News from Home

30 hours after I send a frantic SMS: “Are you ok?” Finally, a phone call.

The line is unclear, my family sound as though they are underwater. Suddenly, the idea of being “drowned” in violence sounds more than metaphorical.

My mother asks, “Do you remember 1982?” It’s one of the few sentences I can understand. I want to tell her no. Or, that I was too young to understand. But memories consist of more than facts. I remember 1982 as dark and uncertain—as a threat that hangs over all my political imaginings. To be national, I learned, was to live without certainty. 1982 always infantilizes me.

I answer, “a little bit.”

But, there is something different to this call. Once, in the midst of other clashes, when I was still away, I wondered if she’d leave the country, move somewhere safer. Stubbornly, she replied that she could not leave a country for which her father had fought and been imprisoned.

Now, she tells me she is considering leaving, will know more in a few days. More than anything, this scares me. It terrifies me, a lot.

* * *
Over the past few years, I have claimed that the most hurtful legacy of the Moi era was that it left us feeling impotent. We were infantilized—even fed milk to emphasize the point, subject to the whims of the man with a rungu. And how efficiently it was used.

M has provided a brief summary, with more to come, of “what went wrong” in the post-2002 election. He has combined a nice balance of failures of leadership and broken promises—what we might call top-level stuff—with the sentiments of citizens, feelings of betrayal, the increasing problem of perception (which he has mapped beautifully).

To my mind, Kibaki’s tenure only helped to compound a problem with which we have struggled since independence. It was easier, I think, in those early days of nationalist and independence fervor to believe we knew the content of being national, what bound us together, what our goals were, how we were constituted, or being constituted as a nation. By the late 1960s, though, it was clear that what Ngugi wa Thiong’o identifies as neo-colonialism had become entrenched. There was, to put it baldly, an ongoing class war.

One need not go through the vagaries of Moi’s tenure. But I have long suspected—and worried—that Kibaki’s achievements, such as they have been (and a comment on one of the blogs echoes my sentiments) have tended to benefit those with money. Now, I do not simply mean the super-rich, but also the emerging middle and upper-middle classes. What has seemed absent—often described as his famed reticence—has been an idea of how to build a nation, how to promote feeling national.

I certainly do not believe that such sentiments are reducible to economic gain, though they are not completely divorced from it. In other words, I do not believe that promises of better economic growth necessarily result in the forms of convivial affiliation and mutual care that I associate with citizenship and feeling national. These more ephemeral, but nonetheless crucial elements of who we are, who we can be, how we are also need to be cultivated.

More to the point, we need to take seriously the economic aspects of looting, burning, and killing based, in part, on the terribly flawed premise that ethnic affiliation equals sharing in the “national cake.” Instead of shattering this myth, Kibaki, with parliament behind him, enhanced it, parliament through their multiple pay increases.

In the past, I have suggested that I do not know what it means to “feel national.” It may have been taken as a purely idiosyncratic statement. Today, I would emphasize its structural and historical dimensions: the country to which I belong has done bad job of creating the conditions under which, the expressions through which, and the mechanisms by which I understand the positive content of “feeling national.”

And here I must underline positive content: that our elections for the past three cycles have been based on getting rid of people as opposed to building something strikes me as a symptom of a denuded approach to being national. To my mind, becoming national depends more so on positive content, what we want to accomplish, the dreams and goals and aspirations we share than on the dross we seek to reject.

* * *
In the garbled noise of today’s call, I heard my niece say that she is 6. My 1982 happened when I was 6. I hope this is not hers.

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