On Mourning: Repetition and Re-memories

The word “again” is a signifier of time and memory. “Again” recalls a time a thing that is happening now happened before. I imagine—which makes it true, if not factual—that every language has a word, or words, to signify the repetition of things. Once upon a time, certainly, there must have been no use for it, but that is a time that must only be remembered through imagination that becomes fiction, but once was not.

Again-ness also connotes movement. There must be distance between the thing that happened and its subsequent repetition.

Mourning is permanently in a state of again-ness. If we were to count mourning as we count things, like chairs and buses, there was, I imagine, a first mourning. It might have been a pain so bad, the person or people who felt it may have thought there could only be one such time for it. And then, as with other things, the person or people moved away from the mourning. Maybe they forgot it, maybe they did not. If they forgot it, it did not feel like it was happening a second time. But then it happened a third time and a fourth and a fifth, ad infinitum. For us to mourn again, we remember that we mourned before. And then we remember why we mourned before, and we find that there are finite causes of infinite mourning.

That is not to say that it is impossible to become stuck in the first mourning, but that there is certainly movement, even if it is away from the first instant of our mourning, such that a second one can come in a fresh wave before the first one is ever left behind—if mourning was a bomb, or even an entire war, then Palestinians barely have time to look up after the first mourning comes before the second one hits.

But even if, hypothetically, there are periods in every person’s life free of mourning, they are not in sync, which means at any given time, there are large numbers of mourning occurring. And because this happens again and again, because of time and memory, because there are finite causes of infinite mourning, mourning threatens to become banal. When it does this, sometimes we forget—forgetting is a significant exercise of memory—which of these causes are the reason for our mourning, or when this mourning began, or when the last mourning ended, or which mourning felt better than the other, or even that we are mourning at all.

Sometimes, then, our mourning begins to look like misremembering.

It has been 105 days since Garissa.

My brother was born in 1997, and this became an important year for it. 1997 was an election year. 1997 was the year a Ugandan newspaper claimed Moi was possibly the second-richest man in Africa after Mobutu Sese Seko. 1997 is when the Remuneration of Teachers (Order of 1997) was signed. For me, 1997 was the first time I had a bath on my own, by candlelight because KPLC had done its thing. My mother was in hospital, having just given birth to my baby brother. My father filled the tub for me, lit the candle and left me to my devices.

This is a misremembering. I recently recounted this memory to my mother and she told me it couldn’t be true because in the January my brother was born, I was just under three years old. My father has many parental shortcomings, but she said he wouldn’t have left a two year old alone in a bathtub, and with a candle nearby. Furthermore, a wonderful woman named Regina was working in our home at the time, and she had given me my baths every day since my mum had gotten too heavy to. 1997 was the year Daniel Arap Moi ‘won’ his fifth term of presidency. In 1997, Ksh. 100 million was raised at a KANU presidential lunch, with meals being sold for as much as Ksh. 5 million.

My memory of time, then, is factually incorrect, but my memory of place and action remain true—I just must have been older, my brother was probably sick and hospitalised and my mother must have been with him that night. But memory is often an interweaving of different strands of logic until they don’t make sense anymore, and this one insists on assigning itself to January 1997, so I let it because it is important to me but ultimately harmless. At the time I began to piece it together, I was also piecing together other memories—none of them my own—of the Kenya that had been kept out of my textbooks. So, in 1997, Wangari Maathai ran for president, yet I recall a teacher telling my all-girls class that women couldn’t be president. In 1997, the Kenyan government “admitted” that NYS recruits were receiving military training; my mother’s stories about her time in the NYS sound like boarding school escapades. In 1997, the Office of the President, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Information, Transport and Communications ignored an alert on the El Niño floods that killed hundreds of Kenyans and left tens of thousands more homeless, although a government helicopter rescued Lands Minister Katana Ngala from his home in Ganze.

I am still picking up snippets of what it was like to live in the “Moi years”. My cũcũ still recalls being followed home and having her phone tapped because she worked for the university, and she insists she had it easier than most. Even though I was born eight years before he finally left office, I have been made to understand that these were his “milder” years, at least for a certain class of Kenyans—the years after Kenya’s first multi-party elections, the years after a thing called democracy came to pass. Kenya was, apparently, a better place for it, but the fear hadn’t dissipated. I didn’t feel it then, but I hear it when our memories were forced to merge with others’ that came before us, like when my teachers forcefully drumming the Loyalty Pledge into our tiny brains. One time, many years after Mwai Kibaki became president, my teacher declared that Moi was the best president this country had ever had, and for several months, I took and spoke it as gospel truth. I was not the brightest kid—it took me a while to realise that “because my teacher said so” was not a sufficient answer to “Why?”

Around the time, real or falsified, of my monumental bath (it was a big deal, ok?) my understanding of “President” was “owner of everything in the country”. When I began to remember the bath, I realised that I spent my childhood going around with the persistent thought in the back of my head that Moi owned everything—the bathwater I was sitting in, the candle, the soap, the wash towel, our apartment, a university, a road, a stadium, a number of choirs, a high school. I cannot know the fear of the Moi years because I did not carry it, but that was my understanding of it, aided by the framed pictures of his scowling face everywhere—be careful with things, because he owned them.

In April 2015, shortly after #147NotJustANumber began to trend online in honour of the (then) 147 students killed by Al Shabaab at Garissa University College, the Kenyatta (II) administration—christened the “hashtag government” by Kenyans on Twitter—launched #2YearsOfSuccess. Understandably, this distraction didn’t sit well. As I read the indignation, anger, disgust and disbelief in tweets from people who responded to the government hashtag, I remembered a recurring sentiment from the last two years during which terrorist operations carried out in Kenya (by non-state actors) have spiked—that even the Moi years hadn’t been this bad. Sometimes, our mourning looks like ahistorical nationalism.

*

I learn about the Westgate attack from Twitter, shortly after it began, all the way from my college dorm somewhere in South Africa. Quotidian language narrated quotidian violence, especially that after the legislation of shoot-to-kill. I am only slightly alarmed, knowing that whatever it is will be over before anybody knows exactly what it is but the tweets keep coming. I call my mother to make sure my family isn’t anywhere near the mall. This is how she learns about the attack. She says my brother is at home, but I call him anyway. And then I call him again. And again. He finally picks up after over thirty minutes of incessant ringing, during which panic is hitting me in fresh waves every time I refresh my newsfeed. He is at a friend’s house. I realise then how painful breathing has been.

For four days, everybody is looking at Nairobi, and yet I cannot possibly mean everybody. For example— the people I live and learn with appear not to know until the third day, and my tongue is too heavy for food at mealtimes, let alone conversation. “Everybody” as it is deployed, though— and I use the military jargon deliberately— means “mainstream media”, “[select] world leaders” and people, especially (but not only) white people, in the omnipresent and suffocating West. Eventually, my campus-in-a-bubble catches up with the news; to be Kenyan now is to watch faces fold with sympathy for weeks after.

The number stops at 68. A few days before the attack on Charlie Hebdo writers, Boko Haram attacked Baga, a village in Nigeria. The circulating number of deaths is about 2000. The number tied to GUC is 147, or 148, even though, at the time, it was suggested the death toll was closer to 200 than to 150. When I sent in the first draft of this post, 14 people in Mandera were still alive.

[Sometimes, our mourning looks like numbers in our Math exercise books waiting to be marked before they let us go home.]

There is a certain kind of outrage that arises that feels familiar. Its language is one that I’ve used several times for many years before now. It is built on a word: nobody. In the tangles of race and capitalism, of proximity to the centre and of peripheries, of class and productivity valuation, there is space for only one group of people— “everybody” — and its opposite, “nobody”, which, by definition, cannot actually also be a group or a person, but ends up being one.

That is, nobody is talking about Baga. Everybody is talking about Charlie Hebdo. Nobody is talking about Garissa, or Mpeketoni, or Lamu. Everybody is talking about the Boston Marathon bombing. Nobody is talking about #BringBackOurGirls— at least not anymore. Everybody is still supposed to think back to 9/11.

“Why are folks always begging, looking for reactions to the West? So what if Europeans don’t comment on Garissa? Is OUR grief not enough?”

  —Kinna (@kinnareads), 06/04/2015

In the space left by “nobody”, there is keening, screaming, accusations, questions, grieving. Yet our mourning has been made to look like—

“I’m a little confused. Is this atrocious because the international media is talking about it or because school children were tear-gassed?”

—Ndinda Kioko (@ndinda_), 19/01/2015

But then, you are scrolling through your timeline, your dashboard, sometimes even through Whatsapp, or when you pick up a newspaper, there are photos of bodies, everywhere. Sometimes, there are words for the positions these bodies are in: littered, strewn, scattered. Like dirty laundry. These photos serve the function of moving mourning from the space that nobody occupies to the one that everybody does. They are necessary for everybody to tell the story that nobody has been telling. Without these pictures, everybody cannot help nobody grieve. So sometimes our mourning, though it may not sound like anything, comes in shades of black and brown.

*

I am told they are blocking the roads in the City Centre that run outside Parliament, the President’s office, the Vice President’s office for security purposes, but Kenyatta and Ruto will have breakfast in a high-end café to inspire Kenyans’ confidence in them.

In the days after April 2, Senator Mike Sonko asked, on social media, why the students had not done anything to limit the scale of the attack. To ask what the Kenyan government did to prevent the attack is to dig up stories and memories of what the Kenyan government, pre- and post-independence, has done to warrant the attacks.

Removal of Somalis from Laikipia reads the head of a letter from July 1928. The Somali Problem in Laikipia: How It Was Solved reads the headline of an article dated May 1926.

It has been 31 years since the Wagalla Massacre, a violence so unimaginable, it slips through the cracks of collective memory. And yet someone, more than one somoene, imagined it. More than one someone remembers Wagalla every day because memory forces unwanted imagination.

It has been just over a year since #KasaraniConcentrationCamp. A Google Maps search points you to Moi International Sport Centre.

I was told, after Westgate, that a group of women had overheard the attack being planned, and had tried to inform the authorities, that they were dismissed because they are sex workers. To ask what the Kenyan government did to prevent the attack is to remember the relationship the state has with women.

About the widow of a man named Ibrahim Effendi, who lived on two acres of land in Nanyuki for 15 years after his death, the British government says, “The question of this woman’s prescriptive right does not therefore arise.” This is in 1929.

During the four days of the Wagalla “operation”, nearly every girl and woman is raped and/or assaulted by KDF officers.

Listening to Mike Sonko, and the government’s “Security starts with you” rhetoric, many women are not unfamiliar with the cruel and violent trope of victim-blaming, because we know it every day. Even though we mourn as families, as friends, as what-if victims, as communities, sometimes our mourning is very, very lonely.

*

Some time in 2014, I overheard a conversation between two Kenyans in my school. One, a freshman, was not sure he was going home for the holidays because of the explosions in Gikomba and on buses in Nairobi. The other told him he had nothing to worry about: “people like us”—that is, diaspora Kenyans with money, with options— never visited markets, never used public transport.

Sometimes, our mourning looks like distance, removal. Sometimes it is not mourning at all.

It’s been 105 days since the Garissa attack, and I still cannot think of my campus, any campus, without thinking about GUC. Many times, I wonder how long it would take to spread fear like a blanket over the 7000 students in my school— how long would 4 men need? How long will a larger group (50? 139? 275?) of men in government-issued fatigues take? Could this happen here? Probably not. Do I, then, have the right to mourn in this way? Should my grief look like this? I don’t know—there is no guide to grieving.

In the last 105 days, while reading all I can about Garissa, I learn that some language changes when memory is reworked; some does not. In 1997, nominated MP Mohammed Shidiye called the insecurity in Garissa a “festering wound that has gone untreated for over 30 years” while demonstrators accused the government of harassing Somalis. What the media calls “[suspected] terrorists” today were called “bandits” then. For 105 days, I have been trying to find the vocabulary to make sense of the road to Garissa, not because there is no information, but because there are too many things to remember, too many lies to untangle, too many phases of and faces for our mourning. Sometimes there is coherence but most times there isn’t, so instead, I take bits and pieces from different histories, I borrow from other people’s work and scrap together this post.

Wairimũ Mũrĩithi

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.