My grandmother liked to fill her living room with women. She gathered them wherever she went. At the time, I thought there was no point to these gatherings except gossip and tea. Of course this was before I began thinking about gossip as the basis of most human conversation. The women would sit for hours. I disliked these gatherings. They meant more dishes to clean, more tea to make and no time for play. Later, after my grandmother died, I’d find out how these gatherings sustained the women in my village. It’s here that many spoke to one another about their abusive husbands. It’s here that many eventually decided to leave them. And when one of them was in need, they contributed the little money they had to help. They held each other.
It’s with my grandmother in mind that I think about literary communing in Nairobi at a time when literary institutions that held us before no longer do. Where are the scenes of our gathering now? And how do we gather? How do we hold space for one another?
But first, who are we?
We, those of us who seek homes for our work, who seek communities that allow us to, as Bethuel Muthee writes, “sustain the rhythm of daily existence.” “For mtu ni watu.” The scenes of our gathering are what makes the work possible. For what a gift it is to sit with a group of friends and create together, share our work? What a gift to have a friend who survives our first drafts, who says, “Of course!” when one asks, do you have a minute to look at this terrible draft of a thing I wrote? What a gift to regard one another in spaces that love us too?
We gather in a friend’s living room. We gather in the most intimate of our spaces. We gather on email. We gather in Pangani. We gather on Frank’s rooftop in Umoja. When a new journal is launched, we gather there too. We gather on WhatsApp chats. We gather on Twitter. In Jalada, we gather. Brainstorm. We’ve gathered on Enkare Review. We’ve gathered at Wamathai Open Mic, Kwani? Open Mic.
But what happens to and in these scenes of gathering in the wake of sexual assault allegations? What happens to and in these scenes of gathering when one of us harms another? How do we hold one another, continue to make space for one another? How do we continue communing? What happens to community, now that we’re here? What is the responsibility of the community?
First, an intermission about bees. When the conditions in a hive become unbearable, bees tend to abscond their hive. It’s the reasonable thing to do. Will you stay and die together? With their queen, they leave in search of more favourable conditions. They might leave behind those bees that cannot fly, and unhatched brood.
The history of Nairobi literary communing, as far as I know it, is one of leaving, unfollowing, cutting off, reinventing, creating new spaces that can hold us better than the harmful spaces of our past. On email, a friend says she’s exhausted of literary communing. “It’s the same damn thing,” she writes. She speaks of the constant heartbreak, of the exhaustion, the constant violence on women within these communities by men who’re friends, lovers, colleagues, teachers or strangers.
In a conversation on Feminist Africa, the women of the Weaving Kenya Women’s Collective speak of the many forms of interruptions to communities and to the work we do collectively. Some (like Kenya Power!) are “hitches, glitches, pauses, enigmatic aporias, uneven patterns, momentary disturbances, a small turbulence.” But there are graver disturbances, violent interruptions that make the spaces we belong to no longer safe for those who inhabit them and those who created them.
The impact of these violent interruptions is heavy on the victims, but they stretch beyond that. In the wake of sexual assault allegations and other forms of violence, those in these literary communities are tasked with the responsibility of figuring out how to thread back what has been unthreaded. Oftentimes in the process, relationships become fraught. Friendships come to an end. Trust between those who once held similar values is lost. At times, conversation is reduced to a matter of taking sides. Or, conversation simply ends. The ripple effect weakens the entire system. Sometimes, we scatter, and it’s as though we were never there in the first place. We burn it all to the ground. We leave, for in good conscience, how can we stay? And so, the work comes to a standstill.
To navigate the Kenyan literary space is to navigate a space that reveres the abuser. One that’s more forgiving of them, one that affords them more grace. And this, the abuser knows. In fact, the abuser jokes about it, and sometimes, makes art out of the pain they’ve caused.
And so, many of us opt to isolate ourselves. We’d rather not get upset, re-traumatized. We text one another: Why did you stop coming? Do you think this person is going to be there? Oh, I used to love gathering there, but I’d rather not go.
There are those who can afford to leave, who have the means to find other platforms and communities. There are those who can’t. There are those who leave still, even without alternatives. In the future, we might find other ways of communing. We might create other spaces for ourselves that will hold us and love us. Perhaps, a women-only space. Those who weave, those who knit, those who write will tell you that beginning again is part of the work. It’s how we get it right. One must be willing to go back to that first stitch, the first scene, the first sentence to figure out what went wrong, and where it went wrong so as to fix it.
But there’s also exhaustion.
It’s no secret how male-dominated the Kenyan literary space is. Often, the strategies we have to employ to keep ourselves safe as women isolate us even more in spaces we are already absented from. This is what the violence of men does to community. It weakens our bonds. It expels us, un-homes us, exhausts us, alienates us.
Once community is weakened, it becomes harder to provide a network of support for those who’ve been directly harmed. For how can we, when we can no longer trust one another? When relationships are so fraught. When love and kindness are out the window? When we have been re-traumatized? When the space that held us is no longer? When we are scattered? When we can’t guarantee safety? How can we, when everyone is so exhausted of beginning again, and again, and again, and again?
More questions: What is the point of beginning again if we still carry with us the same systems that have made the violence of our past possible? Yes, we might have dusted our dresses, but we’ve inhaled something. In no time, this thing we’ve inhaled infiltrates our new space too.
My friend Aisha Ali is often asking questions about accountability within community. If and when we move on, can we create safer communities before addressing the violence of our past? Before calling those who’ve harmed to take responsibility for their actions? What kind of transformative work are we doing within these new communities? It’s easy to replicate the mistakes of those who’ve come before us, the violence of those who’ve harmed us.
I have wondered how kyamas or these communities my grandmother created have managed to survive. How do they hold one another accountable?
I have mostly questions to offer.
Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker whose works have appeared on several platforms and publications including The Black Warrior Review, The Trans-African, BBC Radio 4, Wasafiri Magazine, Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, and Jalada Africa. She has been awarded the Miles Morland writing scholarship, Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Black Warrior Review Fiction Prize, and the Richard & Juliette Logsdon Award for Creative Writing. Ndinda was also an Olive B O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University. She has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Oregon, and is working on her first novel.
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