Department of English

"'It Continues Not To End': Time, Poetry, and the ICC Witness Project"

A postdoctoral fellow lecture by Dr. Aaron Bady

Tue, April 22, 2014 | MEZ 0.306

5:00 PM - 7:00 PM

In the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007-8 Post Election Violence (PEV), thousands of people were raped, murdered, or otherwise violated, and hundreds of thousands of people became what is called “internal displaced persons” (IDPs). In the years since then, PEV and IDP have become ciphers on the symbolic landscape, the traces of an event which fundamentally reshaped the structure of Kenyan political and communal society—albeit by consolidating and intensifying trends which were already well underway—but also an event which cannot be and is not discussed outside the disciplinary constraints of “report realism,” the aesthetic discourse which NGO’s, human rights organizations, international tribunals, and politicians use to describe, produce, and confirm what they already know to be true: that Kenya is a peaceful country, whose brief explosions of violence are a problem to be managed, contained, and/or exploited.

The ICC Witness Project—an semi-anonymous collection of poetry published online—proceeds from a very different assumption: that “peace” is another word for forms of violation that have been rendered officially unspeakable, the lack of personal and communal insecurity that have continued and been consolidated through Kenya’s “transition” into democracy. The project began in response to the fact that while Kenya’s current sitting president and deputy president stand accused by the International Criminal Court of directly organizing and fomenting the post-election violence, witness intimidation and the broad political imperative for Kenya to “move on” and “remain peaceful” have hampered efforts to even imagine and conceptualize the forms of violation contained in euphemistic acronyms like PEV or IDP. In Kenya’s fantasy of peace—what some of the ICC Witness Project poets have called “the peace Kool-Aid”—it is the witnesses for the prosecution (and the prosecution itself) who stand accused of disturbing the peace, who must not only apologize for what they witnessed, experienced, and remember, but whose memories, trauma, and scars mark them as dissenting bodies to be normalized.

In “‘It Continues Not To End’: Time, Poetry, and the ICC Witness Project,” I will explore how the ICC Witness Project exposes the violent silencing of Kenya’s post-election “peace” by gesturing towards the space in which they would have or could have been heard. Yet the ICC Witness Project is not an effort to recover the voices of the victims, nor to reify the event of their violation, and it eschews the aesthetics of what Keguro Macharia has usefully called the “report realism” of Kenya NGO discourse. Instead, by violating the texture of poetry itself, the poets explore the distorted reality that has been produced when voices of witness are rendered unspeakable. Precisely by its production in a medium and a form which cannot be incorporated into official narratives—anonymous poetry posted and shared on the blogging site Tumblr—the ICC Witness Project doesn’t so much break the silence as make silencing itself audible.

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