Disappearing Bodies

Michael Onsando
19 August ,2014

The man who sharpens knives  in my neighbourhood is a middle aged Kenyan man. He can’t be more than 38 years old, although the wrinkles on his forehead beg to differ. His hands don’t look like they were made for delicate work. They have a large awkwardness that comes with the life of a casual labourer.

His life can be seen in how he carries himself. In how he defers space to people who look more affluent than him. In how he silently agrees with everyone a class above him, even though his eyes tell a story (a you have no idea what you are saying story). In how he says:

Lakini mwanaume hawezi kubali mambo mengine.” (But a man cannot accept some things.)

He’s that guy. That Kenyan lower class, smiling, living just above the poverty line guy.

Politically, his views can hardly be called radical. He thinks all politicians are thieves but voted for “his person” in the past election. He knows that they’ll never do anything for him and he has made peace with that. The man and the woman have different roles in the world. The woman, in the kitchen, the man everywhere else.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell put forward the idea that, in anything one does, 10,000 hours of practice is all that is needed to achieve a level of expertise. This idea has been challenged, debunked, reanalyzed and many other things over the years. There’s one thing that everyone agrees upon, though. In order to become very good at something you need to practice. As I watch his right foot on the pedal beat with the reliance of a metronome, it is not in doubt that he has put in his practice.

Labour is a complicated thing to think about. We are socialized to value different kinds of labour despite what their income is. Think about how many people would rather have a desk job and earn KES 15,000 a month than run a small roadside business and earn slightly more. The idea that some work is more valuable than others is something that I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while.

More interestingly, I’ve been thinking about how the value of labour creates something I’d like to call class blindness.

Let me explain. Have you ever been in a restaurant with a person who completely refuses to acknowledge the people serving them? While they may have to transact with them (ordering, paying, et cetera) this individual will not even cast a glance in the direction of them. This is class blindness.

And it’s everywhere.

It is seen in how the lower class (even as I remember how problematic a term this is) is socialized to disappear. To exist in the space between where life happens to the middle class/wealthy yet unseen. And, even as we continue to unsee these lives, we continue to erase them. We continue to move them into a space of disposability – of dehumanisation.

Judith Butler, in frames of war, reminds us of ungrievable lives:

Ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed.

I’d like to build on this idea of lives that are already lost and destroyed from the start. Further, I’d like to think about how lives find themselves in a place of death before the death. These are the lives that are displaced when a market needs to be moved, when a road needs to be expanded. These are the dead things that keep crunching. And these are the people we give the labour that we do not value. Then demand that they be happy while doing it.

“(S)he shouldn’t complain – I’m paying him/her to do this, aren’t I?”

Such are common phrases that we hear, that we speak. As if, somehow, in outsourcing work we are the ones doing a service to society. Nyambura Mutanyi writes:

This article is about privilege, the things we take for granted, the questions we never think to ask ourselves. It’s about the ways in which we get comfortable in our niches and forget how small our group is until we are jolted into awareness, as I was.

Gee Brunswick adds:

“Privilege is a helluva drug.”

Instead we ignore structural causes of poverty and share toxic articles talking about how poverty is a result of laziness. We talk about hard work and preach the prosperity gospel in churches. At the back poor people continue to become smaller. Driven by a need to not interrupt these people, they are constantly reminded of their lack of importance. And, in being reminded, they then lose importance. The speaking becomes the acting, the acting becomes the becoming. It is a constant creating of worlds that creates a state of being.

The more accommodating you are, the less space you have to take up. The less space you have to take up, the more you have to accommodate.

Sara Ahmed

According to science, matter is anything that has mass and occupies space. To matter we must have mass and occupy space.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around labour and the amount of space it allows us to take up. And the mass it allows us to have. When we are asking people to become smaller because they do not matter, what are we saying? Would it be easier to say “We’d rather you do not exist.”

I see a link between this and gentrification. Eventually, we tell people to just move because, no matter how much they shrink, they are still visible, whereas what we would really want is to see them completely disappear. Or, get the poor off “our” streets. The streets we own. Not belonging to them because they do not exist and, in not existing, cannot own.

I realise that I still do not know the name of the man who sharpens my knives. He has sharpened my knives every 2 months or so for about a year. I have crossed paths with him. I greet him “Habari ya Mzee?” and he replies “Mzuri sana.” Maybe next time I should ask. Give him space and let him gain mass. Make sure he knows – he matters.

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