Author of ‘Sisi Pia ni Watu: In Kenya, Domestic Workers Resist Exploitation’ Mumbi Kanyogo, is interested in the contradicting stories told about domestic workers: ‘Domestic workers are always portrayed as irritants, thieves, or promiscuous and insentient objects. I wanted to demonstrate ways in which the actions that are most questionable and harmful in this dynamic are those of their employers.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, I had a lot of questions about Kenya’s history and was deeply interested in the stories of the people whose lives we commemorated on days like Labour Day and Jamhuri Day. In response to those questions, I read a series of short, easy to read biographies of critical historical personalities (and radicals) like Bildad Kaggia, Tom Mboya, Mekatilili and Wangu wa Makeri by East African Educational Publishers. This series reinforced and grew my interest in people’s lives and historical political events and in turn, biography became one of my favorite genres. I recall reading biographies and autobiographies about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Mugabe, Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and the stories of survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
My reading practice was also shaped by my family who I spent most of my time with as a child—I was always curious about what they were reading. So, I was forever looking forward to the next Sweet Valley High novel or Super Strikers comic that I could get my hands on. I also recall a Danielle Steel phase in my early teen years that started because my cucu (grandmother) and oldest cousin had a shared growing collection of Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel novels that I repeatedly begged to have access to.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
It’s hard to name one text that captures this moment for me, I feel like I’m in my confusion era, but perhaps Uses of the Erotic by Audre Lorde is a text that represents me. I am transitioning from a phase where my decisions are guided by fear of failure or the unknown to a space where my decisions—how I move in the world and how I relate to my work, my people, my aspirations and commitments—is guided by intentionality, a desire to experience satisfaction and fulfilment and a to fully embrace ‘what feels right to me’. I feel like I am in a phase of my life where I am reassessing my quality of life and exploring things that give me fullness. I don’t want full experiences to coincidentally find me, I would really like to intentionally bring them into my life.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
It would have to be How Beautiful We Were a novel by Imbolo Mbue. The story is about a fictional village in West Africa, Kosawa, struggling to protect itself from an extractivist corporation. This corporation is drilling oil, destroying the surrounding land, and killing Kosawa’s children, culture and the way its people relate with one another. It is a heartbreaking and deeply moving story of slow death facilitated by capitalist accumulation and told through the perspectives of various community members who witness and experience the effects of this destruction. I learned and felt a lot as I read this book.
However, I winced at the idea that the protagonist’s coming of age as an organizer and activist was only made possible by her emigration to the US and her encounter with what the writer situated as ‘real democracy’. Additionally, while Mbue highlighted that in part, it was a series of failures in the US that led to the African community’s dispossession, she did not make it clear that it was systems of imperialism, racial capitalism, and extraction—systems that are central to the US’s brand of liberal democracy and global dominance—that made it possible for that community to be decimated in the way that it was. This omission—not naming the harm this caused as a product of imperialism and capitalism is what allowed the author to situate the US as a model democracy and even a beacon of hope—when in this and many other stories it is the source of destruction.
I read a series of short, easy to read biographies of critical historical personalities like Bildad Kaggia, Tom Mboya, Mekatilili and Wangu wa Makeri.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I am reading Reclaiming the Commons by Vandana Shiva with a reading group. Before engaging with this text, I thought development was violent because of its global and national unevenness, but this book has been teaching me that the violence of development is also in its totalizing scale and its disavowal of local relationalities as a critical unit of analysis.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
I think what makes a text powerful is how it is written and even more critically, the political project that inspires it or that it seeks to contribute to. I was at an event recently where Nombuso Mathibela (African Ecofeminist Collective), who DJs and positions herself as a cultural worker said the difference between an artist and a cultural worker is that a cultural worker seeks to excavate indigenous cultures, the cultures of the oppressed and the ways people manifest them—not hegemonic cultures which are reflections of the ruling class in the capitalist world we live in. She also said cultural work is no different from building a bridge (to critical knowledge and connection)—she called it ‘political excavation’. So, to me, the most powerful texts build bridges between people, land, people’s histories, and the better world(s) many of us desire to live in.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I write to clarify my thoughts and ideas. The more I write the clearer each idea or connection becomes, so I edit after I finish writing a draft of a particular section. It’s a bit of both—I edit as I write each section and then edit the full draft.
What was your process for writing ‘Sisi Pia ni Watu: In Kenya, Domestic Workers Resist Exploitation’?
I really wanted ‘Sisi pia ni Watu’ to elaborate on and historicize the critiques, and observations that domestic workers have had of their work and the relations that constitute it over time, since its emergence as waged labour in the (formal) colonial period. Therefore, I’ll speak about two parts of my process that were central to making this possible. Firstly, because the colonial archive disappears domestic workers and downplays the oppressive nature of their conditions, I would say the method central to my process was what historian and anthropologist, Anne Stoler, thinks of as ‘reading against the grain’. To me, this means identifying and extracting the fact of colonial exploitation and indigenous resistance from the reductive ways in which they appear in the archive. The exploitation and abuse of domestic workers is disappeared by the everydayness of colonial violence, while indigenous resistance is refigured as insolence and nuisance. So, as I wrote and read, I read and wrote against the stories the colonialists were interested in telling about themselves and their workers, through their meeting minutes, cookbooks and memoirs. I was really interested in turning these stories inside out.
Also, in order to ensure that the narratives of domestic worker organizers’ were guiding my analysis, I interviewed them first which meant that their critiques structured my research and writing. These labour organizers graciously shared their stories and ideas with me and I tried my best to weave-in thinkers and develop an analysis that were in conversation with them.
Why was it important that you wrote on this issue?
I was interested in contradicting the hegemonic stories that are told about domestic workers in the media and in everyday life especially amongst Nairobi’s middle and upper classes. Domestic workers are always portrayed as irritants, thieves or promiscuous and insentient objects in those narratives. I wanted to demonstrate the ways in which the actions that are most questionable and harmful in this dynamic are those of employers and the (non) actions of the state. I was also really trying to learn about domestic worker resistance especially in this moment where it is critical that we form cross-movement alliances and solidarities.
I read and wrote against the stories the colonialists were interested in telling about themselves and their workers, through their meeting minutes, cookbooks and memoirs.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
I think sharing it with older relatives (who are also employers of domestic workers) and not getting a response. That said enough!
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Honestly, sage advice for me has been ‘just start’. It is truly the most difficult and painful part for me—starting. I put so much pressure and expectation on starting—as if the wrong introductory sentence might set the pace for the whole experience. So, the ‘just’ in that advice really softens and reduces the stakes of an action that is anxiety inducing for me. Remembering that the start of writing is not the start of a particular story but instead the start of my clarifying process makes writing way more pleasant for me.
What’s the best book you read in 2022?
Definitely, Harsha Walia’s Border and Rule (Which I’m still in the process of finishing). The way she conceptualizes the border as the product of a series of violent structures including white supremacy (ethnonationalism), capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy that are all used to discipline and control working people within and outside the border is really important. By contributing to the growing collection of work that is drawing connections between various, seemingly disparate social issues she charts possibilities for cross-movement solidarities—a necessary strategy for effectively challenging harmful structures that themselves intersect. It is a powerful book that really fleshes out what it means when capital is allowed mobility, meanwhile people, especially those who are marginalized and from places that have been forced into never-ending crisis via colonialism and imperialism, are expected to be static.
One quote I loved from the book is: ‘The freedom to stay and the freedom to move are revolutionary corollaries refusing imperial bordered sovereignties, with home as our shared horizon.’
What are your expectations for 2023?
This year I want to strike a balance between softness and rigor. I want to work on growing my relationships and connections with loved ones. I want to read, write and teach consistently and collaboratively and I want to have the space to rest and reflect as I work towards those goals.
I put so much pressure and expectation on starting—as if the wrong introductory sentence might set the pace for the whole experience.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
There are too many non-fiction authors I’m excited about to properly reference here. But where fiction is concerned, I’m really looking forward to Ani Kayode’s forthcoming debut book, And Then He Sang a Lullaby. Kayode is an organizer and a radical thinker, so I’m really looking forward to learning from how he weaves his political analysis into his storytelling about queer African life at both a thematic and stylistic level.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
My favorite topic to read about (and hopefully writing more about) is work and labour. I am really interested in learning more about how and why work emerges, excavating the narratives and imaginaries constructed to moralize work. I am also learning more about reproductive labour and labour organizing and movement work around the world.
I have learned a lot through Lyn Ossome’s writing, especially her work on gendered labour, the agrarian economy and reproductive labour/care economy. Other texts include The Problem of Work by Kathi Weeks, Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero both by Silvia Federici, and the 2009 Feminist Africa issue, Land, Labour and Gendered Livelihoods.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a piece about African queerness and the commons and organizing a class focused on queer movements and solidarity. I also really want to write more about (under)development and labour issues this year, as well as histories of queer organizing on the continent.
I am really interested in learning more about how and why work emerges, excavating the narratives and imaginaries constructed to moralize work.
Question from Natasha Chilambo: If not writing, what would you do and why?
I think this question is hard for me to answer, because it feels like prior to last year I was running away from writing. I was doing everything else except this thing I love—writing. So really the right question for me is: ‘If not everything else that you do, what would you do and why?’ And the answer is of course writing (and teaching) because I love how the process gives me clarity of thought and allows me the time to think deeply about stories and issues that are often deliberately unseen.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What does writing feel like for you?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].