Binyavanga harmed people. Some of them I knew, most I didn’t.
Binyavanga helped people. Some of them I knew, most I didn’t.
There is no but.
When he died, unexpectedly for those who didn’t know he’d been very sick, we were gathered as those who’d been harmed and helped, assembled by rage and grief. Some wanted accountability. And raged that now he was dead, he would never have to face consequences for the harm he’d caused.
Some wanted something like reconciliation. Perhaps if he’d lived a little longer, learned a little more, reflected more patiently he’d have realized the harm he’d caused and been willing to participate in some form of community accountability process.
Some wanted to gather with those who were mourning. To find solace in company and good memories, to share stories about meeting and interacting with him, about the languages he’d helped bring into the world, the careless bravado with which he sometimes tackled dangerous subjects, the foolishness with which he threw himself into questionable projects.
He was careless with feelings and confidences. Spilled secrets that were not his. Supported abusers, even when asked not to. And abused.
He was more likely to harm Kenyans and Africans, young women and men, people who admired him and hoped to learn from him.
There is no but.
When he died, we were gathered by all the incoherence of our grief. Grief is incoherent. The immediate moment of grief is not simply sadness, but a stew of every feeling you can feel, and some you did not know you could feel. All the way from the deepest depression to the most intense lust. Irritation accompanies grief. Someone else’s tears make you want to slap them. Someone else’s laugh makes you want to sleep with them. You are grateful for kindness.
You are grateful for kindness.
Those who gathered to bury him, some from duty, some from love, found themselves in the tangled processes of such things in Kenya. To comfort those who needed comfort. To fulfill the bureaucratic processes of registering the death, getting the required permits, notifying the appropriate agencies. This is duty. It is exhausting.
I do not know the details of how he was buried. I know that Kenyans gather when someone dies. And want tea. Or meals. Or stories. Or comfort. Or gossip. And those left behind, those left behind, we are so exhausted by inexhaustible demands for time and attention. So exhausted by people whose presence and grief compounds and truncates our own grief. And rage.
A prominent Kenyan feminist, someone I know of though we have never interacted. Someone held in great esteem by many people. Someone with what is often called a platform claimed something about me.
I do not know this person. We have never interacted. We are not in community. I repeat again, we are not in community. That’s important.
When Binyavanga died, people he’d touched attempted to mourn him in all the clumsy and necessary ways social media affords. He traveled widely. Many people knew him and knew of him. They gathered to mourn the person they’d met in person and in print, through gossip and anecdote.
Some were genuinely sad. Some wanted the clout that comes from saying they knew someone that other people knew. He was mourned exuberantly, with all the vigor that remains from the tradition of praise singing.
Others gathered at the site of mourning. Some I knew, most I didn’t. Some had known Binyavanga while others had known of him. Some had been harmed by Binyavanga while others knew of people who’d been harmed.
They gathered to list the harm he had caused. And as I witnessed this listing proceed, I wondered what was behind it and what it was meant to do at that site and moment of grief.
We cannot get accountability from the dead. We cannot engage them in processes of repair.
As I witnessed this listing proceed, a shape of a demand seemed to appear: Do not mourn Binyavanga. He caused harm. Do not grieve. He caused harm. Do not extend compassion to those who have bureaucratic and hospitality duties. He caused harm.
It was not simply unkind. It was cruel.
And the cruelty of it, the demand that grief be suspended, reminded me of the first time I witnessed such a demand, the first time I was struck by the cruelty of such a demand. It was the Westboro Church protesting Matthew Shephard’s death. And I said so.
People with whom I am in community, people to whom I count myself accountable, asked me to reconsider that comparison at the time. They pointed out that the comparison hurt those who’d gathered to list the harm Binyanga caused. They pointed out that many of those who had gathered were survivors of harm. They pointed out that some of those who had gathered were young, were women, were trans, were queer. Were, in other words, somewhere among the groups where I interact. And sometimes attempt to imagine with.
I thought the comparison was appropriate. Harsh? Yes. I thought that some gathered to be unkind and cruel. I named it as such.
In one version of politics—the distribution of power—to which I’ve never subscribed, people who describe themselves as young or woman or feminist or queer are incapable of causing harm. They are incapable of being cruel. They are incapable of being unkind. And, if, on occasion, they are perceived to be so, it must be that they are fighting patriarchy.
This understanding has circulated in Kenya for over a decade. It is dangerous.
I have refrained from saying anything about it because the overwhelming patriarchy and misogyny that populates Kenya endangers all feminists and queers, turning people into targets for harassment and violence. I do not want to endanger anyone. Nor do I want to provide the army of patriarchs and misogynists with ammunition against (differently) vulnerable people.
There is a but here.
More than a year after Binyavanga died, a prominent Kenyan feminist decided to frame a story about me, forgetting or ignoring that I know about framing.
The frame is this: Keguro, who some of you follow, harms young queer women survivors.
Let’s be explicit. This is the frame.
In what can only be described as the most incredible alchemy, the harm that Binyavanga caused has now been transferred to me. In some magical kind of thinking, I am now accountable for the harm he caused. And that I compounded by pointing out that those who gathered at the site and moment of first grief to chastise the mourners were unkind and cruel.
I would ignore it. But it has been nagging me. And I respond when things nag me.
Care for survivors is weaponized against me. And I’m curious about how this is supposed to work. And I’m curious about the intent of the person who decided to do this.
I have said over and over, learning from Audre Lorde, that we work across difference with those with whom we share the same goal: freedom.
There are many ways to imagine and practice freedom. I hope the people who are nurtured by this prominent Kenyan feminist continue to be nurtured.
As for me, I continue to pursue freedom.
There is a familiar pattern–its root is in the way the West has framed its outrage–a pattern of projection, transfer and scapegoating that the new aggrieved communities employ. There must always be someone to blame, to tar, to target with rage and wrath so that the internal reckoning and audit does not need to take place. There is someone else whose humanity can be squatted over in order to stand on the podium of self-righteous anger. It is tragic. It is punitive, and it activates the very oppression, prejudice, hatefulness, supremacist narrative it purports to abhor. To gather around someone’s grave in order to hurl insult, and deny grief is the description of a disconnect from inclusive humanity. A tragedy in the making.
I’m very okay with people asking for accountability and care for survivors of harm, and I wish more of it happened.
Based on my reading, especially at the wonderful transform harm site (https://transformharm.org), certain conditions have to be met, including a desire to retain relation among groups of people. I’m okay with people saying Binyavanga harmed them. I was not okay with what felt like attacks on those who grieved. And the idea that saying “pole” or saying “he was kind to me” was “sanitizing an abuser.”
Thanks for reading and engaging.
Thank you for this💜.
thanks for reading
This is beautiful!
Hope you’re well! In these Rona times! Since I no longer see you on that other space.
I am well and hope you too are keeping well.
I left that other space a long while back.