Theory Teacher's Blog

Nairobi Diaries 7: The Non-Place of Kibera and the Utopian Politics of Dance

Kibera: Africas largest slum

Kibera: Africa's largest slum

One day we visited the Cardinal Otunga Girl’s Empowerment Center in the morning and the Christ the King parish’s library and school in the afternoon. At both places, we met monastics, social workers, teachers, and legal advocates working together to give disadvantaged children both the practical and the cultural skills for escaping poverty. The former institution is run by nuns and is located in a quiet, suburban environment, and it is something like an orphanage for teenage girls to get them off the streets. The latter is located in one of the world’s largest slums, Kibera. Kibera is somewhat unique compared to other slums because even though over a million people live there, the government (for various political reasons that I don’t understand) doesn’t officially recognize that it exists. Consequently, there is almost no official infrastructure. Electricity, running water, sanitation, schools, daycare, and even real streets strong enough to support an automobile — all these are extremely scarce, and what there is has mostly been innovated by the impoverished people who live there or by non-governmental organizations. Some of the girls at the empowerment center came from Kibera.

When you go to a place such as Kibera (and without a guide, you probably shouldn’t), you expect mile after mile of intense poverty. You expect the smell of raw sewage, and you expect to see babies playing in that raw sewage. But what I didn’t expect was middle-aged men in business suits coming home from work. What I didn’t expect to see was young adults studying quietly in a library. What I didn’t expect was a class of children carefully and joyfully choreographing a dance. And that’s what I want to talk about in this blog. On the one hand, since Kibera does not officially exist (not part of the census or the GDP) it is something of a non-place. But within that negative, hellish non-place is another more positive non-place — the utopian project of the Christ the King school and library. And connected to both the hellish and the hopeful non-places is yet another non-place in the idyllic, suburban sanctuary of the Girls Empowerment Center. And within these spaces, I saw something I want to call the “utopian politics of dance” — and what I mean by that is the subject of this blog post.

(Excuse the long theory-laden parentheses, but for those of you reading my blog who are unfamiliar with Thomas More’s famous book or with the literary history of the concept that his book generated, I am using the word utopia as More did — as a double entendre for no-place (outopos in ancient Greek) and good place (eutopos). As an aside, I want to also mention that More’s double entendre might be a useful conceptual tool for thinking through a statement I mentioned in Nairobi Diary 5 that my colleague made — that never before had he more strongly felt the presence of God or witnessed in the labor of the social workers God’s work being done… that God was here. There is a powerful yoking together of two contradictory senses in that theological formulation just as there is in More’s play on words. Why articulate God’s goodness and sublime beauty in the context of such absolute horror, poverty, oppression, and violence? Why does one seem to both rhetorically and ontologically require the other?)

kibera_1But before I go on with my philosophical exploration of spaces, I want to ask you to keep in mind the dancing not only because all of my colleagues were totally impressed by it but also because, once again, just like I did in my Nairobi Diaries 5 post, I want to put my experience in Kenya in dialogue with some stuff I have been reading recently for my more scholarly research — critiques of Paul Gilroy’s famous book of theory, The Black Atlantic. In it Gilroy makes an argument against an American version of Black Nationalism that asserts a unified, essential pre-colonial African identity and myth of origins — i.e., roots — and argues for a more transnational identity politics grounded in the movement of peoples and cultures — i.e., routes. Gilroy celebrates innovative, culturally hybrid forms of music such as reggae and hip hop as tools of cultural resistance to racism, poverty, and the exploitation of labor. In response to Gilroy, quite a number of theorists (such as Laura Chrisman, Neil Lazarus, and an entire issue in 1996 of the journal Research in African Literatures) have critiqued his distinction between the “lived crisis” of ordinary people’s experience and the “systemic crisis” emphasized by Marxist theory, black nationalism, and pan-African political strategies that all emphasize some form of broad political solidarity against the forces of “Western” capitalism. These critics argue that Gilroy undermines the political strategies of coalition building in favor of a vague “cultural resistance” whose form is somewhat utopian. It’s hard for me to do justice to the many facets and astute sophistication of both Gilroy’s argument and the many critiques of it in something like my blog, but to relate Gilroy to Kenya’s recent crisis of ethnic violence, one can see him emphasizing the more transnational forms of cultural identity that synthesize old and new, foreign and domestic, rather than ethnic identities, Kenyan nationalism, or postcolonial critiques of global capitalism (i.e., critiques of “systemic crisis”), since all of these projects have (for very different reasons) failed. Hence, Gilroy would probably appreciate what I wrote in Nairobi Diaries 2 about Kenyan literary responses to the ethnic violence that bring together the poetics of everyday life with a utopian, transcendent spirit and wit. But against Gilroy, the professor of English Supriya Nair wonders — and I wonder right along with her — why he makes it seem like the distinction between “lived crisis” and “systemic crisis” is an either/or. Instead of focusing either on lived crisis (i.e., personal experience and local culture) or systemic crisis (i.e., international politics and global economy), why not both together?

Okay, now I want to come back to the school children dancing in Kibera, which we witnessed just one year after ethnic violence burned across the nation but was especially brutal in Kibera where people were hacked to death and even burned alive. (One of the people working in Christ the King’s school showed my colleagues and me photographs of the violence, and you can read this recent article about the effects of that violence a year later.) The young students whom we saw were not just dancing their blues away; rather they were choreographing the dances of the many different ethnic groups in Kenya. In other words, with the guidance of their teachers, these students were theorizing through dance a multicultural identity that would simultaneously affirm and transcend ethnicity. So far, so good — I am totally impressed, and I think Gilroy would be happy. But what his critics suggest that he unfortunately leaves out is a complete characterization of the actual physical space in which such culture is happening.  In my case, using his theoretical approach would lead me to ignore how the students’ dancing is guided by teachers and social workers with a very definite political strategy (not to mention the very material support of a very powerful Catholic Church) for effecting positive change. People had to build these spaces in which the kids were dancing after all. The teachers have to get paid.

kibera_2So, agreeing with Supriya Nair, I think the utopian politics of these children’s dancing is quite sophisticated in how it brings together a cultural response to lived crisis and a political response to systemic crisis. Likewise, I think we can conceptually bring together the idea of a”cultural responses to lived crisis” and the idea of a “political responses to systemic crisis” in how we think about the library at the Christ the King parish — where, by the way, I noticed by glancing through the record of borrowings on the front desk that the most popular books were the practical ones about business, farming, and applied science, not the books about Catholic spirituality, literature, or politics. And I mention this fact for those who might want to donate books to the library. They need science and business books, not propaganda. But that said, the propaganda matters, too — matters in a positive way. In the stairwell of this library, somebody had painted a beautiful mural celebrating not just the neighborhood where these people live, but also suggesting the utopian promise of a way out.

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July 22, 2009 - Posted by | Kenya

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