1.0 These untoward bodies: confinement of social matter

Whereas it is a truism that social life is replete with struggles related to colour, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, political ideology, representation, and economic rights, amongst others, few of them come close to what it entails having to deal with the totality of anxieties situated upon and around a subject marked as "disabled." Often such a subject has also to deal with all the other issues mentioned above, meaning that for a person with a disability the pressures of everyday life are much more complex than one might assume if paying attention only to the category "disabled." As such, living with disabilities makes life a series of perpetual negotiations, "not only with doorways or stairs but also with languages, stares, assumptions and policies…daily survival for many people with disabilities requires them to work with needs and feelings of the nondisabled" (Holmes, 2001:27). In the face of all these negotiations, and the huge potential for misunderstanding that they entail, things like attitude — which is perhaps the most prevalent problem vis-à-vis disability in all cultures — are hard to negotiate since, for clear discourse to take place, positions need to be spelled out.

However, this is not to say that the unstated — for example, attitudes expressed through temporal acts, a stare or a pitying look — is not influential in culture; to the contrary, we can instinctively sense how people feel about us merely by their attitude towards us, which is often carried through non-verbal expression. Such attitudes are often couched in subtle terms, some so covertly wrapped up within cultural forms that unless one is disabled, it might be difficult to discern them; one must negotiate with them daily on the basis of subjective experience. In other words, positional subjectivity in relation to cultural discourse affects the way we read expressions about disability in culture; when non-disabled persons apply such terms, it is often the case that they might not even be aware about how disabled people will read them. This is the perpetual tension alluded to above, whereby the otherness of disability is mapped and described by those who might have no idea what it means being disabled.

In relation to this dilemma of naming, the following paper interrogates the nexus between culture(s) and characterizations of disability as evinced in Kenyan folklore and popular music. The focus on folklore and popular culture is deliberate since its texts and practices — themselves a critical lens through which social values might be viewed — is usually incorporated into other representations in mass culture, ranging from music videos to TV dramas and radio programs. In this way, I hope to demonstrate that even though popular culture is by its very nature non-elitist, the values that it expresses are often a core part of dominant Kenyan society. Popular culture — of which folklore is an integral part — is thus situated between various local customs and beliefs and the realities of "modern" Kenyan society, a society at once struggling to understand disability as a legal issue (as seen in the enactment of the Persons With Disabilities Act in 2003), yet unable to apprehend the various cultural routes through which disability is constructed in quotidian experience.

Given the ways in which this paper examines some processes by which disability is named, a caveat is required about my use of the term "disabled" or the more general (and often misleading) term "the disabled." Aware that the meanings of these terms is often difficult to fix, especially given the different legal and cultural contexts in which they are used, I deploy them to indicate a broad social category to which potentially everyone belongs; given the vagaries of life, a "perfectly healthy" body might suddenly be rendered disabled through an accident, an unknown illness, and so on. Besides, there are millions of people walking the earth with bodies seen as non-disabled but that carry internal, and therefore invisible, forms of disability. In short, both "disabled" and "non-disabled" are locked in a much tighter embrace with each other than is suggested by the deceptive and rigid demarcation that societies set up between the two terms. Cultural practices in Kenya often dwell on disability as a physical manifestation, which indicates that the range of conditions that might be referred to under the rubric of disability is often not fully understood. It might even be argued that, as they are deployed in general discourse, these terms have no real meaning; disabilities are so specific that casual references to them do not really tell us much about the specific subjects to which they are applied. It is hoped that the critique undertaken in this paper might provoke a discussion about how to specify the subjects of disability.

As history, religion, and culture demonstrate, onomastics is a process fraught with profound anxieties, more so if the procedure involves naming and defining subjects without inviting them to participate in a specification of the terms in which they would like to be named or described. Of course, this presupposes the idea of democratic practice, even if culture does not operate that way, at least not its vital institutions of power. More realistically, naming processes are often tyrannical, backed as they often are by authorities who are neither amenable to consultation nor debate, something we see often repeated in Kenyan popular cultures. The authoritarianism of naming systems is universal to cultures. For instance, in the beginning God created and named Adam and Eve, thus says Genesis. The naming that takes place here is constituted around the privilege of being a creator, a position that religious beliefs adopt in their figuration of disabilities in culture, ostensibly because "divine" authority is assumed to be unquestionable. This might account for the popularity of religion-based forms of naming in local popular culture, as we shall see further below.

This argument about naming can also be seen through the story of Caliban in The Tempest (1913), which aptly points to the connections between power, culture — or the lack of it — and naming. Being outside Prospero's culture, Caliban is singularly disabled by his otherness as a "cannibal-monster" among differently-endowed human beings. The point about Caliban is that, by a process of cultural induction (through religion and language), he is forced into a socially disabling position, supposedly to punish him for his own "crime"; disability is often constituted around the idea that the subjects in question merit their condition on account of some form of guilt — either their own or that of their relatives. Like Caliban's servitude, disabilities are viewed as a well-deserved punishment, a sentiment that conditions much of the thinking about the subject in Kenyan cultures. Caliban's stammer is illustrative; his linguistic disability is "chained" to and by his newly-given language, over which he can never achieve complete mastery, thereby justifying not only his servitude but his master's naming and treatment of him as a savage. Daniel Defoe's Friday in Robinson Crusoe similarly demonstrates the dynamics of encounter when socially unfamiliar individuals meet; the more powerful party might abrogate the power to name the other, regardless of the fact that the latter already has an identity. As in Caliban's case, the nameless (thus disabled) Friday comes into existence through language — his master's.

In common, the three literary stories cited here involve an encounter between a "mightier" and '"weaker" being and the formulation of an identity around an idea of what the weak being ought to be. Eating from the tree of knowledge will make human beings become knowledgeable like God. Similarly, neither Caliban (a stammerer) nor Friday (clueless about "language") should seek to elevate themselves to the level of their "finders." To do either of these things would constitute an inherent threat to the discovering authority; the "lesser" creature, being "imperfect", must be kept in its place. The contention here is that dominant society has a psychological need to name and define disabilities, to create an other within its folds as a standard by which it can measure its own (social) health; disability is a reminder that the rest of the more fortunate society are "alright." In other words, without disability the non-disabled might have no way of reassuring themselves about their own state; in reality as well as in the social imaginary, they place some "bodies" at a permanently lower level, often through language but just as commonly by means of such actions as ostracism. The naming process is achieved by means of "inverted projection" (Dundes, 1997) — marking an other in unfavorable terms in order to justify whatever negative treatment might be meted out. Albino killings in Tanzania help to elaborate this point (Yakub, 2008). A live albino's body organs (such as skin peeled off the body or the scalp) are harvested for witchcraft, where it is believed that a non-albino wearing an amulet fashioned from such matter attracts good luck and wealth. The disabled body is thus prized, and consequently literally annihilated, for its assumed ability to make the non-disabled prosper.

In this context, we might argue that disability-naming is inscribed with deep-seated fears and anxieties about the health of the social body. As will be shown, these tend to be centered around an individual's participation — or lack of it — in what are considered to be a community's core activities: (pro)creation and economic production as critical means of social survival. Those who are biologically and economically unproductive — and disabled persons are assumed to lack in both these capabilities — are marked for erasure, even if only through language. Thus, if by extension we examine cultural responses to the birth or existence of PWD in different societies around the world (for instance, abandonment to wild animals and nature, killing through starvation), then it seems clear that various forms of eugenics have being practiced long before the emergence of that nefarious branch of pseudo-science as a topic of public outrage. The subtlety of cultural deletion in expressive forms is what concerns us here.

Indeed, for the purposes of our discussion, and as Michalko and Titchkosky (2001:208) have argued, it is necessary to invoke the idea that dominant society considers "disability [as] a sign of the 'natural-gone-wrong.'" Naming, I suggest, implicates much (if not more) of the namers' identity as that of the named. Governments seek to establish statistics about the disabled amongst society not so much because they feel compelled to plan for service-delivery for such persons but, perhaps even more significantly, in order to alert the rest of society as to where such members might be found and how they might be identified. This might be one way of explaining the phenomenon of special schools in Kenya, confinement places for persons with various types of disabilities which, in philosophy at least, seem to be founded along the same lines as sick colonies (for lepers for instance). In the present case, these schools help to hide away grotesque bodies which might, if left in regular schools, minimize the horror-impact, thereby reducing the potency of their signification as society's other. When labels of disability are created, I contend that, usually, they are intended to speak to the non-disabled, thereby silencing persons with disabilities. Otherwise, persons with disabilities already know who they are — their identity which for them is not dependent on naming — by virtue of living disability, and as such they do not need these names. As I will argue, the question of authority and disability in Kenyan cultures is crucial. I am therefore interested in the rhetorical strategies of naming, the power in naming, and the politics inherent in such naming systems.

In this regard, a critique of Ogechi and Ruto's (2002) analysis of the Nandi and Ekegusii terms and proverbs on disability reveals that, even when dominant society tends to look benignly upon disability, there is a covert cultural-linguistic monitoring of the phenomenon lest it should "contaminate" the rest of society. The authors have argued that amongst the Nandi and Abagusii, disabled persons were/are not discriminated against; rather they were/are considered to be an integral part of the community. They further assert that the nondisabled sought to understand the causes of disabilities in order to avoid future offence against horizontal and vertical relationships (with spiritual forces as well as members of society) whose breach usually resulted in disability.

Be that as it may, at core the belief systems that are alluded to here buttress the idea of disability as a "curse" that is so prevalent amongst Kenyan communities. Even if we were to accept that some disabilities might result from breaching some social or customary norm, it must still be asked whether such beliefs can meaningfully explain the negative attitudes about disability amongst contemporary Kenyans, who might not even be aware of the intricate philosophies and worldviews of their traditional communities. At the same time, if it is true that these beliefs are held mainly by those who have not attained formal education, then a plausible explanation is required for the continued negative labeling of the disabled, even by those who have had the benefit of western schooling.1 It is thus somewhat of a contradiction when the authors state:

Modern African societies do not seriously uphold the (sic) traditional beliefs on the causes of disability. With the influence of Christianity, Western education and medicine, the traditional causes of disability are considered archaic and people no longer have any awe over the disabled people (Ogechi and Ruto, 2002:73, emphasis added).

On the contrary, going by the attitudes that oscillate between fear and hostility that the subject of disability elicits from others, it can be argued that Kenyans — whether holding high formal education qualifications or not, Christian or other, "traditional" or "modern" — are still clearly awed by disabilities. Indeed, the fact that negative attitudes towards disabled persons are a persistent universal phenomenon ought to suggest that lack of formal schooling — or the implied "scientific" or positivist thought associated with such schooling — is not a satisfactory explanation of how negative labeling of PWD filters into or persists in both the construction and naming of disability. The PWD Act (2003) has gone so far as to indicate that one of the greatest barriers to be overcome in regard to the struggle for recognition of disability rights is culture-based negative perceptions of PWD that is common to all local cultures. In the end, on the basis of the evidence supplied, the Nandi and Abagusii can only be said to have at best an ambivalent attitude towards (persons with) disabilities. PWD, in this case, are neither fully accepted nor wholly rejected by dominant society; they are held in an ambivalent state — unwanted yet wanted — and have labels put on them that speak to their being a repudiation of the normative, which cannot be fully understood without recourse to the non-normative. This contention will be demonstrated through an examination of the representation of disability in folk knowledge, to which I turn below. This interrogation will be focused on names and labels commonly deployed in the portrayal of disability in selected African languages — including Gĩkũyũ, Kiswahili, Acholi, Dinka, Teso, and Lingala — that I have come into contact with in the course of my work.

2.0 Dispatches from a refugee camp: A discourse of absences2

In May 2007, I had occasion to visit Kakuma Refugee camp in northern Kenya, close to the border with Sudan. The camp hosts displaced people from eight African countries, and one conspicuous aspect of life in that remote outpost is how people have devised mechanisms of getting along with each other. They sometimes trade the most awkward of questions — "how do you feel being here?" — while equally awkward answers might be proffered — "you really don't expect me to love it here!" Whatever is asked is usually carefully weighed, perhaps a force of habit or natural suspicion of the inquirer's motivation, especially given the contexts of conflict from which these camp residents have fled. For my answers, I received what I felt were honest answers, not due to effort on my part but because of something that was pointed out to me by an Ethiopian source, and which I had not hitherto considered: these displaced people consider themselves disabled, hence the ease with which they opened up to me when I brought up the subject of naming disabilities in their respective communities. I was told matter-of-factly that the trauma of dislocation from one's homeland leaves certain physical and internal wounds, and these disable not only the displaced person's ego but also his or her awareness of the world, which becomes severely circumscribed. Resettlement in far-off lands like Canada and America becomes not a healing but an extension of these disabilities because these new environments have their own severe socio-cultural, economic, and political circumscriptions. The past that existed before conflict — now but a distant elsewhere — torments with nostalgia, while the present is filled with the despair of material and social deprivation, and the future is a huge blank tempered with (faint) hope. It was against this background of loss, absences, and displacement that we naturally got to talk about the naming of disability in the multiple languages of the camp. These terms will hopefully help explore points of commonality between the cultural worlds that the various languages represent.

  1. Kisangani dialect of Lingala (DRC):
    1. Disability — ebosono (H): Someone who cannot walk or perform physical tasks. Considered a neutral term, the facticity of disability.

      Koka is the low version, which is the more common euphemism.

    2. Blind — makutu mafwa: One with dead eyes.

    3. Deaf — makutu ve: One without ears.

      When "makutu" alone is used, it is context-dependent, and participants will know whether the referent is visually or hearing challenged.

    4. dumb — baba: One who cannot speak. Considered to be a neutral term.

    5. mental illness — liboma (Noun and person): One who is insane. Taken to be a neutral term.

    6. mental retardation — kizengi: A negative term. ("O zali kizengi": You are mentally retarded).

  2. Dinka (Sudan)
    1. Disability — riaye: General term to describe the fact of disability. A neutral term. ("Garang achiriaye": Garang is disabled).

    2. Blind — achichor: A person who is totally blind-raan chichor. Or a person who has no eyes.

    3. dumb/mute — raan chie jam: Someone who does not speak. Considered to be a neutral term.

      N.B. The term also means 1. Those who choose to be silent 2. Those who speak nonsense and 3. The deaf. Thus, if one who has the biological condition invoked by the term "speaks" wisdom, they are not considered to be "dumb" (chie jam).

    4. Deaf — raan chie ming. One who speaks using gestures.

    5. Madness — tauny ("twany"). Illness. It may or may not be cured.

      mad person — tauny nhom.

      mentally ill — raan chimok. A person with a mental illness that is totally incurable, e.g. mental retardation.

      *The Nuer (Sudan) word for mental retardation is yong.

  3. Teso (Kenya)

    The following terms are used to express literal absence/lack of limbs, eyes, and ears.

    1. the disabled — emama cekonyeng

    2. person with a disability — eng'walas ("eng'walasi").

    3. Blind — emuduk (pronounced "emuduki"; pl. emuduka)

    4. Deaf — ekiming (pl. ekiming'a)

  4. Acholi (North Kitgum, Uganda)
    1. Blind — latowa (pl. Lutuwa). A person who cannot see. Deemed to be a Neutral term.

    2. Deaf — lading yit. A person who does not hear. Considered to be a neutral term.

    3. Dumb — latelebe otoo (pl. lutelebgi otoo). Literally, a person who cannot speak. Taken to be a neutral term.

    4. disability generally, but mainly referring visual and mobility challenges — lagoro. Used as a neutral descriptive term. e.g. "Ojok obedo dano malagoro": Ojok is a person who is physically/visually impaired.

    5. person with a disability — lang'olo. A person with a lower limb impairment. Considered to be a negative term.

    6. mental retardation — lapoya. Literally a person whose mind has some interference. It includes mental illness. It is a negative term and can be used as an insult.

  5. Gĩkũyũ (Kenya).
    1. disability/disabled — wonje/kĩonje. Impairment — one with a physical "defect" that prevents full functioning of the body. Such defects can be physical or non-visible, e.g. mental retardation. Kĩonje always calls to mind the word "cripple."

    2. Blind — gĩtumumu. Literally one who is "totally closed /shut up", hence darkness/ lack of light. In popular usage it is non-descriptive and has a derogatory nuance.

    3. squint/mono-eyed — kĩriitho. Literally a monstrous eye.

    4. Deaf — gĩtaigua. One who does not hear. Derogatory in popular non-descriptive usage.

    5. Dumb — buubu. One who does not speak, and often includes deafness. Derogative term in popular non-descriptive usage. Dumbness is also often called ũrimũ (foolishness).

    6. mental illness — mũrimũ wa meciria. Usually the popular implication is that of clinical insanity.

    7. mentally retarded — gitoogo. A fogged up mind, literally "as if full of smoke" and hence confused.

    8. Down's Syndrome — urimũ. Foolishness. One who has the condition is known as kĩrimũ, a fool.

    9. epileptic fits — kĩbaba. Literally "tin"; the connotation in relation to the disability appears to be aimed at capturing the "pandemonium" created by epileptic persons as they violently flail about in a fit.

    From all the above terms, two significant issues may be highlighted. First, they make an attempt at depicting "disability" as fact. Secondly, when it is convenient, that facticity is ignored, as is most clearly seen with the Dinka term chie jam; valence is a matter if choice. This invention of disability at will points to the broader question of the representation of persons with disabilities to which I return later. But the most intriguing aspect is the attempt in nearly all these definitions at defining disability beginning with the words "someone," a "person," or "somebody," yet proceeding to considerably retract the very humanity of the being who is invoked. In the societies that use the languages referred to above, the existence of predominantly negative words that 'describe' PWD and disability allows us to draw two conclusions. First, that all cultures have similar archetypes of disability. Secondly, if we accept this proposition, then it can be argued that human societies universally constitute their awareness of the world around similar material questions. Thus, in order to proceed with our argument, we need to recast our discussion as follows: beyond labeling, why is it necessary to name? I will venture an answer by delving into the world of folklore, one of the primary sites upon which the cultural construction of disability takes place.

    3.0 Of (un)wise sayings and proverbs: disability in Kenyan folklore and pop music

    In folklore, disability is generally the constitution of loss or deprivation, as might be seen in common proverbs and sayings such as "thĩna ti wonje" (Gĩkũyũ: poverty is not disability) or "umaskini si kilema" (Kiswahili: poverty is not disability). Even though such sayings are a comparative description of poverty, they also indicate an understanding of the permanence of disability as a condition about which one is helpless. This cultural "awareness" of the irreversibility of disability is what leads to efforts, whether linguistic or otherwise, that are meant to erase it from (visible) maps of the social body. This might be seen in practices against persons with disabilities such as confinement or seclusion ( such as tethering, chaining, or lock-ups), abandonment, and even outright killing. Besides blotting out the shame that these grotesque bodies are seen to represent, the purpose of killing seems to be to reassure dominant society about its own perfection by ridding the social landscape of PWD, thereby creating the impression that such bodies do not indeed exist. In contemporary times, perhaps even special schools might be seen as an (unconscious?) effort at segregation aimed at the surveillance and training of untoward bodies. Be that as it may, while special institutions for PWD are the more visible of these forms of containment, a far more pervasive yet highly unremarked phenomenon relates to erasures of disability that take place in everyday life through linguistic forms such as we find in folklore.

    Folklore is one of the critical means by which society figures itself at the same time as it enables us to understand the creation and development of ideas about an other. In other words, it is both creative and expressive (Ben-Amos, 1982). Thus, the grotesque body in folklore (such as the ogre, hunchback, dwarf, squint-and mono-eyed men) is both self-figurative expression — "we are not like that!" — at the same time as it is an extroverted projection of what society fears to be/come. This contention is valid if we consider that part of the function of folklore is to help individuals process and deal with their anxieties. Subconscious matter has a major influence on the ways in which people structure language in folklore and other fields in order to speak to those fears. Disability as grotesquerie then serves as a cultural signifier that marks out not only the form — as forms bodies have definable boundaries and perceptible contours — but also the parameters of social identity. In Kenyan folklore, then, it seems that even the most benign-sounding reference to disability has in fact a substratum of meaning that contradicts the meaning derived at the surface level of such words. This process might be seen in the work of Ogechi and Ruto (2002) who have attempted to show how Ekegusii and Nandi proverbs demonstrate the cultural construction of disability. However, out of the three Ekegusii (the language of the Abagusii) and one Nandi proverbs cited above, only one Ekegusii proverb — "Oborema igoro bore (disability (may) befall one late in his life)" — has a word that directly refers to disability, while the rest are in fact general interdictions. The explanation offered for the lack of such proverbs is that disability is "almost a taboo subject" in these two communities (Ogechi and Ruto, 2002: 80). However, if it is true that the Abagusii and Nandi are tolerant and positive about disabled persons — as the authors consistently argue — then logically such tolerance ought to have filtered into the wisdom of their proverbs. This fact of profound silence on such deletion of disability from the proverbs cannot be explained by the topic being "almost taboo" — it is taboo!

    In this regard, it can be argued that another explanation for the paucity of disability references in proverbs has to do with the fact that society feels the need to keep the subject far away from critical folk expressions that capture centrally dominant society's worldview.3 As a crucial means of constituting and regulating the parameters of discourse, proverbs thus become a means through which taboo topics are filtered out of social communication. Once disability is erased from a culture's canon of critical, positive conceptual terms, it becomes easier to ascribe negativity to it, which in turn is perceptible in the pejorative terms about which the subject is spoken. This might then explain why many societies lack proverbs that touch on disability in specific terms, even though, ironically, disability is referred to in everyday discourse and as such it isn't a taboo topic in the strict sense of the term. What is fascinating here is that disability is never even euphemized. Rather, as the terms collected from Kakuma show, it is usually spoken of in its raw form(s) because its grossness is seen as a concrete social "fact" about which the community must be persistently reminded, if only to better remind its non-disabled members about what the normative body looks like and hence to work for its preservation.

    To illustrate this point, I now turn to examine the lack of use of Gĩkũyũ proverbs that relate to disabilities. I asked three Gĩkũyũ speakers to supply disability-related proverbs in their mother tongue. All three said they knew of none, and whatever phrases or sayings they knew that evoked disability were in fact expositions of other things in the socio-cultural world which, in order to make sense, use categories and trajectories of disability. They also cited pop songs that make use of disability tropes:

    1. Thĩna ti wonje (Poverty is not disability.). It was pointed out that this Gĩkũyũ proverb circulates more widely in Kenya, especially through Kiswahili. An example was given of Mwalimu (Teacher) James Mbugua's Kiswahili song, "Tulia kwangu," in which the out-on-his-luck speaker implores his lover not to leave him: "Hata ikiwa ni shida zimetukumba sana, tulia kwangu,tulia kwangu, tulia kwangu we. Umaskini si kilema tulia kwangu we" (Even if we have been afflicted by acute (financial) problems, don't leave me, don't leave me, don't leave me. Poverty is not disability). One of the reasons such sentiments about disability circulate so widely has to do with the fact that Kiswahili is Kenya's national language and it can therefore reach audiences far beyond the boundaries of a single ethnic language like Gĩkũyũ .
    2. Urahooya nĩ kwonja wonjete? (Gĩkũyũ : "Why beg as if you are crippled?"). Here my source was referring to "Njara Rũhĩ," a Gĩkũyũ song by Daniel Kamau Mwai (popularly known as DK) in which the speaker asks his addressee: "Why do you sit by the roadside begging and yet you are not crippled?" Usually in Kiswahili discourse this saying is rendered as "mbona unaomba kama wewe ni kilema?" (why are you begging as if you are a cripple?), and it is deployed contemptuously against people who constantly ask for cash from their friends and acquaintances. In other words, socially speaking, beggary is the preserve of persons with disability. Kiswahili, besides having its own disability-specific lexis, actively distributes on a wider scale sentiments about disability that thrive universally within the folklore and lexical structures of Kenyan communities.

    In the first example, an economic question is framed in terms of the body's in/capacity. By implication, disability is a worse state than poverty; the speaker would rather be poor than be disabled. In the second example, we see again the figuration of economic need (beggary) in terms of disability. Again, along a continuum of "bad" situations, disability is taken to be the worst. Overall, the idea is that disability does not appear directly in Gĩkũyũ proverbs but it is used to refer to other states of being where the "rhetoric of affliction" is at work.4

    In Kiiru Joram's song, "Cikũ kiwete" (Cikũ the cripple), the speaker is accompanied by prominent Gĩkũyũ singers — Kamarũ, Kĩnyua, and Kĩgia amongst others — to go and meet his prospective bride. According to Gĩkũyũ customs, it is an unusual kind of situation whereby the match-making is also the occasion for payment of a dowry, which is presented to the bride's parents before the groom has met his partner-to-be. The whole meeting is thus shrouded with an omen. Eager to meet her, the speaker is dumbfounded when he finally sets sight on the woman who has all the while been hidden away in a room (in itself a telling act of the erasure of a "shameful" body) — Cikũ turns out to be an amputee! It is possible that her name Wanjiku is clipped to the diminutive Cikũ to capture her physical "brevity," which is a metaphor for how others see her — in a diminished state of humanity. Shocked, the only thing the groom can manage to utter repeatedly is: "Rũracio nĩ rũcokio! Rũracio nĩ rwora!" (Give back the dowry! We've wasted the dowry!).

    It takes the intervention of the other musicians to convince him to accept her and take her home. In the somewhat lukewarm resolution, the speaker finally makes peace with himself, declaring: "Cikũ nĩ wakwa reke maarie. Tũgĩthiĩ gũcera ndĩmũigagĩrĩra kĩande" (Cikũ is mine regardless of people's talk. When we go visiting, I'll carry her around on my shoulders). Some important issues arise here. Being a woman, Cikũ's worth is measured in terms of the number of "goats" (i.e. quantifiable dowry) that can be paid to her parents. This thinking is already faulty for its sexism, but perhaps it is even more negative because it marks Cikũ as being worthless on account of her disability. The idea is that "normal" women can contribute to the family's wealth pool through their labor. They are also expected to bring forth a vast number of children who act as a labor corps. The underlying "reasoning" is that being an amputee, Cikũ is incapable of supplying either labor or children.

    These assumptions are common in Kenyan everyday life and are often framed by the derogatory question: "Kĩonje no gĩciare?" (Can a cripple reproduce?). Cikũ is deemed worthless on all the above counts. The usual fear is that even if an individual is capable of biological reproduction, then perhaps the disability is genetically transmittable, thereby threatening both the family's biological survival and social continuity. Thus disability is seen as a clear danger to the health of the social body. Indeed, this point emerges clearly if we compare the perception of disabled men and women looking for marriage partners. A physically disabled man narrated how, when he and his party paid a call to his prospective in-laws, they objected to having him as a son in-law when he was introduced. The lady stuck to her guns and married the man anyway; her family only "heartily accepted" him when, some years later, his fortunes had turned and he had acquired considerable wealth. While for men disability can often be made up for by accumulating money, or become conveniently ignored by the community, this choice is hardly available for women with disabilities since it is not expected that any non-disabled man can chose them for mates. Ultimately, then, another conclusion to be drawn is that there is a gender angle to the question of disability and that it is necessary to pay attention to its specificity in each case. In Cikũ's case, even though the text seems to end on a positive note given that the musicians see her for her humanity rather than her looks, the resolution is unconvincing. Nothing prepares the speaker for his conversion — he claims that he "accepts" Cikũ because his colleagues prevail upon him to do so — and it is in this sense that the resolution seems rather contrived.

    Gĩkũyũ pop musician John DeMathew perhaps stands out among the younger musicians for his use of proverbs and sayings. He has even described himself as the new herald of Gĩkũyũ wisdom amongst the youth in his "Urathi wa ma." His music enables us to see that both older and younger members of dominant society think about disability in the same way. The song "Nĩkĩo ngũcokia ngatho" explores the same theme of the figuration of disability as affliction. Beginning with the Biblical story of Job's leprosy, the speaker is emphatic that good health is a blessing that God showers on those that he looks on with favor and which equally he withholds from those that do not earn his gift. In this context, the speaker considers himself to be especially favored by God: "Every time I look at my legs, I am reminded that there are cripples . . . there are [also] those who speak through gestures." Throughout the song, the speaker attributes the afflictions that befall individuals to the "fact" that they are not prayerful and that they have turned away from "God's way." In other words, they have deserved God's wrath for their disobedience. Under these terms, the suggestion is made that repentance might restore the disabled to their full health, a highly unlikely event given that their spirituality has already been called to question.

    In another saying, the singer captures the contempt with which disability is held in the community: "Ungĩgakũnjĩrwo ngundi nĩ kĩonje, turia ndu wĩre Ngai akĩhe magũrũ (If a cripple threatens to beat you up, go down on your knees and pray that God gives it legs" emphasis added.). In this instance, the idea is that a cripple is not just an object of contempt who is not worth responding to (or only "responded to" through pity) but also that such an individual is non-human; the affix "" in the verb "akĩhe" is the same one that would be used for non-human beings and to indicate monstrosity — a fearsome source of threat which has to be avoided at all costs. Popular music tends to be effective in reinforcing ideas of disability that circulate in other social contexts, particularly because the radio — its major dispersal point — is a predominant commodity in the lives of most Kenyans, many of whom rely solely on it to keep in touch with the world.

    4.0 Conclusion: Admirable lepers, speechifying Caliban, and the mutability of disability

    A central argument in this paper has been that the processes through which disabilities are constructed, named, and thus made knowable, are based on dominant society's self-serving needs. Further, there is nothing like an inherently disabled identity; it is formulated to speak to particular ideas of social health that dominant society might harbor. Thus though the phenomenon of disability exists in all cultures, its description (and thus its stigma level) tends to differ according to specific, socio-cultural contexts. Biological bodies can thus be expediently enabled or disabled. I have also argued that it is not in dominant society's interest to come to a full acceptance of the disabled; disability serves as a mirror through which dominant society constantly reflects on its anxieties about maintaining healthy bodies. Ultimately, disability might be understood as a compound identity that is socio-culturally constructed upon the fact of a particular body.

    Sometimes disability does enable, slipping through the restrictions imposed upon it (thus eluding the grasp of comprehension) to render the disabled subject enviable. I cite four examples here to illustrate how disabled subjects make nonsense of particular socio-cultural and political constructions of disability. This is seen in the Baganda folktale about Nyanje the Leper (see Ruganda, 1972). Every suitor who had been hoping to marry the King Kabaka's daughter failed the test: to climb the tallest tree in the land. Only Nyanje succeeded and, Kabaka being an honorable man, ended up marrying the princess. In this manner, his disability merges with power as he is elevated into the royal household. A second example is found in Aesop's fable, "The blind man and the whelp" (Zipes, 1996: 60), which helps demonstrate the possibility that a disability can in fact turn out to be a profound ability. The main character, a visually challenged man, turns out to be a most incisive judge of character, relying on inner perception rather than physical sight. Thirdly, the Dinka call the deaf-mute chie jam (one who has a speech impairment) but they also point out that such a person might sometimes "speak" wisdom while one who has the faculty of speech can sometimes speak nonsense and thereby become chie jam. Finally, there is a widely known case of the speaking Caliban in Kamau Braithwaite's (1973) re-invention of the colonial subject. By giving him the power of speech, Braithwaite makes a contestatory gesture against colonialism whereby the colonial subject assumes a voice and thus agency. In other words, in politics as in culture, icons of disability can shift meaning, and where initially Caliban may have stood for marginality and lack of humanity, the reconfiguration of this character also speaks to empowerment and (struggle for) self-determination in the context of post-coloniality.

    In sum — like all identities, disability is often in a state of flux, and language plays a critical role in naming these shifts. Thus, if we take disability to relate to limitation of function, then arguably the world has its total population (approximately 5.6 billion persons) living with relative disabilities. The above illustrations hopefully might begin to demonstrate both the fluidity of the concept of disability and the inaccuracy of the terms used to apprehend that idea. In the end, as an undefinable term, disability is perpetually reworked and conveniently invoked for the service of particular social, cultural, economic, and political imperatives.

Appendix : Ogechi and Ruto (2002:77-78). General terms/categories of disability:

[Key]: English Gloss/ Ekegusii/ Nandi
  1. [physically disabled?]: kerema; solomwo

  2. impaired hand: nyakoboko; kimugung/ jemugung

  3. impaired finger: nyakiara

  4. physical impairments/ physically impaired: konosi/ koombo; kerema; kimugung/ jemugung

  5. dumb: rimama; kipsisei/ jepsisei; maminda

  6. one who stammers: motuturi/ getuturi; kibuigut/ jebuigut

  7. visually impaired: mouko; kipkoratiat/ jepkoratiat

    monoeyed: getong'o/ keriiso; kimais/ jemais; kime-gong/ jemegong

    one who squints: gechiino

    one with small eyes: obiiso

    one with big eyes: nyamaiso; kiboogong/ jeboogong

    cross-eye: kimurgong/ jemurgong

    faint vision: tamirmiron

  8. sensory impairments hearing impaired: otiino; kiptimatiat/ jeptimatiat

  9. crazy/mad person: barimo; kibiywet/ jebiywet

  10. learning disability: nyarimbota

  11. mental impairments

    big head: ontwe; kiboomet/ Jjeboomet

Names describing the same disabilities in cows (sic) and human beings are identical in Nandi.

Works Cited

  • Ben-Amos, D. (1982). Folklore in Context. New Delhi: South Asian Publishers.
  • Braithwaite, E. K. (1973). The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Defoe, D. (2004 [1709]). Robinson Crusoe. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.
  • Dundes, A. (1997). From Game to War. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.
  • Holmes, M. S. (2001). "Working (with) the Rhetoric of Affliction: Autobiographical Narratives of Victorians with Physical Disabilities." In J. C. Wilson and C. Lewiecki-Wilson (Ed.), Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Southern Illinois University: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 27-44.
  • Ruganda, J. (1972). The Burdens. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.
  • Ogechi, N. O. and Ruto, S. J. (2002). "Portrayal of Disability Through Personal Names and Proverbs in Kenya: Evidence from Ekegusii and Nandi" in Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudie 3, 2 (2002): 64-82.
  • Shakespeare, W. (1913). The Tempest. New York: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Michalko, R. and Titchkosky, T. (2001). "Putting Disability in its Place." In J. C. Wilson and C. Lewiecki-Wilson (Ed.), Embodied Rhetorics:Disability in Language and Culture. Southern Illinois University: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 200-228.
  • Yakub, B. (2008, September 29). Albino Tanzania wafikiri kuomba uhifadhi nchi za nje. Mwananchi.
  • Zipes, J. (Ed.). (1996). Aesop's Fables. London: Penguin Books.
  • Music

  • DeMathew, John. N.d. Nĩkĩo ngũcokia ngatho.VCD. Nairobi
  • Joram, Kiiru N.d. Cikũ kiwete. Audiotape. Nairobi.
  • Mwai, Daniel Kamau (popularly known as DK). N.d. Njara Rũhĩ. Audiotape. Nairobi.
  • Mwalimu James Mbugua. N.d. Tulia kwangu. Audiotape. Nairobi.


  1. Ogechi and Ruto (2002: 72) have argued that the "retrogressive practice" of blaming a neighbor or a co-wife for the birth of a disabled child is attributable to traditional beliefs "upheld by those not highly schooled in Western education." However, the implied suggestion that the highly schooled do not uphold at least such beliefs is contestable, as indeed the authors note one page later. See our appendix below for common terms for disabilities in Ekegusii and Nandi as well as Ogechi and Ruto 2002: 77-78.

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  2. I am grateful to the following persons who supplied me with disability terms from their first languages: Jackson Sulubika (Lingala), Michael Awan (Dinka and Nuer), Apollo Sowek (Teso), and Geoffrey Ojok (Acholi). The words and meanings in the various languages are rendered here exactly as they were conveyed by the sources at Kakuma Refugee Camp.

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  3. A source to whom I pointed out the dearth of Gĩkũyũ proverbs on disability retorted: "If indeed we never even thought seriously about these people, why are we even shocked that contemporary society treats them that badly?"

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  4. The term is taken from Holmes (2001).

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