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Author: Beth Willey
Title: Jomo Kenyatta: the untenable witness
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Jomo Kenyatta: the untenable witness
Beth Willey

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 5, 8, 1991
Author Biography: Beth Willey, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern, is writing on literature and the nation in Africa.

Jomo Kenyatta: The Untenable Witness


Facing Mt. Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta [1] is not an ordinary autobiography. It is written in the form of an ethnography of the Gikuyu nation of Kenya, the ethnic group of Kenyatta himself. In it the reader encounters the Gikuyu men, women, magicians, children, and even the Gikuyu gods; but can a reader find in Jomo Kenyatta's text a description of his own way of life and world-view? Facing Mt. Kenya leaves its reader with a peculiar sense of the absence of the author in what should be a portrait of the author. Kenyatta's text fails to provide the recognizable figure of the author that is necessary for the autobiographical moment and, in a larger context, the philosophical moment of self-knowledge to occur. The reader is instead given conflicting characters that become the author in an undecidable contest of images for the author in the text. Kenyatta's "failure", however, is not a lack; it is instead the necessary undecidability of Kenyatta's position. The refusal of a totalizing identity can be seen as the recourse of a colonized subject in a context that would have him define himself in pre-established terms.

In "Autobiography as De-Facement" Paul De Man writes that "Autobiography, then, is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of reading or of understanding ..." and the autobiographical moment is described as " ... an alignment between the two subjects involved in the process of reading in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive substitution." [2] This definition of the autobiographical moment points to the failure of Facing Mt. Kenya as an autobiography, despite Kenyatta's own claims to the contrary. Kenyatta prohibits the autobiographical moment by preventing the mutual reflexive substitution in the creation of fragmented and undecidable character of the author in the text. The reader cannot become the specular other for the author in the text because it is never quite clear who the author in the text is. Is Kenyatta the typical Gikuyu or is Kenyatta the European ethnographer observing the Gikuyu? Or is he neither?

This problem of just where one stands when examining a self occurs also in De Man's article "Criticism and Crisis," [3] although this time the question is cast in terms of philosophy and not autobiography. The similarity between De Man's definition of philosophy and his definition of autobiography (as outlined above) easily leads one into bringing them together. De Man claims that there is an important truth to Philosophy; "the fact that philosophical knowledge can only come into being when it is turned back upon itself." [4] This is parallel to autobiographical moment that becomes possible only when the reader allows the turning back upon itself of the text. In both cases a narcissistic mirroring is necessary for the accomplishment of the moment. In each case the "project" can only be accomplished if this step succeeds. In the case of autobiography it is the doubleness of the "mutual reflexive substitution" and in the case of philosophy it is the "turning back upon itself." In these terms philosophy becomes a form of autobiography, an exploration or naming of the self.

The choice of Facing Mt. Kenya, a self-proclaimed ethnography, for an exploration of the autobiographical moment is not as capricious as it may seem. Though most ethnographies are not autobiographies in a conventional sense, Facing Mt. Kenya, is both in its own terms. At the same time that it is a self-proclaimed ethnography, it is a self-proclaimed autobiography. Kenyatta writes "I can therefore speak as a representative of my people, with personal experience of many different aspects of their life."(xx) He refers to himself as "like any other Gikuyu child" and as having the "usual" Gikuyu education. Kenyatta begins his book with the claim that his book is a true image of the Gikuyu people because it comes from within that group of people. Thus it would seem that Kenyatta entered this project with the idea that the portrait of the Gikuyu is also a portrait of himself. One could even say that by calling himself a "usual" Gikuyu, and basing his account of Gikuyu life on his own, Kenyatta is presenting a portrait of himself (Gikuyu life as he lived it) and an extrapolation from there of how "any other" Gikuyu sees his life.

The question here then becomes: does Jomo Kenyatta manage to, or indeed is it ever possible for him to, turn his investigation of himself (the autobiography) back upon itself in order to reach some sort of philosophical truth, some sort of true self-understanding? This may be closer to Kenyatta's goal than a strictly autobiographical approach because, as De Man puts it, "autobiography always looks slightly disreputable," and the autobiography of an African is doubly suspect in the European mind. Kenyatta's use of an ethnography as autobiography could be perhaps an effort to allow Kenyatta to turn back upon himself in a slightly more "honest" way. In using the European form, Kenyatta may also be trying to place himself outside of the Gikuyu sphere so that he may indeed turn back and look upon himself in the narcissistic move that is necessary for self-knowledge. This confusion of Kenyatta's position is perhaps inescapable for anyone trying to describe the self, but it is exacerbated by the ambivalent position of the colonized African working within European academia. Kenyatta tries to be at once both the object and the subject of his study.

Kenyatta's own field of study has theorized about this opposition in many ways but perhaps the most succinct of the anthropological thinkers involved here is Clifford Geertz. In an article, "From the Native's Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding," [5] Geertz discusses the problem of how "anthropological knowledge is possible." Geertz characterizes this problem as the necessity of balance between experience-near concepts and experience-far concepts. Geertz goes on to say that the closest an anthropologist can come to doing this is to find a happy medium so that one produces neither "an ethnography of witchcraft as written by witches" nor "an ethnography of witchcraft as written by a geometer." The danger of Kenyatta's writing project, the autobiography as ethnography, becomes in anthropological terms, the danger of being "imprisoned within their [the object of the study] mental horizons." Geertz sees the close identification of the ethnographer and ethnic subject as limiting because a certain ability to see the picture from the outside is necessary.

Kenyatta, then, would be in trouble, according to Geertz, because the risk of dwelling solely in the realm of the experience-near is a threat to Kenyatta's project; perhaps Kenyatta can never step back from what he is trying to describe. The very notion of an experience-far concept demands a certain conceptual distance. Kenyatta tries to circumvent this necessity by drawing on the formulaic anthropological terms of his day to create a gulf between himself and the "usual Gikuyu." This boundary that Kenyatta tries to draw, however, is constantly breaking down. Kenyatta is both Gikuyu, the one being studied, and anthropologist, the one doing the studying. If he wishes to produce a successful ethnography, Kenyatta cannot be truly Gikuyu or truly European. He is not able to become fully one or the other and so his text shows the extreme equivocacy of his position (or lack thereof). His efforts to maintain the standards of ethnography suggested above by Geertz, break down most obviously in his laments for how things are changing. These interjections seem to be both the breakdown of Kenyatta's efforts to divide himself as the object and the subject of his study, but also the moments when a reader comes closest to finding the figure for the author that might allow the autobiographical moment to occur. As suggested above, these moments stand out from the rest of Kenyatta's text because they are the points where Kenyatta most obviously denies both the label of strictly European or strictly Gikuyu. These points are necessary for Kenyatta, even if he claims to regret them, because they allow him to accommodate the dialectical movements within the self of the colonized subject.

The ambivalence of Kenyatta's position mentioned above exists in large part because of Kenyatta's position as part of the educated minority from a colonized country. Kenyatta went through the colonial education system of Kenya culminating in his leaving Kenya to study anthropology at University of London under the famous anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, under whose guidance he produced Facing Mt. Kenya. Kenyatta, throughout his life, had been heavily involved in Gikuyu, and later, Kenyan politics. From 1928-30, he served as the General Secretary of the Gikuyu Central Association; 1928-1929 also saw Kenyatta functioning as the elected representative from the Gikuyu to the Hilton Young Royal Commission on land affairs; in 1931-32 he was the representative to the Joint Commission on the Closer Union of East Africa; and in 1932 he traveled to London to give the Gikuyu position concerning land ownership to the Morris Carter Kenya Land Commission. This abbreviated list only hints at Kenyatta's role as a member of the Gikuyu nation acting in conjunction with, or even in opposition to, but always deeply involved with the British colonial government. Kenyatta was extremely active throughout his life in the realms of both the rural Gikuyu and the metropolitan British cultures.

With Kenyatta's background, it would seem that his political involvement in colonial government as a Gikuyu advocate would be the arena in which Kenyatta would be the most fully in equilibrium in his constant and inevitable movement between Gikuyu and Western elements of the self. Several times Kenyatta refers to himself as a "progressive African" and his book is dedicated to "Moigoi and Wamboi and all the dispossessed youth of Africa; for perpetuation of communion with the ancestral spirits through the fight for African Freedom ... " (v) The dedication is, however, tempered by Kenyatta's introduction where he writes; "In the present work I have tried to best record facts as I know them ... , and have kept under very considerable restraint the sense of political grievances which no progressive African can fail to experience." (xvii) This introduction is one of the few places in the text where Kenyatta is consistent in his use of the first person singular pronoun "I". It is also the only section that refers to an immediate and contemporary reality; the body of the text deals mostly with Gikuyu tradition and historical ways of life. Kenyatta rarely shows the reader how the contemporary Gikuyu exists in the rapidly changing environment of colonial Kenya. The fact that Kenyatta uses in these moments the singular pronoun and references to immediate circumstances makes the reader inclined to believe that these passages | somehow closer to the day to day Jomo Kenyatta than later in the text where the figure of the narrator assumes at least two, if not more, distinctly distinguishable voices.

It is also in this section that the author challenges the two totalizing identities that the European form in which he works has already defined. Kenyatta avoids in his text becoming either the European anthropologist or the Gikuyu "native". The failure of Kenyatta's text translates into a failure to correspond with European defined views of possibilities of identity. The failure is Kenyatta's refusal to see himself in either of these roles, a self-inflicted and self-perpetuating blinding. It is precisely this willful blindness to pre-established categories that allows Kenyatta to reclaim the ability to define the self, a prerogative that has always been denied the colonized subject.

The equivocacy of Kenyatta's position vis a vis his text as an autobiography can be seen in many ways but the most obvious perhaps lies in the level of the confusion of the narrative voice. Kenyatta, at least as author in the text, quite literally cannot decide if he is one of us or one of them. For example, in the beginning of the chapter on "Religion and Ancestor Worship," he states, "We shall assume that there are such beings [spiritual creatures], the spirits of our ancestors" (222-23, emphasis mine). We shall assume clearly does not include the Gikuyu, as Kenyatta later clarifies, because the Gikuyu do not need to assume that the spirits of their ancestors exist—the Gikuyu know this and take it for granted. It is only Kenyatta's European reader that needs to assume that these spirits exist so that Kenyatta can prove how the Gikuyu believe that these spirits exist. In the very same sentence, however, Kenyatta jumps the fence and says that these spirits are our ancestors. Us, the Gikuyu. Kenyatta here tries to be at once Gikuyu (our) and European (we assume).

Along the same lines is the mixing of the actual languages in the text. While the rhetorical moves of us versus them mark the undecidability of Kenyatta's position, the changing of narrative languages thematizes this. Kenyatta uses both Gikuyu and English in his text, providing his own translations from one to the other. Particularly striking is his noting of Mt. Kenya: he refers to Mt Kenya as "Kere-Nyaga (Mt. Kenya)" throughout the text, as if the reader could not remember from one page to the next that what s/he thinks of as Mt. Kenya, the Gikuyu call Kere-Nyaga. This intrusion of the European naming of the African landscape is disturbing, especially when the desired effect is a representation of the "point of view of the native." Kenyatta, it seems, cannot decide if he is describing Kere-Nyaga or Mt. Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta the Gikuyu, or Jomo Kenyatta the European trained anthropologist. Kenyatta's confusion seems to be boundless when he tosses off sentences such as, "The Weltanschauung of the Gikuyu people is: 'Kanya gatuune ne mwamokanero' ('Give and take')." (168)

The polyglossia of Kenyatta's text is perhaps not unique to it, but the ramifications of it for autobiography are fairly drastic, especially if one agrees with Jacques Derrida's characterization of the implications of the idiomatic quality of national languages (of which Kenyatta uses three in the above sentence). Every language has its own idioms, and idioms, by definition, are untranslatable. In a seminar discussion [6], Derrida talks of the "le privilege absolu de ce lieu de cette langue [the site of the idiom], à partir de quoi un natio comme tel peut se déterminer, se présenter, se nomer ... " and further characterizes this "lieu" as that which allows the nation to "se décider". The act of self-determination, self-presentation, and self-naming that occur in autobiography are necessarily mediated through language. If language is what enables self-definition, and each language contains within it a self-contained "lieu" of the untranslatable idiom, Jomo Kenyatta would seem to be occupying at least two places at once with his constant movement between English and Gikuyu. This occupation of two "lieus" at once leads to a confusion of the autobiographic subject. Kenyatta seems to be attempting to describe the Gikuyu self in English but in using both Kenyatta is constantly reinscribing himself within the sites of Gikuyu even as he writes in English. He tries to translate what is perhaps the most untranslatable of all idioms, the self. He oscillates between the mother tongue of Gikuyu and the authoritarian father figure of European "science", embodied in his educational father, Malinowski. [7]

The terms of the schizophrenic separation of Kenyatta's voice are further set in the jargon of the European anthropologist versus the African native. Throughout the text, Kenyatta uses phrases such as "Let us return to our analysis of the Gikuyu system of government" (190) or "our analysis of the economic life of the Gikuyu" (52) that mark him as a member of the circle of anthropologists who "analyze" "systems" and "economies". Kenyatta was a student of Bronislaw Malinowski, at the University of London. Malinowski is famous (or perhaps infamous) for his theoretical approach often called "functional" anthropology. It is immediately obvious how Kenyatta identifies himself with this very European mode of looking at others through his use of such functional vocabulary as analysis and systems. This part of the narrative voice seems to be almost "typical" of the European/Malinowskian anthropological voice.

On the other side of this narrative coin is the African native who tells stories and sings songs to his ancestral spirits. Kenyatta's text is periodically punctuated with folk tales " ... once upon a time an elephant made a friendship with a man ... "(47) and songs. But perhaps more important to the African half of the narrative voice than Kenyatta's "insider" knowledge of Gikuyu life (as exhibited by his extensive knowledge of Gikuyu folk lore) are Kenyatta's interruptions of the description of "traditional Gikuyu life" with his descriptions of the way things are now. In the various chapters he describes the confusion that the European intervention in Gikuyu life has caused in the systems of land ownership, trade, and even the selection of marriage partners. The ambivalence of Kenyatta's narrator is perhaps most obvious here when, despite the regulations prohibiting the intrusion of the personal opinions in an ethnography, Kenyatta cannot restrain himself. He is no longer European, or even the African native leading the Gikuyu life; he becomes the field of the intersection of the two and the occasion for the violent clashes that this intersection gives rise to.

Kenyatta is no more successful on the thematic level than he is on the narrative voice level in providing a recognizable figure necessary for the specular moment of both autobiography and philosophy. He fails in terms of the philosophical approach because he refuses to recognize himself as the place that he looks back upon. He may step outside of the self and world-view he is trying to describe, but his refusal to recognize it as himself and his world view lead to the failure in the philosophical search because the second half of the clause is not fulfilled. Kenyatta turns back, but not for the purpose of turning back on himself. His refusal to recognize his self is perhaps most obvious in the absence of description of his rite of initiation.

The importance of the rite of initiation is undeniable, even within Kenyatta's own text. He calls the initiation ceremonies, marked by circumcision for both male and female Gikuyu, the "conditio sine qua non of the whole teaching of tribal law, religion, and morality." (128) The initiation ceremony marks an individual as an adult, as one who has learned all of the tribal laws and customs, and is responsible to the community for his/her own actions. Kenyatta goes to great length in his description of the initiation ceremony and circumcision of Gikuyu girls, but gives the merest mentions of the same procedure for boys. The "mere bodily mutilation" that represents full engagement in the Gikuyu community is only a half told story. It is very curious that Kenyatta acknowledges the great importance of this mere mutilation but then tries to make his text whole by leaving out the mutilation of his own body. This is precisely where Kenyatta fails to see himself because this mutilation is the site of the paradox of Jomo Kenyatta. In trying to walk the line between European and Gikuyu, Kenyatta must try to hide this mutilation that marks him so indelibly as Gikuyu. He is however caught in the trap of his own making as far as his anthropological project is concerned because it is this mutilation that he tries to hide that grants him the authority of a full-fledged Gikuyu. Without this, his claim to an inside knowledge of the Gikuyu must be false, because, as he says, the uncircumcised are at best children and partial members of the Gikuyu society.

In his efforts to maintain his partial appurtenance to the identity of the European, Kenyatta tries to negate in his text the mutilation that marks his body. He undoes himself, however, when he reminds his reader that the validity of his text depends on this very same mutilation that he would not have the reader associate with himself. The emphasis on the auto-ness of Kenyatta's biography is at once what he asserts and negates. The legitimacy of being the auto that describes is threatened by the absence of the legitimating mark.

Why does Kenyatta give such a graphic description of the female ceremony, at which, after all, he was not present, while leaving out any mention of the one event that literally marked him for life—both in the sense that he will bear this mark for the rest of his life and in the sense that this is the mark that allows him to lead the full life of life a Gikuyu (marriage etc.)? Are we to draw the conclusion that this is, indeed, the boundary marker that would inscribe Kenyatta as definitively inside the circle of the Gikuyu? Kenyatta's attempts at the confusion of the narrative voice, the polyglossia of his texts, can be seen as the attempts to provide the distance and separation from the object of study that European ethnography, autobiography and even philosophy seem to necessitate. The one boundary marker that Kenyatta cannot erase is precisely the one that he needs. It both creates and destroys the legitimacy of Kenyatta's examination of self in European terms.

The obvious absence of the mark of the circumcision leaves its trace on Kenyatta's text by the palpable presence of its absence. The description of the female circumcision and the lack of the male circumcision may stand at the center of Kenyatta's text as an allegory aimed at Europeans about the metissage of Kenyatta's self. Male circumcision is readily accepted if not commonplace in Europe, but female circumcision is an unheard of abnormality in the same context. The confusion of European gender roles evidenced in the circumcision of females points to the confusion of ethnic roles evidenced in Kenyatta himself. The portrayal of a cultural element familiar to Europeans but transformed in the African context points to Kenyatta's refusal to paint a self-portrait as the European "other" because he has been formed by the influences of both. Kenyatta is the circumcised female and the African European.

Facing Mt. Kenya is perhaps more interesting for what it refuses to be than what it presents itself as. Kenyatta chose to write an ethnography, but creates a problem for himself when he identifies it in part as an autobiography. Not only does this in some way threaten the project as an ethnography, but it threatens Kenyatta by assuming that the self-described can and should be cast in the terms of the European self and the "native" other. The inhibiting of the autobiographical moment is Kenyatta's attempt to recover the self that is outside of and threatened by the European form in which he writes.

1. (New York: Random House, 1965 edition).

2. Paul De Man, Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 70.

3. Paul De Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).

4. De Man, 1971, 16.

5. In Paul Rabinow and William N. Sullivan, eds., Interpretive Social Science: A Reader (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1979), 225-41.

6. February 27, 1985. The quotes are paraphrased.

7. Here I am recalling Derrida's reading of Nietzsche's autobiography in Otobiography.

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