I return to Saul Williams,
“What is the price of freedom,
how is it paid?”
At the protest march for #MyDressMyChoice, we marched past another group of people at Dedan Kimathi’s statue on Kimathi Street, Nairobi. They couldn’t have been more than 10. As we walked, by they watched silently, holding their placards: “Free our freedom fighter.” Questions about the protest are responded to with mumbles about Dedan Kimathi’s body – no one’s really sure.
Dedan Kimathi’s body has been missing since he was buried somewhere in Kamiti after his execution. His family has asked the government often to prioritise looking for the body – it’s been 57 years since his death. Every single government we’ve had has refused to make this a priority. They built him a monument – that’s about it.
For politics to take place, the body must appear.
There is something symbolic about bodies. One of the most crucial bits of power is the ability to control bodies – to make bodies shift or change at whatever rate they they see fit. This is why the USA has such stringent visa application terms. Controlling the flow of bodies helps them maintain power.
It is for this same reason why those men stripped the lady at the bus stop. And why all the other ladies after that were stripped.These men, showing these women that they have power over their bodies, create subjugation. It is also why Dedan Kimathi’s body has never been found and handed to his family. This happens so as to show that you cannot speak against power and continue to exist as you were.
Because of how important our bodies are to our existence (many words to state the obvious: our very being is tied to our bodies), power over the body is one of the most widespread tools of oppression. Or, as Shailja Patel puts it, “our bodies are our first homes,” especially in Kenya where “lanes” are something that we constantly talk about. These bodies homes collect, meet other body homes – find similarities, garther and isolate. Certain bodies are allocated more resources than others.
And we know this.
We know because our bodies shift differently in different spaces. Our bodies shrink and give way to people who we imagine to be of a more privileged body category we shift, cast our eyes down, and tame our language. In other spaces, we expand and take up more space – sit with our legs spread, arms on armrests. We know which bodies are allocated more space. And we know to follow that allocation.
In a conversation I had with a friend a few months back she insisted that without gender roles, humanity as we know it would fall apart. People, I was told, need to be told what to do. Need to be controlled (they cannot be trusted without their own agency). These are things we have heard before. When the colonialists insisted that Africans needed guidance. When slave owners said the slaves liked being slaves. When we were told to beat our wives to show them the path.
We listen to this, and our bodies act accordingly. We know the rules.
Which is why it was so important for the colonial powers to hide Dedan Kimathi’s body. Which is also why it is so important for men to challenge women’s agency.
“Our bodies are not your battlefields”
I don’t know who first wrote this, but it is Nebila Abdulmelik’s favourite placard. One wonders what is so striking about the statement. In the direct way, it is a pretty obvious statement (of COURSE your bodies are not our battlefields), but we know that this is not really a statement but a plea. The only reason she even has to hold that placard is because men aren’t listening. No, I will not qualify that with “some.”
Kenyan men, I am now speaking directly to you. If you get angry that you have to be lumped with those Embassava touts, then don’t attack the people that they are hurting. That makes you one of them. You are enabling the enacting of this battle upon the bodies of others. And this is happening everywhere. Increasingly, we are enabling the enacting of battle upon the bodies of others.
Some bodies are “in an instant” judged as suspicious, or as dangerous, as objects to be feared, a judgment that can have lethal consequences. There can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.
I’m trying to look at this in a very physical way. Which bodies do we allow to hurt/not hurt? Or, more directly, which body’s pain do we consider as acceptable? Whose hunger can we live with? Whose death? Whose gunshot wound? Whose death is unfortunate and whose is a tragedy?
(Why were we allowed to speak ill of the dead when Mercy Keino died, yet we are urged otherwise when it comes to politicians?)
I’m reminded that much of the modern world was built on the backs on black bodies. And of the direct uprooting of people’s lives that this led to in the continent. I’m reminded that, even after they killed him, the colonialists still wouldn’t let the people have Dedan Kimathi’s body. I’m reminded of how physical torture was used in the Nyayo Chambers to manufacture the image of Kenya as an “island of peace.”
“Your silence will not protect you.”
Our bodies are sites of political warfare.
We did not get to choose the bodies we have and the socio-cultural associations that come with them. And we don’t get to opt out now. To choose silence is to maintain what exists. To choose silence is to actively refuse to create room for bodies that were told to shrink, to expand. It is to actively refuse to believe victims and side with people who are controlling other’s bodies. It is to listen to people when they claim that their body is their own and say “No.” It is to bury Dedan Kimathi’s body in an unmarked grave somewhere in Kamiti.
“Our bodies are not your battlefields” cries for something. It begs for a recognition that seems just outside reach. It also carries confusion. Surely, if they are our bodies – why must we tell you that they are not your battlefields? At the core of this radical change is a simple cry for bodily respect.
Give us back our bodies – they’ve been buried for way too long.