a b c d e f g
h i j k
mello mello pq
—singing the alphabet
A few hours away from Mombasa, the train was delayed in a small town for about two hours. Young men from the town were playing volleyball, a sight that seemed to enrapture the Australian tourists on the train. As though to damage that rapture, a man with a guitar showed up to “hakuna matata” and “buffalo soldier” away any pleasure that might still be found in those songs. About 45 minutes into their play, a small group of children outside my window began to produce a national vernacular: they started attempting to sing the national anthem. A little earlier, one of them had attempted to start singing another song—one I did not recognize—but none of the others had joined in. But something about the anthem compelled participation, as one, and then more voices joined in. It was, I thought, an odd choice, but perhaps its origins as a lullaby linger in some way, making it available as a different structure of feeling.
That they tried to sing the anthem was unusual in itself, but not particularly noteworthy. It became noteworthy because of how many times they tried to sing it: starting over and over, mostly in Swahili, but at least once in English. The third line, “haki iwe ngao na mlinzi,” kept coming out as a version of “mello, mello pq,” garbled, cobbled together, a fiction, while the final lines, “ natukaye na uhuru / amani na undugu / raha tupate na ustawi,” simply would not come. Instead, they kept substituting, “nchi yetu ya Kenya/ tunayoipenda / tuwe tayari kuilinda.”
The children were young, yes, but certainly old enough to know the words to an anthem mastered by 5-year olds. More jarring, was that this particular unfluency followed rapid conversations in musical, colloquial Swahili. What was it, I wondered, about this particularly bureaucratic form of Swahili that made it forgettable, impossible, infinitely substitutable?
But, also, what is it about now that makes uhuru (liberty/freedom), amani (peace), undugu (fraternity), raha (joy/happiness), and ustawi (prosperity) so impossible to contemplate? What is it that makes togetherness so difficult to imagine, and, consequently, a kind of “mello, mello pq”? As opposed to togetherness, one gets a jingoistic nationalism, dedicated to loving the country and, as a result, defending it. This might be termed the quotidian life of militarization.
One might say that I’m making too much of this small moment. Perhaps I am. Samuel Delany teaches me that shifts in the nature of the social, in possibilities for togetherness, take place as shifts within discourse, within what is said, what it is possible to say, what it is possible to imagine saying. And the by-now multiple-year shift to “Kenya must be defended,” which takes Somalia (or unfriendly figures within Somalia, terrorists and pirates) as that against which Kenya must defend itself, has shaped languages and imaginations, displacing certain imaginative and ethical possibilities.
One sees these narrowed possibilities—the visual is key here, as metaphor and evidence—in the now widely-deployed (military metaphors must be used) “security discourse.” A range of actual and self-anointed security experts now pronounce, unceasingly, on “what Kenya needs.” Across a range of media, “security failures” and “insecurity” traffic as a new, powerful vernacular, whether discussing security as an ethno-nationalist problem (“we must arm ourselves against those others out to destroy us”), taking security as the key facet of the 41 v. 1 narrative (“arm the young men to protect or destroy”), or framing security as a problem of the everyday (“we must all be on the alert”). Security becomes the bribe paid to extorting police so that they will not harass and rape vulnerable Somalis; it becomes the equality-unimagining advice given to women (“dress like this,” walk like this,” don’t go here or there”).
Security discourse has become an unimagining of possibilities. A turtling in, it cannot admit that freedom matters, that a togetherness is possible based on amity rather than fear and intimidation. It swallows other languages, other world-envisioning, world-making possibilities, creating itself as the only thing (what’s the right word here?) that merits attention.
On twitter, one sees #tribekenya, a failed attempt to forge an ethno-national collectivity, more pernicious, I think, than the forced collectivity of #weareone. These might be called failed performatives, as they attempt to sew together pieces that simply will not fit, materials that cannot possibly stick together. Here, I do not mean that togetherness is unimaginable or even impossible. Rather, I mean that peformatives that ignore the material conditions within which they are embedded must fail.
Such performatives become mello, mello pq, garbled versions of futures that seem even more distant.
To speak of imagination and freedom now, in Kenya and elsewhere, is to speak in mello, mello pq, to speak a garbled language that has no place in a public discourse consumed by security, insecurity, unsecurity, and securitization. Those of us who insist on freedom and imagination are deemed irrelevant idealists, precisely because our terms do not come with huge security-buying, security-enhancing budgets. Nor do they come with the approbation of international partners.
Security discourse is seductive—it makes one feel grown-up, relevant, as though one is participating in a “national conversation” about “important matters.” It is, also, at least in this particular case, an imagination-eating discourse, so consuming that it does not leave space for any other kind of thinking, feeling, being.
And so our public imaginations are narrow—how to survive, destroy, replace. Our public discourses are narrow—how to arrest, destroy, profit. Our public assemblies are narrow—hymns to ethno-patriarchal, ethno-nationalist fantasies. And those who dare to imagine other worlds, other possibilities, creep away, remain silent, feel the weight of their irrelevance.
At a moment when fantasies of togetherness have been replaced with ethno-nationalist and ethno-patriarchal militarization in the name of “security,” those of us attempting to imagine other possibilities might struggle to turn off, turn away, turn inward, turn anywhere that might detoxify our dreams, nurture our fantasies, make attachment hurt less.