Hearing Questions

Michael Onsando
21 March ,2017

When is a question valid? Or, more directly, when are which questions valid? And how do we navigate (in)valid questions? This then turns into a question on community. And because different communities have different assumed forms of knowledge – then some questions become violent in one spaces and welcomed in another. In this way, one hopes that there will be space to navigate – or at least gather enough information – to deal with any such question.

But what happens when there is no space created for a question? Or when the spaces that are supposed to accommodate such questions have lost their bearings? What happens, for example, when the courts are corrupt? Who ensures justice? What are their checks and balances? Or, what happens when spaces don’t exist for groups to speak about their affect around a particular issue?

And how many of these questions can any(body)[i] hold?

And, in the absence of the spaces to ask these questions, how can we claim to be making space for those we claim to be making space for? How can we make plans, if we can’t be questioned?

Ras Mengesha writes:

A map is also an archive that allows communality. First it is personal, and then it is documented, and this archival process makes it communal. It is mine then it is ours. This is important; to involve, to bring in, to invite, to take with, to leave behind, to start afresh, to keep going. To map – to create a (specific) image, track progress, archive – is to be aware of the movement of time. The movement of time, alone, is life – constant and unchanging, irregular and in flux – and to be aware of this movement and to adjust accordingly, is growth, is survival.

Before Clenched Fists

A map is also how we know where we haven’t been. We look to the map to know that Olenguruone is to the south west of Nakuru and to navigate one place to the other. A map tells us that we will  have to take Njoro road, and then the C56 to Elburgon, where you’ll turn off at Njokerio road. In the same way a plan allows us to know the terrain we are travelling. A knowledge of the terrain of power, for example, and how power works allows us to know how to better navigate people. A knowledge of what questions to ask better allows us to find a path to our goal.

But where does communality sit in all this?

Which is to ask, can the questions that are being asked reveal what map one is looking at? About who made the map, what their priorities are and what blind spots they had?

Which might be to ask – what ways of survival are valid?

If, the ever changing model of “success” is the thing that we are chasing – then what questions are we allowed to ignore? What questions are we compelled to ignore? And what questions must we never even consider?

Gukira writes:

Writing on suicide is dangerous because suicide is deemed unthinkable. To think about it, then, and here syntax betrays what I’m going to claim, is understood as thinking about how to do it or when to do it. To think about it is to contemplate it. Thus, one says that one is not thinking about it, but even raising the prospect elicits concern and paranoia: why would one think about it if one were not thinking about it? I want to stay with this formulation, because I think its unthinkability is a problem, albeit a problem tied to the unthinkability of death, and the political and aesthetic imperative to think through life and to cultivate thriving life.

On Suicide


I’m wondering about what it means to dwell on the unthinkable.

Of course to think a thought – particularly out loud  – is to make it available to be thought. There is a reason things have been deemed unthinkable. A thought on suicide, for example, can awaken someone else’s suicidal thoughts – thoughts they themselves had just lain to rest. But this kind of thinking leads us to a form of silent suffering. In isolation with our unthinkable thoughts, and with no one to speak them to, one can begin to wonder if perhaps they are the only person who grapples with such questions. This isolation can further be fed by unthinkability of the thing. Battling with questions of “why one would think unthinkables” or “why a group would think the unthinkable” – a particular type of bafflement that often comes from a place of privilege.

For example to ask “Why would Pwani si Kenya exist?” as an ideology, probably comes from ignoring a history of tension and present lack of care. It would ignore the killing of Sheikh Aboud Rogo amidst an entire history of neglect. Or to ask “why would you be afraid of me?!” is to ignore the history of how bodies have been trained to see you, or people like you. And how that fear has worked to your advantage in many invisible ways many times. It shows your map – and that fear is still unchartered territory.

I return to Butler on grievable bodies:

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.

Ungrievable bodies often carry unthinkable questions.

Which brings us back to maps. How can we build maps that create room for those that have already been lost without using their knowledge to map the terrain? Which questions allow for this to be made possible? Which questions further destroy? And how do we find the right questions?

Listening is the praxis which connects anger to justice. Without it, anger can only be catharsis or monologue, not constitutive of the process of justice. Listening to anger requires openness to difficult content conveyed in an unsettling tone, and since anger can quickly be dismissed or met with defensiveness about one’s culpability it is one of the most difficult types of communication in political life.

Sonali chakravarti, Sing the Rage


As a friend recently reminded me, perhaps it begins with listening.


[i] by body I mean individual and body as a group of people, tied by a similar question.


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