twitter
facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
blog-zungu-174
Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
rss feed

Rape Culture: The War At Home

Mwangi2013-6543(This essay by Wambui Mwangi was originally posted, a year ago, at Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman, and has been slightly revised. I thank her for writing it, and allowing me to share it.)

When it comes to gender-based violence, Kenyan men like to say “these are women’s issues.” Many Kenyan men also wonder aloud if having a woman as the Defence Secretary and a woman as Foreign Affairs Secretary is a good idea. These men opine that women in general know nothing about war, conflict, violence or international relations of force. They are wrong.

Women know a lot about conflict and war. Women have a very intimate knowledge of violence. Men usually initiate the wars and men do most of the killing, but it’s women and children who suffer the most. It is so also often women who have lost the men in their family who must make the heroic efforts to repair the tattered social fabric in war’s aftermath. It is so often women who suture back together the jagged edges of family and community, with equal measures of desperation and determination.

Nevertheless, as Eve Ayiera has cogently argued, sexual and gender based violence are not “weapons of war.” Sexual violence might intensify in the long-tail aftermath of conflict as some men celebrate their war “victories” and others compensate for their “humiliated” sense of manhood with acts of rape and sexual violence. But these kinds of men prey upon women, children and other vulnerable men on their return from theatres of conflict, as well. When “rape is a weapon of war,” the issue might not be whether men should rape and sexuality assault women; the issue might be which men get to rape and sexually assault “their” women, in ordinary life and at all other times. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in war and also in peace, even fellow soldiers. Stories and survivor testimonies abound. Many non-military women also experience their homes and lives as a war zone even when their countries or communities are not officially “at war.” Peacetime life can be radically insecure.

Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in brightly-lit bedrooms and in poorly-lit bars. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in hotels and in hospitals. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in homes, on streets, in schools, at work, in elite clubs and in public transport locations.

Kenyan women are mostly silent about this violence. Reports have been published on post-election violence, and survivor testimonies tell us that the targets of gender-based violence were mostly women and children, and that the perpetrators were mostly men. But the witnesses who told their stories to the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission had to explain that it was difficult to talk about their experiences. Their communities and families disapprove of women “speaking of sex.”

Sexual violence violates and traumatizes in the initial assault, but the imposition of collective silence violates the victims again. Without justice, without the release of standing witness to their own lives, these women are imprisoned in the memories and the consequences of their untold experiences. By abdicating the emotional labour of grieving, and of building a more sharable and liveable life for all, the community victimizes these women once again.

 

II.

As the Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie has said:

Let’s speak a simple truth,
The average man can without much planning,
Take by force most average women in the world, all average children,
Rape her or him,
Whenever,
With an angry penis, or even a metal rod, if one is handy,
And while he’s at it, call his friends,
“Come let’s have some fun.”
An unauthorised coupling, in rhyming couplets?

And then, when it’s over,
And he is discovered,
No need to fret,
Because,
He can rely on the average man to cover-up and declare his crime a mere transgression,
A mistrial it must be!
Because,
It was the clothes she almost wore,
A tiny miniskirt, it barely covered her virtue, she was asking for it you see,
My imagination was sorely tempted,
What was I supposed to do?
It was all her fault.
Because,
She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,
In a bus at night?
Why does she go out in public at all?
A woman’s place is strictly in the kitchen, everyone knows that!
Because,
She fought back,
She should have lain there and taken it, well, like a woman!
She must have enjoyed it, really they always do, with me!
Because,
It was legitimate rape,
Within the bounds of natural justice,
And besides,
A woman cannot be raped unless she wants it.
The man who was a judge quickly declared a mistrial.
The end!

Mwangi2013-6819
In June 2013, a Kenyan court ruled that the Kenya police “have contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity.”

In Kenya, men dominate social, political and economic institutions from the rural elders’ councils to elite golf and country clubs; from the labour unions to the corporate associations; from the sports’ federations to the scientific institutions; from the manufacturing to the matatu industry; from the political parties to the prison system’s administration; from the legal to the criminal establishments; and from newspaper columnists to the street-corner vendors who often read these newspapers to their customers.

In Kenya, daily assaults on the dignity and bodily persons of vulnerable human beings continues to the general unconcern of Kenya’s institutions and society. In India, hundreds of thousands of men have held public demonstrations in solidarity with women and in protest against sexual and gender based violence; in Kenya, women die and bear physical and emotional scars for life to a deafening silence, broken only by the occasional wink-nudge encouragement of mostly male politicians, mostly male secular intellectuals, and mostly male spiritual authorities.

Men in the business community mostly do not speak out when women in management, women workers, and women customers live under threat. Radical men working for social justice mostly do not question their participation or acquiescence in daily violence against half of “the people” for whom they claim concern. Fathers of daughters mostly seem not to notice that the daughters of other fathers are being raped. Men who have sisters are mostly not bothered when assaulting the sisters of their friends.

Patriarchal cultures debase and objectify women, and support violence. Misogynist speech encourages violence against women–and sometimes men–by a daily attrition of their humanity. Social attitudes that are habitually passed around also buttress violence against women, against children, and against other men. Fathers teach their sons to feel contempt, habits of mind passed from brother to brother, from neighbour to neighbour and from friend to friend. They are refashioned in popular culture, made respectable by male icons of literature. They are circulated in bars amongst men and in boardrooms amongst men.

 

III.

Some men are quick to blame women for the “dissolution of society’s morals.’” Some of these men are in positions of public authority. Victim blaming works by distracting attention away from the real sources of the violence and terror in our communities. These male authorities do not condemn Kenyan men or accept their own accountability for lost public trust.

Racism recruits some black people into self-hatred. Colonialism recruited some Africans into inferiority complexes. Misogynist practices recruit some women into woman-hating speech and actions, which appear in many disguises in the “normal” daily micro-interactions between men and women. They take on virulent forms throughout our society.

Earlier last year, in Kitengela, Nyeri and Bomet, women passengers at matatu stops were set upon by “mobs” of men who violently assaulted and stripped the women naked while abusing them. These men said they were correcting the women’s “indecency.” The studio anchors presenting this story on television barely restrained their sniggers, apparently not realizing they were watching a horrifying crime. Male authorities advised women “to dress more decently.”

When a powerful Kenyan Minister died, the newspapers reported that the daughter of the Minister’s herdsman came forward to claim that he fathered her son. If her story was true, the Minister must have had sex with her while she was still a minor, statutory rape. But he had been a powerful man, so there were calls “not to speak ill of the dead.” The benefit of the doubt was not for the young woman and her son, but for the powerful man. There were speculations that she was lying, that she had been paid by the dead man’s political enemies. As Shailja Patel noted, some Kenyan citizens are apparently “disposable girls.”

When a flurry of anti-pornography condemnation broke out in the Kenyan mainstream and social media, I turned on the television and saw the image of a man’s hand fondling the buttocks of a woman wearing white trousers. I thought this was the pornography we were talking about, but it turned out that the hand belonged to the long arm of the law. The Kenyan state is in touch with its female citizens. The policeman’s hand was “helping” the woman into the waiting vehicle while arresting her on charges related to forms of “indecency.”

There are many terms of abuse for Kenyan women who work in the sex-industry. Their male clients are “men who have gone astray.” Most of the producers, profiteers, and consumers of the sex-industry are men.

Rappers refer to women as “bitches” with monotonous regularity, a global male habit of contempt for women. The Nyali “pornography” story as it first circulated involved some young women, a mysterious foreigner, and a dog. The dog was later retracted from the public story by the police, but not before the narrative and its exclamations of horror at the women’s “bestiality” had reached every corner of Kenya and the Kenyan Diaspora. The young women’s morals were even compared unfavourably to those of the imaginary dog. Amidst the furor, young men on Kenyan college campuses found it hilarious to bark lasciviously at their female colleagues. Some men of all ages engaged in this behaviour on public streets.

They did not notice how peculiar they looked growling and woof-woofing lewdly at complete strangers.

When a respected psychiatrist and a revered public intellectual responded to the questions of a self-described survivor of incest and child abuse, his considered professional advice was full of tender concern towards the man who inflicted the abuse. The doctor worried about the man’s reputation, warning that he might be “a respected elder by now.” The doctor told the self-described survivor of incest and child abuse that she might be delusional or acting from malicious motives.

These are not “women’s issues.” Women suffer, but suffer in cultures and spaces controlled and dominated by men. These are men’s issues. These are patterns of problems within Kenyan masculinity.
Mwangi2013-6535 (1)
IV.

Many Kenyan men inflict bodily harm on other human beings in the name of affronted masculinity or compelling masculine “needs.” Many Kenyan men have violently destructive behaviours. Many Kenyan men hide each other’s crimes, with silence, or with complicit nods, winks and shrugs. Many Kenyan men ignore pervasive violence as it occurs in front of their unseeing eyes. Many Kenyan men deny all of this.

Some Kenyan men do not. Some Kenyan men write fiercely and passionately against misogyny and patriarchy with scholarly discipline or poetic lyricism. Male CREAW and Femnet activists work with other men to change the violent masculinity of frustrated and marginalised male youth. “The Men’s Pledge“enlists men against gender-based violence. Wanjala Wafula writes against the “plague of sexual violence;“ Coexist Kenya acts to end it. Kenne Mwikya objected that the men canonizing Prof. Wangari Maathai after her death had publicly vilified her while she was alive. Godwin Murunga has well-researched and rigorous scholarly critiques of flawed hegemonic masculinities. Keguro Macharia repeatedly decries “banal misogyny.” Michael Onsando self-published a poem about the silencing of women’s truths after the doctor’s response to the self-described abuse survivor appeared.

Many other men are committed to creating a safer world for men and women. Many other men work hard to increase all citizens’ everyday security and freedom from harm. Many Kenyan grandfathers and fathers and brothers and uncles and cousins and friends and colleagues ensure that their domestic, professional and public environments are safe and supportive of human dignity for all.

All these men combined are still a miniscule proportion of Kenyan men.

If men stop treating women like chattel; if men stop treating women like second-class citizens; if men stop stereotyping women as available for men’s pleasures; if men stop laughing at misogynist jokes; if men refuse to be complicit in misogynist acts; if men value their daughters as much as their sons; if men speak out about rapists who are their friends and sexual abusers who are their relatives; if men insist to each other that sexual- and gender-based violence is unacceptable; if men acknowledge their responsibility and join other men to transform the culture of violent masculinity: women and men, together, might bend the arc of Kenyan history towards justice.

Objects and Clarity

Objectively, Eric Garner was not killed by police because he was black.

Objectively: “On July 17, 2014, in Staten Island, New York, United States, Eric Garner died of a heart attack while police officers were arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes.”

Objectivity is important; one must not advocate.

The New York Post writes, today:

Many teachers had worn the shirts to school Tuesday and Wednesday as a show of support for cops in the wake of the Eric Garner death and union-backed rally by the Rev. Al Sharpton. But they were warned by a United Federation of Teachers official in an email late Wednesday that, “as public employees, one must remain objective at all times. Certain T-shirt messages may appear to be supportive, but individuals (parents, students) may see a different meaning in that message.”

NYPOST

According to schooldigger’s objective data, PS 220 has 46 full-time teachers.

A first grade teacher, 2013: “I’m not a teacher — I’m a warden for future criminals!”

tressie

According to schooldigger’s objective data,

“Student population at Ps 220 Edward Mandel is diverse. Racial makeup is: White (40.4%), Hispanic (25.3%), Asian (24%).”

Arithmetic: 40.4% + 25.3% + 24% =89.7%

According to schooldigger’s objective data, there are 58 African-American students at PS 220.

Some Thoughts on Fruitvale Station, and No Angel

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

I’ve been thinking about the movie Fruitvale Station, the way—because it begins with Oscar Grant’s death, and because it only becomes a story at all by reference to that morbid telos—it always threatens to become a story about the “value” of Oscar Grant’s life. The entire movie grows from that narrative stem: when Oscar Grant was killed, what was it that died? What was lost? Was he a good person, to be mourned?

I use the word “value,” however, with a sense of loss and regret, and not because of the squandered “value” of his life. That’s a strange way to think about what a person is, to think about a life being “squandered.” There is a word for what happens to a person when you turn them into something whose value can be enumerated, when you commodify the worth of their life so that it has a price. If a life has a price, it can be bought. More to the point, there is a real violence that comes from imagining that a life must have value to be a thing that can be grieved. When you die, will you be mourned because you brought “value” to your society? Will the extent of the loss of you be summed up in terms of how far your credits outweighed your debits?

Fruitvale Station cannot help but answer the question of the value of Oscar Grant’s life, because these are the terms that are forced upon it, the question it cannot not answer. It’s not a criticism of the movie to observe, then, that it shows us an Oscar Grant whose life is worth something, or that his value to the world around him is an important part of what makes it possible to be sad and outraged at his death. We think this way because these are the words and thoughts that are available to us, and the movie is what it is because of what it is forced to be. But the movie is also rather superb in its ability to start from the standard tropes of pathologized black male life—the job, the child, selling drugs, jail—and to build the story of a person struggling to live within a world that will give him life only grudgingly, that forces him to reckon with these, as the terms on which he will be suffered to live. The Oscar Grant that the movie shows us, then, is no angel, but neither is he a devil: if the movie succeeds, it is because it makes those words irrelevant, because we stop caring about that. If the movie succeeds in making it possible for us to grieve Oscar Grant—a stranger to the vast majority of us, until the moment we heard of his death—it does so by doing something different than measuring his value as a human being and finding it to be a positive rather than a negative number.

“I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.”

—Ryan Coogler

The idea that life “means something” in the abstract is a trap: it gives us the language by which we might say a particular life means nothing, or is worth nothing. Murderers become bare life because they have killed, after all, which means it is (perversely) respect for the value of life that allows us to take life without moral penalty. A policeman can kill someone on the street—or on a BART platform—if they can judge that person’s existence to be a negative on the abstract scoreboard of social life: the life of a particular person representing a threat to “life” (as it is socially construed) can be extinguished, and even must be.

For Coogler, here, the main point is not that Grant’s life measured up to some abstract standard of value, that because he was a good kid, he didn’t deserve to die. If he wasn’t a good kid, would he deserve to die? No, the point is that knowing him as a life in motion, knowing and seeing and feeling him as a person—in the intimate ways that watching a movie enables—forces us to get attached to what disappears when he dies, in ways that have nothing necessarily to do with whether his life had an abstract value to society. We mourn people who have become a part of us, people in whose humanity we see reflections of ourselves and our loves, not because they have value or are without flaw, but because they are ours. If you know a person—if you really know them—you will find it difficult not to mourn their death. You will feel their absence, and it will mark a part of you that is now absent, forever.  You will not need to ask whether their life had “value”; instead of counting, you will simply feel.

If Fruitvale Station succeeds, it’s because it transcends the terms of its genre. As a story about a young black male life, it begins with all of the stories that are told about young black men and their value: jobs, children, crime, and family. But it becomes a powerful movie because it doesn’t end there, because, at a certain point, you stop caring about “Oscar Grant” for his efforts to be a good father or whatever. You stop judging him. He becomes a person, a person not reducible to the question of whether his life has value. You feel him. He is a part of you.

The now-notorious “No Angel” article in the NY Times yesterday fails because it does not transcend the terms of its genre. Its editors should have known better; its writer does seem to know better, or at least acknowledges that he could have written it differently, and should have. I suspect that what he admits publicly about an “ill-chosen phrase” also covers over the realization that that phrase grew from a problematic premise, and I hope that next time, he won’t fall into that trap. Such an article could never have succeeded. A two hour movie has the time and space to grow out of its original premise; a brief newspaper article that begins from the St. Peter-like premise of “Angel or Devil?” is not going to, is only going to make it easier to reduce the irreducible complexity of human beings into a yea or nay, into an obscene referendum of whether a person is to live or die. And by what right would you or I ever have to make that decision? What monstrous arrogance would ever make us even attempt to pretend we should try?

(a jet lagged mess)

August 2nd, AUS to NBO
August 17th, NBO to AUS

I was in Kenya until yesterday, and my mind is a jet-lagged jumble; perhaps that’s why I can’t focus on anything, why twitter’s mishmash of #Ferguson and everything else seems a more or less appropriate lack of order for my brain right now, and why focusing on one thing only brings another thing into view. Or maybe it’s a Koroga, the mixture of flavors and recipes and histories that isn’t meant to resolve or define or come into focus. Or maybe I just can’t focus because I’m jet-lagged.

Theodore Roosevelt, uber-white-dad and former NYPD police chief, on the contagion in the heart of darkness:

“Then, from out of the depths of the Congo forest came the dreadful scourge of the sleeping sickness, and smote the doomed peoples.

Just before watching Vince Vaughan’s Delivery Man, on the long plane-ride (and before watching and then quickly stopping-watching 21 Jump Street), I watched Fruitvale Station and there’s a lot there to say about how the latter film imagines black life, and about the narrative structure in which it becomes thinkable in the film: on a train towards death, legitimated by procreation and employment and family. It’s a quietly superb film, devastatingly interested in the mixed temporality of life, where everything is contingent, provisional, uncertain, and temporary, until it isn’t: death is when you stop changing, growing, and feeling what you lack; death is when it is no longer possible to become what you aren’t.

I come back to this, the idea that “deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking”; it is a fear, “a notion,” because we have no reason to think it’s true. But because we do not know for certain that it isn’t, we fear it. It might be true, and because we need certainty—perhaps, we are the “we” that needs certainty—we must create certainty, using force. Exterminate the brutes. Order. Anything that is not order is a threat to order.

I watched The Lego Movie on the plane, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why it’s popping into my head: Lord Business wants to glue everything together, so it can be just right, as it is supposed to be, total order. Naturally, the brief clip of what this looks like is a scene of gentrification and urban “renewal”: bulldozing old houses to build skyscrapers. There aren’t really any black people in the movie—everyone has “yellow” lego-faces, which basically means caucasian—but the “master builders” are led by Morgan Freeman (clearly marked phenotypically), and they articulate themselves in a negative relation to Emmet’s uber-whiteness, as well as being plagued by Cop.

In short: Business uses Cops to bring Order to the City, also drones and surveillance. I also watched Robocop, which is about Militrized-Cop bringing Order to the City so that Business can prosper, using surveillance and drones.

At the end of the Lego movie, Lord Business becomes a lovable white father. At the end of Robocop, the lovable white father shoots the bad cop and saves the day for his children. In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is trying to be a father. In Delivery Man, Vince Vaughan is a father to hundreds of children without any evidence of mothers, and it turns out—in a way that only white privilege could find moving—the way to become a father is to choose to be a father because the power to be a special was always within you all along.

I went to AFRICA at a moment in which Ebola and Ferguson were the big narratives defining the present for me; I came back from AFRICA at a moment in which they still are. Yesterday, I watched Barack Obama—his grandfather was interned in a Mau Mau camp—describe the contagion that had exploded in a black reverse-suburb of St. Louis, and the efforts to contain and suppress it. He played good cop.

He was born in the United States, not in Kenya.

The British put Jomo Kenyatta in indefinite detention when they thought he was the leader of Mau Mau; he wasn’t, and when they realized it, they let him out to be the first President of Kenya. He played good cop to their bad cop.

Jomo Kenyatta, 1962: “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”

tacticsJomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta, is now the president of Kenya, and “security” is the watchword. This word is spoken in an American accent, I think. Operation Sanitize is the effort that Kenyatta has launched to contain the contagion of Somali terror, which seem mainly to derive from a desire to put Kenyan-Somalis in cages, or to expel them back to Somalia. When his father did the same, it was called the “Shifta War”

IPOA: “a number of these attacks occurred within the locality of Nairobi’s Eastleigh Estate, a suburb largely inhabited by Kenyan Somalis and which, security sources apparently believe, also plays host to a large number of illegal immigrants from Somalia. In one such attack on 31st March 2014 for instance, three massive explosions occurred simultaneously within the Estate, killing 6 people and injuring 31 others.

As a result of the growing insecurity, on 5th April 2014, the government launched a second internal security operation dubbed OPERATION SANITIZATION OF EASTLEIGH, which was to be carried out under the aegis of the National Police Service. This Operation was largely designed to be carried out around Eastleigh Estate and other areas perceived to be hideouts for illegal immigrants. According to documents availed to the Authority, the declared purpose of this new Operation was to flush out Al- Shabaab adherents/aliens and, search for weapons, improvised explosive devices (IEDs)/explosives and other arms so as to detect, disrupt and deter terrorism and other organized criminal activities.”

Some have suggested that this is all really about the threat of Somali capital, about seizing and controlling the city.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA): “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.”

In Nairobi, commercial public space is heavily policed: there are metal detectors, guards who screen your car and bags (with metal detector wands), and one feels very clearly and distinctly the difference between safe, guarded spaces—inside—and the danger of the streets. There are traffic cops with assault rifles everywhere. Cops with guns are banal; surveillance is routine. To pass from the street into the inside, you must be screened.

The United States is widely understood to have “interests” in the Kenyan war against Somalis in Somalia, and in the “terrorist” screening efforts in Kenya.

When African leaders came to Washington a week ago, Obama announced that he was committed to “containing” the Ebola outbreak. Not stopping or curing; the word used was “containing.”

containedIn Kenya, lots of people get killed by the police, and Ebola is not really a reasonable thing to be afraid of. I heard a few very grim stories about the things police can do to people, and do to people; being killed by police, for no reason, is a thing that can happen. Ebola is a thing that can happen to, but it hasn’t yet.

Ferguson is contained in St. Louis, is a container within St. Louis, contains in St. Louis.

french

REUTERS: “President Barack Obama said on Friday that the United States takes risks from the deadly Ebola virus very seriously and that some participants at an Africa summit taking place in Washington will be screened for exposure.”We are taking the appropriate precautions,” he said. “Folks who are from these countries that have even a marginal risk, or an infinitesimal risk of having been exposed in some fashion, we’re making sure we’re doing screening.”

The 1976 Ebola Outbreak, visualized.
1976 outbreakOf the quasi-Ebola film Outbreak, Roger Ebert wrote:

“It is one of the great scare stories of our time, the notion that deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking, and if they ever escape their jungle homes and enter the human bloodstream, there will be a new plague the likes of which we have never seen.”

This is not a bad review; it’s a good review, or at least an accurate one that understands why “our time” is frightened of dark contagions escaping from “the jungle,” why it becomes a matter of bio-political life-and-death that “we” keep “the human bloodstream” pure from lurking dangers in the uncharted heart of darkness:

“Outbreak opens 30 years ago, in Africa, as American doctors descend on a small village that has been wiped out by a deadly new plague. They promise relief but send instead a single airplane that incinerates the village with a firebomb. The implication is that the microbe is too deadly to deal with any other way”

There is no other way than to exterminate the brutes, you see: the threat is in their very blood, and even one drop of it will contaminate us.

 

Independent Poetry and the Pleasures of Concrete

(A review of Michael Onsando’s poetry chapbook, Something Quite Unlike Myself, by Kenyan poet and friend of the blog Stephen Derwent Partington, first published in Kenya’s “Saturday Standard” newspaper, reprinted with permission)

When cowardly local publishers abdicate their cultural obligations and fail to print any decent local verse whatsoever, brave poets go abroad or go it alone.  Increasingly, talented new Kenyan poets are finding that they must turn to self-publishing.  Even our younger, funkier presses seem to privilege fiction over poetry; some newspaper and magazine editors seem pathetically confused by the genre, and avoid it altogether.  Many fine Kenyan poets, most of them young, have necessarily self-published.

The most recent entry into our Kenyan pantheon of ‘Talented Poets who give a Damn where Publishers Don’t’, is award-winning social blogger Michael Onsando, with his excellent new chapbook, Something Quite Unlike Myself.  A chapbook is a pamphlet of just a few pages, often self-produced and invariably less expensive than a full-length collection of the standard 60-70 pages.

Onsando’s chapbook is easy to slip into the brown envelope you’re carrying, or the iPad case you’re skipping around with, or the huge Dan Brown novel you’ve spent thousands of shillings on at the expense of more interesting Kenyan writers.  Like the publishers, you people are borderline cultural traitors, hehe.  People, you can redeem yourself a little by buying Something Quite Unlike Myself, a series of easy-to-digest poems which, nevertheless, are packed with meaning.

That’s the joy of good poetry: it condenses meaning into a tiny linguistic espresso.  This makes it tougher and more resilient than fictional prose, more able to withstand all manner of interpretations.  Look, for instance, at Onsando’s untitled four-liner, reproduced alongside this article.  The words alone would do something, even if they were all presented as a single sentence.  But with that punctuation and the different fonts, something else happens; something greater.

Onsando blistered feet

It is an enigmatic little poem, one posing more questions than answers.  This is a consequence of the poem’s conciseness, its brevity.  We ask ourselves: Who is the speaker, and who is the woman in the poem?  Is Onsando the speaker, and what has he been doing to get blistered feet?  Are they blistered now, as she views them, or is the woman asking him, during a meeting after the event, about his feet that were blistered some time ago?  Are they lovers?  (If so, the lines would be recited with love, concern and interest, as if the questioners are sympathetic: ‘Oh, I’m sorry about your feet’; ‘Oh, your hands look beautiful’).  But Onsando leaves the context unsaid, and so it’s possible that the two characters in the poem actively hate each other and the whole verse is instead a two-way diss, the opposite of loving; we could then paraphrase the first couplet as ‘Goodness, your feet look terrible’ and the second as ‘Well, your hands look stupid!’  Or perhaps these are sly, backhanded compliments from two snooty wits to each other.  We don’t simply don’t know.  We have to guess.  We have to participate!  Yes, reading can get your brain off its ass(!?)

Varying fonts is a strategy used by Onsando in many of his poems.  Here, it draws attention to the two qualified nouns (‘blistered feet’ and ‘manicured hands’) and adds a visual dimension that works to blur the division between visual (art) and traditional written literature.  We can loosely call verse that merges the image and the text ‘Concrete Poetry’, and it’s oddly difficult to do this as well as Onsando does.

Concrete poems have a spatial existence as well as linguistic ‘meaning’, and lie somewhere ‘between poetry and painting’, as a critic once proposed.  Certainly, Onsando’s example here, and others in the collection (such as a poem in which the word ‘up’ goes, well, upwards), present what can be called pictorial typography, or images produced by type, similar to what happens in Apollinaire’s famous concrete poem, ‘Il Pleut’ (‘It is Raining’), the text of which streams down the page.

Interesting about the font in Onsando’s poem is how ‘blistered feet’ is in a large, bold, solid-looking font; perhaps these are a labourer’s feet.  ‘Manicured hands’, however, is in a stylishly curling font, perhaps suggesting elegance, class and wealth; manicured hands are not callused, are not the hands of a manual labourer.  The word manicured ‘means’ cared for and classy, and the shape of the font supports this meaning, reinforcing it; image and text work together as what one theorist has perhaps prosaically called an ‘imagetext’.

When reading this poem, then, we might appreciate two worlds colliding: the poor young man and the rich woman.  Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp, perhaps, or an episode of KTN’s Tujuane in which a streetwise young man from a poor background is patronized by a snobbish young woman with class-attitude.  Perhaps the line break, then, represents the class divide? Perhaps this is how Onsando envisaged the poem.  He has certainly said of Something Quite Unlike Myself that it is ‘about a class that is completely oppressing the class below it’.

It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Onsando has previously participated in collaborative projects that combine images (Kenyan photography) with text (Kenyan poetry) such as the online Koroga Project, which is worth Googling.  It may well be that Onsando is becoming one of our more interesting poets in terms of breaking away from ‘pure text’ and spinning the word into other art forms.

From personal poems of inequalities in love, to poems considering more overt political oppression and violence (there are poems on extra-judicial killings and politician’s rhetoric), Onsando’s innovative verse uses font colour, style, size and fading to produce a huge diversity of meanings from poems that appear deceptively ‘easy’.  This is great crossover poetry, then: generous to the reader new to poetry, and fascinating to the academic reader.

It is the type of poetry collection that leads this commentator to in turn say something very much unlike myself: to hell with the mainstream publishers, if they won’t publish innovative stuff like this, for independents like Onsando are able to do it better than you would have.

(Something Quite Unlike Myself is available at the Yaya Centre’s ‘Bookstop’, and from Amazon)