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Reflections

Erased: That Farm in Africa, at the Foot of the Ngong Hills

Of the central white protagonist experiencing Africa with Africans as a backdrop in their adventures: Why are we still doing this in 2019? Is it possible to remember, preserve and tell the history of Kenya without repeating the violent language of that past? Is it necessary to keep propping up these images for the tourists?

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Erased: That Farm in Africa, at the Foot of the Ngong Hills
Photo: View from Karen Blixen's house, Karen, Kenya. Ninara/Flickr
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My paternal grandfather, James Liyai, was born in 1907, and worked as a cook in the houses of colonial administrators who were based in Western Kenya. By the time I was born, Kenya was an independent nation, most of the administrators had gone, and my grandfather had retired from this job. Even though I never witnessed it, I knew that he could bake cakes and even knew how to make rice pudding. Until his death in 2008, he was especially picky about the food that he was served – the type of food, its quality, and presentation.

I never thought about how this experience shaped our lives. I wasn’t close to my grandfather; I rarely saw him, and even when I did visit him upcountry there was always a distance between us created by a past that I was not familiar with, and my Nairobiness. My grandfather spoke to us in Lwisukha, he read the Kiswahili newspaper Taifa Leo regularly, but there were times, when agitated, he blurted insults in English. This was jarring.

My grandfather named his son, who was born during World War II, Hitler. When this son started school, his teachers insisted on a name change but this name stuck in the family. I imagine that this was my grandfather’s resistance to whatever he had experienced in those colonial houses.

Watching the British period drama Downton Abbey, I recognised that my grandfather’s experiences in the houses he worked in couldn’t even have come close to those of the servants portrayed in that television series. How was life like for an African servant in a colonised country who worked for people who were not anywhere as wealthy? Did his employers view him as human?

So this year, when I went to the Karen Blixen Museum, I wanted to see the kitchen.

***

An estimated 700 workers lived and worked on this “farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. They worked here along with their spouses and children, and they should have been grateful because they were allocated some space to live in within the 4,500-acre farm land. No matter that they were probably there because they had been displaced from that very land. Some of these workers had left their homes to work on farms like this one because of the colonial government had imposed a Hut and Poll Tax in 1901 that was increased in 1915 and 1920. They had to pay. The Kipande, an identity card and passbook, was introduced in 1915, prohibiting Africans from moving freely. They were stuck there.

They were called natives, squatters, houseboys and kitchen totos. They were required to call Karen Blixen, the new owner of their land, memsahib or msabu. These workers were considered fortunate because the memsahib built a school for their children to attend while their parents worked.

Meanwhile, Blixen and other white settlers often left for hunting expeditions and long trips, with servants doing all the heavy lifting, confident that the workers left behind were tending to their properties.

After Blixen left Kenya in 1931, the vast parcel of land was turned into a residential area, with the Karen Country Club as an anchor intended to entice the wealthy (European) Nairobi residents to move there. The house that Blixen lived in is now a museum that gives a glimpse into daily life in colonial Kenya. The museum is a popular tourist destination.

However, less attention is given to the other aspects of this story and time period.

On its website, the National Museums of Kenya states: “NMK is a multi-disciplinary institution whose role is to collect, preserve, study, document and present Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage. This is for the purposes of enhancing knowledge, appreciation, respect…”

If the museum is a place we visit to learn, to enhance knowledge and to appreciate our various histories, what does the set-up and the tour of the Karen Blixen Museum say about what is valued?

The museum was established after Blixen’s book Out of Africa was made into a movie with the same title. In the 1980s, Kamande wa Gature, Blixen’s former employee, was called in to assist in reconstructing the house interior as it had been when Blixen lived there. Some of the items displayed in the house were recreated for the 1985 film set and later donated to the museum. When you visit the museum, you are assigned guides who brief you with the backstory – Blixen’s past prior to coming to Kenya, her life and loves in Kenya, and her entanglements, both social and business-related.

The workers on Blixen’s farm tended to the house, to the coffee farm, to other crop plantations, and to the livestock on the farm. We know that the workers built, they planted, they cooked, they cleaned, they cared for her pets, and even protected her. Here, aside from the posed painted portraits and her photos in a peaceful and rested state, there are few markers of the presence of these people; there are only painted portraits and photographs of a group of house staff – Farah Aden, Abdulahi, Farah’s nephew, Ireri the Elder, Kamande wa Gature, Njeeri from Dagoretti. The gift shop at the museum sells postcards and bookmarks with these people’s faces on them as souvenirs.

When the guide tells us that Blixen’s family purchased the farm from Imperial British East Africa Company, it is as if the land was just there, available to be purchased and occupied. It is as if the people living there miraculously transformed themselves into squatters and availed themselves to be cooks, porters, gun bearers and houseboys. Whereas detailed background information leading up to Blixen’s travel to Kenya is provided, it appears that even now this place’s living memory is predicated on Blixen’s arrival in 1917. How did the land owners become squatters? What was cleared from this site to make space for coffee trees?

The museum guide mentions that the bathroom had two exits so that a worker could empty the chamber pot, drain the dirty bath water and clean the bathroom without entering through the house. In the kitchen, utensils are arranged as they would have appeared on a regular day. The dining table is laid out with cutlery and crockery as they would have been when Blixen lived there. A menu showing what was served for a famous guest is displayed as evidence. Some floors have animal hides as carpets. What were the work routines? Did the workers get time off? What did they earn?

***

In 2011, I attended a friend’s baby shower in Nairobi. Among the things discussed was the task of finding a nanny for the child. I lost my temper when a guest suggested that a Luhya woman was best suited for this role. Others echoed this sentiment. All my explaining about the wrongness of this statement didn’t seem to get through. I stopped because I was ruining the party. I was being too sensitive. It was just a suggestion.

In 2014, my father took me and my sister to see a house in Milimani, Kakamega, where our grandfather had once worked. We couldn’t access the property but could see the old house from the road. My father told us that some of his uncles and cousins also started working there as kitchen totos and mshika kamba. A kitchen toto was basically the errand boy of the house, who worked as the cook’s servant, doing tasks that are better done by small hands, as well as easing the burden of the adults. And from my parent’s telling, a mshika kamba (literally, holder of the rope) was a child who helped to hold animals, to lift things or to hold the big sufuria for the person stirring the pot. I thought about the stereotypes that we are still shaking off close to a century later – that we Luhyas make good cooks and good domestic workers.

One imagines how much work goes into maintaining Karen Blixen’s house, which is now a museum that is open every day, including public holidays and weekends. What is the effect on museum workers who clean, polish, and fixing these artefacts daily? What does repeating the story in the particular format of “the natives, the squatters, the houseboys…” for the benefit of the tourist do to the narrator?

When will we remember them as people, as women, men and children?

In the book Out of Africa, Blixen talks about reducing her white staff, likely due to financial constraints. It is not stated that at the time an apartheid system was enforced throughout the Kenya colony. In this system, European labour was most highly valued and received the highest pay while the pay scale for Africans was the lowest. Even among Africans, the pay was further segmented based on ethnic identity. Thus, it was good business to have workers from different ethnic groups assigned to different tasks, thus enforcing ethnic stereotypes.

Blixen provides a detailed account of seven-year-old Kabero, who was employed as a kitchen toto, and who accidentally shot two agemates while playing with a gun. One of the children, Wamae, died. Kabero, before running away because of his crime, returned to pay the one rupee he owed his master for an old pair of shorts. What is the terror that made a seven-year-old child prioritise paying for a pair of old shorts before running away? I wonder about the horror of a place that claims to tell the story of “Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage” while continuously minimising and even erasing the 700 African workers and their families from it.

After Blixen’s departure in 1931, the farm was sold. What happened to all the workers and their families, left without an income and a home, when a farm was sold off in colonial Kenya? Is there a place for them in this museum tour? Do they deserve their own museum? Do we even need a museum to tell us about them?

Nostalgia for that era lives beyond this museum. A short distance away is the Hemingways Hotel, which has a wall inscribed with writings from explorers and writers like David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Elspeth Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and one black exception, Jomo Kenyatta. Another wall has posters from the movies like White Mischief, Born Free, I Dreamed of Africa and Out of Africa. All these have in common the central white protagonist experiencing Africa with Africans as a backdrop in their adventures. Why are we still doing this in 2019? Is it possible to remember, preserve and tell the history of Kenya without repeating the violent language of that past? Is it necessary to keep propping up these images for the tourists?

And then – how different is this nostalgia for the colonial invader from the urban Kenyan’s 2019 dream to have something similar to that farm in Africa? A place where they wake up and see crops growing and livestock thriving, where they count off acres and workers. An aura of self-sufficiency, knowing that there is a worker on another side of the country tending to the land – never mind how it was acquired, who was displaced, or the pittance that is the daily farm worker’s wages. Isn’t this what progress looks like?

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Lutivini Majanja is a fiction writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

An ADHD Diagnosis: ‘My Nights Were Characterized by Racing Ideas, and Days Filled with Failed Projects’

My mind had failed me so many times I could no longer trust the ideas it put forth, no matter how brilliant or mundane they were. The tipping point came after a violent altercation with my cousin, which landed her in hospital and me in the refurbished blue container recounting my life story, and eventually, finding a turning point.

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An ADHD Diagnosis: ‘My Nights Were Characterized by Racing Ideas, and Days Filled with Failed Projects’
Photo: Melanie Wasser on Unsplash
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The diagnosis came about seven months ago. I was sitting in the counselling room of the hospital, a refurbished 40-ft shipping container painted light blue. I remember being annoyed by the breaks in the painting caused by the vertical ridges on the walls, and sucked on piece after piece of hard candy to calm down.

After a series of routine questions to get my history, an analysis by the psychiatrist, and several written tests, the verdict was delivered to me. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. At first I was skeptical about the diagnosis. It was a strange case of déjà vu, one on which I’d sat in the same position across a psychiatrist two years ago and was given a host of diagnoses: I was told I had major depressive disorder, then affective disorder and then bipolar 1 disorder.

So I prodded the doctor, testing to find out if my symptoms covered a wide scope of diseases, or comorbidities, as the medical fraternity called them. To put my heart at ease, he showed me a TED Talk of a lady talking about her struggle with the condition, and the end of the video, I broke down and cried.

I’ll call the beginning of my visible symptoms as the crash. I’d excelled academically in primary and high school. I was a relentless high achiever, adapting the routine of school life which accommodated my bursts of energy and productivity. I graduated from high school with a good grade and joined university. But campus life came with the absence of a strict routine, and the unravelling at the seams of the thread of my life began.

I dropped out of my course after one semester and was kicked out of the halls of residence after failing to pay accommodation fees, due to procrastination. I resorted to clever methods to hide the absences in school from my parents. To cope, I drank and smoked a lot of weed. My nights were characterized by racing ideas, and days filled with failed projects because I couldn’t map them out; the brainstorm process ended up being crowded by other ideas and my mind couldn’t shut down. Then came the shame and low self-esteem. My mind had failed me so many times I could no longer trust the ideas it put forth, no matter how brilliant or mundane they were.

The first psychiatrist I visited was a referral from a general doctor. I’d arrived at the triage suicidal, struggling to breathe, and paranoid that I was being followed and watched. He prescribed some sleeping pills and handed me a sealed envelope addressed to a private psychiatrist clinic at the Doctor’s Plaza at Nairobi Hospital.

I didn’t feel bipolar – I was told bipolar disorder entailed massive mood swings, and this didn’t quite apply to me – but I accepted the diagnosis as it gave me a semblance of peace. At least I had a reason for my behaviour.

For two years, it cost nearly Ksh800 a day to pay for consultation and medication. Physically, the drugs left me feeling comatose on most days, and demoralised because I was still messy and erratic, but with a Ksh288,000 annual price tag to keep me stable. I sunk further into depression, culminating in a failed suicide attempt.

At the peak of my treatment, I was on a cocktail of seven different pills in the class of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medication. They gave me sleep jerks at night and vivid nightmares — eventually, I developed a dependency on the lulling effects of the anti-anxiety pills to help me sleep. The tipping point came after a violent altercation with my cousin, which landed her in hospital and me in the refurbished blue container recounting my life story, and eventually, finding a turning point.

The psycho-stimulants prescribed by the doctor were a relief. I could finally consistently complete my tasks and rein in errant thoughts, but the new ADHD diagnosis was exhausting. I imagined having to explain myself again to my friends about my condition over and over like I’d done for the past two years, and I was hardly prepared for the emotional or mental labour.

ADHD is a condition of limited self-regulation rather than a deficit of attention. A person with ADHD is able to concentrate for long periods of time in a state known as hyperfocus, that is when they are interested. ADHD exists on a spectrum and some people have it worse than others. We all have moments of ‘zoning out’ and procrastination, but for the ADHD individual, their symptoms fall on the extreme end of the scale and can be crippling.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for a range of functions in the human body including emotional regulation, and motivation to guide your brain to accomplish specific tasks in order to get the desired reward. To use an analogy a psychologist gave – our brains are engines. Different parts initiate and receive tasks, others execute them and help manage one’s routine. Dopamine is the fuel between these areas, but ADHD brains have a deficit of dopamine. The result is that coordination is missing.

ADHD is a highly comorbid condition, meaning it exists with other mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. The emotional dysregulation and hyperfocus often leads to misdiagnosis as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder or other affective disorders – like it happened in my case.

The DSM V – a diagnostic criteria by the American Psychiatric Association used to identify mental illnesses, leaves out a key factor of ADHD diagnosis – emotional dysregulation – from its list of symptoms, further increasing the likelihood of misdiagnosis.

While ADHD in children is extensively studied and treated, very little academic literature covers adult ADHD, and in particular ADHD in women, which is complicated by changing estrogen levels that affect the availability of dopamine in the brain at different points in the menstrual cycle. The link between estrogen and ADHD means that at different times of the month, the symptoms get worse and might require a recalibration of medication and more money to cover the cost of drugs.

By the time an adult is given an ADHD diagnosis, their lives are littered with failure because of trying to conform in a neurotypical world, with shame, guilt, broken relationships, and a calcified negative view of themselves as lazy, inconsistent, rude, violent, stupid…the list goes on and on.

As I discovered, conventional therapy is often expensive and limited to brief sessions with the psychiatrist and counselor once a month. Adults with ADHD need extensive help, an almost round the clock treatment in the form of non-judgemental accountability partners to help them form a routine, map out their life and follow through on decisions. In the case of an adult diagnosis, and given the individual demands of everyone else’s lives, such accommodations seem like ridiculous requests and one continues to live with their dysphoria.

ADHD and its treatment is very misunderstood. There are stereotypes such as “We are all a little ADD”, and there’s scepticism over whether or not it’s a real illness. Misleading media coverage about the alleged performance-enhancing abilities of the drugs used in treatment also hinder objective discourse about the reality of living with ADHD. The victims are the adults who continue to suffer, very often without knowing what their condition really is, at the workplace, in school or in their homes.

My life hasn’t completely changed, but it’s a lot better than it was. I have interacted with other adults who also live with ADHD and formed a small support group of sorts. I got back on track with my studies and graduated. Living with ADHD forced me to be extremely honest with myself about what I can and cannot do, who I can be and who I am not. There can be no illusions about my strengths, weaknesses and ability to commit to tasks, in order to avoid that vicious cycle of depression and anxiety.

As for the medication, it is not a panacea. I needed to be honest with myself about this too. It was easy to use the drugs as a crutch and avoid putting in place mechanisms to regulate my behaviour – and then blame mishaps on ‘being off the meds’.

What do I look forward to? More research. Particularly on ADHD and women and how environmental factors, socialisation and biology exaggerates or diminishes how the symptoms manifest. I keep a journal and note down observations on days where something strikes me as odd, and use that to inform my treatment. It’s the beginning of my own personal research, and I hope it can help someone else someday.

To conclude, ADHD is neither a gift nor a disability. We can have no illusions about that. It can make you prone to certain harmful behaviours and may give you some advantages over neurotypical brains, but the labels of gift or disability may prevent us from being objective about its management. But with a little more knowledge, and a lot more empathy, we can create a society where lives are not littered with failures that could have been avoided.

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Reflections

A Shocked and Neutered Generation Staring Disaster in the Face

To be Kenyan is to be constantly re-traumatized by the institutions and structures that we inhabit, and having been dehumanized we proceed to unleash low-grade terrors on those close to us. In the end we’re becoming a pragmatic, soulless people who think our biggest problem is corruption while in truth it is the collapse of social order.

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A Shocked and Neutered Generation Staring Disaster in the Face
Photo: Patrick Pierre on Unsplash
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On a bright, sunny yet cool Eldoret morning on Valentine’s Day this year is the last moment I would have expected to watch my dad breathe his last. Nothing can prepare you to watch your father die, and when I looked at him that morning, I saw so much of myself. He and I are both tall, lithe, nerdy, sensitive yet pragmatic, abstract thinkers and public-spirited. It was a mutuality of traits that made our relationship often strenuous, respecting, yet sometimes borderline acrimonious.

But more than that, we had more in common, right down to our upbringing and the irony of him replicating his complicated relationship with his father.

My father told us that one of his earliest memories was his experience living under Idi Amin in Uganda as foreigners from Kenya in the 1970s. He’d talk of subsisting on boiled maize for days as Amin’s men unleashed hostility, paranoia and angst on Asians, Europeans and by extension Kenyans and Tanzanians.

He’d talk of being held up in the house for days on end unable to step out, the whole family holding their breath and praying silently amidst the skirmishes in the neighbourhood as houses got torched by the Obote’s and Amin’s gangs. He’d reflectively recount his father (my grandfather’s) life in the Kilembe Mines on the slopes of Ruwenzori Mountains, on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; a place that tugged at my grandfather’s heart for eons, and from where my grandfather would be brought back from, in a coffin for burial, three years before I was born.

My father’s family fled back to Kenya, and adjustment was tenuous, though the intervention of the hand of providence landed him education and job opportunities that set him on a path to relative social mobility. When he “made it”, my father quietly paid his “black tax”, supporting numerous relatives with money, time, advice and connections, well aware that his adjustment into Kenyan life owed more to the hand that fortune had dealt him, and that the same hand hadn’t been dealt to a large number of returning relations.

He, like an oak tree towering above his peers, allowed many to find shade and breathe, by sacrificially offering numerous opportunities to his kinsfolk. His altruism would run into the economic headwinds of the 1990s, but thankfully by the 2000s many of those under his care and tutelage soared, thanks to the neoliberal boom.

In 2002 I watched him for the first time admit to a close friend at a wedding that he’d finally began to come to grips with his vulnerability and physical frailty, something he’d never admit at the height of his “black taxpaying” days. But even for a man mired with such prospects he still would navigate the 1990s with relative ease given that the nation was facing an economic crisis. For my generation, we seem to be fighting a different kind of disaster.

We’ve walked into an economic crisis right at the moment where a shrewdly adversarial vice president is laying claim to the presidency against three calcified, largely uncreative, and primitive dynasties. In my peers, I see a demographic that finds itself trying to navigate their young lives in the dual crisis of messy succession politics and economic headwinds, in which a massively flawed presidency has deepened the dysfunction.

The power of being proficient in your field is the constant ability to juxtapose what is against what is to become. To that end, to claim the current economic mess was unprecedented is to perpetuate a lie. When this regime got voted back in 2017, I sat at a coffee house at NextGen Mall and grieved both for the body bags sent to my hometown Kisumu and also for the prospects that the Uhuruto duo portended for the coming five years. We knew what we were being signed up for.

I believe that the path of nations often follows a messy yet unbroken path into the future. Now as the economic wheels come off this train wreck of a regime, in my view the current dual economic and political crises could be the unlikely hand of divine intervention.

How, you may ask? First, this economic crisis will pretty much mark the end of the current oligarchic state capture as it will likely render millions unable to feed their families, hence eliciting a harsh criticism of the primitive elite with the possibility of widespread protests and revolution.

Secondly I see in the astute organizational efficiency of the deputy president, a ferocity that’ll awaken the dull and largely self-entitled dynasties to burn the midnight oil trying to figure out ways of upstaging him. Either way the final outcome of the current political contestation is that we as the masses might just witness a change in the elite framework of the society.

Thanks to a twist of fate, my intellectual journey started on the ideological Right, a landscape that built in me a reverence for structures from marriage to family, religion, and statecraft. Conversely by drifting further Left, the tools of critiquing power relations came to me by way of incessant debates with those to whom structures are almost synonymous with oppression.

To be fair, thanks to their extractive origins, the structures which we exist in this country have never been reformed to humanize our existence. Most of our churches are empire-building plans. Our schools unleash brutality in the name of discipline, verbal violence packed into the stereotypes, and the tyranny of low expectations by condescending teachers.

As is common in economically repressed societies, most homes out here have become the crucible for internalized violence, as husbands but mostly wives and children become the victims of anger and pain carried over from the public space by family members.

Our media is largely dimwitted, voyeuristic and goes for the shock value, rather than unpacking the layered realities behind what passes for news on any given day. This, to be clear, is often a potent mix of violence and poverty-porn laced with elite gossip, which for lack of a better word they call politics.

To be Kenyan is to be constantly re-traumatized by the institutions and structures that we inhabit, and having been dehumanized we proceed to unleash low-grade terrors on those close to us. In the end we’re becoming a pragmatic, soulless people who think our biggest problem is corruption while in truth it is the collapse of social order.

It’s the disintegration in the public trust; that core belief that this doctor won’t misdiagnose me, that this tout won’t hike the fares arbitrarily, that the rice I’m eating isn’t expired and repackaged, that the mechanic didn’t fit a faulty brake pad and pocket the money I gave for a new ones.

We can’t breathe because despite the billions looted from the coffers, the regime keeps telling us how the economy grew and all the great things they’ve done for us for which they deserve accolades. To be Kenyan is to desperately need the tools to help us see through the violence packaged in slimy words and to confront the assault on our sense of reality.

Lots of us Kenyans, grappling with declining incomes and job prospects, have to watch fuel guzzlers bully their way through our roads and red carpets laid for grand looters. We have to listen to empty yet colourful statements pepper the political talk by elites, and watch even more cash get looted by an uncaring and self-absorbed cadre. Our peers and relatives who lack the tools needed to process this reality and affirm their sanity amidst the constant assault are left to question their sense of humanity.

What prospects do I see for the future? First the human dividend that arises from having an educated generation not only increases the aggregate skill pool available, it also significantly increases the probability that a random person chosen to lead will be competent. Given that my generation (age 18-40) are the most educated then there’s hope in the horizon.

In the short run though I do not foresee any radical shift as the political class further strangles a shocked and neutered citizenry. It’ll get worse before it gets better and the tragic acknowledgement is that the worsening economy will claim numerous innocent causalities.

I’m constantly reminded of a conversation between a Kenyan economist and an unnamed Asian official to whom he was highlighting grand corruption in the country.

The Asian official, who was quick to remind him that his country has worse corruption than Kenya yet they were still prospering, affirmed a critical truth. That corruption is the near inevitable dysfunction of any given society. And that it takes that dysfunction coupled with incompetence for a society to produce the level of breakdown that we’re experiencing.

Elites are, in theory, the steady hands of the civilization, who ideally offer visionary leadership, invent new products and lay the path to future prosperity. But this a hope that we the Kenyan citizenry can’t lay on our ragtag cabal of elites who are simply united by their greed and plunder.

My primary fear for my generation is the risk of getting afflicted by the trauma of economic lack. A story is told about how during World War II, children would walk for days before finding food and then walking further to get even less food. Eventually the children came by a shelter where they were housed, clothed and fed. In the evening time the kind caregivers sent the kids to bed but the kids wouldn’t sleep. Aware that they didn’t know when they would come by food again, the kids stayed up all night staring at the crates of breads.

The caregivers figured out a solution, they gave each child a loaf of bread, and the kids slept well. That trauma of lack is a real possibility in our 40s and 50s. If we stay on the current path of grand looting and shrinking opportunities, we’ll emerge in our middle ages with little to show for materially. We’ll end up looting parastatals, risk the economy even further in a desperate bid to run away from the lack of bread that plagued our ‘jubinomics’ years. This same problem that’s plaguing the current 45-65 generation, who suffered the trauma of lack through the Moi years.

I can’t breathe as we’re swamped with tightening personal budgets, stalling academic prospects and dying art of community. I’m afraid when sanity resumes we’d have lost our capacity to smell the flowers, and regale in the simple joys.

Irrevocably traumatized, we risk being left stoic and unfeeling, laden with memories of economic violence too painful to retell in our later years. It’d grieve my now departed father that decades apart and despite his best public service, the plagues of his generation in Uganda are being revisited upon his son’s generation in Kenya.

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Reflections

#Repeal162 and Queer Waiting: Living Indefinitely In, And With, Despair

Queerness is found in the small, liberatory worlds we are creating even in this tyrannical here and now, not something far off and definitely never something to be waited on/for. Queer time is a disruption of state timing, state delays and state disremembering, and a commitment to everyday worldmaking.

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#Repeal162 and Queer Waiting: Living Indefinitely In, And With, Despair
Photo: Steve Johnson on Unsplash
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“Yesterday when I got the news I was feeling as if my life was over, but they were all sending me lots of encouraging messages.” – Kenneth Macharia, inews

“We are already winning through our visibility. We are reclaiming spaces, showing up.” – Njeri Gateru, Otherwise? Podcast Live Recording

 

Before his last asylum appeal was rejected, I imagine Kenneth Macharia awaited the British state’s decision regarding his asylum status reluctantly. I imagine that he scrolled through his email inbox hoping only to find spam and business as usual, knowing that banality creates a sense of continuity. I imagine that during the rugby games leading up to October 2018, he dug his toes into the ground a little harder as he crouched to catch pictures of his rugby team in action, each time waiting for the broken mud to give way to roots that would somehow wrap themselves around his foot, physically anchoring them to the ground, right there in Glastonbury, where it felt safer to work whilst queer, to love whilst queer, to be queer.

Maybe he thought, if not him, maybe the Home Office would listen to its own land. I imagine he did what it took to avoid the pain that must come with being stuck between two places that were intent on resisting his desire for home; two places that unsaw him – Black, Kenyan and queer – struggling to elongate every second so that he could resist the brevity of time and be home a little longer, a little safer. I imagine, he spent that time warding off the sharp “hopelessness” that comes with being told: “you have no basis to stay at [home] and you are expected to make arrangements to leave [home] without delay.” I imagine he brainstormed methods to resist the panic that he knew would ensue when he found the words to admit to himself that he might be made to wait for a letter that would put him and his relative queer safety on notice for a 6th and final time.

I don’t know, I imagine.

***

In the period of time between when the Kenyan high court was supposed to offer its decision on whether it would repeal the colonial-era penal codes (Penal Codes 162 and 165) which criminalized gay sex, and when it would actually deliver its ruling, queerness, for me, was unthought of, unaccounted for – blank. If queerness is “a rejection of a here and now, and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world,” as Jose Muñoz defines it in his critical work Cruising Utopias: The Then and There of Queer Futurity in a tweet published on February 22nd, the day the court postponed the date of its judgement delivery to May 24th, that February 22nd acts as the last digital trace of my thinking, feeling, reading or doing queerness for a while. Instead I would do, feel and live through fear – my own immobilizing investment in the present, and a refusal to think beyond it.

In that last tweet, I wrote: “The postponement of the #repeal162 ruling has me thinking about how waiting, postponement, produces anxiety, slow panic, etc. and how debilitating it is for us, not just as queer individuals, but as a community.” Sensing my despair, a Twitter friend replied that this delay was standard for cases brought before superior Kenyan courts. However, given the affective resonances of this case, its stakes and the Kenyan state’s history of marking queer people as “non-issues” – as things to be considered after “corruption,” after “development”, after “tribalism,” and so on – bureaucracy as a rationalization for this delay was not sufficient. Though pragmatic, his words did not do what I needed them to do. They did not abate the anxiety, slow panic, etc. that was brewing in my chest, and spilling over into my thoughts, work, relationships – my (queer) living. They did not shake me out of that in-between state, where it felt like I was floating in stasis with neither words nor breath circulating, just blank.

In fact, it isn’t that his words did not do what I needed them to do, instead it is that they couldn’t. Their meaning could not be stretched to suture the gaping psychic and physical wounds that so many of us Kenyan queers had incurred at the hands of the state and the people that should have loved us. They instead functioned as a reminder of the waiting that had been done and that which was to come – the waiting we are still doing, and the loss that has been generated in the wake of those long pauses.

Here I want to trace the meaning of waiting – queer waiting. I want to think through what it means to make people wait and what it means to wait in anticipation, when at best what is being waited for lies somewhere between a sentence to live indefinitely in despair and a chance to live with it.

**

Friday February 22nd was anything but business as usual for queer Kenyans, and yet for the Kenyan High Court it was. With the chances of loss more palpable than that of a positive ruling, I needed to be able to feel unperturbed, without the distractions of impending school and work deadlines. So that week, holed up in my dorm room far away from home, I worked continuously, attempting to finish as much work as possible before Friday.

When Friday arrived, I repeatedly refreshed my social media newsfeeds and dragged as many tweets out of my shaky fingertips as possible, hoping that intellectual engagement could upend the physical distance between me and the queer community at home. I thought that maybe psychic proximity could make up for what I could not force distance to do, but it couldn’t and the loneliness I felt only festered. Instead, those tweets worked to fill up time. They shrunk each second of panic as the Justice announced the delay into something more acute – pain that was sharp and intense, but brief. The adrenaline as each angry word jutted out of my hands momentarily masked the impact of the long and destructive etymology of the Justice’s words – they delayed feeling, they put loss on hold.

In an article in The East African recounting the announcement, writer Sam Kiplagat explains that the ruling was delayed because “some judges had been busy.” Specifically, Kiplagat quotes High Court Justice Chacha Mwilu as stating, “We plan to meet in April if all goes well and see whether we can come up with a decision. You do not appreciate what the judges are going through.” In the same article, Kiplagat goes on to recall President Uhuru Kenyatta stating “President Uhuru Kenyatta has previously said that gay rights was not a burning issue for the country.” Here Mwilu imagines the sole victims of government bureaucracy and resource limitations as being judges. Queer Kenyans and advocates – the referents of Mwilu’s “you” – are recast as impatient and inconsiderate, patently unaware of the judges’ demanding workload, but most importantly uninjured. Here Mwilu’s “you” emerges from the same political genealogy as Kenyatta’s “non-issue,” and what is a routinized and standard delay within Kenya’s judicial system, as my friend explained to me, became tethered to a history of malice and neglect in which queer people, their wellbeing, their everyday, their lives, their injuries are always already an afterthought, things of luxury.

In turn, queer people are made to wait – forced to adhere to the state’s timing. “Waiting” functions as a lapse wherein queer futures exist at the state’s mercy or its lack thereof. The state’s readiness and their lack thereof become ours; the timing of our plans is recalibrated to move at the state’s pace; the ability or desire to feel, work, love, think or even move ebbs and flows with the state’s decisions, its silences. And at some point, in the course of waiting, queer timing is contorted into straight timing and queer life becomes tethered to state life, along with all its delays, its dismissals, its disremembering.

***

In its letter rejecting Kenneth Macharia’s petition for asylum, the Home Office stated that he was “expected to make arrangements to leave the United Kingdom without delay.Without delay. Prior to receiving this letter dated 30th May 2019, Macharia had been fighting deportation for three years, starting with his first asylum claim filed in May 2016 which was thereafter rejected in October 2016, triggering a lengthy appeals process that concluded with the letter I quote in this essay. In reading excerpts of this letter, I struggle to make sense of this timeline – its unevenness. Whilst the state reserves the right to mull over his claim severally over three years, I imagine Macharia’s expending his financial, emotional and mental resources, and delaying everything from critical milestones to the everyday mundane things one must do to survive.

And now, at the state’s command, Macharia is expected to leave immediately; he is expected to leave behind the communities he has cultivated and the home he has created without delay. Despite being made to live his life anticipating the state’s actions, despite being made to wait, despite the state’s delays, Macharia is expected to accelerate processes he likely never hoped to initiate. Here the meaning of “delay” morphs from the state’s lengthy bureaucratic requirements for asylum applicants to “prove” persecution into Macharia’s goodbyes, his livelihood, his family, his community, his lease, his rugby team, his resistance, his living. Survival becomes reduced to a “delay.” It does not matter that he has been made to wait for this dehumanizing decision for over three years, and it does not matter that he is being deported to a place where queer people have also been made to wait for the end of a legal regime put in place by the same British state which has made him wait at home. Here all that matters is the state’s time, never that of the queers.

***

When Friday May 24th arrived, I tried to ignore it. Still jilted from the court’s decision to delay its ruling, I found it difficult to be excited, let alone hopeful of what the court’s decision might hold. Yet as much as I tried to resist the optimism that framed that moment, the pictures of queer people in matching outfits and audio clips of happy, confident chatter were infectious. Though still cautious, as the morning proceeded, I began to believe that we would win. I followed the court proceedings via Twitter threads, fervently clicking, hoping that each new tweet would provide a surer understanding of what the court’s decision might be. I did not anticipate the court’s negative ruling until I saw it: “The Petitioners have failed to prove that the provisions are discriminatory,” as another Twitter friend paraphrased it. With those words, the disappointment of the court’s decision began to sink in. Excitement mutated into anxiety and fear and I began to sense a tethering to the state – to the here and now that Muñoz wrote against. It felt like a kind of betrayal. Even as the state forced us to wait, a standpoint wherein we were waiting on the state gradually developed. The line between state extraction and our anticipation had thinned, and disillusionment began to permeate my thoughts. It became clear that “to make wait” works as a strategy to tether queer people to the state, thus diminishing the liberatory capacities of queerness.

Here, we are forced to contend with what it means to anticipate the state’s ruling when queerness has always been positioned against the state and its death-dealing logics. Indeed what was at stake with this ruling cannot be dismissed. As many have rightly stated, Penal codes 162 and 165 function as precedents for discrimination, anti-queer violence and isolation – they force you to think twice about mundane things from holding your lover’s hand to congregating with other queer people in public and private spaces. What is left in the wake of these two destructive penal codes is distrust and worry, and so to wait on the state for redress is not wrong. In fact, often the extent to which one is able to distance oneself from the state and its violence is the product of cisgender, class and racial privileges. As such, untethering oneself is not always radical, instead it can simply be convenient.

But there are those who have always consciously resisted waiting. There are those who understand that at best what we gain for the state is harm reduction, never freedom. They teach us that the true work of redress and healing is done through our organizing, our hangouts, our home making, our drag shows, our podcasts, our art, our writing, our dance parties, our workplaces – through our community, away from the state’s gaze. They teach us that to untether ourselves from the state is not to take queer precariousness and state repression for granted, but instead to find ways to live with despair – to pursue freedom and life even as our bodies and minds continue to be devastated by the psychic and physical violence of being made to wait. For them queerness is found in the small, liberatory worlds we are creating even in this tyrannical here and now, not something far off and definitely never something to be waited on/for. For them queer time is a disruption of state timing, state delays and state disremembering, and a commitment to everyday worldmaking.

***

According to the change.org petition created in protest of Macharia’s deportation, on June 6th 2019 fifty friends and supporters from around the United Kingdom gathered together to accompany Macharia as he reported to his local police station. Two days prior on June 4th, Brenda Wambui, host of Kenyan podcast Otherwise? organized a live podcast recording featuring queer/ally advocates and organizers Njeri Gateru, Lorna Dias and Pastor David Ochar to think through what post-ruling queer organizing might look like.

Even as despair seemed to consume our everyday, these communities organized and strategized to disrupt the state’s everyday. Even in the wake of myriad institutional devastations across borders, across time and across struggles – they continued to generate small queer worlds that were positioned against the state. Together, they molded visions and initiated plans that existed in opposition to the derelict realities and futures the state would prefer we inhabit. This is queer time.

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