist as part of Kenya.

As with the PASTROLIST COMMUNITIES, these villages follow an ethno-kinship polygamous logic:

    Grandmother’s Hut
    First Wife’s Hut
    Second Wife’s Hut
    Husband’s Hut
    Sons’ Hut

The metonymic logic is never explained; as a result, homestead becomes village, homestead become ethnicity: diversity is abolished.

Diversity is not quite the right word: I mean something closer to culture—the entirety of a way of life that might include prophets and healers, the mad and the disabled, the loners and the other-desiring; it might include spaces for dancing and play and feasting; it might allow one to envision the complex political imagination of “traditional” ethnic formations.

I wander into unmarked “villages,” marked only as ethno-patriarchal—a husband with many wives and a son. I think about the labor of erasure. But, no, not yet.

The signage is fairly new—it does not look weathered and is, in fact, incredibly legible. Seeing this, I do not understand why “Granary” is sometimes spelled “Grannery.” Or why, in the Kisii Village, what I think should be a “Cattle Shed” is spelled “Cattle Shade.”

But, perhaps, this has always been the ideological labor of spaces like these—to show a past that’s now past, to unthink and unimagine “that” Kenya.

I wonder, now, if what populated my childhood imagination after I visited Bomas was less reverence for the past and, instead, a deep sense of bewilderment, as I was unable to envision, via Bomas, a past worth recalling. Modernizing Kenya—the Kenya of emergent professionals at cocktail hours and school children on trips to Bomas—was predicated on learning to see the “tradition” imaged at Bomas as dead, quaint, a history from which we had emerged and a background against which we could stage insouciant modernities.

As I leave this part of Bomas, I stop to look at a labeled tree:

Family Name: COMPOSITAE
English Name: Silver Oak
Scientific Name: Brachylaena huillensis
Status: INDIGENOUS

A quick google check tells me that this tree has many names in Kenya’s languages:

Muuku (Kamba)
Muhuhu (Swahili)
Muhugu (Kikuyu)
Diamagaldad (Nandi)

No ethnic names “mar” the “traditional villages.” They incarnate a post-ethnic vision of Kenya that does not need to be interrupted by geo-ethnic specificity. All that’s needed is an insistently patriarchal, polygamous order.
*
But I came for movement, for dancing.
*
I enter the dance hall, positioning myself far away from watching tourists and the close to two hundred primary school children. Announcements issue from an unclear sound system, welcoming guests, announcing the dances that will be performed, locating them in various ethno-geographic terms: a dance from the Busia region of Western Kenya; a dance from the Embu and Meru people who live on the slopes of Mt. Kenya; a dance by Maasai Morans that demonstrates their jumping abilities; a taarab dance from the Coast performed by young women.

I notice that all the dances center on celebration: weddings, parties, praise ceremonies. Echoing the tourist fantasy incarnated in “Hakuna Matata,” which is also performed. There are, perhaps, thirty tourists here and at least two hundred Kenyan school children, along with about twenty or so Kenyan adults. I think about the fantasy that is being produced of Kenya.

But, perhaps, a multi-ethnic: post-ethnic Kenya can only exist as a fantasy of happy natives. Perhaps, this fantasy can do some work in helping to imagine a Kenya that is not about endurance, survival, grinding down.

I get ahead of myself. I return to the notes I took yesterday.
*
A troop of 14 dancers and three drummers enter, ostensibly performing a dance from Busia—the sound system does not permit me to hear the name of the dance. It is performed during happy occasions. The dancers’ faces are dour, their movements labored. Perhaps they are saving their energy for later dances, for more ecstatic moments. The dancing reminds me of a dance competition I attended at Sarakasi Dome, where those performing similarly lacked energy, conviction, vitality. Perhaps I am asking for too much? Perhaps I am missing the intricate choreography of movement? Perhaps I simply don’t know how to read energy, how to measure its ebbs and flows—certainly, there appear to be more ecstatic moments. Still, I can’t help feeling that I’ve seen far better dancing from high school students during the Kenya Music Festival. The singing seems interminable, the dancing even more so. I want it to stop. Or, I want something better. (Perhaps if the male dancers were more naked, less skinny, less bored.)

(I look through the Traditional Dances of Kenya booklet that I bought for Kshs 200, but I cannot identify the dance.)

A wave of applause from the audience—from tourists and primary school children.

Now, a performance of percussion instruments—again, I miss from where. But I don’t think I came for ethno-particularity.

The percussion performance is preceded—accompanied—by a melodic accompaniment that might have been penned by any student of harmony—I doubt its “traditional nature.”

Still, the percussionists are skilled, subtle in a way that I have always found lacking in U.S. rock music—an approach to percussion that over-privileges speed and volume, often lacking the intricate interlacing that my ears hear as a vernacular.
*
An obligatory song: “welcome to Kenya, welcome bwana, come see the animals, come see the ocean” and then the even more obligatory “Hakuna Matata.”

These tourism-sustaining fantasies, these productions ossified Kenya, depopulated, unimaginable.
*
A dance—Mwinjiro—from the Embu and Meru people who live on the “slopes of mount Kenya.” A dance that praises elders—the announcer says something about “fertility,” but I can’t quite hear it. Drums traditionally played by men. Long thin drums are positioned like over-long phalluses, the heads of which are beaten. The choreography reminds me of a porn script in search of a position. Pounding. And now pelvic thrusts. A fall to the ground. Switch to another position. More pounding. More pelvic thrusts. More falling down. Let’s just call this the sex dance in praise of elders.

MORE PELVIC THRUSTS!

And now Mwomboko: rhythm and movements adapted from western dances. Performed during happy occasions—accompanied by an accordion (WTF?) and a triangle-like instrument to keep time (the Gikuyu are not drum people). The dance is intricate, the steps complex, often unpredictable. At least, I can’t quite figure out what happens when. The music—the singing—grates.

As the dancers leave the arena, their faces are full of relief, as though glad to be done with another obligatory performance. I see none of the excitement and anticipation I remember from school competitions.

And now, Orutu—the Luo from Lake Victoria—performed during happy occasions. I must confess, my ears are more attuned to this music, more seduced by its promise—unlike much Gikuyu music, it does not sound lazy or bored.

A dancer catches and re-catches my eye—the shortest of the men, and the most exuberant. In dance after dance, he seems determined to have a good time.
*
The dancers return to grab visitors from the crowd—a guaranteed crowd pleaser. (erase this) And the crowd goes wild! (No longer watching this portion of the dancing.)
*
Taarab—from the coast, done only by “a few female dancers.” Gorgeous. Simply stunningly elegant. Subtle and generous.
*
Eunoto, by the Maasai. Another dance of celebration. The dance is ostensibly famous because of how high the young men dance. I am captured, instead, by the flirtation games, by how the young men flick their hair in young women’s faces to indicate interest, to seduce. This, I think, is part of what I came looking for. Desire in vernacular. It is a seduction dance, in which young men compete for young women’s attention and interest, staging mock fights and mock acts of claiming.

The suitable-for-children booklet describes it thus: “characterized by impressive dancing of the young Moran warriors while girls sing in their praise.” I marvel, again, at the ethno-patriarchal focus.
*
Kamabeka-dance
Litungu—instrument
*
At this point, the watching children are bored restless, swapping seats, throwing items at each other, wondering, perhaps, why they are here and for how much longer they must endure this “education.” Some, a few, are captured, are moving in their seats, losing themselves when the rhythms become available.

How will this be remembered, I wonder. As what kinds of fragments, what movements reproduced on foreign dance floors, what ways of walking, talking acting?

What is moving “after” Bomas?
*
And now, an acrobatic show. I didn’t come for this, but I linger.
*
I return from Bomas unsure of what I experienced. Though I don’t remember my earliest trips there, little of what I experienced today seems to have changed—the dancers might have changed, the villages refurbished, but I feel as though I’ve seen it all before.

At first, I think it’s the strange mélange of performances that has so confused me. But that can’t be right, as I saw an equally wide and varied range of movements when I attended the Kenya Music Festival in the 90s. I know how to process multi-diversities, how to weave them together. But this remains stubbornly unweavable, disparate strands of something that cannot possible co-exist.

Perhaps in the space of now—the space of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp—I am only able to see Kenya as a disparate collection of randomly-assembled objects, none of which want to stay together.

And while, on foreign dance floors, I have borrowed from here and there, stitching together a Bomas-country to inhabit rhythms that country never envisioned, I now find my feet leaden, weighted down by the unpromise of that Bomas-country, that impossible past that cannot yield any possible futures.