Sacrifice

Perhaps no other term so describes my preparation for citizenship than sacrifice. Sacrifice was a term beloved by leaders and teachers, by tailors and cobblers, sailors and savants. It was a term that created an imagined relationship (to deform Althusser) between state and citizen in which the absence of reciprocity became normative. To give to the state, in whatever fashion, was deemed duty, the mark of a true citizen, the dues of a respectful child (mwananchi), in a country where the state as parent reserved the right to discipline and demand, always depending on that old standby, “as long as you are under my roof.”

Citizenship—or its promise—as an ever-gaping maw. It is this that Potash documents so well. And always, of course, the threat that one might be disowned or, more likely, ignored by an ever harried parent, off from one conference to another, one venture to another. One learns to be grateful for crumbs.

To be sure, one’s preparation for citizenship takes place in multiple locations. One’s relationship to nation is mediated by home: familial affect metonymically transforms into loyalty as the language of home is pressed into service: mwananchi, baba president, mama Kenya. It is, perhaps, too easy to say that the echoes of these terms and their affective demands leave me skeptical about, if not hostile to, the obligations of kinship.

Again, reciprocity is at stake.

One learned it was far better to give than to receive and never to tally the cost. A giving life translated into giving life morphed into taking life. No sacrifice is too great. One learned to be grateful for brief moments of attention, the wave of a passing president, the paper flags that collected on one’s desk as reminders that one counted amidst the crowds of flag wavers.

At one point, disgusted with the lie of a national narrative, I determined not to wave the flag. But one can’t explain what it means to be caught up in theater and spectacle. One screams to be caught in the moment, to have lived. Whether this scream marks a sign of allegiance or defiance seems irrelevant at the time, as one joins in and is carried by—and the media always reframes the scene as celebration.

Sacrifice is about losing one’s story. Or it might be the way one’s story is always misunderstood and re-appropriated in the telling. History does this, inevitably.