I want to think speculatively, and counterintuitively, about two rhetorical tics that recurs in media accounts.
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A necessary aside. I am not objective, nor do I think, at this time, that calls for objectivity are fair: elections are highly subjective. Voting is an act premised on dreams and desires, a way of imagining and trying to create a future. To ask for “objective” and ostensibly rational thinking at this time is to minimize the affective investments we bring to our political undertakings: it is, to use a bald analogy, to tell the wounded person to stop feeling pain.
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More than one account has asked: what will the western media think? How will they portray us? To my mind, this is one of the most irrelevant questions. I have long argued, and will continue to do so, that this nervous tic surrounding western representation does us little good. To return to a theme I’ve already broached, it sets up a false dichotomy between an already achieved west and an always-striving Kenya (and the rest of the world). It assumes that we need and want western approbation to define our political futures. It ignores that even “at our best” we can only always come in as second best, lagging behind but catching up. And, most disappointingly, it betrays that we have not yet learned to trust ourselves, to trust our intuitions, instincts, dreams, and desires, to imagine a nation that is uniquely ours, though in dialogue with the world.
The second rhetorical tic is the constant assertion that “Kenyans are peaceful people.” I have always been troubled by the implicit class and age assumptions embedded in this statement. Appearing in the major newspapers, it has always seemed a little too blind to its own bias. I am not claiming that “Kenyans” are violent people; that sort of rhetorical reversal is uninteresting, though there are certain quotidian acts of violence (domestic violence, for example) that continually mark the national landscape, and need to be recognized.
I am interested in asking: are the people who are fighting and rioting and even looting not Kenyans? Are they anomalous figures, parasites within the national body that should be destroyed? Of course, much of this resonates for me with the constant deployment of the GSU in the 1980s and 1990s to contain “un-Kenyan” activities.
To be clear, I am not interested in defending violence. I do think, however, we do ourselves a disservice when we assert as fact—Kenyans are peaceful—what might be more properly described as aspiration, and especially when we ignore the very material and affective conditions that create violence. Those who may be looting are not less Kenyan or non-Kenyan. It’s important to remember this.
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Over the past few days, I have been thinking about two blog-events as a way to gain some sanity. The first is a long-ago meme in which members of kbw were asked what they liked about being Kenyan—or what they missed about Kenya. (A quick summary of the results can be found here.) What seemed most useful about the meme was the way it allowed us to recognize our diversity, to register our tastes and idiosyncrasies, to forge connections, to learn that difference does not equal division. We need to remember this.
The second blog-event is the outpouring of sympathy following the tragic accident of flight KQ507. Kenyans across the diaspora, whether members of kbw or not, understood that one necessary way of being national, becoming “pamoja” is to grieve together, to extend sympathy, to be joined by a shared experience of pain.
While the first example I offer may seem slightly frivolous as compared to the second, I want to register my sense that citizenship, what I have termed elsewhere feeling national, moves along several registers, from the frivolous and celebratory to the profound and melancholy.
Somehow, this has provided succor.