fragments allude to a particular way of inhabiting the world
A speculation: three figures capture Kenyan residents’ changing relationship to the state over the past 30 years. The mwananchi, Wanjku, and the animal (at this point, the donkeys used in the Tumechoka demonstration).
Baba Moi presided over spectacle. We lined up on roadsides to wave state-issued paper flags. We drank the free milk he provided to primary schools, or, if paranoid, threw it away in rage. We wore sisal skirts and danced for him. We screamed in excitement as he gave away candy and sodas. He punctuated our days: the news would start and end with him. He was everywhere.
Baba Moi dispensed money at harambees. He donated buses to schools. He taught us to whisper about him. He inspired fear, rage, contempt, devotion, love, passion. We were his children.
He promised to protect us from Amnesty and other foreign human rights organizations: they didn’t appreciate that he was a kind, but firm, father.
He was capricious: a father who’d pause at the side of the road to fire state officials. A father who exiled and tortured and demanded love and obedience. And we loved him. How could we not?
A friend tells me that when information about the torture chambers at Nyayo House was revealed, Kenyans disavowed this information. It couldn’t be true. Baba Moi was stern, but it was for our own good. We needed to be protected from dangerous dissidents who wanted to destroy our good country.
Dance in sisal skirts.
Wave a paper flag.
Shout, “Nyayo, Nyayo, Nyayo.”
Sing, “Tawala, Kenya, Tawala.”
See, we wanted it. We kept voting for him. We sang for him. We danced for him. We prayed for him. We wouldn’t have done any of this if we didn’t want it.
I loved Moi.
This confession is difficult. To make it is to concede that ideology works. That the intense Gikuyu-household training I received—to hate this imposter to the Gikuyu throne—failed. Can I confess, now, that I waved the paper flags? That I chanted Nyayo? That something about being part of the mob, the crowd, the chanting people is catching, seductive, irresistible? That to be an adult now who loved Moi as a child is to deal with shame, guilt, rage?
I didn’t hate him as I should have. And I did. The political life of children.
This I is expansive. Perhaps wrongly. Baba Moi’s government was infantilizing, designed to make us helpless, disoriented, scared. Designed to teach us about power—about its arbitrary violence, its ability to inspire love, its hunger to reproduce itself. We learned to be cruel. To love cruelty. To be the children of whom Baba Moi would be proud.
Baba Moi created Wanjiku. She was a throwaway comment—Wanjiku could not understand the constitution.
Wanjiku started as a male political fantasy: an everywomen to be used by elite political men. A woman traded across spaces, as currency and as a source of currency.
Wanjiku could never own herself. Women could never own Wanjiku. They might incarnate her, but she was so saturated with male fantasies of using Wanjiku, saving Wanjiku, speaking for Wanjiku, building a nation for Wanjiku that she could not exist. She became an impossible position: the every nowhere of an indifferent politics. The every no one of a killing politics.
As Wanjiku spread from man to man, leader to leader, political activist to political activist, social commentator to social commentator, the possibility of her enfleshment disappeared. She became a floating signifier. The woman every powerful person sought to help.
The educational requirements to hold public office favor elite women.
Constitutional requirements about gender parity have not been met.
Women rarely, if ever, appear as “experts” on any television shows.
International NGOs continue to “save” Kenyan women.
Male politicians continue to save Wanjiku—a figment of their imaginations.
Attempts to enflesh Wanjiku—to give her a body, a face, a life story, a will—encountered the banality of violence against women, of state violence against where any possible Wanjiku lived or worked. Open air markets were destroyed, kiosks torn down, and low-income residences torn down in the name of progress. Wanjiku could live as an idea, but never as a fully enfleshed human.
While neoliberal policies came into effect under Moi, as Structural Adjustment Programs, Kibaki’s government turned the marketization of every aspect of life into a common sense. Development was winning. Kenya’s rate of economic growth was expanding. Millionaires mushroomed and billionaires acquired more billions. Biashara was the religion, the vernacular, the only way to be.
Under Kibaki, Wanjiku became marked, in political rhetoric, as the forgotten. “What about Wanjiku?”was never about Wanjiku: it was about making Wanjiku disappear, hinging the possibility of neoliberal politics on her disappearance. Wanjiku’s absence, her disposability, was to be remarked upon in concerned tones that, in retrospect, celebrated her disappearance.
Her fictional status described how the development imaginary figured Kenyan residents: they were to be imagined, first and foremost, as “human capital.” Wanjiku did not fit this mold. Wanjiku was to be helped.
The shift from an infantilized citizen (mwananchi) to the disposable (Gikuyu) woman was not, as might be imagined, a developmental one: a growth from childhood to adulthood. Instead, this transformation was about dematerialization. The mwananchi was us: Moi traveled across Kenya making and meeting wananchi. As he stood in his car, with his raised rungu, he looked across the country at his children. He incorporated us as his children.
Kibaki’s Wanjiku had no such form: her most material form was as in Gado’s comics where a generic everywoman ostensibly represented a Wanjiku who could question the state.
This Wanjiku, the Wanjiku who could question the state, could not exist in Kibaki’s ethnopatriarchal regime. She was not possible.
One notes, for instance, that Wanjiku could never be a feminist; she could never critique the patriarchal state. She was too busy trying to survive. Even in political cartoons, she stands to the side, an outsider to a system that is, ostensibly, focused on her needs.
Wanjiku, thus, incarnates an impossible woman, the impossibility of women within the state’s political imaginary, and the feminization of a Kenyan resident who could only be imagined as impossible within the neoliberal state.
In killing after killing, demolition after demolition, eviction after eviction, the state tells Wanjiku that she is disposable.
During a recent demonstration, activists inscribed “TUMECHOKA” (we are tired) on donkeys and set them free in downtown Nairobi.
The donkey is not one of Kenya’s Big Five—Elephants, Rhinos, Lions, Leopards, Buffaloes. Unlike the cow and the camel, it is not a wealth animal: I’ve never heard of wealth measured in herds of donkeys. Donkeys are work animals. In textbooks, they stand ready to bear the burden of freshly picked tea. They linger at roadsides, where a man (most often a man, sometimes a boy) looms over them with a threatening stick.
The expression: “beaten like a donkey.”
Within the Kenyan imaginary, the donkey represents the mistreated worker, the laborer beaten without mercy, the load bearer, the one who can never be appreciated.
Perhaps, a hopeful part of me thinks, this donkey politics represents the resurgence of a strongly argued class politics—one that goes beyond naming the rich, the middle class, and the poor, and that is able to analyze how class operation works. One that understands that former Marxists who run NGO operations are former Marxists: unable to offer any class analysis that matters. Intent, instead, on “saving the poor,” not undoing the structures that maintain class hierarchy.
Perhaps, the less hopeful part of me thinks, this new donkey politics realizes the impossibility of being Wanjiku and claims, instead, that we, Kenyan residents, are viewed as disposable worker animals by the killing state. If, once, we might have been human, that possibility no longer exists.
Perhaps, the pessimistic part of me thinks, the spectacle of the donkey was supposed to displace the possibility of engaging whatever small attention to women Wanjiku might have brought.
The donkey imagery is too new: perhaps it was a one-time stunt. But given the iconic ways animal images function in the Kenyan imagination, it might merit attention.
As historian Brett Shadle argues, human relationships with animals have a colonial history:
According to whites—missionaries, settlers, and colonial officials alike— Africans acted with wanton cruelty to dumb beasts. Africans who regularly inflicted unnecessary suffering on animals felt no empathy for their victims. In contrast, Europeans, modern bourgeois individuals, abhorred suffering. Or rather, they abhorred unnecessary suffering. Suffering that had a positive result was not cruelty. Brutalization of animals was cruel: it served no logical purpose. . . . Dumb beasts could only suffer in silence. They could not defend themselves nor make their wishes known. Cruelty to animals was not an unfortunate custom at which one could cluck one’s tongue and move on.
Yet, this compassion did not extend to donkeys: “Beating or whipping an ox or donkey might be necessary if it were slow or stubborn.”
Although whites in Kenya opposed cruelty to animals, Shadle explains, they advocated violence toward the colonized:
Whites [in Kenya] firmly believed in the value of corporal punishment for Africans. Only violence, settlers and administrators believed, could teach Africans the difference between right and wrong, to introduce Africans to the rules of a new racialized world, to force Africans to respect whites. Corporal punishment also seemed to be the most logical means to prevent cruelty to animals. Teaching Africans empathy for animals was, at this point, simply not considered. Violence could quickly break Africans of their habits of cruelty. Perhaps, incidentally, violence might begin to introduce some rudimentary sense of empathy to animals into Africans’ souls.
The case of Captain H. M. Harries and his herder Kamauga wa Njoro illustrates the confluence of ideas about violence toward Africans and toward animals. On June 6, 1920, Harries came upon a dead pig, and then spotted Kamauga (deaf, mute, and possibly mentally handicapped) beating another. The herdsman fled into the bush, but the next day Harries had him brought forward, and proceeded to beat him. Harries claimed to have inflicted a relatively minor beating, but Kiarie wa Njoro—another worker who, under threat of a beating, held down his brother Kamauga—had a different story. The beating lasted an hour, Kiarie explained at Harries’s trial, during which time the white man inflicted 100 strokes over Kamauga’s head and body. Kamauga ended up in the hospital for five weeks, unable to stand unassisted. The medical officer who treated him concluded that the “beating was a severe beating” and “the hurt was grievous.”
Beaten like a donkey.
A bible story:
23 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.
24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides.
25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.
26 Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left.
27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff.
28 Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
29 Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
31 Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
32 The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.
33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”
A distinction might exist between the donkey who speaks and the donkey who is written on. I cannot parse this right now. Kenyan high schools have been reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm in Swahili. I’m not sure what this means.
We who assemble as the tired, we who are marked as tired, we who donkey ourselves.
The state gathers us to kill and to be killed, to scream and to be silenced, to fear it and to be disappeared.
We tread carefully now, measure our words, and wonder which critiques will mark us “enemies of the state,” to be detained, imprisoned, exiled.