I would like us to be a little more self-conscious about the kinds of narratives we are currently producing and the positions we assume as writers, bloggers, and historians. Increasingly, I am uncomfortable with the valorization of a certain kind of citizen: the good citizen is diasporic, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan, middle- to upper-class.
The good citizen has a rainbow of friends and intimates, control over his or her emotions, and access to sophisticated analytic tools. The good citizen, unlike the bad one, understands the incredible value of human life, the need for a strong economy, the urgency of maintaining Kenya’s international reputation.
Above all else, the good citizen has vision and perspective, understands the stakes of the present, their historical grounding, their future import. I am, of course, one such good citizen myself.
What troubles me about being a good citizen is how I then flatten the lives and experiences of bad citizens. They are “narrowly” ethnic, lack economic vision, put their own selfish needs above the nations, have no regard for our international reputation, do not understand the structural logics of business or politics.
To be clear, the designation bad citizen conflates our wealthy, educated leaders, and the rioting subaltern youth.
Admittedly, I have overly-simplified what are incredibly complex gradations of moral and ethical responsibility. But sometimes it’s “good” to be vulgar in the hopes of gain.
I am more interested in tracing the complex networks of filiation and affiliation that complicate simple divisions of good and bad; I want to note the forms of class and ideological violence that might inhere in the position of “good citizen” and the generative, even positive lessons we might take from “bad citizens.”
I would like to avoid, if possible, the hubris that marks a certain kind of moral position by claiming: “no matter the provocation, I would never do that!” Though I am not religious, I would prefer to begin from the more uncomfortable, more humbling position of “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
In the Kenya I remember (a lot changes in 11 years), there are no “high roads,” those in cars bounce along dusty roads with the same kind of comfort as those riding on donkeys. And, in the rainy season, the hyperbolic comment, “it would be faster to walk,” rings true.
I invoke mud here, not to create another opposition between the clean and the unclean, but to suggest a certain spirit of togetherness, in which we all walk through, drive through, struggle through, and laugh through the mud.
I have, it is true, no solutions, no demands, no predicates about the current situation. In the last few days, my writing is impressionistic rather than rational, scattered and fragmented rather than polished and coherent, idiosyncratic, especially when compared to the rich and productive analyses produced elsewhere.
In response to the question that continues to be asked, “how did we get here?” I have struggled with my own complicity, my own culpability. Has my writing in Gikuyu over the past few years been deeply ethnocentric? Have my constant attempts to bring ethnicity into a productive relationship with nationalism and cosmopolitanism been nothing more than an alibi for an ethnic plot? (Of course, that might be crediting my one reader with too much power; but one never knows.)
I think we need to be asking such questions: asking not just about how our political leaders “went wrong,” but about the people we have been and continue to be. Asking about text messages we have received and sent; asking what kind of people our friends and acquaintances take us to be that they would send such messages to us.
We have reached a point where the number of wakes we can hold exceed the days of the year. Our dead have turned into bodies. They should keep us awake, alert, searching.
Perhaps only then.