What’s In a Name? Everything

Michael Onsando
24 June ,2014

“…Say their names:

Kiptoo, Onyango, Achieng’, Nyambura, Cheruiyot

Say their names:

missing, burned, raped, decapitated, insane

Say their names:

scared, criminalized, hated, feared, intimidated.”

– Witness 95

One can only imagine what Darius Mwanzi was doing that evening. Maybe he had just had a beer with his friends, maybe he didn’t drink, maybe he was with his family. The possibilities are endless. The only thing we can say, for certain is that he was another body in a war that we lack the tools to fully grasp. Karisa Thoya Iha was another. So was Jairo Kepkemboi. Liston Majira. Joseph Muchira. Elkana Makabila. There are 43 other names. The Star has a list.

Gukira writes:

Security discourse is seductive—it makes one feel grown-up, relevant, as though one is participating in a “national conversation” about “important matters.” It is, also, at least in this particular case, an imagination-eating discourse, so consuming that it does not leave space for any other kind of thinking, feeling, being.”

I’ve been watching, listening and hearing people speak about the Mpeketoni Attack and the larger need for security in the country. It’s interesting to see where/how Mpeketoni fits into a larger narrative of the country. It has come with a wave of shock, empathy, frustration and silence as most reactionary dialogues on security are in this country.

Again, we had to be reminded that Mpeketoni is not a happening. It is a place. We had to be reminded that this strife has been going on for a while. And that we, as expected have completely ignored Mpeketoni when it comes to matters of governance and discourse.

This is an important point. Just last week Sara Ahmed reminded us that breaking is not a happening. When bodies break it is not a moment but a culmination. Bodies that break tend to have been pulled, stretched twisted and torn. Bodies that break do not just break. To imagine the attack within the time space of three weeks – heck, of three months – is to imagine Mpeketoni as a town that just broke. It is to imagine away lives and histories that cannot be ignored.

This does not make the attack any less tragic. As a matter of fact, it makes it even more so. We marginalized Lamu, immensely (it has even been called internal colonialism). Even as they were attacked, reports have police taking 6 hours to get there. The breaking of Mpeketoni did not happen last week. It was not instigated by bullet holes tearing apart bodies. The breaking of Mpeketoni has been happening, and has been talked about, for a very long time.

When Murimi Marabi looked at his murders he was looking at histories of forgotten battles, of forgotten names, faces and struggles.  He was looking at a government that is more involved in increasing taxes than it is in taking care of him. His (and the others’) deaths were not just avoidable and preventable. They were a product of careless and oppressive policies/governments.

And this is why their names are so important.

We have been discussing this abstract concept of security. I keep wondering “for who?” Because if we are speaking about security in Kenya it would be important to remember that, for a large chunk of the country, Kenya has not been secure for a very long time. Just a few weeks ago Wajir was under curfew. Then we have the cattle raids up north, we have the numerous grenades and “3 killed in,”  “2 killed in” headlines that pepper our national papers every week.

So what is this new “insecurity” that we are talking about? Why are we discussing insecurity as if it is a new thing? As if this is not the same country that, 6 years ago, went through a large dose of ethnic based violence? Which names are we forgetting when we talk about Kenya not being secure “anymore?” When, in the next few months, something happens, will we quickly erase Paul Nzomo? Ng’endo Ruth? Will these names, and  spaces which they existed in, be lost again?

But, what is remembering? Wambui Mwangi writes:

To ‘re-member’ is to make a member again, to bring that member back into the community of imagination, re-awakening past trajectories and giving new momentum along new paths of the present. More prosaically, if your name is in the headline of a nationally-circulating newspaper, you are re-presented, recalled from absence and made present again, millions of times.

When we refuse to forget their names, refuse to forget that this has happened and will continue to happen, we are refusing to let these people leave the community of imagination. We are refusing to imagine without them. And this is something we need to do. To imagine the breaking as a culmination of past fragility, tension and marginalization is to create a better understanding.

However, I write this knowing that it is a difficult thing to do. It is easier to say “The people behind these attacks are monsters!” and not give thought to how these increasingly violent environments are being created.

I write this even as I know that in a time of grief, pain and confusion people can say things that they wouldn’t ordinarily mean. Misdirected anger can be dangerous. Even on social media, the hate speech has begun. The talk of “your tribe” is a thing. The social band-aid has been deployed and #WeAreOne and #TribeKenya are beginning to gather momentum.

So it’s with this background that I acknowledge that this is not the easiest time to think ethically. It is, however, the most important. As we discuss Mpeketoni (a name that has been intertwined with violence and death) it is easy to close our eyes and ignore Kasarani. It is easy to buy into the idea that continued dehumanisation of others will, somehow, buy our own safety. It won’t.

The people in Kasarani have names too.

These too are names that we cannot forget. These too are names that we must imagine with. Names that represented lives.  Lives given to a war that we still don’t understand.

Say their names:

forgotten, erased, error, error, error”


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