A colored photograph hangs in a small office. Far above eye level. Positioned so you notice that it might notice you but will never see you. This is familiar. It happens in restaurants all over Kenya. Wait staff are to be unseen.
Service to the state is lofty. The state is above all. The Inspector General, C.B.S. D.S.M., serves loftiness.
In this space, he is king. You are in his house.
You are too flustered to check if his image hangs in every one of the small reporting offices. And, anyway, unlike those who work here, who seem to wander in and out of rooms at will, interrupting whatever reporting and recording of statements is underway, you do not have such freedom of movement.
The door to the small room remains open, always. To promote openness? To prevent corruption? Though the man who helps you, in a different small room, will ask if you have “dollars.”
The space does not feel scary. It feels bureaucratic.
Perhaps it’s because we arrive at lunchtime and, across the station, police are eating boiled maize on the cob.
It’s difficult to feel intimidated by maize-eating police.
Here, in their space, there’s an at-homeness to police bodies and postures. The irritation and boredom one sees on the faces and in the bodies of the most visible police—those assigned to traffic—is absent. Or, it functions differently. Those around might be bored and irritated, but they are bored and irritated in a cool building, not inhaling traffic fumes under the Nairobi sun.
A helpful man provides the abstract I need. He is very glad to help. For a moment, I experience the reality of “utumishi kwa wote.”
The ground floor is lined with little rooms along a long corridor. Bulging paper files occupy these rooms, as do too-big desks, and staff busily at work, taking statements. This is, I suspect, not where suspects are interrogated. Outside the rooms hang signs that outline what crimes are to be reported where. Signs that define how crime becomes legible in Kenya.
The signs are printed in capital letters in a sans serif font.
One room deals with:
THEFT BY A SERVANT
HANDLING SUSPECTED STOLEN GOODS
THEFT FROM A LOCKED MOTOR VEHICLE
MIS-USE OF MOTOR VEHICLE
What’s the distinction between GENERAL STEALING and OTHER KINDS OF STEALING? Does GENERAL STEALING involve stealing general items? Is there SPECIFIC STEALING? This question, it seems, is not so foolish, because THEFT BY A SERVANT is a specific sort of stealing. It is not GENERAL STEALING. Who comes up with these distinctions? And what, precisely, does SERVANT mean? How is society organized so that there are GENERAL thefts and thefts by SERVANTS? How does the category of SERVANT become imbued with criminality?
I’m arrested, also, by MIS-USE OF MOTOR VEHICLE. What an odd framing. How should MOTOR VEHICLES be used? Would holding a party in a MOTOR VEHICLE be a MIS-USE? Is sleeping in a MOTOR VEHICLE a MIS-USE? I’m assuming having sex in a MOTOR VEHICLE is a MIS-USE. Do MOTOR VEHICLES show up to complain that they have been misused? Who has the locus standii to speak for MOTOR VEHICLES? Do mechanics file reports against car owners who MIS-USE their cars?
Another office offers similar questions. It handles,
COMPLAINT AGAINST POLICE
THEFT BY SERVANT/AGENT/DIRECTORS
HANDLING SUSPECTED STOLEN GOODS
The arrangement is not alphabetical. Perhaps it is in order of importance? Given that the police have been implicated in raping women—sometimes, raping rape victims— the juxtaposition of COMPLAINT AGAINST POLICE and RAPE fascinates and terrifies. Is this office where one goes to report that the police have raped one? Is there a more insidious threat that one who lodges a COMPLAINT AGAINST POLICE might be raped?
And, again, hierarchies of THEFT. It is clarified that a SERVANT is neither an AGENT nor a DIRECTOR. One wants to say: agent—one who acts. Director—one who directs action. How does the juxtaposition of these terms define SERVANT? As neither agent(ial) nor director(ial)? As subject? The ultimate subject?
The Master & Servants Ordinance of 1906, based on similar legislation from the Gold Coast and South Africa, specified the terms under which labor would be carried out. It was most often used to discipline unruly laborers, as David Anderson outlines:
Offences were separated into the categories of ‘major’ and ‘minor’. ‘Minor’ offences included failure to work, intoxication or absence during working hours, careless or improper work, and using insulting language to the master or his agent. The maximum fine for such offences was one month’s wages or a similar term of imprisonment. ‘Major’ offences included any wilful breach of duty: drunkenness leading to loss, damage or risk to property of the master, failure to report death, loss or injury to animals, and desertion from services without lawful cause. For these offences the maximum fine was two months wages or two months imprisonment.
In Anderson’s archive, the terms “African,” “labourer,” “servant,” and “criminal” are often interchangeable. Most frequently, servants are punished for withholding labor, for trying to assert different understandings of time and value. Servants are those whose labor can be criminalized. Who labor not to be criminalized, not to be criminals, not to be crimes.
Servants Steal: an entire worldview rests on this assumption, supported by administrative and bureaucratic procedures.
We are here to make a statement. First, the bare details of it will be recorded in the Occurrence Book. And then, a detailed statement will be taken. The procedure is not explained to us. We wait in a haze that disorients and discomposes. Unsure of when to sit, when to stand, when to go, when to stay, how to stay, how to go.
The genre of police reporting—reporting to the police—is oddly comforting. Genre comforts. One follows a list and once one figures out how the list works, some anxiety is alleviated.
Date of Incident
Detailed Description of Incident
As far as I can tell, no space is given for affect.
One’s tears, fears, disgust, anger, brokenness, undoneness cannot be accommodated within the genre of the report. The facts of how one has been made less than, less possible, less present—these facts are not allowed to clutter the recorded facts.
I might be wrong.
It could be that the clipped sentences written in biro on foolscap paper capture rigid bodies, contorted faces, stuttered phrases, broken repetitions—the narratives of undoneness that populate little rooms like this.
The report-taker is matter of fact. I wonder how she lives with the stories she hears. Perhaps the constant interruptions—the colleagues who wander in and out with constant tasks and questions and laughs and complaints—perhaps these make possible the ongoing work of living with other people’s brokenness.
Looks over the pieces you leave behind