Notes Toward a #kenyasyllabus

A syllabus is generative. The framework of readings and activities creates a shared space for thinking and creating. Objects of study produce shared frames of reference—those assembled by those objects may disagree over how those objects mean and work, but the objects create a ground from which to begin and a space to which to return. These processes of beginning and returning, subtended by difference and enriched by interpretation, guide imaginative possibilities. These processes lead to co-imagining, even when difference makes co-imagining difficult and even impossible. Impossibility is often a function of a time-lag: the uneven interval between encounter and transformation.

Shall I be idealistic and say that all co-imagining encounters leave their trace?

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I learned the phrase “dream of a common language” from Adrienne Rich. Before I encountered it, primary school had taught me the difference between official languages—Kiswahili and English are Kenya’s official languages, the languages of governance and administration—and home languages—in polyglot Nairobi, these included multiple ethnic languages inflected by the experiences of urbanity; the varieties of Swahili spoken across accents, never sanifu, always functional; and Sheng, the language of urban youth culture. Vernacular was an odd word, a word we learned early in primary school that purported to describe what was not official.

In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s hands, vernacular was a decolonizing tool—but we are no longer in Kenyatta’s 1970s and Moi’s 1980s, and the decolonizing potential of vernacular languages has been co-opted by Kenyan ethnonationalisms.

From Ngugi’s experiments with community-based vernacular theater, I learned to think about vernacular arts—perhaps vernaculars, in general—as calls to assemble and co-imagine. From Rich’s work, I learned to think about the space of difference in language—those extended white spaces between words in her poems. To think of vernaculars as calls                 to assemble that succeed                 to the extent that they recognize their incomplete nature and always leave                 room for the changing call                of the political. From the varieties of languages spoken in Nairobi, that stew of official and home, functional and invented, I learned to think about creating the languages that are needed, bending and twisting and borrowing and weaving to generate possible worlds—worlds that make us—those assembled—more possible.

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When Kenya promulgated a new constitution in 2010—and in the process leading up to this promulgation—those people designated as “stakeholders” encouraged the rest of us to read the constitution. At the time, I wondered what made a document created by legal experts and NGO bureaucrats legible to those of us not familiar with legal and NGO vernaculars. It was disingenuous to expect non-experts to understand what experts had crafted, especially because non-experts had not been involved in the process of crafting the constitution. Consider, for instance, if the draft constitution had been peer reviewed by primary school students (Std. 6 or 7). Consider if it had been tested in the low-income neighborhoods that make up most of Nairobi. What might those experts who drafted the constitution have done differently if they had made it speak to those it was meant to serve?

The constitution, a legal document full of bureaucratese, was offered as a Kenyan vernacular: a syllabus, if you will, that would guide our imaginations and create possibilities for living and a common language that would provide our differences with a common frame. On the very day it was officially promulgated, it was violated. A few years later, when then-ICC indictees Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were permitted to run for office, it was violated again. I cite only two instances of ongoing constitutional violations. Those who fought for a new constitution continue to insist that it is the “most progressive” constitution in Africa, refusing to acknowledge that a constitution is only as valuable as the promises it enforces. For now, we are saddled with a lumbering, cumbersome document full of bureaucratese that the majority of Kenyans can neither understand nor navigate. The constitution is offered as a vernacular, but it cannot fulfill that role.

The other vernacular offered to Kenyans is human rights.

In the 1980s, Moi singled out Amnesty International as a dissident organization. Dissident was one of Moi’s keywords. Every critique of Moi’s regime from a human rights organization was dismissed as supporting dissidence and attempting to undermine the peace, love, and unity we enjoyed under Moi. Human rights entered Kenya’s vernaculars as a foreign tool—Moi and his propaganda machine described it as foreign—designed to undermine Moi’s regime and something described vaguely as traditional values—a stew of religion and invented traditions. By the early 1990s, human rights assumed a more local face: a signal moment is 1991, when the Kenya Human Rights Commission was established in Washington, DC. It was registered in Kenya in 1994. This movement from DC to Nairobi might seem minor, but it continues to mark how human rights is apprehended in Kenya: as a foreign import.

Kenya’s independence-era government was intent on what was called “Africanization”: to build a skilled, educated labor force that would take over the administrative and professional jobs that had been withheld from Africans. The most significant blueprint for this process was Sessional Paper No. 10: African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, authored by a young Tom Mboya. In the opening section of the Paper, Mboya outlines the objectives of societies:

The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include—

    1. political equality;
    2. social justice;
    3. human dignity including freedom of conscience;
    4. freedom from want, disease, and exploitations;
    5. equal opportunities; and
    6. high and growing per capita incomes equitable distributed

These objectives were to be grounded in African Socialism:

In the phrase “African Socialism,” the word “African” is not introduced to describe a continent to which a foreign ideology is to be transplanted. It is meant to convey the African roots of a system that is itself African in its characteristics. African Socialism is a term describing an African political and economic system that is positively African not being imported from any country or being a blueprint of any foreign ideology but capable of incorporating useful and compatible techniques from whatever source.

Whatever African Socialism was—Mboya’s tautological definition does not help—it was to be African, not imported. Indeed, the entire passage hinges on the distinction between African and foreign.

Human rights is not a key term in the 1965 Sessional Paper and, in fact, the emphasis on African Socialism embedded in African values and “not being imported” casts a long shadow over the reception of human rights in Kenya. African Socialism does not survive long—it is certainly not part of the vernacular that circulates in 70s and 80s political, academic, and popular cultures. But the African/foreign distinction lingers.

Human rights frames were essential to challenging Moi’s regime and creating new ways of imagining ourselves. They have continued to provide legibility for many minoritized Kenyans—poor, queer, sex workers, refugees, stateless—who may speak and be recognized as human rights activists and defenders. At the same time, the transformation of human rights into an industry in Kenya (and elsewhere), most often supported by donor funds from abroad, and now conducted in donor-mandated vernaculars (buzzwords) has made it a difficult frame. Instead of domesticating human rights, finding ways to make UN and donor bureaucratese speak in Kenyan accents, the human rights industry has made learning its buzzwords and bureaucratic procedures a condition for engaging it. Moreover, because human rights frameworks have not been domesticated—made available for popular, everyday use—they remain open to the charge that they are foreign and elitist.

If the constitution and human rights fail to be effective vernaculars, what is circulating in their place? By which I mean, what circulate as shared objects—visual, aural, and written—that assemble Kenyans in ways that generate interpretation while making space for difference?

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What are our shared objects of study? What objects provide the ground from which we depart and to which we return, with our varying interpretations that make space for difference? What objects generate our vernaculars? What objects shape our imaginations?

These questions may seem irrelevant in an era dominated by data. We have data and more data and more data and graphs and charts and statistics and infographics and facts. So many facts. And we are hungry for even more facts.

Forgive me, I hear Mr. Gradgrind:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!

I worry that the data-ification of our lives means that even when presented with disparate objects—history, fiction, poetry, music, photography, sculpture, anthropology—the impulse will be to extract data from it. I worry that our imaginations have been so badly trained and damaged that all we can do is produce more and more data: more reports, more charts, more statistics. From what I’ve observed, the circulation of data does not generate transformative vernaculars.

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Instead of shared objects of study, I think two things circulate: bureaucratic processes and affects.

Bureaucratic processes circulate as the demand for solutions to problems. Those solutions come wrapped up as commissions, committees, task forces, working groups, reports, and endless recommendations, and a key recommendation is always that more study is needed, so more commissions, committees, task forces, working groups, reports, and recommendations, setting up yet another cycle. You cannot complain that nothing is being done, even as you wonder what this thing being done actually is.

Affects circulate, mostly frustration, anger, and exhaustion. As they circulate, they attaches to different bodies and situations: the anger directed toward an indifferent and murderous state finds targets in workplaces and domestic spaces and public spaces. Anger and frustration are gathered and dispersed by ethnonationalisms, generating temporary catharsis while also accumulating more energy.

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Without shared objects of study that might become a #kenyasyllabus—sounds, images, words—we are incapable of creating shared vernaculars that matter to the possibility of a we-formation. We are unable to remain tethered to each other by those objects, even as we co-imagine away from them. We trade data and opinion and quote the constitution and human rights frames at each other, but I am not sure what this produces.

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What might a #kenyasyllabus look like? I don’t know. I assume it will vary across regions, as different objects have different weight for local populations. I assume that its genres will be varied, as it must make room for difference. I assume that as it circulates it will create shared vernaculars—guided by diverse interpretations and open to difference. I assume that it will assemble people and, as it assembles, it will change. I assume that the process of assembling it will model what it means to learn from each other and to share with each other and to live with each other. I assume that the range of objects assembled will be as broad as those who are assembled by those objects, and that the process of studying the assembled objects will take seriously the lifeworlds those objects occupy.

A Clarification

Kenya’s solicitor general lied.

Here’s what the constitution says about rights and freedoms:

19. (1) The Bill of Rights is an integral part of Kenya’s democratic state and is the framework for social, economic and cultural policies.

(2) The purpose of recognising and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is to preserve the dignity of individuals and communities and to promote social justice and the realisation of the potential of all human beings.

(3) The rights and fundamental freedoms in the Bill of Rights—

(a) belong to each individual and are not granted by the State;

(b) do not exclude other rights and fundamental freedoms not in the Bill of Rights, but recognised or conferred by law, except to the extent that they are inconsistent with this Chapter; and

(c) are subject only to the limitations contemplated in this Constitution.
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I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been studying language for a very long time. No bill in parliament can supersede the constitution. None. None at all. Any unconstitutional law is unconstitutional.

The state DOES NOT GRANT RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. Repeat after me: THE STATE DOES NOT GRANT RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. The constitution, which founds the state, explicitly states this.

It is explicit. There. Check your constitution.

Refuse the state’s fuckery. Refuse the fuckery of the media who will not bother to check the constitutions they claim to have.

security & development

President Uhuru Kenyatta has outlined a “10-point security plan for Kenya.” As reported by Capital FM, the 10 points are:

  • Legitimate monopoly on the means of violence
  • Effective administrative control
  • Management of public finances
  • Investment in human capital
  • Delineation of citizenship rights and duties
  • Provision of infrastructure services
  • Formation of the market
  • Management of the state’s assets
  • International relations
  • The rule of law

I have no idea if this is the order in which the points were presented—sequence can matter. If so, one notes that the Kenya that emerges is governed by state violence—the state has a “monopoly on violence” and that violence is to be understood as “the rule of law.” In between, the language of neoliberalism—management, investment, assets, capital, administration—takes hold. Those in Kenya—those with access to Kenyan-ness—are defined, first, as “human capital,” and only, belatedly, as bearers of “rights and duties,” to a state that has a “monopoly on violence.”

These are initial notes.
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Some framing gestures:

Governmentality moves away from sovereign and state-centered notions of political power (though it does not eschew the state as a site of governmentality), from the division between violence and law, and from a distinction between ideological and material power. [It also] features state formations of subjects rather than state control of subjects; put slightly differently, it emphasizes control achieved through formation rather than through repression or punishment.
—Wendy Brown, Edgwork

The modern state exercises moral and educative leadership—it “plans, urges, incites, solicits, punishes.” It is where the bloc of social forces which dominates over it not only justifies and maintains its domination but wins by leadership and authority the active consent of those over whom it rules. Thus it plays a pivotal role in the construction of hegemony. In this reading, it becomes, not a thing to be seized, overthrown or “smashed” with a single blow, but a complex formation in modern societies which must become the focus of a number of different strategies and struggles because it is an arena of different social contestations.
—Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity”

In popular usage, neoliberalism is equated with a radically free market: maximized competition and free trade achieved through economic deregulation, elimination of tariffs, and a range of monetary and social policies favorable to business and indifferent toward poverty, social deracination, cultural decimation, long-term resource depletion, and environmental destruction.
—Wendy Brown, Edgework

[However], neoliberalism is not simply a set of economic polices . . . Rather neoliberalism carries a social analysis that, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neoliberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.
—Wendy Brown, Edgework

neoliberalism entails the erosion of oppositional political, moral, or subjective claims located outside capitalist rationality
—Wendy Brown, Edgework

What, then, are the leading ideas of the neoliberal model? We can only pull at one thread here. However anachronistic it may seem, neoliberalism is grounded in the ‘free, possessive individual’, with the state cast as tyrannical and oppressive. The welfare state, in particular, is the arch enemy of freedom. The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their private property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth.
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”

Neoliberalism is not one thing. It evolves and diversifies. Nevertheless, geopolitically, neoliberal ideas, policies and strategies are incrementally gaining ground, re-defining the political, social and economic model, governing the strategies and setting the pace.
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”

few strategies are so successful at winning consent as those which root themselves in the contradictory elements of common sense, popular life and consciousness
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”

Hegemony is a tricky concept and provokes muddled thinking. No project achieves ‘hegemony’ as a completed project. It is a process, not a state of being. No victories are permanent or final. Hegemony has constantly to be ‘worked on’, maintained, renewed, revised. Excluded social forces, whose consent has not been won, whose interests have not been taken into account, form the basis of counter- movements, resistance, alternative strategies and visions … and the struggle over a hegemonic system starts anew. They constitute what Raymond Williams called ‘the emergent’ – and are the reason why history is never closed but maintains an open horizon towards the future.
—Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution”
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In what scholars term “the literature,” Kenya’s entry into neoliberal logics dates to the early 1980s, when Structural Adjustment Programs were introduced—the line between imposed and adopted is shaky. A more precise date is given as the 1986 publication of Sessional Paper No. 1. I’ll turn to that in a moment.

However, Stuart Hall teaches me to ask about the “terrain,” or, were I to adapt him in more Kenyan terms, the ground on which these ideas fell. And, for that, I turn to an old favorite, Sessional Paper 10 of 1965: African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.

First, the banal observation that the Session Paper is dedicated to planning; to use a Kenyan vernacular, I do not claim that the term “development” is used with any mischief.

The Paper opens with a Statement By The President:

    Since attainment of our independence just over eighteen months ago, the Government has been deciding the measures that will ensure rapid economic development and social progress for all our citizens.

Much of what follows is administrative boilerplate. I am arrested, as always, by the final paragraph of the Statement:

    To the nation I have but one message. When all is said and done, we must settle down to the job of building the Kenyan nation. To do this we need an atmosphere of political stability and an atmosphere of confidence and faith at home. We cannot establish these if we continue with debates on theories and doubts about our society. Let this paper be used from now as the unifying voice of our people and let us all settle down to build our nation. Let all the people of our country roll up their sleeves in a spirit of self-help to create the true fruits of UHURU.

Building consent requires formal labor. Some of that labor happens as Kenyatta repeats (with a slight variation): “building the nation.” This becomes the work. What is to be accomplished. What pulls people together. Building the nation must take priority and it should not be halted, arrested, or delayed by “debates on theories and doubts” about “our society.” The question of what Kenya is, of who Kenyans are, will emerge as Kenyans “build the nation.” Development will provide identity—it will give shape and meaning to “our society.”

We are on dangerous, dissent-killing ground. We are on dangerous anti-intellectual ground. 50 years later—note that consent takes a long time to build and sustain and become dominant—this ground has won.

Even those who claim to be “progressives” and “radicals” frame their vision of Kenya within the paradigm of “development.” Corruption is bad because it stunts development. Impunity is bad because it delays development. Sexual violence is bad because it arrests development. Evil is bad because it hurts development.

Something curious has happened. And, we can better see what that something curious is by returning to the Sessional Paper. Tom Mboya, author of the Paper, defines what he terms “Objectives of Societies”:

The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include:

  1. political equality;
  2. social justice;
  3. human dignity including freedom of conscience;
  4. freedom from want, disease, and exploitation;
  5. equal opportunities; and
  6. high and growing per capita incomes, equitably distributed

In Mboya’s Sessional Paper, freedom and justice could still be imagined. (Many aspects of the Paper are troubling, but let me defer that discussion.)

To make a polemical point about where we are now, let me leapfrog to the very long Sessional Paper No 12 of 2012: On Kenya Vision 2030. A few long, blocky paragraphs follow.

    Kenya Vision 2030 is the new long-term development blueprint for the country. It is motivated by a collective aspiration for a better society by the year 2030. The aim of Kenya Vision 2030 is to create “a globally competitive and prosperous country with a high quality of life by 2030”. It aims to transform Kenya into “a newly-industrialising, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment”.
    The Vision is anchored on three key pillars: economic; social; and political governance. The economic pillar aims to achieve an average economic growth rate of 10 per cent per annum and sustaining the same till 2030 in order to generate more resources to meet the MDGs and vision goals. The Vision has identified a number of flagship projects in every sector to be implemented over the Vision period and to facilitate the desired growth rate. The identified flagship projects directly address priorities in key sectors such as agriculture, education, health, water and the environment. The social pillar seeks to create a just, cohesive and equitable social development in a clean and secure environment. The political pillar aims to realise an issue-based, people-centered, result-oriented and accountable democratic system.

To the extent that form matters, note that the social and political pillars get one sentence each.

    The economic, social and political pillars of Kenya Vision 2030 will be anchored on the following foundations: macroeconomic stability; continuity in governance reforms; enhanced equity and wealth creation opportunities for the poor; infrastructure; energy; science, technology and innovation (STI); land reform; human resources development; security; and public sector reforms.

One notes that “people-centered” translates into “human resources development,” and the “human resources development” paragraph reads,

    Human Resource Development: Kenya intends to create a globally competitive and adaptive human resource base to meet the requirements of a rapidly industrialising economy. This will be done through life-long training and education. As a priority, a human resource database will be established to facilitate better planning of human resources requirements in the country. Furthermore, steps will be taken to raise labour productivity to international levels. Other steps will include the establishment of new technical training institutions, as well as the enhancement of closer collaboration between industry and training institutions.

What happens when “the people” of a place are framed through “human resources”? What has been prioritized? While the latter sections of the Sessional Paper make some gratuitous noise about rights, the phrases “political equality” and “social justice” are absent from the Sessional Paper.

Market rationalities infiltrate all the ways Kenya and Kenyan-ness can be envisioned.
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Little of what I’ve claimed above is new or original. I simply want to mark where we are.
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I had imagined spending some time on Sessional Paper No. 1 from 1986, but I can’t find a handy pdf online, and, frankly, I’m tired of trying to think with Sessional Papers.

Call this a broken promise.
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Let me return, finally, to the peculiar structure of the president’s “security agenda.” The figure of the citizen appears as one threatened by the state’s “monopoly of violence,” as one “managed” and “administered,” as one framed, primarily, as “human capital.” “Human capital” precedes citizenship, which is, primarily about “rights and duties.” One might argue that one’s “rights and duties” are subordinate to one’s status as “human capital”: one’s being is assessed as a measure of one’s ability to incarnate and produce capital.

We need, here, to think through histories of slavery and the role of fungibility in producing our modern world. To value “humans” as “capital” is precisely to live within slavery’s logics of unhumaning and exchange.

“Life is cheap” becomes more than a metaphor within such logics and practices.

In the president’s vision, security is about fostering development and managing assets, not about “securing” freedom or increasing justice or imagining possibility. Indeed, the imagination must be “managed” and “administered,” kept anxious and paranoid, forced to prove that it participates in “development” and “security.” Kenya has no space for questioning imaginations, for imaginations that pursue freedom and justice and equality.

To read the president’s agenda as a threat—and I read it as such—means refusing to consent to its premises and promises. But this stance, I fear, is a minority one.

Security & Development discourses and practices have so taken hold of the popular imagination that it’s difficult to critique how they proliferate unfreedom. Progressive forces critique the government not for its security imaginary, but because it has “failed” to “secure properly.” The same voices critique the government not for its development imaginary, but because it has “failed” to “develop properly.”

In conference rooms and seminars and forums across Kenya, we sit and nod at our ongoing unhumaning in the name of security and development.

unhoming kenyan women

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s short story “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Taking different forms, this sentence runs through a wide body of writing by Kenyan women.

Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed features a female teacher who is forcibly abducted and raped by the male head of state. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poem, “The Way You Felt Remains,” describes a public encounter where a young woman encounters a “chokora” who gropes her in public, unsolicited. Sitawa Namwalie’s “Let’s Speak a Simple Truth,” notes that, “the average man can without much planning / Take by force most average women in the world.”

Repeatedly, Kenyan women’s writing bears witness to a society where women’s bodies are considered available to all men, a society where a woman’s consent is considered irrelevant.

In fact, the question of women’s consent is considered irrelevant in our National Assembly. During the recent discussions of the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. John Murithi Waiganjo (Ol Joro Orok, TNA) described intercourse as “enjoy[ing] the facilities,” rendering women as inert structures.

Hon. Jimmy Angwenyi (Kitutu Chache North, TNA) insisted that marriage voided the need for women’s consent, arguing, “We are talking about somebody you persuaded to move from her parents’ home to your home. When she moved from her parents’ home to your home, that was when she accepted you. Therefore, every time you need that thing, she should accept.” Men’s needs take priority over women’s will and desire.

Further contributing to this line of thinking, Hon. Makai Mulu (Kitui Central, WDM-K) argued for a “cultural exemption,” saying, “in the Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question.”

Engaging these voices, Hon. Priscilla Nyokabi Kanyua (Othaya, TNA) reminded the National Assembly, “Our African cultures actually protected their women. The reason why we are here 1000 years after the discovery of man is because Africa protected women.”

If we turn to the body of writing by Kenyan men, the notion of bodily integrity is well articulated. Maina wa Kinyatti’s Kenya: A Prison Diary rails against the humiliation of being searched by prison guards. In Three Days on the Cross, Wahome Mutahi has nightmares that he is being sexually violated while in prison. Onduko bw’Atebe’s award-winning Verdict of Death features the dashing protagonist being brutally attacked and raped in prison.

Across a broad range of works set in prison, Kenyan men demonstrate that they know what it feels like to be vulnerable, to fear for their bodily integrity, to lack consent.

Across a broad range of writing—on twitter, on blogs, in poems, in novels, in non-fiction—Kenyan women describe their everyday lives as gendered prisons, where they are vulnerable, subject to bodily violations in private and public contexts, where their consent is taken for granted, their bodies mishandled by friends, acquaintances, intimates, and strangers.

At a historical moment when Kenyan politics is consumed by the question of security, we might pause to ask why so many Kenyan women feel insecure in public and private spaces: walking on public streets, taking public transport, attending colleges and universities, visiting friends and relatives, hosting guests at home.

During the debate about the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. Aden Duale (Dujis, URP) argued that questions of domestic violence were minor. Kenya, he claimed, had “more serious issues” to contend with, including terrorism and food insecurity. It should strike us as odd that women’s security in our homes is deemed unimportant. In fact, it should strike us as obscene and unacceptable.

It should be unacceptable that Kenyan women feel they must submit to bodily violations to participate in public and private life. It should be unacceptable that section 28 of our constitution, which guarantees inherent dignity to everyone, should be suspended when it comes to Kenyan women. It should be unacceptable that women’s bodies are considered available for men’s use and consumption. It should be unacceptable that we mute women’s voices when they attempt to assert their rights to dignity and bodily integrity.

Kenyan author and activist Shailja Patel has said, “Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.”

Kenya is full of homeless women, unhomed by official parliamentary discussions, unhomed by misogynist radio shows, unhomed by public spaces full of unwanted touch by strangers, unhomed in private spaces full of unwanted touch by friends and acquaintances, unhomed by a country that discusses women as property.

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Let’s pledge to make this sentence unthinkable.

ALLEGED SEXUAL VIOLENCE COMMITTED BY TONY MOCHAMA UPON THE PERSON OF SHAILJA PATEL

Date: Thursday September 25

Contact: Ann Njogu, Chair, CREAW, Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women
Mobile: 0722 768 381
http://www.creawkenya.org

On Saturday September 20th, Standard Group columnist Mr. Tony Mochama is alleged to have committed an indecent act upon the person of poet and activist Shailja Patel, at a gathering in the home of Professor Wambui Mwangi in Spring Valley, Nairobi.

Today at 12 noon, Ms. Patel filed a police report at Spring Valley Police Station. She was accompanied by her lawyer Ann Njogu, Chair of CREAW (Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women), high Court Advocate Betty Kaari Murungi, Executive Director of COVAW Joan Nyanyuki, representatives from FIDA, and friends and supporters.

Ms. Patel had previously stated that she would seek restorative community justice rather than engaging the judicial system. Following consultation with civil society colleagues and consideration of all parties involved, she decided to file a police report for the following reasons.

1) To facilitate the need for corroboration, substantiation, triangulation.

2) To support the decades of work of Kenya’s women’s movement has spent to improve reporting procedures for SGBV survivors.

3) To move forward policy and practice on on sexual violence in public life on the basis of evidence.

4) The women’s movement has fought hard and long for sexual violence to be treated like the crime that it is. We must uphold that struggle by being as rigorous as possible when we make our claims and the demands thereof.

Ms. Patel said:

“Each time a man sexually harasses or assaults a woman with no consequences, he is emboldened to repeat and escalate that behaviour. It becomes a pattern. Sexual predators are not born; they are the product of patriarchies and rape cultures that teach men they are entitled to the bodies of all women.

“When a man invades a woman’s body space without her invitation, touches, grabs and gropes her without her consent, he violates her sovereignty of person. He evicts her from her own body. Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.

“Let us stand with all victims and survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Let us create a society where sexual violence is unknown.”

Whither Justice?

On Saturday, September 20, Mr. Tony Mochama, a columnist with Kenya’s Standard Group, Secretary of PEN Kenya, and holder of a Morland Writing Scholarship, sexually assaulted a woman during a gathering of Kenyan and international poets. Mr. Mochama is a well-known figure in Kenya’s literary circles: he has hosted open mics, promotes literary culture in his work for PEN Kenya, and travels abroad regularly as an ambassador for Kenyan literature. Beyond his own accomplishments and labor, Mr. Mochama represents us. An us that encompasses all Kenyan literary workers, cultural producers, and cultural administrators. Quite simply: he is one of Kenya’s faces.

What are we to do when one of our collective faces commits sexual assault? How do we face that aspect of ourselves?

Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti argued that the African sense of self could be found in the formulation, “I am because we are.” Extrapolating from Mbiti, we can say that the self, the individual, exists within multiple networks and embeddings, all of which provide legibility, livability, and, most importantly, produce and demand ethical orientations. More simply: what injures one of us, injures us all.

If the damage is not only to the poet Mr. Mochama assaulted—who must not be forgotten—but also to our collective sense of self, how are we to address this assault? How can we take collective responsibility and imagine forms of accountability that produce a more ethical “we”?

If, in his role as PEN Kenya’s secretary, Mr. Mochama travels to Kenya’s schools, who are we sending to those schools? If, in his role as a Morland Writing Scholar, Mr. Mochama represents African writing, who are we saying represents African writing? If, in his role as a columnist for the Standard Group, Mr. Mochama publishes articles, who are we saying writes us and circulates among us?

Quite simply, if Mr. Mochama is the mirror we look into to see our faces, what faces are we seeing? And are those the faces we want to see?

I have used a collective we to emphasize the role of community accountability. As “advanced and theorized by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence,”

Community accountability is a community-based strategy, rather than a police/prison-based strategy, to address violence within our communities. Community accountability is a process which a community – a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood, etc – work together to do the following things :

Create and affirm VALUES AND PRACTICES that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability

Provide SAFETY AND SUPPORT to community members who are violently targeted that RESPECTS THEIR SELF-DETERMINATION

Develop sustainable strategies to ADDRESS COMMUNITY MEMBERS’ ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior.

Commit to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to TRANSFORM THE POLITICAL CONDITIONS that reinforce oppression and violence.

Community Accountability refuses to privatize relations of damage—a privatization that happens when damage is framed as a relationship between assaulter, assault victim, and police-state mechanisms. Community Accountability acknowledges that damage is never private, that it is embedded within historical, cultural, and ideological frameworks. And it seeks to unmake those frameworks that make damage not only ordinary, but also inevitable.

And, so, this is a call: if you are reading this, will you help unmake the frameworks that make sexual assault not only ordinary, but also inevitable in Kenya and elsewhere?

two places

Kangemi and Westgate are roughly equidistant from my house, though Kangemi is a shade closer.

A few weeks ago, as the school term was starting, the Nairobi government arrived in Kangemi at 3 a.m., destroyed the local market, and, in the process, a bulldozer crushed a man to death. I do not know this man’s name. This man’s death was not pronounced a national or even local tragedy.

Around midday last Saturday, a number of people took Westgate Mall hostage. They shot many people, released some, and held the Mall hostage for 4 days, as Kenya’s elite forces, aided by other countries, attempted to regain control of the Mall and, by implication, the country. Thus far, approximately 90 million shillings has been raised to support recovery efforts.
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Following the Kangemi demolitions, many Kangemi residents protested the government’s actions. They blocked roads, set tires on fire, raged and mourned. They mourned that their lives were so disposable; they raged that their livelihoods had no value. With very few exceptions, Kenya remained silent. These were not lives worth valuing. A death in Kangemi is not worth mourning.

Reports indicate that president Uhuru Kenyatta was personally affected by Westgate—a nephew and his fiancée were killed. Photographs from Westgate have traveled across the world. We know names and faces and occupations and relationships.
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Who will grieve with the mourners?
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For the past few months, I have been thinking about disposability, about its reach and grasp and ever-expanding power. And while I continue to learn from Judith Butler about whose lives are grievable, about who is deemed worth grieving, thinking about disposability leads me to ask about killability.

To be disposable is to be ungrievable. Not to merit grief or thought. We have other words for this: acceptable losses, collateral damage. Yet, disposability is not passive, not simply a category into which we place the ungrievable. Instead, it is a hungry logic and practice. It becomes ever-more voracious as it eats.
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For years now, rumors have circulated that, like the Kangemi market, Westgate Mall is an illegitimate structure, that it should be torn down.
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The question of whose lives are grievable is not about withholding grief, saving it for those usually deemed ungrievable. Instead, it is about the possibilities of radical vulnerability.
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Radical vulnerability is debilitating. It saps energy and will. It is exhausting.
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Kangemi is forgotten. Another eyesore destroyed.
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To hold Kangemi and Westgate together.
To imagine Kangemi and Westgate together.