I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in my parents’ Nairobi house. It was probably at some point in the 1980s, though I cannot be more precise. Animal Farm, the internet tells me, was banned by the Kenyan government in 1991. The internet also tells me that Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in Kenya—though I didn’t read it until much later. I knew several of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works were banned in Kenya. And, in general, I knew that Moi’s Kenya was a banning Kenya. A Kenya that stifled cultural production and circulation. Moi’s Kenya protected us from the “bad things” that might “contaminate us.” I learned, in Moi’s Kenya, that Amnesty International was a “dissident” organization full of “foreign puppet-masters” who wanted to “destabilize” Kenya. I learned that the devil was everywhere and that it was Baba Moi’s task—a church attending leader rumored to be a devil worshipping freemason—to protect us from internal and external threats to the spirit and to the mind and to the body.
drank milk from our president-father,
danced for our president-father,
waved flags for our president-father,
he protected us
from all the dangerous freedom in the world.
From freedom-seeking imaginations.
From freedom-imagining works.
From the necessary debate that forms intellectual life.
From dissent as a democratic practice.
From the responsibility of ethical imaginations.
From the right to hold dissenting positions.
From world-making creativity.
From world-building possibilities.
Our peace-love-unity worlds were saturated with Baba’s voice and face, Baba’s love and laughter, Baba’s protection and abuse.
It’s difficult to explain how one grows up under a repressive regime—the whispers and silences, the shame and complicity, the depression and indifference. The emphasis on industry: work hard, work harder, work even harder. A desperate, bitter map to futurity: you could be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, an architect.
We laughed at these narrow constructions of our futures, not yet knowing how to hear them:
allows you to leave this space,
to travel elsewhere,
to pursue freedom.
In some worlds, bans create desire. They create hunger. They help sales. They popularize.
In other worlds, bans unmake desire. They produce resignation that is affirmed as pragmatism or realism, and sometimes both. They unmake imaginative possibilities—dissident fugitivities. They produce compliance, discipline, and, most of all, disavowal.
In Kenya today: this “realism” travels as, “freedom comes with responsibility” and “this is Kenya.”
“this is Kenya” lives in the ethnographic present, in an ongoingness defined by its abstraction from history—it’s a loop from my childhood, a deep groove that holds an unmoving stylus, an ahistory embraced as pragmatism or realism, or both. A position of depressive realism that cannot imagine a different future.
It is uttered as a response to critique, almost instinctively, as an interjection, an ejaculation, an inevitable sneeze. And while one might argue with it, the contagion of its depressive realism has already poisoned whatever intervention one sought to make.
I do not know how to disentangle “this is Kenya” from “banning Kenya”
I came to the term “ethnographic present” by reading critiques of colonial-era anthropology, especially Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other. In its simplest form, the ethnographic present refers to a logic and practice of writing about “others,” often “primitives” or “savages” (though it can be extended to any group), that locates that group outside of historical change and modernity. The expert observer others by considering the observed group as “unchanged” and “unchanging,” as living in a distinct pre-temporality to the one the expert occupies.
Other terms must come into play here: native informant and indigenous anthropologist. Because “this is Kenya” is so often uttered by “native informants” who claim to be “experts” precisely by virtue of the speech act “this is Kenya,” a speech act offered as knowledge and warning.
I’m interested in what this time-defying “this is Kenya” does to imaginative and ethical possibilities, in how it creates and circulates affective worlds, logics, and practices. In how it explains and justifies. In the structures it helps to keep in place. And, in this instance, how it fleshes out “banning Kenya.”
If “this is Kenya” lives in an ethnographic present enfleshed most vividly during the Baba Moi years of peace-love-unity, then the too-common refrain that Kenya is “sliding back” or “going back” or “rolling back” (each of those work differently) to the Moi era (Moi-error) is, technically, inaccurate. After all, the unchanging nature of the ethnographic present means we “never left” the logics and practices of the Moi era.
Certainly, while some high profile appointments changed after Moi left power, the everyday bureaucratic apparatus that sustained the machine remained unchanged. Acquiring identification did not become more possible for border populations. Ethnic affiliations remained key to securing positions. Ethno-patriarchy maintained its grip on national politics and imaginations. And even the new breed of “activists” actively endorse and practice hetero-patriarchy.
If the volume of banned material seems to have lessened—Ngugi is now available in Kenya, in our new era of Gikuyu supremacy; Karl Marx is available in bookstores, in our ongoing era of anti-intellectualism; much is available in the era of the internet, though without public sites of discussion and dissent, our public cultures remain anemic and undemocratic; and the unending work of collecting data, creating documentation, and fundraising has trained many of our best minds to unimagine freedom and liberation because “another report” has to be written, “more evidence” has to be collected,” because “corroboration, substantiation, triangulation” must be satisfied, as though “methodology” explains “failure” against dominant regimes—the logics of banning remain intact.
Re-activation is key to one of Foucault’s key concepts: docile bodies. Docile bodies are not passive bodies. They are disciplined bodies, efficient bodies. Bodies that “turn” when called, as Althusser argues.
It turns bodies toward the call.
It spreads fear.
where we are all trained to fear,
banning does not lead to us challenging the laws.
It leads to compliance.
We return to habit.
Those familiar with the ban against a play staged by Butere Girls might, of course, contest this representation of banning.
Stories of Our Lives, a film of laced vignettes focusing on lgbt Kenyan lives (not sure about the t or the i or even the b, given that the film has been banned and we are not allowed to view it), has been banned in Kenya. It cannot be publicly (or privately?) screened or distributed within Kenya. The banning institution claims that the film does not represent Kenyan values. Simultaneously, George Gachara, one of the film’s makers, was arrested for “filming without a license.”
That is all the information I have.
Those who ban need not explain themselves. Those who are banned struggle to explain why they should be considered human. One is summoned by a banning authority, told why one is impossible.
As far as I can tell, Kenya’s main newspapers have ignored the ban. It is “inconsequential.” (Please correct me if they have covered it.)
The online queer Kenya group to which I subscribe has been mostly silent.
Fear is working.
And even those who spoke up to defend Kenya’s most famous gay—and they were not many, not many at all—have maintained a dignified silence.
As we queers know well, those who claim to support us in private melt away in our public times of need.
Over the past few years, I have been thinking about an “ethical imagination,” one that would promote livability. One which follows Shailja Patel’s injunction, “Give this pain to no one else.”
An ethical imagination is an embedded and embedding imagination: it weaves connections, forges alliances, risks new forms of world-making and world-building, treasures existing ethical forms of world-building and world-making. It sees beyond self-interest, beyond the arrogance of patriarchy’s claims to unethical genius, and through the violence of lazy and uncreative toxicity that attempts to lay claim to “creative freedom.”
Toni Morrison taught me that very little is creative or freeing if it simply repackages toxic stereotypes in pretty forms.
Fear is working. And with it, and in it, our imaginations become less possible, more toxic, less freeing, more unhumaning.
“this is Kenya.”