Meiu’s research focuses on how sexuality and ethnicity transform citizenship and economic life in Africa and the postcolonial world today. He has carried out extensive ethnographic field research in Kenya to explore how racialized sexual and ethnic identities have transformed vast domains of social life, shaping new imaginations of nationhood, commodity-markets, and mobility. His scholarship utilizes methods from queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and postcolonial theory to key concepts in anthropology, including age, generation, kinship, ritual, money, and the body. His recent projects include the following:
This project explores how the tourist commodification of ethnic sexuality has shaped belonging and relatedness in northern Kenya, and demonstrates how relations of kinship, age, and gender have, in turn, shaped markets of ethnicity and sexuality. Since the 1980s, young men of the Samburu ethnic group have migrated seasonally to beach resorts at the Indian Ocean to sell souvenirs and perform traditional dances for tourists. They capitalized on an older, colonial image of the “tribal warrior” or moran emblematic East Africa as a tourist destination. Numerous Euro-American women on vacation in Kenya engaged in intimate relationships with such “warriors.” Young Samburu men soon found a path to rapid wealth through transactional sex with foreign women. Meiu offers the framework of “ethno-erotic economies” to speak of wide circuits of desire and monetary exchange premised on the commodification of ethnic sexuality. These economies are based on a dialectical relationship between practices of ethnic and sexual commodification and the ways in which Samburu imagine belonging through relations of descent, age set, ritual and more. To describe some of the contradictory outcomes of this dialectic, Meiu shows how conflicting temporalities of social action transform the dynamics of belonging and how the logics of the commodity form infuse and are complicated by intimacy and kinship. This project resulted in a book, Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and articles such as “Mombasa Morans” (2009); “Beach-boy Elders and Young Big-men” (2015); and “Belonging in Ethno-erotic Economies” (2016)
Ethnicity, Commodity, Belonging
Meiu’s research on economies of ethnic sexuality has also led him to explore other emerging historical intersections between ethnicity, commodities, and belonging. He published a series of essays that examine the instabilities and ambiguities of ethnicity as representation, a category of social attachment, and a source of exchange value. Drawing on poststructuralist and postcolonial theories of difference, these essays attend closely to the elusiveness of ethnicity in contexts where people try to stabilize its meanings in order to produce more durable kinds of value and belonging. Meiu shows how struggles over the representational uncertainties of ethnicity increasingly implicate embodiment, aesthetics, branding, violence, kinship, and environmental pollution. This project resulted in, among other things, a co-edited book, Ethnicity, Commodity, In/Corporation (Indiana University Press, 2020), and articles and chapters such as “Riefenstahl on Safari” (2008), “On Difference, Desire, and the Aesthetics of the Unexpected” (2011); “Who Are the New Natives” (2019); and “On Branding, Belonging, and the Violence of a Phallic Imaginary” (2020).
Meiu’s current book project, Queer Objects: Intimacy, Citizenship, and Rescue in Kenya expands his interest in sexuality to take on an urgent problem today: growing homophobia and rampant violence against queer people. He examines forms of intimate citizenship that have emerged in response to growing anti-homosexual violence. Over the past decade, political leaders, hoping to occlude their complicity in market liberalization and legitimize the state as a source of moral protectionism, have named homosexuality a salient danger to the nation. Following Uganda’s infamous “kill-the-gays” bill in 2009, leaders in Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania have called on police and citizens to purge their countries of homosexuality, a “vice” they saw as “un-African.” However, in everyday life, this alleged homosexual threat is not easy either to identify or pin down. To make the homosexual body a more stable target of outrage and violence, leaders, media, civil society groups, and citizens have deployed a vast set of unlikely objects. For example, they depict homosexuality as a “foreign plastic” that “pollutes” African lives; a contagion that ruptures male bodies, leaving them incontinent, in need of adult diapers; or an outcome of the growing depletion of nguvu za kiume, “male-power,” a material substance said to sustain hetero-masculine bodies. Objects such as plastics, diapers, or “male-power” may appear trivial to the violent politics of homophobia. This project suggests that, to the contrary, their poetic deployment in rumor and political rhetoric constitutes the homosexual body for targeted repudiation. Tracking objects ethnographically, Meiu’s project shows how ideas and sentiments associated with homophobia emerge not simply in relation to the reified category of the homosexual. Rather, they materialize across a vast social terrain of struggles with bodies, work, reproduction, respectability, and futurity in a context of pervasive economic speculation. Outcomes of this research were published in “Panics over Plastics” (2020); “Underlayers of Citizenship” (2020); and “Queerly Kenyan” (2020).