There is a running joke on Kenyan social media platforms this week, variations of “Politicians sasa watoe posters, waganga wanataka kurudisha zao.” I laugh, I retweet, especially because the variation I come across features the woman-beating former governor Evans Kidero. It is that time in the political cycle when our lives are wallpapered with brightly-coloured but quickly-fading promises, some of which will survive, just barely, until the next election.
Campaign posters are the periodic spectres of what Prof. Grace Musila calls “the phallocratic landscape of state power in the country.” Most of them feature male politicians and political aspirants, the kinds of pictures that follow you with their eyes, their teeth, the kind of tacky that monopolises a colour for months, the kind of smiles that remind you of empty debes. They are a potent visual reminder of who administrative politics and public spaces are still dominated by, that this government, like the one before it, is highly unlikely to fulfill Article 81(b) of the Constitution. And like in previous years, the elements, human activity and goats will vanish them, mostly. The love doctor signboards and posters will go back up and regain banal prominence, renewed whenever they wear out. These, too, are largely designed for men’s power and pleasure – big dick, tight pussy, win a massive court case (at the ICC, for all we know) – or a child carrier’s potential and likely harm in a country where abortion is still illegal.
IMPOTENCE, or, collage of a country of men
bring back a lost senator [or] love doctor
control early ejaculation
na kura yako
(or, no sex the day before a soldier goes to war)
call Dr. L
safe abortions [and]
financial problems vote
This humorous demand for the healers’ posters to go back up interests me particularly because it weaves in and out of our conversations about and experiences of the ‘serious stuff’, particularly the fact that another group of health workers, a gendered group of health workers, are not working. Nurses in public health facilities are into their twelfth week on strike, demanding the Sh. 7.25 billion that the governors are trying to fleece them of. For some (repeated) context, the 2017 elections cost Kenyan taxpayers Sh. 103.85 billion (not including how much you personally spent to make sure your friends and family were as safe as you could afford to make them) and just might be the most expensive on the continent thus far. Meanwhile, this self-congratulatory administration is boasting about past and projected advancements in healthcare, while nobody in the opposition has given much consideration to the crisis we are in. And the rest of us are left to figure out how to go about healing in a time of perpetual wounding.
hapo 56, a woman is watching TV on her couch
this man in his too-big uniform is saying they are only fighting their war on the streets.
how to separate sound from sound outside,
scream from tear gas from swear word from silent prayer and my god what was tha…
…no matter, a bullet comes in through the window to tell her.
It rings true here as much as much as anywhere else that, as Prof. Wambui Mwangi puts it, “home is where women are most likely to be killed.” Elsewhere, Prof. Musila notes that Kenya’s public ledger of post-independence assassinations only has space for men, and one woman – Julie Ward. Sure enough, after IEBC official Chris Msando’s death the week before the elections, a meme was quickly created and circulated to memorialise those who became the heroic dead, none of whom are Kenyan women, not even Carol Ngumbu, whose body was found with Msando’s. And again I wonder how many women have died, will die, so that they can be “found dead” with important men, get blamed for their deaths, and then hammered into immemory.
was an eight-year-old girl on a balcony.
In one version of this story, she is hanging clothes out to dry, in another
she is playing with her friends, in yet another she is just standing.
In all versions, there was life in her, and then a bullet in her.
Guns are, more and more, becoming a part of Kenya’s public and rather phallic landscape, more imposing, more colour-steady, more permanent than campaign posters, and maybe one day, than healer’s advertisements. Cross the street if you see armed and fatigued men coming your way, but also pray that they did not notice the sudden change of your direction and wonder about it.
a man in Dandora steps out to brush his teeth, speak to his neighbour,
a uniformed bullet through the night air
settles itself in his chest
In his 2015 HeForShe non-speech, while disparaging Kenyans for not proactively ensuring their own security, and that of the woman being stripped at the matatu stage, Uhuru Kenyatta, a man who has spent much of his life under the state’s cushy protection, foolishly and carelessly asked, “Are the police going to be everywhere?” Public imaginary about security is so narrow that even when it is required to think about the private, this is the most secure scenario the president can pretend to be serious about, as if cops and soldiers do not rape and kill with impunity, as if it is not an old story, a true story, told or untold so often, sounding or unsounding like a requirement for war, yet in these times, we are reminded it is has always also been a requirement for ‘peace, for nation-building, for accepting and moving on. In 2013, Shailja Patel called it the politics of contempt:
“…peace is an outcome, not a choice. Peace is an outcome of visible justice, felt equality, universal access to resources, to lives of meaning, to infrastructures of opportunity. Not a choice… Above all, contempt is shaming the victims. Survivors of rape, massacre and displacement are unpatriotic tools of imperialism if they dare to enter international fora, if they seek the avenues of redress that are there for the ruling class to use daily. Who do they think they are, the Kenyattas?”
As organisations move to stop the first sitting of the 12th parliament due to its unconstitutionality, the contempt continues to unfurl its seemingly infinite self on all fronts. Note also that in this ‘debate’, public imagination has only just managed to acknowledge women exist; despite Article 81(b) clearly stating that “no more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender”, many of the ongoing discourses do not see gender-queer or gender-nonconforming people. Where far too many people are still stuck at is that gender equity is a Western disease. Or, demanding gender diversity is a self-entitled play, because Kenyans did not vote in women, despite the number of female political aspirants that have explained in great detail how unsafe campaigning is for them. Or, the taxpayer is furious because, despite every government’s history of plunder in this nation, this is the time we should be gravely concerned because the cost of fulfilling the gender rule is much too high. Or, you know, something like that.
Recently, Ruth Nyambura tweeted: “I think we need to be cautious about building structures for political education (in whatever form) which are just obsessed with elections.” She’s right. Election time makes so many histories visceral at exactly the same time, but the measure of contempt is familiar, uninterrupted, daily. Our labour, our fighting, therefore, must also be so. It seems to me completely ludicrous that we are compelling state bodies to abide by the state constitution, yet here we are. It is clear we are in need of more creative ways to continue a battle that has already been won in court after court, until women and queer people can move through this country every single day unafraid, unassaulted and unimpeded, much in the same way that rich straight men do. This is not just an electoral issue, or a constitutionally-enshrined clause, or a specifically women’s rights topic. It is care work. Humans human every day, so we desperately need to be in the business of becoming better versions of every intersection of ourselves. Imagining and working towards freedom, the absence of terror, the necessity of accountability and the possibilities of sustainable healing without re-wounding is daily work; learning from the Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian feminist organisation out of Baltimore in the 70s, “we reject pedestals, queenhood and walking ten paces behind. To be recognised as human, levelly human, is enough.”
About the Writer:
Wairimũ Mũrĩithi is a sometimes-writer, sometimes-editor, sometimes-student and full-time reader. She lives, loves and cycles across Johannesburg, and sends messages and memories [home] to Nairobi. She has a thing for green coats. When she is not doing all the things mentioned above, she is asleep. Buy her potatoes to keep her happy.
This piece is part of a longer series that Enkare Review is running on the post-electoral situation we find ourselves in as a country. We welcome bits of photography, reportage and essays on the same as part of the process of getting A Sense of Where We Are. Submissions, of which we encourage a word count of between 500-1200 words, should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org as word documents under the subject line ‘A Sense of Where We Are.’ Enkare Review would like to compensate you for the time spent and thought put into your writing. However, it is unfortunate that we cannot afford to pay for your work yet. Kindly bear with us for now.