On Saturday, September 20, Mr. Tony Mochama, a columnist with Kenya’s Standard Group, Secretary of PEN Kenya, and holder of a Morland Writing Scholarship, sexually assaulted a woman during a gathering of Kenyan and international poets. Mr. Mochama is a well-known figure in Kenya’s literary circles: he has hosted open mics, promotes literary culture in his work for PEN Kenya, and travels abroad regularly as an ambassador for Kenyan literature. Beyond his own accomplishments and labor, Mr. Mochama represents us. An us that encompasses all Kenyan literary workers, cultural producers, and cultural administrators. Quite simply: he is one of Kenya’s faces.
What are we to do when one of our collective faces commits sexual assault? How do we face that aspect of ourselves?
Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti argued that the African sense of self could be found in the formulation, “I am because we are.” Extrapolating from Mbiti, we can say that the self, the individual, exists within multiple networks and embeddings, all of which provide legibility, livability, and, most importantly, produce and demand ethical orientations. More simply: what injures one of us, injures us all.
If the damage is not only to the poet Mr. Mochama assaulted—who must not be forgotten—but also to our collective sense of self, how are we to address this assault? How can we take collective responsibility and imagine forms of accountability that produce a more ethical “we”?
If, in his role as PEN Kenya’s secretary, Mr. Mochama travels to Kenya’s schools, who are we sending to those schools? If, in his role as a Morland Writing Scholar, Mr. Mochama represents African writing, who are we saying represents African writing? If, in his role as a columnist for the Standard Group, Mr. Mochama publishes articles, who are we saying writes us and circulates among us?
Quite simply, if Mr. Mochama is the mirror we look into to see our faces, what faces are we seeing? And are those the faces we want to see?
I have used a collective we to emphasize the role of community accountability. As “advanced and theorized by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence,”
Community accountability is a community-based strategy, rather than a police/prison-based strategy, to address violence within our communities. Community accountability is a process which a community – a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood, etc – work together to do the following things :
Create and affirm VALUES AND PRACTICES that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability
Provide SAFETY AND SUPPORT to community members who are violently targeted that RESPECTS THEIR SELF-DETERMINATION
Develop sustainable strategies to ADDRESS COMMUNITY MEMBERS’ ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior.
Commit to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to TRANSFORM THE POLITICAL CONDITIONS that reinforce oppression and violence.
Community Accountability refuses to privatize relations of damage—a privatization that happens when damage is framed as a relationship between assaulter, assault victim, and police-state mechanisms. Community Accountability acknowledges that damage is never private, that it is embedded within historical, cultural, and ideological frameworks. And it seeks to unmake those frameworks that make damage not only ordinary, but also inevitable.
And, so, this is a call: if you are reading this, will you help unmake the frameworks that make sexual assault not only ordinary, but also inevitable in Kenya and elsewhere?