Change of Place: Kasarani-Gaza-Ferguson

I may find that a change of place

is nothing safe

—Melvin Dixon

Geographies stitch together, overlap, unmake the distinctions we trace in atlases. We learn to name place, to designate space, to assign fixity to scenes and sites of unmaking. Perhaps the only truth that remains is: “this used to be (called).”

Let me start (again) with “this used to be (called).”

Moi International Sports Complex (MISC) was built to host the 1987 All African Sports Games.

 In October and November 1987, the Moi-KANU regime unleashed armed police and the para-military General Service Unit at mass gatherings of Kenyans at Mombasa and Nairobi—Secretariat of UMOJA Umoja wa Kupigania Demokrasia Kenya, London 1987

Kenyan historians agree that the Moi regime became increasingly repressive following the 1982 coup. As noted in the Report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission,

In the aftermath of the coup, members of the Kenya Air Force [who led the coup] were rounded up and transported to prison facilities and other locations where they were tortured and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. Thereafter, President Moi stepped up measures aimed at controlling the state and further consolidating his power. He filled government positions with loyalists, mainly from his own Kalenjin community. His government, which had in June 1982, amended the constitution to make Kenya a de jure one party state, removed security of tenure for constitutional office holders such as judges.

Of the many recorded atrocities in the TJRC Report, the Wagalla Massacre of 1984 represents the nadir of the state’s relationship to Kenyans of Somali descent.

The massacre of over 400 men occurred on the Wagalla airstrip, located in northern Kenya. It was accompanied by mass rapes of women and girls.

 How are we to think of these deaths “in transit space”? These deaths in the peculiar ungeography of a region whose inhabitants required special passes to “visit” Kenya? 

Numbers are difficult to ascertain—and I do not want to hinge why this matters on numbers.

Within official memory, in government-controlled papers, Wagalla became an unhappening. When an international news agency reported on the massacre, the Kenyan government dismissed the massacre as “a minor quarrel.”

Wagalla lives as a memory inscribed on the bodies of raped and tortured women and girls, men and boys. As a state warning to those of Somali descent that their lives are disposable.

Simultaneously, truth-telling history writing became impossible in Moi’s Kenya: “between March 1986 and March 1987, at least 75 journalists, academics, and university students were jailed for crimes such as the possession of seditious literature”

Opened at a moment of intense state repression, the Moi International Sports Complex was a monument to un-memory, a space where Kenyan sports accomplishments might erase the bitterness of everyday unmaking. Given a chance to “celebrate something good,” we seized on the victories of our famed runners, seeing in their victories other possibilities of belonging. As Jackie Lebo writes, “You never feel more Kenyan than when the flag is raised at an Olympic stadium, the athletes at the podium dressed in national colors and mouthing the words to the national anthem.” Yet, memory reclaims space.

 On my first official visit to Washington, DC, I am corrected: “We call that airport The National”

I do not remember when I unlearned to say Moi, when the Moi International Sports Complex simply became its location, Kasarani. Partly, this is convenience. Partly, it was a small gesture of resistance, a way to erase the repressive nationalisms the space was supposed to represent.

Under president Uhuru’s neoliberal regime, the body that governs Kenya’s stadiums attempted to sell the naming rights of the Moi International Sports Complex to Safaricom, the country’s largest wireless company. MISC was to be renamed “Safaricom Stadium Kasarani— Home of Heroes.” The deal was rejected by members of the National Congress, who insisted that Moi’s reputation must be honored.

In an animated debate, in which the lawmakers flashed the one-finger salute reminiscent of Kanu the then ruling party under retired President Daniel arap Moi, MPs said it was wrong for the name of Kenya’s longest-serving President to be deleted from one of the landmarks in the country at a time when the country is planning celebrations for 50 years of independence.

Adding to the debate, the Member of Parliament for Eldas, Adan Keynan argued, “Any attempt to rewrite or erase the historical contribution of great leaders like Mzee Moi, who handed over power peacefully will be unfair. His reign must be applauded and must be respected. In this version of Kenyan un-memory, Kasarani incarnates Moi’s greatness. Yet, the term “reign” suggests, more aptly, the nature of power being celebrated: autocratic, history-erasing, disposability-proliferating.

It should have come as no surprise, then, when Kenya’s Inspector General, David Kimaiyo, officially gazetted the stadium on April 17, 2014, designating it a “police station,” with effect from April 2, 2014. Kasarani had already been a place of un-memory, a place of un-making, a place where power displayed its ability to destroy. Soon renamed on twitter as #kasaraniconcentrationcamp, the stadium continued its historical function as a site of terror-induced, repression-driven, nationalist jingoism.

I am interested in how spaces hold and distribute memory and affect, in the capacity of imaginative, imagined, and felt geographies to be infused with the histories of their making, in the practices that sustain them. In how stone and soil, sand and water, cracks and sealant whisper.

As with Wagalla, that killing geography of transit, #kasaraniconcentrationcamp has become another site of disposability: barely mentioned in mainstream sources, absent from official parliamentary debates. As though the un-memory power of Moi’s monument to repression continues to silence all who encounter it. And, once again, Somalis are especial targets of state terror.


The terror against Somalis was launched under what was dubbed Usalama Watch. Usalama translates as safety and security; it also has connotations of wellbeing and good health. Niko Salama—I am well. The safety, security, health, and wellbeing of Kenya was imagined as being dependent on the unmaking of Somali lives. As though a certain vision of Kenya depends on the disposability of all Somalis.

A fiction of safety anchored by disposability joins Usalama Watch to Operation Protective Edge.

Launched on July 8, 2014, Operation Protective Edge was Israel’s latest attempt to unmake and un-memory Palestine. In addition to the over 2,000 deaths reported—the many more still to come in “the lull”—the “Operation” (what an obscene word) sought to unmake the possibility of habitable space: to destroy homes, mosques, schools, hospitals, to make the very stones plead for mercy. As Laleh Khalili demonstrates, this unmaking has been a constant feature of Israel’s relationship to Palestine, a history of dispossession and unhumaning.

I return to this writing after a “permanent ceasefire” has been declared, an assurance, perhaps, that the bombs will stop falling. For now. Images circulate of celebrating Gazans. On twitter, those who can, tweet that they are still glad to be alive. To have survived.

How, I wonder, do the disposable survive?

We re-learn, as though we need to, that “genocide” and “ethnocide” are area-specific terms: to be abhorred and halted and decried and theorized when they happen in Europe. Perhaps. To be debated and contextualized and passed through death-assessing calculators when they happen elsewhere.

those who claim to embody

global liberty

shake their heads

trap us

in their

moral dilemmas

We attempt to claim that children are dying, that families are being destroyed, that generation and genealogy are being erased.

 We stumble to make illegible moral claims. We are reminded that these claims were never for us to make.

I want to say geographies collapse

I move from the uninformation about #kasaraniconcentrationcamp, the Kenyan state’s silence, the few tweets that circulate from affected Somalis, and the few who care, to the over-information about Gaza, the proliferation of deadbodyimages, bombrains, rubblebuildings, griefragegriefragegrief. Names from Gaza are assembled, memorialized. We do not know how to name the missing in Kenya. We say, learning from the state, “illegal,” “shifta,” “refugee,” unassimilable.

what names might the dispossessed bear?

And as #kasaraniconcentrationcamp fades, returning to the un-memory that its geography and geo-history demand, a new name and place: Ferguson, Missouri. A name: Mike Brown.

A silly thought: Mike Brown is such an ordinary name. 

Ferguson, Missouri enters the geo-histories of disposability and resistance, the small geographies we learn to hold in common, part of the “it could happen anywhere” geographies. The routine unmaking of disposable life.

This writing might be about the labor of coincidence—about the twitter hashtags that have dominated the past 5 months. Has it been that long?

It might be about the stickiness and circulation of grief and rage. About how our intimacies open us to other worlds—how living with #kasaraniconcentrationcamp made #Gaza and #Ferguson more proximate, more charged, more demanding. It might be about how emotion builds, intensifies, pours over, leads to demands for justice, for freedom, for life. It might be about exhaustion.

It might be about the ordinariness of the name Mike Brown, an unassuming name, a name one might imagine calling. A familiar name. A name whose ordinariness might allow us to imagine, if only for a moment, the horror of its unmaking.

In yet another register, this writing might be about the ability of state power to arbitrarily devalue and unmake life, about the legal power to make disposable.

It might be about what I do not know how to write for Gift Makau.