Yuko Mteja1: The Unfound, Extrajudicial Subject
Samahani, mteja wa nambari uliyopiga hapatikani kwa sasa2. The idea of the unfound person comes into sharp relief precisely because Kenyans answer their phones regardless of time, place, or situation. That there will almost always be someone at the end of the line: this is one way we appear to and for each other, one way we are reliable to one another. So much so the very idea that one cannot be found becomes unfounded. It exists either beside or outside the unwritten laws that govern how we relate with one another. It is extrajudicial—or even alegal—to our social. How does the yuko mteja, the one who is unfound, who resides outside our social injunctions to always be present, sit alongside or come up against all the others who have been reported missing, those who have been extrajudicially killed? What is the temporal continuum between one who is yuko mteja temporarily and another who has entered that contact zone of no return where the state unpersons us, disappears us, tells us those who can’t be found cannot be declared dead because they have not been issued death certificates, which cannot be issued precisely because they remain unfound?
Ukishakuwa M|teja3: Don’t Say No To Drugs
In the midst of a moral panic, an object occupies the penumbra of its social field more fully. The object (its meaning, really, but let’s stick with the object) becomes supervalent—proximal to other objects, imbricated, implicated even, conjoined. For instance, our moral panic renders drug use at the Coast as indistiguishable from sex work; sex work inseparable from queerness; and queerness inextricable from terrorism. All these objects and their domains have becomes sticky, bound together at the molecular level by the adhesive force of slippery slope logic. One thing leads to another. One thing is another. Their borders run over one another.
It is worth talking about borders in so far as our moral panic—which both nods and shakes its head at Pwani si Kenya4, the map that is no longer the territory—manifests as a conflict over embodied sovereignty. The fear here is that “the” drug will disorganize us, render our borders moot, or that we will become all too organized around “the” drug, which is another cartography altogether, one more attendant to non-sovereignty and aware of its own ideological investments. It is precisely this border-policing work that the prefect imaginary does. The prefect (insert: John Mututho wearing the face mask of Ezekiel Mutua5) wants us to say no to drugs when all we really want is to say yes to insurgence. What we want is wildness.
“Mungu naye akusaidie alete wateja [waje] wakupanue”6
We who never failed to notice that President Moi always said the words “World Bank” in a North American accent, even when he was taking a slight break from Swahili to sound out those two words in English, know we’ve always been cornered not only by the market, but also by the police. We’ve been hemmed in and shut out. Our labor is indespensable even as we are disposable. We have flesh but not bodies.
We who are organs without bodies desire to be open, to be opened. We refuse the securitization that renders our houses, indeed our very lives, open to surveillance by the state. We refuse the nyumba kumi7 machinery that believes kila mtu ni serikali8, even as it unsees how shoddily built housing structures keep collapsing by the hour, or by the news headline—that which we are surveilling each other to keep safe is already collapsing under its own weight.
We know we are already out in the open, transient with no homes to surveil or take cover in, cornered by the openness, fugitive, without permanent addresses, running from landlords seeking rent for collapsed housing built illegally on the riparian reserve. Tuko kwenye kona, kwenye base mtaani, pale maskani makuu9. We are already—as Sandi Hilal would say—both on and in the corner. It is where we work, where we hustle. Our market work—we in the corner, we the corner, the mama nitilies10 of this world, the youth whose corner-work is mistaken for and as kubangaiza11—already instantiates what Fred Moten would call “another mode of social support”, away from the neoliberalism, in it but not of it. We who are deprofessionalized want to stay this way and that’s fine and lovely.
We traffic in the maganda12 of economic justice; our nightly travels evade msako wa wapigaji doria13. Our mali kwa mali14 calls echo as we cirlce to bring down the walls of Jericho, the walls of Buru Buru, the walls of Lavington that right now stand between you and I, between you and a vast set of yous. We are neither waiting for kazi kwa vijana15 nor are we a part of kazi iendelee16, for we have seen the sweat-work and sweat-pay those who believe we cannot imagine better for ourselves have lined up for us. We are here challenging the appropriative and expropriative systems of accumulation in which women do not inherit, in which they get paid less or not at all. We are here, now, open.
Coda: From Mteja to Blackness, & Back?
Once you go mteja…
Is this about black time? About returns? About the redouble? About the interval between “hello hello” (one Mississippi, two—) and “nataka kuongea na Mariko”17? Can you be mteja:black and free (a demand)? Can you be mteja:black and carefree (a risk)? Can you be mteja:black “here”, without national anxiety, or is it already too late, a foregone conclusion (postcolonial)? Can you love mteja:black and be loved by mteja:black (diasporic intimacy)? Can you go mteja:black and come mteja:black (not sexual, but spatio-temporal)? Can you occupy mteja:black (sociogenic) and unown mteja:black (fugitive)? Or is mteja:blackness “the preoccupied breath of those who have been taken, those who have been made to leave”? Is mteja masquerading as blackness?
1. Yuko mteja: slang for can’t be reached or found (on phone), remains unfound.
2. Samahani, mteja wa nambari uliyopiga hapatikani kwa sasa: Sorry, the person you have called can’t be reached at this moment. (This is the voice prompt for missed calls.)
3. Mteja: customer; also caller or cellphone owner. Teja and mteja are also slang for hard-drug user, hence ukishakuwa m|teja means if, which is to say when, you have become a drug user.
4. Pwani si Kenya: (Transliteration: the Coast is not a part of Kenya) rallying motto for a secessionist, land rights movement at the Coast led by the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC).
5. John Mututho, chair of the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, has whipped up a moral panic by willfully conflating all kinds of drinking with alcoholism; Ezekiel Mutua is the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board. He routinely oversteps his mandate and bans films deemed too sexual or queer, highly publicized parties for youths, and even condom ads that portray women as fully agential sexual partners.
6. Mungu naye akusaidie alete wateja [waje] wakupanue: may God bless you with customers whose business will open up your ventures.
7. Nyumba Kumi: (Transliteration: ten households) a government program that encourages people to surveil one another “for national security”; the idea is that people living in proximity to each other— as in ten closely knit households—can keep tabs on one another.
8. Kila mtu ni serikali: everyone is the government—that is, everyone is responsible for the surveillance necessary for national security.
9. Tuko kwenye corner, kwenye base mtaani, pale maskani makuu: We are at the corner, at our base or hangout spot, at our main hideout.
10. Mama nitilie: a food vendor with a foodcart or an outdoor kiosk.
11. Kubangaiza: loafing, idling, blowing the breeze—seen as done kwenye kona (on the corner).
12. Maganda: illicit trade or illegal goods.
13. Msako wa wapigaji doria: the security dragnet of officers on patrol.
14. Mali kwa mali: goods for goods (barter traders use this call to attract customers).
15. Kazi kwa vijana is a corruption-ridden government program tasked with creating jobs for the youth.
16. Kazi iendelee is one of the governing party’s mottos: may the work—i.e. development—continue.
17. (phone-caller speaking) Hello hello, nataka kuongea na Mariko: Hello hello, I’d like to speak to Mariko; (this is a refrain from a song).
If it is not that the poor have nothing, what do they have, & how does this having operate in relation to poverty?—Fred Moten channeling Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt
I came to explore the wreck—Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”
I’d like to say—without getting too much into it—that when my mother sought a detailed explanation from her incompetent lawyer regarding his actions which made her lose her mortgage court case—& very nearly her house—he came back with “something happened”. That phrase has stuck with me ever since.
Perhaps one can say—without getting too much into it—that “something happened” is right up there with “this is Kenya”, that map-making which cannot stabilize the territory that is temporary & already shifting due to mudslides, tectonic movement & also the evil eye.
In fact, “something happened” & “this is Kenya” are all bound up with “mashetani” (the devil did it) as the ineffable obviousness of obviousness that returns as a kind of anomic aphasia.
To say—without getting too much into it—that harm occurs because “something happened”, because “this is Kenya” or because “mashetani”, is to say black life at the bottom—in the subprime—continues to be dispossessed by the strange, compounding calculus of enforced poverty that produces deathworlds where the quasi-event of waiting is tied to non-arrival in a neoliberal imaginary in which killing or marking time is a criminal activity punishable by death.
Consider—which is to say feel—the many collapsed buildings this year, which is to say also last year, as far back as the bird’s eye view can see from the vantage of six or ten shoddily-built storeys or more, where the notion of self-containment is another passage to another bottom near but not under water, at the riparian reserve, under the phonic materiality of the collapse whose noise signals not as language but as Babel, as the incommensurable garble whose untranslatability resides, again, in that impossible phrase from my mother’s lawyer & which I can never really finish looking at: something happened.
How does one speak of blackness in a time of water damage? A time of leaking & incontinence, a time of elusive weather systems & a center that does not hold?
And what remains of “us” now, at the riparian reserve where “these are the materials” collapsed under the weight of a loss beyond the actuarial, where “we” get swept downriver into the kind of closure that is only possible as regret or remains unfinished as mourning? “We” who cannot be accounted for even as we underwrite, undergird & balance the well-wrought, overwrought accounts of those who exchange us as collateral.
Elizabeth Angell has taught me that buildings will always collapse during earthquakes. The idea is not so much designing structures that are quake-proof—that takes exorbitant amounts of money, making it all the more difficult to replicate en masse—so much as building those that will collapse gracefully i.e. those whose structural breakdown will best save lives.
What is the relation between gracefulness & the kind of structural failure that best saves lives? How are both graceful falling & structural collapse bound up with kwenye kona mtaani (the corner in the neighborhood) as a geography whose condition of possibility is incidental to gathering? And what if the gathering imagined here is subjects coming together at the jobless corner to do the kind of waiting the system mistranslates as kubangaiza (loafing)? What is the difference between being on the corner & being in the corner? What if sambaza (mobile money transfer), that rhizomatic mode of social support at the corner, is a critical transcendence not only of private property but of the very idea of sovereignty?
This architectonics of the corner is oppositional to the plot-for-sale as a colonization of space that contains “an entire history of the emergence of Kenya—of stolen lands, unfair contracts, the minutia of colonial bureaucracy, the acquisitive hunger of the newly independent, the many lives of dispossession in the name of progress, development, settlement, [&] resettlement.”
As a tool for the democratization of sovereignty, the plot is a spatial imagination in which women do not matter, occupy space or even have weight. It’s a spatial imagination in which women must live without leaving a trace of their habitation. Furthermore, it is a form of expropriation in which women do not inherit—indeed, from which women have been evacuated.
What remains of “us” now, at the bottom, under the collapsing weight of mjengo (unfinished structures) where we haribu jina ujenge mwili (ruin our name to build our body)? What remains of “us” who are down but not out “at the rendezvous of victory”?
What do we want from each other
after we have told our stories
—Audre Lorde, There Are No Honest Poems About Dead Women
If all those hours I spent watching Tujuane could yield anything, I’d wonder about how—in the words of Keguro Macharia—the problems of the nation become reduced to the problems of heterosexuality. And not just because (as Michael Warner has stated, & yes I know I’m being overly citational) the desire to be seen as always already heterosexual is a heterosexist position, but especially because Tujuane highlights the gendered neoliberal anxieties at the very heart of our nation-making.
I’m thinking here of the common Tujuane script: upwardly mobile woman from Westlands who only speaks English (& works in the formalized economies) gets matched with a “hustler” man from Eastlands who only speaks Sheng (“ile ya ndani”) & works in an informal or pirate economy so shadowy as to render itself illegible, unspeakable even (several episodes include men who flat out refuse to delineate what sort of hustling they do, & understably so). And because we’re in the terrain of nation-building here, one might wonder how Wanjiku—with all its ethnic problems—was replaced by ma-hustler—with all its gender-work & gender problems.
I’ve been wondering how these gender constructions are read by the general public, especially in light of high unemployment & the moral panic over masculinities in crisis (the boys left behind discourse). And how does one read all this against the widely(?) held belief that when people from different ethnic communities marry, it fosters national unity? (Apparently marriage will save the nation!)
What do any two people on a date on Tujuane want from each other after they have told their stories? Granted they can understand one another—what with one only speaking posh English & the other speaking a Sheng that registers only as noise to their interlocutor? Do all these people just want to get married & have the kind of heterosexual sex that safeguards the nation? (Is this why our politicians are on record referring to queers as terrorists?)
I watched a livestream of the inaugural The Black Outdoors event today. Hours later, I’m still processing, still listening, still learning from it & from all who spoke & all who were present. I was, in part, watching the bodies of the interlocutors, trying to tune in to the embodied work of wrestling with difficult concepts. I couldn’t help notice Dr. Sarah Jane Cervenak’s right foot gently tapping the floor at the beginning. Then Fred’s (to me, at least) rarely changed, hardly changing posture during the talk, along with that “I’m just tired” that he uttered in response to a question, & that I still can’t or won’t stop hearing. And I was watching what passes for quiescence in Saidiya’s body language (I really do love the look on her face when she’s listening-thinking). Judith Butler says somewhere—& we know from blackness, from those telling us to “keep the peace” when we protest, when keeping the peace means living under the conditions of black killability that white supremacy wants us to accept as our everyday—that peace is hardly ever a quiescent state. So I’m trying to contend with Saidiya’s body’s mode of listening, which I am mistaking—yes I know the danger of mistaking a black woman’s body, those who are routinely mistaken—as quiescence, but only because by quiescence I mean something else I still don’t have my finger on. That silence she has/is when she is listening. It’s like what Eve K. Sedgwick called “non-interference”. I’m still listening to her body listening. Listening to & for her lack of compulsion to answer questions in synchronous relay, the way she leans into a question, silently at first, before replying.
- The manamba is a set of Fibonacci numbers. As the one who—in the words of Fred Moten—is not one, but is one plus more among others, she is mtu saba, she is mtu ni watu. The manamba’s multiplicity makes her ghost work real in so far as she delivers more than what’s required. She exceeds her capacity, and therefore exists beyond the logic of the roster that seeks to renumerate (only) one in ways that absent the multiplicity of the one whose work and presence are legion
- The manamba dangles precariously on a vessel in orbit to our stick-shift future. We can get to that future via the depressive realism of inhabiting the pothole
- The manamba’s precise dangling repositions what we can get away with without injury as a refusal of crisis
- The manamba is an ableist fantasy that distributes injury without eliminating it
- The brutal set of conditions that produce and enable the manamba—we must set aside the question of what exhaustion can enable—restage her body as the crash test dummy who absorbs repeated, sustained impact that results in attrition injuries in a manner that not only precludes workers compensation, but also temporalizes harm as “something that happened when no one was looking”, as “something to come and then coming too late”
- The manamba is a Charles Babbage fantasy. She is a fifth order polynomial solved five times by the difference engine
- The manamba is our hypeman: kapuka this, kapuka that
- The Eurobond money was used to turn the manamba into a six billion dollar bionic woman with jua kali knees and M-Pesa capability
- The manamba scandalizes sex—as if that can happen “here”
- The matatu—we are shifting gears here—is a superobject
- The matatu stops anywhere. It employs the supermodern cartography of the non-place
- The matatu’s incongruous temporality is that of hurrying up so one can slow down—passengers are rushed into it, but the matatu doesn’t leave until it’s almost full, and it often gets stuck in traffic. At the end of the business day, mdosi anangoja pesa zake migo migo, which is about the only way Kenyan bosses wait (all those methali about the benefits of slowing down cannot contend with the manamba’s body hurried by mdosi anayengoja migo migo, which raises the question of how class “happens” in and via methali when differently classed bodies are assigned either ustaarabu wa waliostaafu or forced into the awkward, break-neck haraka haraka of the dispossessed)
- How to reconcile the slide from matatu :: manyanga :: ndogo ndogo with how women are routinely sexually harassed and assaulted in matatus while in transit to a stick-shift future we cannot now reach, because patriarchy—it is difficult to speak of the hapticality of this passage as radical when the matatu presents such gender trouble
- The matatu honks and honks, honks at air, honks at onlygodknowswhat, honks to help it echolocate with the quadraphonic echo that returns from its immersive world of the upside down. Bidii juu chini meets bidii ya mchwa in a development imaginary threatened by jigger burrowing
- The matatu traffics in maganda. It consents to no searches. Everything it says can and will be used against it in a court of law
- Our fantasy of going somewhere is routinely interrupted by the intransitive gesture of the bridge to nowhere
This here (sic) is just to say I heard someone say “the government is not doing enough for men” while I was watching Kenyan television, and I have been reeling ever since. I wanted to write about this claim that a government for men, by men, and of men is not doing enough for men simply because women’s empowerment discourses are so pervasive in development work, but ain’t no one got time for dat.