On Violence and Truth and Jon Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors

I recently read Jon D. Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors: Friendship and Violence in Northern Kenya and Beyond and found it really engaging, especially for my current and recent research projects. I added it to my reading list because I thought the title referenced the electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 (I read it alongside other mass atrocity literature), but it’s actually about local (though perhaps just as violent) wars in northern Kenya and asks how community ties break down such that these wars are possible (and enduring). But it’s also about many other processes that are involved in violent conflict.

Holtzman’s ethnography is principally about the Samburu people, with whom he has done fieldwork in the past and has deep personal and scholarly ties, and in this book he studies the various incidents of violence between Samburu and their neighbors. By looking at wars, attacks, or massacres between the Samburu and nearby Pokot, Kikuyu, Somali, and Turkana groups, Holtzman also tries to map these incidents from “both sides” — attempting a sort of multi-sited (but never claiming “holistic”) approach to the study of violence. The central argument of the book is that there is a process through which neighbors are transformed from unkillable to killable people, and that “this transformation is a cultural and historical process rather than simply a material or political event” (4). Viewing violence as part of a cultural system, Holtzman spends much of the book analyzing how different groups and individuals talk about violence, situating such narratives and representations (including his own as the author) within the same contexts in which violence occurs. The ways people talk about, represent, interpret, and make sense of violence matter.

Most interesting, to me, is this last point, which runs throughout the ethnography. Looking at Samburu and Pokot narratives about the war between these two groups, for example, Holtzman admits ethnographic uncertainty (he doesn’t, and thus we can’t, ever know the “real” reason some of these incidents occurred, or what “really” happened) but also the uncertainty of war itself as combatants’ reasons for fighting don’t add up, or their timelines are off, or potential ulterior motives are revealed. In fact, in many of these incidents, his interlocutors agree on the basic facts of what happened, but they bring forth completely different interpretations of what these facts mean.

This is also seen in other examples: sometimes one group would read an incident through a particular historical lens while others did not: Samburu often saw violence with Kikuyu embedded in histories of Mau Mau killings of Samburu on settler farms, Samburu support for British counterinsurgency, and the subsequent marginalization of Samburu by the postcolonial government, while many Kikuyu interpreted the same current violence ahistorically to be about contemporary land issues, political inequities, and cultural “backwardness.” These incidents and divergences demonstrate the role of memory as a lens through which violence is understood. Meanwhile, Samburu saw a massacre committed by nearby Somalis as an unprovoked and major incident whereas many Somalis situated the event as part of a broader struggle against the British and then Kenyan governments. These different analyses demonstrate how interpretations of conflict occur at different scales – of time, space, population, etc. – depending on different subject positions and who you’re talking to (and, arguably, when and where and how).

One conceptual tool that emerges from these different narratives is that of “collective irresponsibility.” Holtzman inverts Evans-Pritchard’s notion of collective responsibility (a mode of solidarity) by noting that “one may assert that things done by members of our group do not reflect collective actions (although what is done by members of other ethnic groups can be subject to collective blame)” (62) and that “just as victims are prone to apply… ‘collective responsibility,’ perpetrators frequently adopt a stance of ‘collective irresponsibility’: the killers are people like us but not actually us” (100).

Collective (ir)responsibility is always situational, always a matter of who your audience is, always a matter of what the consequences or benefits of association might be. And in instances of violence — especially civil war or ethnic violence — these stakes can be rather high. If “violent acts not only do something but also say something” (165), then how people talk about or interpret violent acts is always in relation to whom that audience is. One thing I’ve been preoccupied with in my own research is how different groups – in different times and in different places – make sense of the same or similar acts of violence. This is something Holtzman reflects upon time and time again.

Given that I’ve been particularly interested in ways of writing about violence (and spent much of the spring thinking through the subject with some colleagues here at GW), I found Holtzman’s extended reflection on the ethnographic project to be useful and engaging. Take, for example, his conclusion to a chapter on different Samburu and Somali interpretations of what happened the day that a Samburu counterattack—a reprisal for the massacre of dozens of Samburu—resulted in the killing of a shiekh:

There is no resolution, nor perhaps should there be. At our best, anthropologists translate something meaningful about a world that we have grasped deeply, but subjectively and imperfectly, to an audience who will rarely fully grasp even that translation. There are no complete answers: there are incorrect versions and even offensive ones, but we, like our subjects, always see and portray worlds through gazes that are incomplete, if also in some senses true, though in stark contradiction to other “true” versions.

[…]

I am not simply trying to present an array of voices to demonstrate that different people are always going to disagree, nor to present a multitude of disagreeing voices that I as the anthropologist can resolve with monolithic conclusions about “what really happened” and “what it means.” Rather, I am aiming to explore what ethnography looks like when we embrace multivocality as an intrinsic aspect of our subject matter, an intrinsic aspect of the worlds our informants inhabit and live through, and thus necessarily an aspect of how we interpret the data. This is different from rehearsing a postmodern cliché of multiple truths; rather, it explores how our subjects act in accordance with a knowledge that these multiple truths shape their worlds (even if they do not acknowledge all of them as “truths”).

[…]

We [anthropologists] understand that the lives of human beings are a messy business, more so when, as in cases of violence, so much is at stake… rather than simplifying this messiness for the sake of analytical or theoretical clarity, we as anthropologists [should] embrace the ambiguities and contradictions within ethnographies that mirror, and thus more truly capture, the uncertainties in the world that our subjects (and ourselves) inhabit. (123-125).

And lastly, in the conclusion Holtzman reflects on the role of truth in war, reading Rigoberta Mechú, Tim O’Brien, and other narratives of war in light of the question of “true” representations of violence. But one reflection stuck with me as I grapple with my own research:

People have died in this book, a lot of people, and it doesn’t do them justice for me to slither off to my university job and get paid decent money to say that I don’t really know who is to blame, that maybe it is everyone or no one. Because someone killed those people, so to them, to their loved ones, or maybe to our sense of humanity, who did it and how it happened matters.

Or maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t… Sometimes blame isn’t really the point. A major issue here is the way the stories people tell about their wars contain understandings and misunderstandings of other groups that sow the seeds for future violence (197-198).

An ethnography of violence (or intervention or reconciliation or peace or–) might have multiple purposes, but if one is to tell what “really” happened, I’m not sure that will always be possible. War is messy; everyday life is uncertain. I think Holtzman’s book does a good job of showing us that uncertainty and sharing the stories that people tell. I don’t know what the best way to grapple with such uncertainty is – but I know I’ll be coming back to this book soon as I work through that question.

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On Kenya’s Security Act

In the middle of last month, the Kenyan government pushed through a new law that implements huge restrictions on just about everything, including increased securitization, heavier penalties for law-breaking, restrictions on free speech and movement and about every form of expression, with strong repercussions for refugees and other vulnerable populations especially, leading it to be called “Kenya’s PATRIOT Act.” Some of the provisions of the law have been temporarily suspended, but other provisions remain and such obstacles may not hold back the expanding security state.

Dissecting laws is never easy, especially when lawmakers don’t want it to be easy. But Keguro Macharia has produced a lesson in reading and critiquing very harmful laws, and I wanted to link to it for those interested in issues such as this. Macharia says that the law “transforms Kenya into a less free, less possible space” and dedicated numerous blog posts to studying the act. In addition to his notes, he also wrote a map of the laws amended, including amendments that target journalists and refugees, before writing five dedicated pieces about how the law will change the lives of those in Kenya. It’s all worth a read, but here I’ll quote three of his summaries and highlight some of the rest.

On police:

The Security Act vests more power in the president; gives the police more power; and substantially diminishes civilian scrutiny of police actions.

On refugees:

The amendments in the Security Act increase refugee vulnerability. They ignore international legal measures designed to help refugees have livable existences. They are anti-refugee and anti-human rights.

On citizen reporting:

Citizen reporting highlighted police extortion and violence during Operation Sanitization Eastleigh, and was crucial in highlighting the atrocity of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp. Valuable information about state-sponsored and state-facilitated violence and corruption comes to light because of citizen reporting. Restrictions in the Security Act attempt to silence independent media and citizen reporters. Silence has already started to fall.

On how Kenya’s new law constricts the definition of an acceptable “human,” a piece that moves in different directions on how “the human” has been broken apart by ethnicity, by perceived guilt, by complicity to the state, by the state’s security apparatus, and others:

During #kasaraniconcentrationcamp—whose afterlife we still occupy—fractures happened: “I am Kenyan Somali, not ethnic Somali”; “I am Kenyan Somali not Somalia Somali”; “I am a Kenya-loving Somali, not a Kenya-destroying Somali”; “I am a Kenya-building Somali, not a Kenya-undoing Somali”

The chorus of voices pledging loyalty to Kenya drown out much-needed critique. The state cultivates this chorus of voices. Sometimes, it rewards some in the chorus. Most often, it holds out an impossible promise that those who dance to its tune might remain unharmed.

[…]

Kenya’s vision of the human becomes smaller—human-recognizing filaments snap

On how Kenya as a space is changing, how the new law will affect everyday life, and how those who accept the new law are already affected by the Kenyan state:

Everyday Kenyan life is heavily securitized. To enter into any public space—a supermarket, a mall, a church, a public gathering, a bookstore—one must undergo a range of security checks. Cars will be inspected, sometimes thoroughly, sometime cursorily; bodies will go through metal detectors; bags will be opened… It is becoming increasingly difficult for Kenyans to remember that it was not always like this. Now, we hesitate to enter places that do not have such security checks. We have learned to expect them, to submit to them, to keep proving our innocence as we are all implicitly criminalized.

[…]

Kenyan everyday life is often understood through resilience: Kenyans are “tough,” Kenyans “survive,” Kenyans can “take a lot, and more.”

The repressive state relies on this resilience to increase repression: You can take it. Be proud of how well you can take it.

How to see this resilience as one of the conditions of our undoing? How to see what it licenses? How to distinguish between acts of resilience and everyday violations?

Spectators

Four years ago today, a bomb hit the ex-pat-frequented restaurant, Ethiopian Village, in the Kabalagala district of Kampala, Uganda, killing and wounding several people who had gathered to watch the World Cup final. Moments later, two bombs ripped through the Kyodondo Rugby Pitch, killing dozens of spectators and wounding dozens more. The bombings were carried out by al Shabaab, who had threatened Uganda ever since its intervention in their war in Somalia. Pretty much everyone called it an act of terror.

A month ago, gunmen blasted their way through hotels and a police station in Mpeketoni, Kenya, while some guests were watching the World Cup. They proceeded to split up the residents and killed the men.  The U.S. State Department said that “there can be no place for horrific acts of violence such as this in any society.”

Yesterday, a cafe in Gaza was completely destroyed in the early morning by Israeli rockets, killing those who had gathered to break their fast and watch the World Cup match. Israel has been launching a huge operation into Gaza in response to rockets fired by Hamas. There’s less unanimity on the terrorism of blowing up spectators here, as Washington is pretty firm in its support of Israel.

If you’re an insurgent or you’re Muslim, bombs are condemned, but if you’re a state and a U.S. ally, it somehow becomes much murkier.

Wanja Muguongo on Exporting Homophobia

On November 1, Wanja Muguongo, a Yale World Fellow and the Executive Director of UHAI – The East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative, spoke at Yale’s African Studies program’s weekly speakers’ series. She spoke about homophobia in Africa and the role of the West. I have been meaning to write a recap of what was said, and am finally doing so now for two reasons. Firstly and unfortunately, Uganda’s parliament is again revisiting the infamous anti-gay bill; in addition, an African Studies reading group which I have organized will be discussing Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” [pdf] soon, which is relevant to all of this as well. Below is my attempt to cover everything that Muguongo said at the event, which was cut short (hence the abrupt ending).

It’s important that you understand where I’m coming from and who I am, so a bit about myself and my beliefs: I manage a fund that supports NGOs, and we are a resource but also part of a movement. The conversation of LGBTI rights doesn’t take place in a vacuum; it takes place in a world of power and patriarchy. On top of this, I believe that band-aids don’t help, and that you need to tackle problems to fix them. Ending anti-gay laws doesn’t end hate fundamentally, but it’s a step in the right direction. We must also tackle sex workers’ rights by allowing them to fight oppression and patriarchy and change how society looks at sex. I believe there is way too much power in the world that is being used badly, and that normativity has always been a cause for bullying. I have chosen to endeavor to dis-empower bullies as much as possible. One of the things supporting power is religion being used as a mechanism of that power. Here, when I say religion I do not mean faith or belief, but the institution of organized religion. I have a problem with institutionalized religion as it is being used today.

Faith and belief are supposed to be kind and supportive, but when they are institutionalized they fail to do those things. Religion is about control and can be used to target outliers. We must contemplate what it means to be non-normative in a strongly religious community that supports hate and is intolerant. We tend to think of GLBTI/sex workers are people that are not of faith, which isn’t always true. Things are more complex than they seem. Continue reading