Recent activist and academic work regarding same-gender marriage and relationships has brought to the fore supposed precolonial archives that seem to suggest that something we might call homophobia is as colonial in Africa as is the notion of the nation-state. While this archival work might be important in creating space for African queers, it fails to engage fully with what it might mean to be both African and queer, in the here and now. So what, if there were no ancestral queers? What do these archives concretize and block out of queer possibilities? While thinking with, and against, this archival record, this essay centers one family’s recent history as a calculated exercise in both memory and method. Putting older black women on the agenda evokes their and others’ freedom and the intellectual contributions of black women who have, over the years, constituted the survival of black theory and a logic of care. This is an exercise in how else one could choose to arrive at blackness and queerness and feminism by way of narration.
“How are you called?”
Nĩtawa Mũsangi, Mũsangi wa Katũnge, Katũnge wa Ngũkũ, Ngũkũ wa Ngũnda, Ngũnda wa Kĩseve, Kĩseve wa Manzi, Manzi wa Ndete, Ndete wa Ndete wa Nzĩ, Nzĩ wa Wathiũtune, Wathiũtune wa . . .
We have always introduced ourselves.
When we do we do not begin with, “My name is”; instead we introduce ourselves as how we are called: I am called Mũsangi, Mũsangi of Katũnge, Katũnge of Ngũkũ, Ngũkũ of Ngũnda, Ngũnda of Kĩseve, Kĩseve of Manzi, Manzi of Ndete, Ndete of Ndetewanzĩ, Ndetewanzĩ of Wathiũtune, Wathiũtune of. . . . To tell this story in English, in the way that I do, makes me a fraud, or perhaps a seemingly pretentious archivist of a people to whom one only has remote connection. To translate wa to “of” creates a want, a want for a noun, a gendered noun: son of, daughter of. This want is neither real nor imaginary but it is no less present. It is a creation of my Englishnesses, a creation that calls for an insertion that, although not particularly useful for this exercise in translation, is made necessary for the internal workings of a language that does not take politely to “direct translation” and political omission.
Throughout my life whenever I have encountered my mother’s people in my grandmother’s village, the question arises, “How are you called?” It is in the repetition of this question that I want to reimagine introductions and to enter this archaeology of my family’s equally repeated genealogy:
I am called Mũsangi of Katũnge—and that is important.
“How are you called?”
Part of how I am called is also about self-identifying as a feminist (located within particular geohistories) and the decision to start from a place of selfing. As a black nonbinary feminist located in Africa and of no particular disciplinary formation, my research nonmethods are most likely the kind that Achille Mbembe (2001, 2) would categorize as “opus dogmas and empty dreams.”1 According to Mbembe, African modes of self-writing have only produced “dead end” nativism and Afro-radicalism. In this way, Mbembe implores us to resist the urge to act from our thinking. Several Black feminists, on the other hand, continue to show us that our lived realities come with as much intellectual rigor as research conclusions to which we might arrive via different methods. Christina Sharpe (2016, 13), writing on the problem that “traditional” research methods present to Black academics, quotes Patricia Saunders: “For Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are ‘drafted into the service of a larger destructive force’ thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise.”
Following the Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter (1994), Sharpe (2016, 13) implores us to resist our participation in the reproduction of our “narratively condemned status” and instead “become undisciplined.” In a similar argument, Danai Mupotsa (2010, 3) asks, “When will African women get to study interiorities without displaying self-indulgence and privilege?” Sharpe’s becoming “undisciplined” is what Mupotsa calls being “undutiful daughters”; Pumla Gqola (2017) uses becoming “rogue” and Sara Ahmed (2010), speaking of what she calls “living in proximity to a nerve,” calls the undisciplined “killjoys.”
In this essay I privilege the how—rather than the what, or perhaps even the why—of my family life through a generation of women beginning with my grandmothers, by way of my mother. I use the question “Wĩtawa ata?” or “How are you called?” as an entry point for an inquiry into the thing now known as woman-to-woman marriage, its relationship to a logic of care, and how this relationship could potentially enable us to rethink community formation beyond kinship and family ties.2 The research I present here is decidedly “unconventional” as it emanates from what has become, for me, an urgent need to tell these stories. By so doing, I want to take seriously the lives of these women as both method and theory. I attempt to foreground these networks of care as central to my coming to feminism and as a significant contribution to black intellectual life and thought. Through this memory-work and narration, the essay also addresses (without joining in) an aspect of the social world that has become even more visible with the rise of human rights frameworks—mostly of the LGBTI variety (see, for example, Nyeck and Epprecht 2013; Epprecht 2013) or the West’s obsession with “salvage anthropology,” and the unrestrained search for African baskets of absurdities. Of salvage anthropology, Kath Weston (1991, 341) writes, “The story is a familiar one in the annals of the discipline: well-meaning ethnographers rush out to record ‘traditional’ practices and rituals before the latter change or disappear. At their worst these efforts repackage colonial discourses (e.g., ‘primitive’ societies) for consumption by Anglo-European audiences.”
Some things are worth repeating: This is not an experiment in kinship or a thing called woman-to-woman marriage or even a thing called marriage. This is an exercise in how else I could choose to arrive at blackness and queerness and feminism. By putting the older black women in my family on the agenda, I imagine not only my own freedom and that of others, but I also, quite deliberately, want to take seriously the intellectual contributions of black women who have, over the years, constituted the survival of something I want to call black theory and a logic of care. By inviting my mother into this conversation, I also seek to invite her into my world-making project through memory-work. Between the many unspoken hi/stories between my mother and I, this genealogy-mining over WhatsApp is pleasurable (albeit labor-intensive), but for the few days that we do this, we (my mother and I) become coauthors of a story that constitutes history as present, history as an intricate witnessing of our own experiences of living, then and now. This exercise is to home both my mother and I without the overbearing disingenuousness and obligations of consanguinity, or the anthropological weight of the thing often called kinship or family ties.
Keguro Macharia (2015) speaks of how he has found family unusable as a beginning place for understanding the human (and those who get unhumaned) because, he says, families are not only toxic places but also, like “tradition,” tend to dwell on root-identity. Similarly I find myself struggling with the beginnings of my exploration given that the family (including mine) and kinship are some of the most visible sites for the theater of heteronormativity (Steyn 2009). I choose to begin from, and with, the women of, and in, my family nevertheless because, as Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (2003, 10) argues, by seeing women as automatic victims “we fall into the trap of confirming the very systems we set out to critique.”
“How are you called?”
From Wambui Mwangi and Frantz Fanon I learn to begin from where I am standing. And this also means returning to where I started. (Macharia 2017)
Over a text message I ask my mother why my grandmother Mũkũta left her husband’s home in Ikomoa in the late 1960s.3 She is quick to correct me. She says, “She did not leave, she was returned because she had no sons.” My mother is named after my sũsũ Mũkũta and she is called Katũnge, the one who was returned. What does it mean to “return”? What does it mean to return someone? What do people do with people who are returned? Here, I return, with Keguro and Wambui and Frantz, to where I started, with stories woven around my grandmothers.
First, a footnote: I am immensely grateful for Keguro’s friendship and the many ways his intellectual generosity has allowed me to think with ideas that I initially did not perceive as academic enough, ideas that have always seemed to run wild in ways that did not sit in well within academic disciplines. Here I deliberately call Keguro and Wambui by their first name, not to take away from the titles that carry their surnames but to acknowledge their contribution to black thought and to briefly point to the place of friendship in intellectual work coming from parts of Africa—intellectual work that has beautifully morphed into a network of friendships and affirmation in a world in which Africans are to be studied while taking the place of academic tour guides. Both Keguro and Wambui, separately and together, continue to teach us that thinking with gender and queerness is central to the way we think about blackness as well as in the production of intellectual work deeply rooted in our realities. Keguro’s ongoing book project, which has brought together Fanon and homosexuality through the idea of “frottage,” gives me permission to call Fanon by his first name, Frantz, because he is among my friends, and in that way, I could even claim him as a friend, in the hope that this creates an intimacy and in so doing allows for a thinking with, a building with, a starting with, that does not rely on unusable bibliographies.
“How are you called?”
The autobiographical example is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it’s not about navel-gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation onto social and historical processes, as an example of them. (Saidiya Hartman quoted in Sharpe 2016, 8)
Here, the partial story:
Mũkũta: My grandmother Mũkũta was the third-born child of Ndũkĩ and Ngũnda wa Kĩseve.4
But let’s begin at least somewhere further down, just before the beginning of this new beginning!
My great-grandfather Ngũnda wa Kĩseve had four houses: Katoto, Ndũkĩ, Mwale, and Kaniki.5 Sũsũ Mũkũta and my grandfather Ngũkũ came from the second house, the house of Ndũkĩ. Between them there were two brothers and a sister: Kĩmanga, Kamaũ, and Mwila. My grandfather Ngũkũ, Kamaũ, and Mwila lived rather uneventful lives except for their individual madness, which had become something of a family reputation and which many people in my extended family are believed to still carry: Iwa Mbaa Ngunda, “They are from the Ngũnda clan,” is a phrase used often around Kyamboo and Migwani to explain my relatives’ insatiable appetite for meat, quarrel, and alcohol.6 My sũsũ Mũkũta’s brother Kĩmanga is said to have gone out to sea on a ship, and when he did not return, he was assumed dead. When someone is assumed dead, my people will bury a banana plant to appease the gods and to settle the uncertainty. But—this is not my story to tell (at least not now). There was no body to bury when Kĩmanga died, but one must be buried, and so my grandfather Kĩmanga is dead—and buried.
Facebook, June 1, 2016
My grandfather’s sister, my susu Mukuta, had a story about a child that she and my mother found abandoned under a thorny bush while they tended to my grandfather’s goats. “Kana kaitu i ka malithiani,” she’d sing in Kikamba. I did not know what “malithiani” meant till I was old (and deliberate) enough to figure out the genealogy of invented Kikamba words. “Malithiani”—used in this song as a noun—is from the verb “kuithia/kuithya,” which means to graze.
My aunt Anne would at times go to kuithya. She hated it. All of my grandmother’s ten children took turns to look after umau’s (Grandpa’s) goats, but my aunt Anne complained about it the most. My aunt Anne hated the goats because they did not let her love Jesus fully. She missed church to tend to the goats because Jesus or no Jesus, my umau’s goats must be taken care of and Jesus gave him children exactly for that. A story is told of how my aunt Anne would go to look after the goats and instead of watching over them, she’d get to the fields and spend the entire day crying and praying that the goats would be dead by the time she opens her eyes: “Ngai nivoya ngusalukya nithie mavuli aa makw’ie,” she’d pray. Still, the goats would be there, bleating and humping.
So my susu Mukuta was married and then she wasn’t and then she was again. When my mother was born, my susu Mukuta had already been unmarried. She had come back to her father’s home and moved in with my mother’s mother and her children. Our umau had given her sister, my susu Mukuta, a small plot of land and built her a small hut. He even gave her some goats of her own. What no one said was that all of my grandmother’s ten children would now take turns to tend to my susu Mukuta’s goats too. No one talks about where my susu Mukuta’s own children were at the time. She lived alone in this little hut. But we know my susu Mukuta got unmarried because her womb bore no sons. Not only did she not have sons, her uterus only carried two children. Only two daughters. My granny had a whole twelve children, two of whom died young and four others in the last few years. But my susu Mukuta was beautiful with that double lip of hers and when she found herself a woman to marry, she had her own goats to use for the bride price.
My susu Mukuta had two girls and two other girls by her wife. She couldn’t be a man’s wife so she found herself a wife! My umau and granny named my mother after my susu Mukuta. Later the two would bring home an abandoned baby with jaundice!
This memory comes back to me every May. It’s been many years since this story by and of my susu Mukuta became entangled with my mother’s and that of my own. I descend from a lineage of intricate, complex, and survivor women who have molded me and allowed me to reinvent myself—without contradiction.
Upon the death of sũsũ Mũkũta’s husband Mwangangi, sũsũ Mũkũta would go back to her marital home in Ikomoa and marry a younger woman called Kakonge, who gave them two daughters. Years later sũsũ Mũkũta’s “wife” would die and the daughters would get married, leaving her with no one except for two graves on a small farm. During the final years of her life, sũsũ Mũkũta would circulate between the homes of her two daughters (with her husband Mwangangi), those of her grandchildren, and for a very long time would come back to her brother Ngũkũ’s home and live with my mother’s mother, sũsũ Ndolokasi.
○ ○ ○
My great-grandfather’s first house with Katoto did not yield much. By the time Katoto married my great-grandfather, she already had a daughter (by another man). Ngũnyũ, Katoto’s only daughter, had three dead siblings and an adopted brother, Mwendwa. No one in my family seems to remember where Mwendwa came from before he became part of our family. I suspect that this memory exercise is unnecessary. Mwendwa was my great-grandfather’s child and that is all we choose to remember (at least for now). Having been married and having borne children of her own, our sũsũ Ngũnyũ would come to live with my mother’s mother, sũsũ Ndolokasi, around about the same time that our sũsũ Mũkũta reappears at my grandfather’s home. For the first time, we have three elderly women of no blood relation sharing a setting still construed as home-by-kinship. My great-grandfather’s third house by Mwale gave them five children: Ngula, Simba, Kalundu, Mũtwa, and Nzore. I like to see this house as the most interesting. At about 110 years, Mũtwa, the only daughter from the house of Mwale, is the only surviving child of my great-grandfather and the only one who took up my great-grandfather’s tradition as a healer. I remember Mũtwa’s brother Simba as an unusually quiet man who wore only khaki and Kalundu as the quarrelsome one whose house had become known for night screams from his wife and children.8 Out of all the Mwale sons, I remember Nzore with much more clarity as I was already a young adult by the time he died. He was a genuine child of my great-grandfather and had forged a great friendship with my sũsũ Ndolokasi. Their older brother Ngula, of whom I have no memory, had several wives, one of whom was Syondũrĩa.
Syondũrĩa: Married to Ngula as Kĩvĩvya, my sũsũ Syondũrĩa is said to have been spitefully renamed as such having come back from neighboring Kikuyu with exaggeratedly stretched earlobes, one of which would later tear in a fight with her co-wife. Having had only one daughter, Losa, sũsũ Syondũrĩa would later marry a younger woman, Kavula, who would bear them three children. For most of their marriage years, Kavula did not stay with sũsũ Syondũrĩa; she lived in Juja, Kiambu, where she worked. My mother and I do not remember exactly when and why Kavula left for Juja, but I do remember her coming home much later as an older woman in her fifties speaking a mixture of Kĩkamba and Gĩkũyũ. Kavula, it is said, came back to take care of her “mother-in-law,” sũsũ Syondũrĩa, who was already aging.9 When Kavula came back, however, sũsũ Syondũrĩa rejected the care she offered. Moving out of the two-bedroom house the Catholic church had built for them as part of a program to assist older and poorer women in the parish, sũsũ Syondũrĩa lived alone in the hut that was the kitchen. One of my later memories of this rejection of care revolves around passing by their home with my younger cousins and finding our sũsũ Syondũrĩa sitting by the open fire on a chilly July morning with the corner of her khanga slowly catching fire. After quickly putting out the fire, we walked back home bothered by how a frail person like our sũsũ Syondũrĩa could refuse to be cared for by the clearly capable and willing woman that she chose to marry. It was incomprehensible to all of us that this marriage between our sũsũ Syondũrĩa and Kavula had failed! Later Kavula would become one of my sũsũ Ndolokasi’s best friends and her companion and caregiver.
“How are you called?”
In this narration I focus on the relationships that my sũsũ Ndolokasi had with her sister-in-law sũsũ Mũkũta, her wife/daughter-in-law Kakonge and her daughters, as well as the relationship with sũsũ Syondũrĩa, by way of her wife/daughter-in-law Kavula. Earlier researchers of woman-to-woman marriage have focused on the reasons why women among the Akamba and other black peoples married women.10 In this exploration I have neither the urge nor the inclination to pursue or confirm that record. This is because a quest of this kind would not only simplify, at least for me, what I have experienced as a rather calculated logic of care, but would also regurgitate old utility arguments devoid of a careful consideration of the nature of these relationships. Since the early 1970s and 1980s, when woman-to-woman marriage seems to have warranted the attention of legal and social science scholars, there has resurged a different kind of interest emanating from studies of sexualities and human rights. In these studies and activist work, these marriages are seen as a way of arguing for lesbian rights as a “culturally acceptable” way of forming relationships across Africa. While understandable, this search for cultural archives risks distorting not only ideas of being queer and African now, but also sexualizes—without sufficient evidence—relationships between women that might not otherwise have been sexual. Ifi Amadiume (1987) discards this argument in what could be seen as a rather homophobic commentary, as offensive to the women who joined in these sorts of marriages. Woman-to-woman marriage as lesbianism, Amadiume says, would be “totally inapplicable, shocking and offensive to Nnobi women since the strong bonds between them do not imply lesbian sexual practices” (7). Christine Obbo (cited in Zabus 2013, 50), in response to Herskovits’s suggestion that women in these relationships might have had some sort of sexual relationship through mutual masturbation, cautions against such assumptions, even as we acknowledge the possibility of sexual intimacy. Fascinating and useful as they are, these debates are beyond the scope of this essay and my interest. It is important to state, however, that whether or not women in the women-to-women marriages had sexual relationships is becoming more and more unuseful and unusable as I become comfortable with unknowable worlds. In other words, I am not interested in the totality of these relationships, or, to borrow from Édouard Glissant (1990, 191), the urgency for transparent lifeworlds makes me clamor even more for the right to opacity:
The opaque is not the obscure, though it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such. It is that which cannot be reduced, which is the most perennial guarantee of participation and confluence.
“How are you called?”
Instead I want to pursue, through these relationships, the idea of care as shared work and as shared affect rather than as an economically or legally binding practicality. The logic of care, seen this way, is not constitutive of volition or will but is embedded in a shared understanding of practical normativity by those involved in care-sharing.11
“How are you called?”
Toward a conclusion: Admittedly the logic of care here is not only about the women of and in my family; it is also about my own obsession with remembering as a projection of anxieties around memory loss as my body decays and as I anticipate complications that might have to do with my temporal lobe epilepsy and other conditions of the brain. This exercise in memory is as crucial to my mother as it is to me and my siblings, with whom I have shared bits of this hi/story.
And this is how I arrive at care: In a conversation about how much I miss my sũsũ Ndolokasi, an older cousin reminds me about how much sũsũ cared about people whom no one else seemed to give a damn about! My cousin Diana mentions sũsũ Mũkũta and our sũsũ Syondũrĩa’s wife/daughter-in-law Kavula in particular. Diana uses the word care, not love, not kindness, not generosity, but care. But care has often been seen as the business of fragility and vulnerability. Care work is that which nurses and family members (often called kinkeepers and primary caregivers) do with and for patients, the elderly, some persons with disabilities, and children. Often not thought of as affect, care is seen as work, as something underpaid hands do to ease the lives of those who are often not economically useful or usable themselves. Care is something that African migrants might do for economic survival in Europe and America. Care, seen this way, is either a value project or a legal battleground but not a network of ethical being(s). But what does it mean to think of narrative as care? What is made possible by this attempt to remember the people we care about as people who cared about others? Could this memory-work be care-work? And if so, what is the value of this labor in feminist terms?
Avishai Margalit (2002) tells us that although there is an ethics of memory, there is very little morality of memory. Ethics, Margalit argues, is defined by the thick social relations we have with those nearest and closest to us. Morality, on the other hand, is characterized by thin social relations with people to whom we are not bound by any special ties. In other words, both an ethics and a morality of this sort would require some form of shared memory, which is “the cement that holds thick relations together” and without which caring is not possible (27).
“The relation between memory and caring . . . is . . . an internal relation—a relation that could not fail to obtain between these two concepts since memory is partly constitutive of the notion of care” (Margalit 2002, 27–28). Margalit’s thesis, as Janelle Taylor (2010) has shown in reference to her mother’s dementia, is solely dependent on cognitive recognition. In the absence of such recognition, caring is not possible because one may simply not remember names, which Margalit sees as a metonym for remembering the people themselves. But what is the nature of this obligation to remember names and perhaps events from the past? Do we still care if we do not or cannot remember? Of course we do! However, while we still can, my mother and I are trying to remember to, in many ways, make caring possible, for ourselves and for others in ways that are human and make living possible.
Increasingly I am becoming jaded about and dissatisfied with gender categories that seem to expand the possibilities of gender identity while paradoxically cementing and concretizing “new” gender categories. I use nonbinary here not as an arrived-at place of gender totality but as a pointer to the possibilities of thinking and living with and in gender beyond male/man and female/woman.
I borrow logic of care from Mol 2008.
Hereafter sũsũ (Kĩkamba for “grandmother”).
Our sũsũ Ndolokasi would later correct us and insist that there was no Kĩseve in our family lineage. Kĩseve, sũsũ Ndolokasi claimed, was an invention of my grandfather Ngũkũ wa Ngũnda, who liked to distort things because he was cunning and corny and liked to tease children. Sũsũ Ndolokasi further claimed that Ngũnda’s father was Manzi. I think of my grandfather exactly like this: the person who would create his own grandfather figure and want his own grandchildren to believe (in) his little creation. With all due respect to sũsũ Ndolokasi, I’ll stick with my grandfather’s version of his family tree. I honor my grandfather’s distortion of events to indulge his imagination but also to pursue my own interests in the invention of self.
I say houses and not wives because that is what we call
ed ourselves—the house of Ndũkĩ, the house of Ndolokasi, and so on—to clarify from which wife, among many, we descend.
Mbaĩ (clan), used in this way, does not refer to the often large subgroups of the Akamba people, such as the Aombe, Anzaũnĩ, Atangwa, but rather to a three- to four-generation family identified by a renowned patriarch. My great-grandfather Ngũnda wa Kĩseve, the chief patriarch, was a man of no small means. We don’t know whether when he arrived at the place now called Kyamboo he had already been practicing as a witchdoctor or whether the idea came to him upon arrival. He came, it is said, from Masakũ through Kĩtui with his friends, Kanuku wa Ngolanye and Kĩmanyi wa Ngĩla, who for whatever reason settled somewhere along the route. No one seems to know why these three left their families and walked miles away, but we know that, like the protagonist in Dambudzo Marechera’s (1978) House of Hunger, they packed what they had and left and in many ways changed the landscape of wherever they settled.
These lyrics are borrowed from the chorus to Thandiswa Mazwai’s 2006 song, “Nizalwa Ngobani,” which is both a question and a reminder of “where we come from.” Here the song’s opening stanza: “The world changes / Revolutionaries die / And the children forget.”
Kalundu’s albinism was another site for my grandfather’s cunning distortions. During World War I, my grandfather Ngũkũ would tell us, our village Kyamboo bordered Germany, and it is during one of those war days that a German mother left her child at the border while fleeing from the soldiers from Kyamboo. My grandfather, having been one of the soldiers, would then save the young German boy and bring him home. That German boy would later become his stepbrother, Kalundu.
I use mother-in-law rather than the often used heteropatriarchy-centered and loaded female husband because my grandmothers Mũkũta and Syondũrĩa were indeed mothers-in-law to the women they married and were seen as such.
I am not particularly interested in old philosophical debates about the normative authority of love and care or even volitional rationality.