The sign blares down a street—Makadara, I believe—at least three times. A declarative. It’s situated next to a youth centre (I want to write center). Ukimwi Upo. I’m reading Michael Nava’s Goldenboy, an AIDS novel from the midst of the plague—1988. The main character, Henry Rios, a lawyer, has taken on a case to repay a favor to another lawyer, a friend dying from AIDS. He has also fallen in love with a younger man, a 22-year-old who has been diagnosed as positive. The novel is pedagogical: Henry kisses his friend and his new lover, but, when offered bareback sex of the “you can always pull out before you shoot” variety, he refuses. You will be tempted, the book says, but you can be smart: you can say no.
Ukimwi Upo sounds fatalistic—I see no ads for condoms, no advice about testing, none of the resources that I take for granted as life-saving, as life-enhancing, as life-sustaining. How is one to read these repetitions? Especially when they are so concentrated—so noticeable because they are so concentrated? I did not walk much—probably 2 hours or so—but I did not notice the ads elsewhere. One notices what presses on one. This is a strategy, and, given how crowded this particular street seemed, how full of young life, perhaps it makes sense to concentrate the signage there.
Signs are also population-making, subject-producing. And I wonder about the kinds of populations being created by these particular signs, by their peculiar concentration.
I wonder, as well, about their tone. Ukimwi Upo. AIDS Exists. Or, if one presses, AIDS Is. Or AIDS Is Here. Translated into English, I can hear the prophetic, the seer, the blind sage screaming out warnings.
Men on the street ask to change the dollars they are positive I have.
PLOT NOT FOR SALE
The signs are insistent, weaving James Gichuru Rd. in Nairobi and Nkrumah St. in Mombasa. When I first returned to Kenya, I noticed the PLOTS FOR SALE signs everywhere.
the young woman serving me says she hopes I’m not writing a book as she doesn’t want to appear as a character. I assure here that I don’t write about people I meet. A promise I break when, a second later, as she takes my order, I mention I’m vegetarian.
“What happened to men eating beef?”
Men still eat beef, I respond.
“Okay, competition is getting tougher,” she flounces.
An interruption because her final comment is so cryptic. Has my pink scarf has given me away? That I am unmasked as queer? Or is it that there is some competition for beef–or beef-eating men–of which I am blissfully unaware?
Perhaps I noticed the Plots For Sale signs because of the For Sale signs that filled Maryland when I arrived there in January 2009, after the market crashed. Speaking with friends based elsewhere, I tried to describe the mass of “SALE” signs accompanied by “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.” These signs signaled a certain failure into which I had inserted myself. The Plots For Sale signs along the roads into and out of the Rift Valley similarly felt like failures, especially because I was surrounded by people for whom plot accumulation was a game, severed from any ethical consideration. Plot accumulation did not care for how any piece of land came to be plotted—how it was acquired, how it was divided, how it was written and written over. The plot imaginary, as I thought of it then, incarnated one of the worst aspects of ethics-free capitalism: the vast failure of an ethical imagination.
The news this morning tells me that human rights defenders in Mombasa tried to hold a peaceful demonstration. They were teargassed and some were arrested. Even though I receive the news in the past tense, I delay my exit from the hotel, unsure of my geography. When I finally leave, I adopt the same careless wayward strolling that, somehow, has kept me safe in multiple cities.
Unlike others I know, I have never been a picaro.
The PLOT NOT FOR SALE signs contain, within them, an entire history of the emergence of Kenya—of stolen lands, unfair contracts, the minutia of colonial bureaucracy, the acquisitive hunger of the newly independent, the many lives of dispossession in the names of progress, development, settlement, resettlement.
A name: Mpeketoni
It appears three or four times in the Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission: one of many names for historical injustice. A cry from a persistent wound. A barely-there disturbance from a place considered a solution. A struggling indigeneity.
A stray comment: about this, we shall pray.
Mpeketoni has become a changing body count—over 35, over 42, over 47, over 48 killed. The deaths from some attacks are multi-generational—they do not sit neatly in instant ledgers.
Mpeketoni has become a ghostly story to chase, a crude tool in the hands of otherwise indifferent politicians. Forgotten as it’s taken up. Because some deaths—many deaths—cannot be allowed to take attention away from “larger issues.” Like so many other Kenyas, Mpeketoni calls out to be enfleshed—but with what flesh? The obscene red-green-black-white that has already taken so much?
I do not know how to think of Mpeketoni—of its long histories and entanglements, of its intimacies and privations, of its making and unmaking, of the ethno-nationalisms and ethno-indigeneities with which our truncated imaginations populate it. Multiple imaginations—mine included—continue to attempt to wield Mpeketoni in ways that unimagine it, unpopulate it, undo its being before our competing imaginations.
We plot it.
Certain places are unimaginable. I marvel at the courage of Gloria Wekker and Omi Tinsley, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, Alex Haley and M. NourbeSe Philip—those who dare to imagine the slave ship. Not only as it stole, killed, and delivered, but also as it sailed, as it ate flesh and muscle, as it transformed resistant subjects into resistant objects.
Hortense Spillers says “that”—let the referents accumulate, agglutinate, remain unspeakable—is “unimaginable” from this distance. She means something, I think, about the quality of the imagination it might take to inhabit “thingness,” “thinghood,” the shifting of being that is more than discursive.
I return, over and over, to this “unimaginable,” hoping that if I can bear it for just a little longer each time, I can apprehend the unhumaning practices of our dilating present.
Perhaps what stays with me from the signs is UPO rather than UKIMWI. That insistent, persistent, dilating now. That “exists,” that “is,” that “is here.”