Reading Ras Mengesha & Joyce Nyairo

The first section of Ras Mengesha’s The Other Experiment is titled “What We Were Not,” and it moves through scenes of ethnic, gendered, and sexual making and unmaking—declarations of identity in an impossible register (the Somali-named figure who claims to be Kenyan), rituals of intimacy truncated by violence (two men declaring they love each other before a mob descends), and practices of failed gendering (a man confessing that he does not know how to address his abusive partner). Here is the complete first paragraph:

One. Beginnings. Firsts. Newness. It is the beginning, the start, the commencement. The first of many. I am Salim. Salim. I am my beard and my kaftan. One. I am the person in the mirror. I am the tie they make me tie around my neck. Around my neck. Hang-man noose. Hang man. I am Hang Man: super power, hanging . . . to death. Perpetual death. Over and over I hang, over and over I die, over and over I am in hell, over and over, over and over, over and over. One. I am beginning. Beginning, starting, commencing to see truth, life, world, love – nothing. One is hope, one is death, one is possibility. Maybe after I walk out of here I will go back to the original beginning. But no. This is a new one, a new start, I am an alien again, I am now who they say I am. I am who I am not. I am what I am not. I am plane in sky . . . fly, fly, fly, turn, fly, fly, fly, descend, fly, fly, fly, bang! I am building, crash, smash, burn, bang! I am gravity, pulling down things, pulling down heaven, I am hell. I am car, I am matatu, I am loud bang. I am Salim.

Another beginning, this time from Joyce Nyairo’s Kenya@50, which grapples with how to remember Kenya:

Maybe sometimes. That was the legend inscribed above the door of a remodeled Peugeot 404 that used to ply the City Center-Kawangware route, via Hurlingham, in 1986. I would stare at it very often on my daily runs across the city, I tried to work out whether that legend was grammatically correct. Did it need a comma to separate the two words? Or did it need a full stop between the two words? I also pondered the numerous ways in which it could be interpreted, never mind its questionable grammar. That legend was a literary delight because there was nothing fixed about it except the place where it sat—across the door. Its mobility at a cognitive level was replayed as a physical journey as the matatu coursed up Valley Road and down Argwings Kodhek Road.

Ras and Joyce (permit the familiarity) engage the problem of writing from Kenya: in Ras’s work, that problem is one of being, the unstable ways one with the name “Salim” is and is not possible within a Kenyan imaginary, while in Joyce’s work, that problem is one of embattled memory, how one enters into and inhabits the contingent space of Kenya. Joyce writes, “the biggest challenge to the work of forging a more inclusive, less oppressive, more equitable and just Kenya is, it seems to me, constantly undermined by memory—by the lack of it.” She continues, “The confluence of recollected narratives is the only thing that will save us from the twin pitfalls of dangerous ignorance and hazardous half-truths.”

Let me use the coincidence of the matatu to think with these works—I cannot do this as fluently as Kenda Mutongi and Mbũgua wa Mũngai, but I can try. I’m interested in how these works—and these writers—position themselves in relation to the matatu. Historians of the matatu teach that the first matatus were made of bits and pieces and were mobile bits of scrap metal used for public transport. They were cheap. And quickly became popular. Today, we talk about matatu tycoons in Kenya or, in our new vernacular, matatu cartels. From here, where the matatu represents a form of accumulation and power, it’s easy to forget—or never learn—the idea of the matatu as an assemblage of metal scraps bound together by grit and ingenuity.

I think Ras points to this history in the figure of Salim—“I am matatu.” Salim is an assemblage of fantasies and desires, so impossible that the signature gesture of presence—“I am”—must be deferred. The word “I” is the seventeenth in the passage. It is impeded—and facilitated—by “One. Beginnings. Firsts. Newness.,” origin stories that create difficult ground to stand on, difficult ground from which to announce, “I am Salim.” But note, even visually, how long it takes before “I am Salim” can be uttered again. Note how the assertions of self become embattled: “I am my beard and my kaftan.” One hears Fanon, “I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance” (Black Skin, White Masks 116). One also hears a Kenyan politician saying, “your name betrays you.” For Salim, post-Shifta Kenya meets post-9/11 world. It’s difficult not to hear, “I am loud bang” as the destructuration that permits a final statement, “I am Salim.” We—those gathered by this writing—might wonder about the (zombie) figure that so identifies itself.

Where Ras’s “I am Salim-I am matatu” invokes the I-matatu as assemblage, Joyce’s matatu begins life as a “remodeled Peugeot 404,” and it is only toward the end of the passage I have cited that this vehicle is named as a matatu. I cannot, now, construct or even reconstruct the meanings that attach to Peugeot in 1980s Kenya—the brand spoke about class and class aspiration, about labor and masculinity. As far as I can recall, it was not a brand associated with women. (I am mostly uninterested in cars, so that’s as far as I can go.) It was a “remodeled” car, and I do not want to lose sight of that, and of the distance one moves from the matatu as assemblage of scrap parts to the matatu as a remodeled car. I can mark these moments, though I do not know how to think about them.

Unlike “I am Salim—I am matatu,” Joyce’s “I” stands outside the matatu. It catches glimpses of the matatu as it travels across space, as it moves from the city—the seat of government in the 80s—to Kawangware—sometimes considered one of Nairobi’s informal settlements—while passing along and through Valley Road and Hurlingham—close to elite hotels and popular churches and the president’s official residence. All these spaces produce and attach meanings to the matatu. Maybe sometimes. Too, the matatu inspires moral panic: for as long as I can remember, matatus have been accused of corrupting morals and endangering lives. It might be that this danger stems from the cross-class contact matatus permit (Maybe sometimes). We would hear stories of what young men in matatus—the infamous makangas—did to young women. Beware. Class snobbery met—or more precisely used—sexual conservatism. These young urban men—men from slums or slum-adjacent-areas—threatened class mobility. Let’s be clear here: super-rich Kenyans do not use matatus. It was the aspirational classes threatened by the matatus, the aspirational classes who took as common sense that one should marry well, someone with a future, someone presentable.

Openings. Beginnings.

My tentative plan is to dedicate a few blog posts to reading Ras and Joyce together, to see how their works imagine and weave Kenya. I think we need to read each other with care, to listen to how we are co-imagining Kenya, especially at a moment when co-imagining feels so threatened by ethno-nationalist forces, on the one hand, and by bureaucratic pragmatists, on the other. We extend beyond ethno-nationalist desires and imaginations and also beyond rule of law pronouncements and constitutionalisms.

2 thoughts on “Reading Ras Mengesha & Joyce Nyairo

  1. Hello, my brilliant friend. I am, as always, inspired by your passionate and intellectual enterprise. I like the connections you are making between Mengesha and Nyairo, and find your association with Fanon so apt. Embattled! I see that. About the car. I have no way of knowing how Peugeots are thought of in Kenya. They are uncommon in the US, French, associated with immoderation: a car that is inordinately expensive and difficult to maintain–for foreign parts. Perhaps not so in Kenya. And I look to the phrase, “ply the route.” It seems routine, of use and perhaps of comfort. An ordinary sight, perhaps. But one is still reminded of its foreignness, of its colonial origins, and it seems, its insistence on being there on that particular road, as if that road might have been meant more for the car than for the absent driver, the absent family passengers, the absent citizen-consumer?

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