- In a society out of joint like ours, it is hard to mourn a young friend in a healthy way.
- I was so tentative that I couldn’t seize the moment and publicly embrace in death a friend I chatted with daily.
I have never wept for anybody as I have for my departed friend Sean L. Alpha Blonde (Boniface Ngari Mugo), a 27-year-old artist whose music never saw the light of day and probably will never
be sung again because its lyrics were not recorded in any way. Sean was not a Binyavanga Wainaina (1971-2019), the Kenyan queer writer whose work even those who don’t read anything by our young writers might have heard a little bit about.
I had not come to Nairobi to bury any of my young friends; my return home was to enjoy what I shamelessly consider, in spite of my laziness and unproductivity over the last few years, a “well
deserved” holiday, after being away in foreign lands for some two good years. I also needed a huduma number and the new-generation passport, so our almighty government can serve me better. I
got neither, thanks to government inefficiency and thirst for bribes.
A born-again Christian who is definitely far holier than you and all your churchgoing relatives combined, I’m not the type to be found near sinners or anything sinful. But my dog Sigmund (not me)
goes to all sorts of places when he visits Nairobi and has all kinds of friends the world over.
Sean would have been the one to show Sigmund how to dance to Wamlambez, the new Nairobi anthem, in many of the pubs they went to together — from K1 to Club LA, to Razzers. But the
young man was sick when we saw him in July, and all we did was have lunch together a couple of times. No Wamlambez. No Wamnyonyez.
Named “Ngari” (Kikuyu language for leopard) at birth, Sean was the embodiment of the thin boundary in an African community between entities considered opposites: human/animal, man/woman,
It is the European colonialists that erected the walls between these categories and put a knife through the rainbow that accepted us all as part of the cosmos. With their cartesian logic, which divided
everything into neatly bounded opposites, the colonialists sowed the seed of hatred in Africa: ethnocentrism, speciesism, racism, homophobia etc.
Yet the rainbow is the symbol of beauty, hope, and absolute freedom in such fine works of African literature as the Angolan Pepetela’s The Return of the Water Spirit and our own Shaaban Bin
Robert’s Upinde na Mvua (The Rainbow and Rain).
Like the inefficient government that colonialism left behind in Kenya, did I ever let Sean L. Alpha Blonde down? Many times. I have even turned him away at my gate when he and his cute young
friends came over to see me in the dead of the night. I put them on ramshackle boda boda motorbikes to go back to where they had come from in the rain, even when that was humiliating and put
the young men in mortal danger in this city of many robbers.
My private jokes with Sean were a bit naughty and intensely queer, such that I may not reproduce any of them in a forum like this one, which upholds family values. Yet in spite of my closeness to
him there was this irrational fear that Ngari, the leopard, would (with apologies to the poet Jonathan Kariara) invade my muu tree with his friends, grab my rusted sword from its scabbard, and sing
Wamlambez to it. But can anyone reorient this my singed sexuality?
Never one to keep grudges, Sean always forgave me. I seek forgiveness from the other young men I turned away in the rain that night.
In a society out of joint like ours, it is hard to mourn a young friend in a healthy way. We have collectively let the youth down. There are no decent jobs for them. The health system is dead. We
have led them to give up and contributed in some way or the other to their slow death. Many young people are walking dead, even when you find them dancing to Wamlambez in our pubs.
In fact, I am not very sure whether what I am going through now is not depression, melancholia. This is especially when I remember that the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (no relative of my dog
Sigmund) distinguishes between healthy mourning for a departed soul and melancholia, a pathological inability to mourn that drives one into depression.
In Mourning and Melancholia, Freud (1917) observes that “mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which had taken the place of one, such
as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.”
A therapeutic response to loss and trauma, mourning is overcome with time as the mourning subject comes to grips with the fact that the lost person or object is gone for good. According to
Freud, the mourning person slowly comes back to the normal state.
Freud explains that “the distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all
activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.”
This dangerous psychic process leads to suicidal tendencies, whereby, according to David Eng and Shinhee Han, “suicide may not merely be physical; it may also be a psychical erasure of one’s
identity — racial, sexual, or gender identity, for example.”
MEMORIALISING THE DEAD
My dog Sigmund doesn’t agree fully with his namesake Sigmund Freud. Unlike in Freudian theory, which suggests the need to forget the dead and replace them with someone else, African societies
have ways of memorialising the dead that enhance life rather than providing a distraction from either the normal routine or from the dead person.
Indeed, even Western theorists of grief have revised Freud’s insistence that healthy mourning involves forgetting the lost object. For example, J. William Worden argues that people don’t detach
themselves from the dead; we “find ways to develop ‘continuing bonds’ with the deceased.”
One of the tasks of mourning, then, according to Worden, is to find a place for the deceased that will enable the mourner to be connected with the deceased but in a way that will not preclude him
or her from going on with life.”
The inability to mourn a lost object of love in a dysfunctional society like ours is the subject of several African stories, the most poignant of which is the Ghanaian Nana Nyarko Boateng’s short
story Swallowing Ice, in which a young woman falls in queer love with a cat. When the cat dies, she is unable to bury him or mourn him in public because the society does not accept non-heterosexual intimacies.
In an ideal African society, the community mourns the dead in elaborate therapeutic public displays of loss. Funerals enable members of the community to overcome grief collectively and to
reaffirm their ontological identities. But Vivian, the queer character in “Swallowing Ice,” couldn’t perform such rituals or publicly acknowledge her erotic relationship with the cat. She ends up being
Crying for my friend Sean, I wonder: how can one let go of a fallen friend one never embraced fully because of that friend’s ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age difference, class, or any other excuse?
I suspect I will be in perpetual crying for my friend.
As I privately weep for my fallen buddy, my dog Sigmund has been reminding me over the last few days that I didn’t stand to take a picture by Sean’s casket at the burial in Murang'a when “Sean's
friends” were asked to come forward for a group photo. I was so tentative that I couldn’t seize the moment and publicly embrace in death a friend I chatted with daily. I tell Sigmund I feared being
judged in a county for which I nurse some gubernatorial ambitions. The photographer had clicked the camera shutter button by the time our dear prospective Murang’a governor had gathered
courage to stand.
“No, it is because you still want to pretend you’re not part of the complex spectrum that is this rainbow,” says Sigmund, a psychoanalyst in his own right.
Prof Mwangi teaches English and gender/sexuality studies at Northwestern University, US. He divides his time among Evanston, Murang'a, Cape Town, Frankfurt, New York, Chicago, and Kawangware. email@example.com