by Ngala Chome
According to my national registration document, I ‘come’ from a sub-location called Murimani, in a location called Kayafungo, in a division called Kaloleni, which is in a district called Kilifi.
I have never lived in all these places.
However, in Kenya, home is not necessarily where one lives, where one learns how to speak, to walk, where one meets their earliest and closest friends, where one losses their virginity. This experiential idea of home is not featured in logics of power and administration that are employed by the Kenyan state.
Identity – and where you come from – is instead fixed by administrative percolates that have origins in the colonial state.
In terms of identity, you simply cannot be anything else other than what the state said your father (not your mother) – and his father before him – is or was. No matter where people have actually lived, we have seen their dead bodies being transported, say from Mombasa to Kisumu, together with their earthly belongings, so that unification with soil – in an ancestral meaning – can happen.
In this way, land in Kenya acquires a much more visceral meaning than as a simple economic good.
In Kenya, land proffers identity, and is fundamental to forming dominant ideas about origin and home. Through its materiality, land has over time managed to transform Kenya as a huge block of indigenous homelands.
Where people belong because of ethnicity.
Where ethnicity belongs because it is attached to soil.
It is therefore not only central to people’s strategies of survival, land also forms a blueprint for action and belief. It consists of a mix of material resources and systems of meaning.
Broadly, land in Kenya is part of myths and symbols that help explain people’s place in the world and how they can survive and perhaps prosper within it.
The result is that land has always been central to our country’s politics.
One of the earliest tasks that British colonialists engaged with was to define, so as to rule. Faced by multiple, often shifting and malleable identities, colonial administrators working with Christian missionaries and social anthropologists sought to study, classify, and thus administer, what they understood to be ‘tribes’.
This idea implied that all black Africans were members of one tribe or the other, and that these tribes were ruled by this or by that chief. This, of course, wasn’t the case, but the idea itself became so powerful. More than twenty years before we achieved independence, this idea had impacted on the design and nature of our administrative boundaries, the details of the kipande, and the form of our politics.
An un-homing process, to create a new home for incoming white settlers, fixed hitherto multiple, often shifting, and notoriously malleable identities. This was achieved through the kipande system and by administrative cartography. Thus, each fixed identity was allocated a home district.
Additionally, for the colonialists, tribe signified Africanness, and Africanness symbolised traditionalism – that which is opposed to modernity and progress.
Swiftly, black Africans, or those who were thought to be black, were un-homed from certain spaces of modernity and civilisation – Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu – and homed in spaces of nativism and culture – the native reserve/district.
Following from this process of purification and un-homing, we have been made to believe, at least since the 1969 census was conducted, that we consist of 42 tribes – pristine, pure and timeless.
These have centrally driven our re-distributive politics, and have fundamentally determined our relationship with the patrimonial state.
Your rights as a citizen are activated by them.
They have since determined recruitment and access to schools, universities, security agencies, parliament, cabinet, harambee and ‘development’, including access to hospitals and medical care.
Hence we have been persistent in vigorously defending these things, including fighting and killing in their name.
Enter the Guest Metaphor
In early 2008, after post-election violence mostly targeted against Kikuyu residents in various parts of the Rift Valley, the government launched Operation rudi nyumbani [return home]. While more than 1,300 had been killed, more than half a million people had been displaced. This state-led exercise, to return people to their homes after either forced eviction or self-imposed exile, failed in considerable proportions.
Most displaced people, who had taken refuge in make-shift satellite camps, were reluctant to return to their homes for fear of attacks from their neighbours. Some had been warned never to return, while others returned only to find that there was nothing left to call home.
On two separate occasions, Maasai leaders, residents and university students had rejected two government plans for re-settling some of these displaced persons in plots of land in Narok.
During the run-up to the 2013 elections, Major (Rtd.) Joseph Nkaisserry, a senior Maasai politician, even warned Kikuyus against fielding their names as candidates for political office in the newly established counties of Narok and Kajiado. These, according to him, were Maasai, not Kikuyu homelands.
On the Rift Valley, Kikuyus were being urged to lie low like envelops, yet again.
Denied politics, citizenship and land, these un-homed people have found themselves inhabiting a similar experience inhabited almost forty-years earlier by their grandparents. In Ol-Kalou, and most settler farms on the Rift Valley, these had come in search for land after their customary lands – in central province districts – had been appropriated by senior government officials and members of the Home Guard, a vigilante force that aided in the defeat of the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s.
Always seen as guests, their status on the Rift Valley has at the very least, consistently been tenuous.
The guest metaphor and the tenuousness it invites, is in Kenya all too pervasive and familiar.
On April 2, 2014, it struck again. More than 6,000 security officers – from the Administration Police, General Service Unit, and the Kenya Air Force, swooped on Eastleigh.
On that day alone, the police arrested 657 people. This did not only follow three blasts in the area, but a state-led narrative that Kenya was facing threats of terrorism from those who had not been invited within our landscape, and given a home – and this quickly became any Somali-looking individual.
People, including the Somali ambassador to Kenya, were randomly arrested, on the streets, in shopping malls, from moving matatus, from their beds, and it didn’t matter what type of identification document one had.
As this progressed, the numbers of the arrested increased, the archetype of the neighbourhoods targeted expanded. The operation, initially dubbed ‘sanitize’ Eastleigh, rapidly graduated into the ‘sanitization’ of Nairobi.
Soon enough, South C, Lang’ata, Kawangware, and Kasarani were raided by the state in search of ‘illegal immigrants’. Police raided houses without search warrants, asking for bribes, looting cell-phones, laptops and jewellery. Heavily pregnant women, as well as women with new-born and very young babies were also arrested – some violently assaulted.
Over the next few weeks after April 2, about 4, 000 people, most of them with ‘ethnic’ Somali origin, had been arrested. About 1, 1136 were screened at a concentration camp set up at the same place (Kasarani Stadium) where the current president whom Kenyan Somalis had overwhelmingly voted for was inaugurated a year earlier. Hundreds were deported to Mogadishu and to Kakuma and Dadaad refugee camps.
Before, Other Kenyans of secure indigenous status had collaborated in general contempt toward Somalis, feeling threatened by their capital and inhabitation of a neighbourhood in Nairobi most cared less about.
And so there was tacit acceptance of the operation from the general public, as if by silent approval, thinking it as necessary, for “peace”, for “securing” our supposedly ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ space – Nairobi.
It is instructive to note that a similar operation was not carried out in the Somali ‘ethnic homelands’ of Kenya: Wajir, Garissa, and Mandera. Similarly, it is important to note that these zones have had the worst kind of terror attacks before and after the Operation that was conducted in Nairobi.
The irony is in the details.
We shall never be a place of “law and order” (whatever that means) so long as we continue to celebrate an idea of ‘home’ constructed to alienate, to un-belong, to un-home. This idea, that we have managed to include in the quotidian, the everyday experience, has always been intimate in most episodes of violence in Kenya’s history, and of making disposable subjects. Otherness is its main framework.
The familiarity of this idea in the everyday is re-worked, for example, whenever I tell someone that I am from Nairobi and the almost immediate, always predictable response is that “no one comes from Nairobi”.
In this way, we have become good students of the colonial experience.
And Kenya, after all, has become one huge block of indigenous homelands, native reserves of blood and culture, where you only belong after you have been boxed into one of them, a rural county, gicagi.
These are the spaces that possess our identities. These are the spaces that activate our Kenyan citizenship.
These are the spaces we have all been trained to call home, without feeling out of place.
Ngala Chome has been published academically and otherwise. He was the 2013-2014 Commonwealth Shared Scholar at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, where he received an MSc in African Studies with distinction. He currently lives in Nairobi where he is experimenting with creative writing, whisky and small-time activism. Follow him on his twitter handle @ngalachome.