Ed: A version of this essay was initially published on The New Inquiry. We republish it here to remember. Editors notes will be interspersed in the essay in italics.
by Aaron Bady
The ICC Witness Project is an archive of poems written and posted to the internet starting March 2013; there are over 151 of them now, with 145 titled as witnesses— “Witness #1, Witness #2” plus a handful that are numbered in other ways.
A little background: the ICC is the “International Criminal Court,” the court of last resort which was established by the Rome Statute in 2002, to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression; there is currently a prosecution pending against the sitting president and deputy president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto.
Ed: At the time of this essay being written there were cases against the president and deputy president in court. On Dec 5th 2014 the court dropped the case against president Uhuru Kenyatta. On April 5th 2016 the case against vice president William Ruto was dropped. The last poem in the witnesses project was posted on April 7th 2016.
The ICC Witness Project is not a part of the ICC case, nor are the poets involved “witnesses” in the normal sense. The poems are an effort to represent the voices which have been excluded from the ICC’s truth-making apparatus, in its construction of what passes for justice. On the one hand, then, the poems work to evoke the modes of subjectivity which cannot—for a variety of reasons—be heard at the Hague, the many kinds of testimony which do not achieve official truth status (a very broad category).
At the same time, the project is a testimony to “un-witnessing,” the manner in which absent testimony is actually present, present-as-absent, or an absence construed as a testimony to what is absent: in this case, the guilt of the accused. As the most recent poem puts it, “un-witnessing is cooperation in the production of reality in which Uhuru Kenyatta is president…either he will be convicted and cease to be president or he will be acquitted and cease to be the accused.”
“One of these realities will become true,” the poet writes, “the other will…” and then there is silence.
In other words, witnesses who do not testify are un-witnesses, self-negating: they testify to the absence of the reality which they might otherwise have reported to have witnessed, and which remains subjectively true, even if it never reaches truth-making apparatuses like the ICC. I stress the ICC as a truth-making apparatus, in other words, because as the poems show, there is no way to opt out of the process. If we observe the zero-sum calculation by which Uhuru Kenyatta is either president of Kenya or international criminal—the fact that he will either retain state power or become its subject—then un-witnessing cannot be simply the absence of witnessing.
Not-witnessing is forced to be testimony to the absence of witnesses.
Overt witness intimidation is the foundational fact of the project, which began February 2013, when a link to this BBC article was shared on two listservs, the Concerned Kenyan Writers google-group and the Kenyan Poetry Catalyst google-group:
The article concerns the slow-motion collapse of the International Criminal Court’s case against Kenya’s president and deputy president, as its witnesses have been intimidated into silence. As Fatou Bensouda, the chief ICC prosecutor, has complained:
“The scale of witness interference that the office has seen in the Kenya cases has been unprecedented…The challenge we face is that the intimidation and interference goes beyond individual witnesses themselves and extends to pressures on their immediate and extended families, relatives and loved ones.”
Placed in this context, un-witnessing is not only the witness’s non-act of not-witnessing. The violence is all the more insidious and invasive because the witness testifies to her nonexistence by her silence. Silence becomes what anthropologist Veena Das calls “poisonous knowledge,” in which containing the knowledge of the violation, in silence, is itself the expression of that knowledge. To cite a different speech-act theorist named Austin, something becomes “a truth universally acknowledged” when no one in particular needs to avow it for it to be compulsory in its truth. Silence, in such a context, is not disavowal, but consent, the forced consent of structural violence and interpellation.
Why the project? In 2007, Kenya’s presidential election resulted in three months of wide-spread violence across the country—particularly expressed by and iflected across ethnicity and gender—at the end of which about 1500 people were dead, perhaps a million people displaced, and countless thousands were sexually assaulted. In 2010, the ICC brought crimes against humanity charges against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto (and four others) for instigating and organizing the violence. In response to the ICC charges, they joined forces and ran for president and deputy president, as the “jubilee” coalition.
The ICC case was already collapsing, but their electoral victory was the final nail in the coffin.
The ICC Witness Project began in February, before the election, and went online the day Kenyatta was declared the winner, March 11th.40 poems were uploaded on March 9th, and another 50 or so were gradually added through the rest of March. These are the vast majority of the project; only 22 poems have posted since July 1st 2014.
So how do we approach such a text?
The things that make this project interesting and innovative also necessitate new critical paradigms, so I’m going to write about the three different frames of reference I’ll use to make the project legible, though the three inevitably bleed into each other.
- The Digital
- The Historical
- The Poetic
I The Digital
Let’s start with the digital. I’m always skeptical of sharp distinctions drawn between digital and analog, because they tend to be simplistic and ahistorical celebrations of how the modern world is above the past world – leaving no room for the modern world to be part of, and actively working with the past. A version of Derrida’s argument that writing comes before speech, for example, could be applied to African literary history, where the fetishization of oral literature was a decisively post-print development, structured by a desire to produce an authentic African culture that could serve as an alternative to print-literatures that were tainted by their colonial origins.
It was print culture, in other words, that made “orality” newly important. Something similar is true for African digital publishing: “online” is less a transcendence of the print form, than a development within it, and made legible as such only by a crisis within print culture itself.
Kenyan literature is experiencing a particular literary renaissance right now, and digital media are a crucial part of it.
Binyavanga Wainaina, for example, has been at the center of the post-2002 proliferation of new Kenyan writing and all of his early writing was born online—including much that would later be published in print—and the viral circulation of his essay “How to Write About Africa” allowed it to reach an audience exponentially larger and for a much longer time than the original Granta print run. You can’t find it in print even if you want to, but everyone’s read it online. It’s an incredibly influential document; citing it is almost second nature, and it continues to circulate. People still email it to me.
So I don’t want to think of the digital as “post-book,” or as a transcendence of the conventionally printed word. Situating this archive within its digitized 21st-century context requires accounting for the ways that the global textual ecosystem and the ways writers are responding to new modes of literary production. Time is part of this work of historicizing. But the timeline is not simple or two-dimensional: history is always layered and develops unevenly across geography. To understand what the ICC Witness Project says that is new—and to frame why it says it this way—we have to place that novelty within a specifically African and Kenyan context, the particular “history of the book” that obtains there archive for myself has made me a part of it, in ways that I’m trying to be thoughtful and ethical about.
II. The Historical: Kenya is Moving On
The ICC Witness poems were written and circulate online, but “online” is only meaningful within a textual ecosystem that still gives the printed word a pride of place. In fact, I would suggest that the ICC Witness Project’s relation to “the book” is part of what makes it a subaltern form. These are not texts that easily accrue legibility, cultural capital, or authority. Anonymous witnesses lack testimonial authority, for one thing, and if “realism” marks discursive claim to some kind of empirical, objective validity, then these poems are, as poems, subjective and decidedly anti-realist.
I am using “realism” in a very particular way, so let me be clear about what I mean. Keguro Macharia writes;
“Over the past 15 years and more specifically the past ten years or so, Kenyan writing has been shaped by NGO demands: the “report” has become the dominant aesthetic foundation. Whether personal and confessional or empirical and factual or creative and imaginative, report-based writing privileges donors’ desires: to help, but not too much; to save, but not too fast; to uplift, but never to foster equality.”
This is the mode of realism which the project begins by taking apart:
The first poem in the series sets the tone not because of what is says, but because of what it doesn’t, and can’t. “They killed my family” is a painfully direct report of a horrific event, in painfully simple words. Four words, three lines, two stanzas, one poem. This is such a forced constriction of form to the production of a report—the fact that the speaker’s family was killed by “them”—that the poem collapses the very discursive structure through which it might signify. It reports everything and nothing, and this is its provocation, which started the project moving: it reports what happened, but in doing so, performs the inadequacy of the report.
By contrast, the report has been the major official response to Post Election Violence; the Waki commission produced a report which jump-started the ICC prosecution, and a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission was established to determine what the long-term causes of the violence had been.
These truth-making processes have run their course and accomplished little. Some of the reports have been redacted and suppressed—or buried in thousands of pages of impenetrably boring prose—but mostly they’ve just been ignored. Without a political will to revisit the past, “moving on” has been co-extensive with refusing to see, read, or witness what the reports have revealed: the TJRC report is, itself, a kind of un-witness; while its recommendations carry the force of law, the government of Kenya has simply pretended it doesn’t, which becomes the new truth as a result.
Instead, Kenyatta and Ruto have taken their electoral mandate to be that “Kenya is moving on” and created a narrative of reconciliation through forgetting to mark the jubilee of their administration.
As Kenyatta declared:
“This year marks 50 years since the birth of our nation – this is our jubilee year. As the Bible tells us the year of the Jubilee is the year of healing and forgiveness. It is the year of renewal. My brother William Ruto and I were once on opposite sides but we agreed to put our differences aside and come together as leaders to end this cycle of violence and bring enduring peace, this has been our Jubilee journey.”
He closed his speech with this invocation:
We have but only one choice, do we go forward or back?
Do we embrace hope and change and sail on or do we cling to fear and division?
We have the drive to take Kenya forward
We have the vigour and strength to carry Kenya forward
The subtext, however, is impunity for perpetrators; on the eve of the election, Kenyatta told Al-Jazeera that “if Kenyans do vote for us, it will mean that Kenyans themselves have questioned the process that has landed us at the International Criminal Court.”
Ed: Later, after having his case dropped, president Uhuru Kenyatta had this to say: ““Today, we celebrate the triumph of democracy, the triumph of peace, the triumph of nationhood. Despite the misgivings of many in the world, we demonstrated a level of political maturity that surpassed expectations. That is the real victory today. A victory for our nation. A victory that demonstrates to all that Kenya has finally come of age. That this, indeed, is Kenya’s moment.” Which makes one wonder just what is meant by Kenya as a noun. Kenya is moving on and now a victory for Kenya. Just how has this Kenya been imagined?
“Jubilee,” however, is not the same thing as forgetting; in fact, these kinds of charters of renewal are more like monuments to the forgotten than real forgetting: in the Jubilee narrative, the alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto enacts the reconciliation of their respective communities. The victims are not part of this narrative, of course; Kenyatta and Ruto were the beneficiaries of the PEV. But you don’t forget something by insistently declaring that it’s over. “Jubilee” is still a story about the violence. It’s a story in which violence has no subject, in which it “happened,” “erupted,” “exploded,” or “consumed” Kenya, for a period of time, but for which no discussion of cause or effect is appropriate. It happened and then it stopped happening. Like the holocaust or 9/11, it’s an event after which “everything changed,” the event which now structures the language and priorities of national politics, and does so all the more insidiously if we pretend we have moved on.
Ed: As recently as April 2016 the issue of IDP’s has still not been fully settled with compensation schemes falling apart.
If the new priorities are to move on, then, it is the victims whose continued existence (as victims) stands as the obstacle to progress. Indeed, IDPs—an acronym meaning internally displaced persons—remain as the residue of the violence, the mess that has been left over, and which it is the job of the government of Kenya to clean up. Or, in government and NGO speak, “to integrate.”
However, to integrate IDPs is to solve the problem by making its subjects disappear. As IDPs become the logistical problem of “integrating” them into new communities, the problem is solved when they cease to be IDPs. A report from last year reads “Out of the more than 660,000 people displaced, the government considers that over 300,000 or around 47 percent have been ‘integrated’ in communities across the country.” Kenya’s progress, then, is measured by the number of IDPs that do not continue as IDPs, that have left the “temporary” camps which were set up to hold them, for whatever reason. Kenya moves on when IDPs disappear. But a dead IDP is just as integrated as one who has been “re-settled” in a new community. The question which becomes impossible to answer, then, is how it feels to be a problem.
Unsurprisingly, those who are accused of organizing, instigating, and benefiting from the violence are the main proponents of this narrative. Statistics tell a useful story if you have an interest in describing the violence as being over, and forgetting the continuity of everything that numbers don’t measure. And here, we have to talk about violence that cannot be construed numerically. There was widespread sexual violence during the PEV, for example, but nobody knows how to account for it, and so they generally don’t. Telling the story of violence through numbers un-narrates forms of violence which leave their victims alive. This is especially true when it leaves them socially stigmatized, as most categories of sexual violence do; nowhere is it more clear that the truth does not set you free than in the case of rape victims, a category of victim for whom public tribunals are particularly ill-suited, and in many cases, an exacerbation of the original violation. The spread of HIV through rape and the children conceived by rape are elements of the PEV landscape that are persistently invisible.
Witness #47, I think, is the poem that most clearly articulates the poetic retort.
“Kenya needs us to work together;
Kenya needs us to move on.”
(Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenyan President-elect, March 2013)
Kenya needs a great many things.
It needs PEV to unhappen:
Those who were killed need to undie, need to
crawl from their graves in solidarity.
Ashes need to burn backwards, float in air,
gently unfuse themselves from wooden church doors
and melted glass windows.
women need to guard their wombs, begin the process
of being unraped, erase their memories
as they become whole, unbirth those children
who were begotten from violence.
And those IDPs! They need to move,
redisplace themselves back to their original locations.
Retill their lands, watch the stones
jump magically back into houses.
The pangas need to flake off the blood,
replace themselves quietly,
claim back the rust that spotted them before.
Kenya is moving on.
Kenya is moving on.
In the voice of the president, the statement to move on becomes an imperative, a governmental command. The poem highlights the absurdity of this official fantasy: moving on seems to literally require moving backwards. Victims are healed by using machetes to re-attach severed limbs, stuffing children back into their wombs, and watching as scattered stones and rubble magically rises to construct houses, which promptly unburn themselves up from the ground.
This magical healing, however, is a burden placed on the victims, a “need” which is a command:
Those who were killed need to undie
women need to guard their wombs
[women need to] erase their memories
And those IDPs! They need to move
This is the hidden violence of “Kenya is moving on”; the labor of moving on is placed on the shoulders of the victims, whose responsibility it is to erase themselves as victims. As they “crawl from their graves in solidarity,” one might say, they have a patriotic duty to not be dead. Yet this un-doing only exacerbates the original violations, repeating the trauma. The injunction to move on rehearse each of the categories of victim—killed, raped, displaced—reliving the instant of the violation. It also demands that the dead assent to the official fantasy and rise from the grave like zombies. If you fail to perform the miracle, you are a failed subject. Despite the substantive content of the statement “Kenya is moving on,” in other words, the form of the poem demonstrates how Kenya is being made to move on.
Many poems, like Witness #47, satirize the Jubilee injunction to move on, the official understanding of the problem. But many of the poems describe how it feels to be a problem, speaking from the position of a trauma that can find no public expression. There are, for example, a series of poems in which witnesses apologize for their existence.
Witness #122: “we are sorry for being roadblocks on the highway to national reconciliation”
Witness #49, begins:
They tell me.
Why can’t you
pick yourself up
and move on?
I’m sorry if I offend you…
And Witness #129:
We are very sorry that the president
(and his deputy) were involved
in not committing these crimes:
We are sorry that Wanjiku acted
of her own accord, when she gathered
her children in a burning church;
There are, in fact, a lot of sorry-poems. But as if to prove that reality is more absurd than fiction, on October 25—well after those poems were posted—K24TV tweeted the following, a quote from an actual ICC witness, in court that day:
Witness: I am sorry if I offended anybody in my appearance in this court. I am sorry. #ICCTrialsKE
This tweet, however, has since been deleted. I remember seeing it—as you can imagine, it caused quite an uproar—but in going back into the archive, I couldn’t find any official trace of it. Instead, it only exists because Shailja Patel, re-tweeted it, and because of various other commentaries and exclamations of horror and disgust. The voice of that witness, such as it is, can only be heard through the kind of fossil of its suppression that remains.
III. The Poetic: The Social Life of Poetry
The poets in this project are officially anonymous. Within the archive proper anonymity is an important fictive component of the project. I use the word “fictive” because it involves a suspension of knowledge: in the interviews with the four poets involved that I conducted, all of them told me some variation of the following sentiment:
“part of the mental model of preserving the anonymity of some of the writers has actually made me ‘forget’ (at least, temporarily) who wrote what…looking at the older email threads has revealed the poets again, but I know there are times I’ve looked at the project and failed to recognise even my own voice”
As this poet acknowledges, there exists a relatively clear record of who wrote what, in hundreds of inboxes. But it’s easy to pierce the anonymity of the process, because it wasn’t very anonymous, originally. Anonymity was added in, after the fact, at the precise moment when Kenyatta and Ruto were declared the winners of the election, when the poetry went online. The effect was to take a digital dialog between poets who know each other, and are fairly well known, and to turn it into a single first-person plural sequence, voiced by a national subject who witnessed the violence, in the broadest sense of the word. As one poet put it,
“I prefer anonymity, because I think it allows us to be a collective of poets writing beyond whatever categories of difference ostensibly divide us. I’d like us to think of how our collective art can provide a space and method for being together as Kenyans.”
Anonimity removes the temptation to read the poems as, say, a male muslim or a kikuyu woman. It enables a form of sympathetic identification that ethic and gender marks could precluude: a Kalenjin whose family was killed by Kikuyu can identify with a Kikuyu whose family was killed by Kalenjin. Realist specificity would get in the way.
Voiced anonymously, the poetry speaks into existence a national subjectivity defined only by the experience of witnessing PEV, and by how it feels to be a problem: the problem of being forced to do the impossible, to cease existing.
I’ve taken my title from Witness #97, which reads:
I am tired
And it continues not to end.
In this sense, the openness of the form—since each poem is an instant in time, but they do not resolve into a story, only an interminable unresolved and plural present—reflects the refusal of the wound to close on its own. Kenya does not move on, on its own, which is exactly the problem: there is no closure or resolution immanent to the text itself.
In the context of an increasingly repressive media atmosphere, in Kenya, part of the project has been to test the waters and see if such things could still be said. As one of the poets put it, “Suddenly, for the first time in a long time, we couldn’t assume we still officially possess the freedom to speak. The ICC Witness project is a way to take – and test – that freedom.”
In that sense, while the ICC Witness poems individually attempt to recall and remember the moments of past trauma, and to testify to stuck-ness of the present, the project as a whole is a project, moving forward, the work of calling into existence a Kenya where such things can be remembered as something that will not continue to happen.
Aaron Bady is an editor at The New Inquiry. He also tweets as @zunguzungu