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).