Naijographia

by Bethuel Muthee

Uko wapi? This question and other variations of it are a part of daily conversations over mobile devices. To answer is to situate yourself.  It does not have to be the truth. In some cases, the placement made is not of location but of circumstance, as some have been heard saying while driving, “Niko karibu na polisi, acha nitakupigia.” Niko Nairobi and we are on the same page.

The built environment—buildings, roads, what we live within and around— is at its essence the definition of spaces according to intended uses. In this division and allocation of spaces is the supposed relation of spaces, bodies and objects, it is implied order. Daily life is performed within these spaces and this performance acts upon the spaces within which it takes places. Architecture, as Ivan Chtcheglov asserted, is “the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams.” It is the arena of the quotidian, the repetitive.  Daily life shapes the uses of the environment just as the environment affects relations. In as much as the environment molds identities and offers space for communal imagination it is also a site of constant protest against prevailing uses dictated by law.

Niko juu ya mawe. Grounded, temporarily immobile like a car with no means of locomotion. I am broke. Tuko base.

Seeing: a measure of distance between the self and the seen; the distance between the eye and the seen—length of time traveled. I have seen Nairobi my whole life. If seeing is also a measure of knowledge, I know a little, everything I have seen races in front of my eyes. Nairobi and I have been slipping past each other, moving by memory like the blindness of lovers in the dark. Habit derives from the Latin word habitare meaning to dwell: to live somewhere; to think and speak at length over something; to linger. It is a practice. I have made a habit of walking in order to see Nairobi.

For Emily Dickinson, a book was a means of transport, a way to cross the distance of seas and foreign land. It was a cure for wanderlust. My relationship with Nairobi is closely tied to books and reading. When I started walking around the city it was to look for cheap second-hand books since new books are too expensive; it was a search for poetry. I had been told that within books lies a body of knowledge and I am still searching for it. It is through books I started writing, copying out sentences, filling up notebooks with fragments picked up along adventures before giving flesh to my own words.

Hizi street zinateach zinawaandalia knowledge. – Wenyeji

To read a city is to assume the blankness upon which what is legible is written. It is to assume that city begins as a void, a barren space, a suspended innocent space waiting for the inscription of culture and history in order to become the narrative of place. How do I read Nairobi? How does one access this archive? Where do three friends locate and imagine their lives and practices? How do we begin to think of habits and habitation? How does the city make us and what do we make of it? What lessons are there in the opacity the city offers?  Is it possible to read a document written over so many times it is almost illegible?

Naijografia: Nairobi geography beneath my feet.  Naijografia: naitembea, inaniandika. I dwell in constant movement in an attempt to make legible the marginalia written in faint steps.

Nataka footsteps zangu zikuwe in wide circulation kama mix za Demakufu.

In 2009, while he was Minister of Environment, John Michuki ordered the cutting down of all eucalyptus trees that were growing near water sources. Previously, while Minister of Internal Security, he had given a shoot-to-kill directive that cut down the lives of many young men.

It is from Andrea Pagnes, a performance artist, I learn that in Arabic there are three distinct words that define the human body. Gesem: the body-body, the physical, tangible substance that includes flesh, muscles, bones and blood. Gesed is the mind-body, the mind, the mental infrastructure that supports and controls Gesem. Beden, the psyche-body, the psychosomatic, the intangible interface where emotions dwell and that is expressed through Gesem while influencing Gesed. The performance of daily life is a presence of all three, encountering one’s body within landscapes amongst other bodies, dreams, objects and technologies.

“Why do we say, the mystic said,  
I think but not  
I am beating my heart.”

Swinging between intention and attention. Unintended attention?

A few minutes after noon, along Quarry Road, a few metres past the Salvation Army College. Clanging tools against metal, fire and welded vehicle body parts and shouting mechanics. The rhythm of building of making and tearing apart. Walking towards Gikomba, I drift and join a funeral procession approaching Kariokor Muslim Cemetery. Big deaths and small deaths.  Death and its rituals in the city. My pace becomes one with those whose feet raise dust with mortal steps, whose hands move reaching for the anonymous body in shared grief. I chant with them, we pray, our feet and voices counterpointed by panel- beating. We approach the cemetery gates and there I continue my journey, alone.

In 1788, Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle, a French botanist, named a new species whose sample he had gotten from a colleague in Britain. The sample had been collected during the imperial expeditions to Australia by James Cook in 1770. Following Linnaean taxonomy, he named the genus Eucalyptus and the species obliqua. Eucalyptus from the the Greek “eu” (good) and “kalyptos” (covered,concealed) due to the conical covering of the buds.

Natembea kutoka Calif nikienda Shauri Moyo kusalimia maarif. Naamua kupitia Majengo kwanza. Nikiwa Kije karibu na Lumbwa Street nasimamishwa na wasee watatu. Mmoja wao ni mrefu, mweusi na amevaa polo ya blue striped, jeans za blue, Adidas mbichi na jako ya leather. Ule mwingine ni mzae mfupi anakaa mtungi. Beste yao amejificha kwa corner, simwoni vizuri uso vile amevaa kofia.  Sato morning around 10.30, I haven’t slept, jana nilikuwa handas na nimewacha simu mtaani. Plainclothes police. Si bure wanaitwa mabeast, hawa watu ni wanyama. Wanangoja mtu apite wanamsimamisha, tuko watatu sasa, nilikuwa wa pili kubambwa. “Toeni vitambulisho.” Shit. Hiyo pia nimeacha mtaani. My bag is searched and they find nothing but books and an impressive collection of empty matchboxes. “Kila mtu atoe thao mwende kwenye mlikuwa mnaenda. Ama mnadhani hatujui mlikuwa kwa ile wizi imeendelea pale Section 3 leo asubuhi?”

I stay silent. Odidi  runs through my throat. Mdomo imekauka, nadai tu maji, fegi na labda pia mahali pakujiekelea. Sielewi kuna enda aje. None of us has anything of interest to them, not even a stub of weed in a matchbox. They get agitated, we are wasting time. The tall cop pulls out his gun from somewhere behind his jacket. “Nyinyi ni wezi!” Bado roho inachapa ju ya handas lakini sasa pia fear imeingia. We are cuffed to each other and we are an unsteady chain as we are made to sit on the cold wet soil. Ule drum ya maji anatupiga piga mateke kwa mguu akituambia leo tumepatana na wale wabaya. Jamaa amekaa kando yangu amekuwa akijaribu kutuma mamessage kwa sms na anashinda akivuta mkono yangu akitype. Sina mtu wakuniokoa.Kidogo kidogo anasema amepata m-pesa na wanaenda na sanse ule amekuwa akichungulia kutoka mbali, tunabaki wanne. “Wewe unajua ninaweza kukuua?” ni yule mtiaji mrefu ameniwekea ndeng’a kwa kichwa. “Nitakupiga risasi na niseme ulikuwa unaimpersonate polisi.” Trembling hands. Heart pounding. A dancing stomach. These are the visceral translations of the fear that spreads over my body. I doubt I’ll live. Hivi ndio jiji hukula vijana wake.

“A doubting body is an uncomfortable sprawl of questions. A dead body is a legible statistic in a police ledger. The transformation of the doubting body into the dead body is another kind of translation.”

Psychogeography was conceived as a way to claim the city, to appropriate through playful ways and subvert the city as spectacle. The dérive, drifting was a “playful-constructive” method that aimed to move through places in an attempt to study the ambiances that set up zones,  that allowed or denied movement. It was a radical gesture mostly done on foot.

“That is why we roam. Because sometimes we are places, not people.”

Waiting to cross the road from Haile Selassie Avenue, Upper Hill while the incline opens up before me. What I move towards and away from is in front of my eyes. “Vision implies the future.” Walking up the hill, listening to the violent sound of chainsaws felling trees, I wonder what John Ainsworth saw when he planted the blue gum tree in Nairobi. The buzzing saws are becoming a regular part of Nairobi soundscape alongside matatus, ambulances, and concrete mixers. Luxury apartments will be planted where the trees stood. Introduced around 1902, the eucalyptus has become so disguised among other trees one cannot tell they are not indigenous.  Among the many uses of the eucalyptus trees, they were grown for making railway sleepers. The dream the city was built on derailed a long time ago.  The movement of capital in the capital city continues to accumulate, reflecting in the landscape its own image of greed that does not even leave stumps.

(Kuko na copy ya Visiki inauzwa hapo kati kati ya Arizona na Tennesse  Fries, Tom Mboya Street na inauzwa 350. Bei ya kuongea.)

  “It marked space. It pared away the earth. It branded men. It stamped their tongues. Small towns flourished along its path as if greeting it ceremoniously.”

Nairobi still stands on a platform, waving.

You guy, if aliens were to hover over this place, do you imagine they’d sema that motis were the dominant life form?

              Nairobi River inaflow na ndoto zetu.
Time flows while sitting listening to morning radio stuck in traffic.
Drains? Kwenye ziko, zinaoverflow.
Nothing flows data bundle ikiisha.

It is the last time I am in Club Monte Carlo before it closes in a few months and changes names and starts to exist under an alias. A city in constant renovation trying to forget itself while keeping the same structure. This evening, two buses were ripped by home-made bombs along Thika Road, on the news they call the bombs IEDs. Two people die and many are injured and the images of police and ambulances fill the television screens. A purple Jeean bus is the first to be blown up at Homeland. Hiyo ndio stage yenye me hushuka kila siku. The Mwi Sacco bus will be blown a few minutes later under the Kasarani underpass. Papa Chally is the selector on the decks.  Tonight, the interrupted falling that is walking will collapse into fervent dancing. In the small room with grills on the windows, that room where windows open outside but many are broken, bodies are thrown into irie movement and it gets hot. Ukuta zinasweat na sisi. A hand touches mine as Gregory Isaacs plays. I fumble, move out of step. In this light it is hard to make out the colour of her eyes, she laughs. “Hapa hakuna ma mbio, mdogo mdogo tu.” Cool down the pace. Fear of going home is dissipates in slow circles that build into a performance of forgetting. I will dance and throw myself into the dancing, throw myself onto the dance floor as if trying to gather the shrapnel of my fear.

“Me hupitia machuom mingi hadi napatana na me nikirudi.”

Kutembea pia ni kuonekana, kuonwa na wengine. During a panel discussion on space and urban practice at The Gathering held in February, Naddya Adhiambo reminded us that “patriarchy is the scaffolding that holds up the city”. My body is a threat. There have been expensive surveillance installations around the city. People watch each other and the paranoia grows. This is a city that will strip a woman, record it and use it as a warning to others. Men watch over bodies, women and queer people and respond with violence, shaming. In colonial Nairobi tribal welfare groups played a role in the policing of bodies:

“By 1946 the enquiries into African women’s private lives took place in earnest: there was an unconfirmed report that the Kikuyu General Union (KGU) “was holding their own court to punish wayward girls and return them to their homes.”

And
“If a Luo woman was caught by Luo men they’d make her strip and make her wear a dress made out of sacks and then they’d make her walk around where everybody could see her and they’d denounce her as a prostitute.”

Violent acts marked on bodies and the fear of a terror that always waits. Keguro Macharia refers to this as “banal misogyny”; normalized acts of violence that are present in everyday spaces that call for a radical imagination that demands livability.

Skiza Mat za Ronga ya Tunj. Skiza tena. Angalia matatu za Dennis Muraguri.

Re   site-ing  poem kwa matatu.
Re   sight-ing poem kwa bar.
Risiti ya Kenya Bus.

Fred Moten, in a talk titled An Ecology of (Eloquent) Things, using the work of Thorton Dial as a point of depature, says, “We have to linger, art allows us to linger. Between something and nothing, nothing and everything so that we can begin to understand how the inter-relationship between wealth and poverty is all bound up with the question, which is to say, the study, of things.”

I think of these words as I walk and find within and around the city, tiny monuments, a city that is building an art of surviving. They are stones, small altars for the performance of daily rituals of transactions. I linger. It is the mahindi choma place at the corner and the stall at the market. The city becomes the studio and the gallery. These structures demand working together and those working around the same area help each other build, it is a form of study. Building and rebuilding. Maketho maloso – nabomoa nikijenga.

Uko wapi?

About the Writer:

Bethuel Muthee is a writer and editor at Enkare Review

Naijographia, an exhibition curated by Bethuel Muthee, Mbuthia Maina and Jepkorir Rose, opens today (05/07/2017) at the Goethe-Institut Nairobi, and runs till 20/07/2017

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