two returns

On September 5, 1946, Jomo Kenyatta left England to return to Kenya after fifteen years away. He returned as what a young James Ngugi described as a “black messiah.” In Jeremy Murray-Brown’s words,

In him was incarnate the spirit of Wangombe and Waiyaki and of the father of the tribe, Gikuyu himself. Knowing his name had been kept alive in Kikuyuland, he was a living legend entering upon his inheritance, the Kikuyu Messiah whose message would set free all the people of Kenya. (257)

Kenyatta’s return was a big deal. As (the racist) Murray-Brown writes,

As news of his return spread through the bush, groups of tribesmen gathered at each stop along the railway line to catch a glimpse of him. Hours before the train arrived at Nairobi hundreds of men and women thronged the station until it looked from a distance as though one dark-brown mass had been poured over the platform. Kenyatta’s beard made him easily recognizable. It was a new thing among the Kikuyu and added to the excitement of seeing a living legend. As the train drew in, the crowd cheered and their women set up their peculiar, trilling cry. Kenyatta could not properly step down from his carriage, so dense were the bodies, and he was carried shoulder high from the station. (265)

J.M. Kariuki, later to be murdered by the Kenyatta regime, recalls his excitement at hearing Kenyatta speak at Njoro in 1946:

He was holding a carved walking-stick loosely in his hand and wore his big brown leather jacket. He began by greeting us all with the special words of respect used for each age grade. The effect of his voice and personality was immediate and magnetic so that even the smallest children became still and quiet as Kenyatta talked to us of his doings in England and of the future of our country. (37)

This was the year that Kenyatta first began to teach our people how to love their country. Those who had been stagnant in their misery now began to look for happiness. . . . I myself was fundamentally changed by his statesmanlike words and his burning personality. I vowed there and then that I would struggle with him for justice and freedom for our country and I dedicated myself to follow him in his crusade to remove the sufferings and humiliations of our people. (38)

A pang overcomes me.

J.M. Kariuki lives in the TJRC Report, a victim of state brutality, because he spoke against inequality in Kenya, critiquing it as a space of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. This must be added:

An investigation by the Daily Nation in 2000 claimed that the Special Branch released a convicted bank robber, Peter Kinyanjui, alias Mark Twist, and bank robber Pius Kibathi, to trail Kariuki. The Daily Nation alleged that Gethi took Kariuki to the Special Branch headquarters at Kingsway House along Muindi Mbingu Street where he met police reservist Patrick Shaw, National Youth Service boss Waruhiu Itote, Criminal Investigations Department (CID) head Ignatius Nderi and Kenyatta’s head of security, Arthur Wanyoike Thungu, who asked him about some ‘missing foreign funds’ when Kariuki was Kenyatta’s private secretary and later Assistant Minister for Agriculture. In the ensuing argument, Thungu punched Kariuki on the mouth, knocking out three of his lower teeth. When Kariuki’s body was later found, three lower teeth were missing, providing some corroboration for this version of events. Provoked, Kariuki is said to have taken out the pistol he had been given by Gethi, but before he could fire Gethi shot him on the right arm ‘to protect Thungu’. Three men brought in to testify about Kariuki’s involvement in the city bombings were asked to handcuff him, and Kariuki was forced to enter into the car of Ngong Ward Councillor John Mutung’u. Kariuki’s body was later found, without fingers and eyes gorged out in the Ngong forest. (TJRC Report, Vol 2A)

This thing. This thing that eats us. This thing that makes justice and freedom impossible words. This thing.

Today, Uhuru Kenyatta returned from a status conference at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, where he has been formally charged as being responsible for Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007 and 2008. President Kenyatta was accompanied to the Hague by many members of parliament who, ostensibly, went there to demonstrate their support for him. A little item in the Nairobi Star claims that MPs who attempted to get visas to accompany the president received KES 200,000 while those who succeeded in acquiring visas received KES 1,000,000. (The zeros are needed for effect.)

Witnesses against Uhuru Kenyatta have been silenced and intimidated, leading to multiple retractions, multiple memory losses, fear and more fear, and the deferral of any justice whatsoever.

Uhuru Kenyatta returned to a hero’s welcome. Businesses were shut down. Schoolchildren thronged the streets to welcome him. Traffic was an impossible snarl because Uhuru Kenyatta, our hero, had returned. The son had finally taken up his father’s mantle.

Jomo Kenyatta returned to Kenya after the second world war, at a moment of heightened nationalism, when the possibilities of freedom and justice seemed not only possible, but, perhaps, inevitable. Even then, his politics were deeply conservative—he had long ago renounced whatever Marxism he had learned, and it’s not clear if he ever embraced an idea of a nation that was not ethno-nationalist and ethno-patriarchal. Still, if J.M. is to be believed, Kenyatta inspired a belief in freedom and justice. Those words were not impossible. An independent Kenya was still a possible dream.

Uhuru Kenyatta returns to an ethno-nationalist, neoliberal nightmare, filled with routine and unrelenting violence against women, ongoing security operations and plans that generate and intensify unfreedom, ongoing mining plans and operations that dispossess vulnerable populations and degrade the environment, ongoing battles between ethno-patriarchs for power, a host of broken promises, a Kenya where justice and freedom are impossible words, impossible dreams, impossible.

He returns to a space that celebrates—and demands—negation. Where a secondary school play critiquing corruption can be banned; male MPs can defend a man’s right to beat his wife; the Kenyan Film Board can ban a film on queer Kenyan lives; an MP can propose a bill banning homosexuality; where Somali lives continue to be disposable—a concentration camp deemed unremarkable; where a gagged press tiptoes around questions of ethics; where an ethical imagination cannot live. He returns to a space where the politics of knowledge have been trumped by a frightening anti-intellectualism; where credentialing trumps any and all ethical training; where the absence of ethical frames makes public engagement a farce; where we do not know how to demand we be human with each other.

He returns to “reign” over this devastation he has helped to produce and sustain.

And we cheer.

How did we learn to love our negation?

My mother, a staunch Kenyatta defender, devoured his return on television. She would have been too young to see Jomo Kenyatta’s return, and I could see, in her gleaming eyes, the feverish excitement that melded father onto son, anti-colonial warrior onto neoliberal prince: histories folded onto each other. We had won.

Liberation and freedom have become impossible words in Kenya. We must “work within the system,” we are told, foregoing any “infantile” dreams that systems should work to make lives more possible, more generous, more livable.

Today, many cheered.

Kenya felt more impossible, freedom and liberation more impossible.