We, the Innocent

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.

Maybe then.

Perhaps only then.

23 thoughts on “We, the Innocent

  1. It is certainly morally haughty to declare, from a self-defined lofty place, that no matter what the provocation, one would not stoop to certain actions.

    I do think it is important, though, to carefully examine what leads otherwise rational people to some of the horrible actions we’ve seen perpetrated in Kenya these past few weeks.

    If we know what path they took to get there, then perhaps we can find a way to avoid taking the turn that leads down that route. Because human nature, the best and worst of it, is the potential in each and every one of us. And I have to tell you, Keguro, that scares me.

    And also, to understand how people get to a certain place and a certain state is to empower yourself to be able to guide them back from there. No?

  2. Rombo,

    You are absolutely right. I wrote this, I think, perhaps more to myself than to anyone else. I have been struggling to write something appropriate, but I keep getting the tone wrong, and I want to subject that “tone” to some scrutiny.

    I do think that those of us abroad experience a different kind of helplessness, not more so than those home, just different, that can lead to some needlessly provocative forms of writing. And I do think location can be an alibi. I am, at this point, more interested in a politics of implication or co-implication.

    To echo Mutumia’s needed reminder: I hope you and yours are well.

  3. Keguro,

    your location is both an alibi and a source of much needed perspective. I’ve valued reading your thoughts on the unfolding scenario.

    And yes, thanks, me and mine are as well as can be, under the circumstances. I hope the same for you too.

  4. Your post is such a valuable and insiteful contribution to the debate. I am a firm believer in the “love concurs all” school of thought. And a branch of love is rehabilitation and reconciliation. These should be paramount in efforts to calm the storm.

  5. Confused about what you intend to communicate …..You and I have been fortunate to reach where we are…..It may have been through heritage or hardwork…..that no longer matters.

    The language of the common man is perhaps the best….Why not have grey areas…why the good and the bad….the electable and unelectable. Isn’t this how we ended up in the Kenyan mess?

  6. This makes interesting reading and could open up a potentially interesting and enlightening debate. I wonder how many ‘rational’ people would admit to being perpetrators. Case in point, many in Kenya are distancing themselves from the roles they played in the chaos. My opinion is that no one calls on others when they promote tribalism and other ills. Instead, many bottle up their feelings and in the case of Kenya, wait for their chance to change things (perhaps they felt that voting to change leadership would somewhat put the tribalists in their place – please note I’m not referring to any particular tribe). When this didn’t happen, bottled up rage and hatred emerged to give way to what happened. Several people, even in the diaspora, put tribalism at the forefront, often unconsciously. Several people from different countries have pointed this out to me as a Kenyan stressing the fact that their countries have several tribes as well but they are not as vocal or particular about it as Kenyans are.
    Like the author, I’m probably just upset and letting my feelings known. Obviously, no research has been done on my viewpoint, just personal opinions. I think we need to call one another out on tribalism and see each other as country mates before anything. I also think we have a very long way to go and this could take generations. In rereading this, I’ve probably deviated from the topic at hand but I’m too lazy to review the posting.

  7. All I can say is I am appalled at some of the comments you come accross at this crucial time. People have died, women, children and even men and boys raped and sodomised, How can we move on? who is going to give justice to these victims, like one of you mentioned 92′ 97′, we moved on, what did we achieve or what have we achieved from moving on, Moving on without resolving issues facing our coutnry post colonialism is what has brough yet another disaster, shame, pain and sorrow. This is not about tribalism, this is about economics and hope, those who have been left behind since 1963 while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,Take a look at all the provinces in Kenya and let someone out here tell me that wealth has been distributed equally and farely to all Kenyans ? Most of the young people I know born after 1970 do not know or care about triabilsm, they want change and their hope for a better future has been snatched from them and all they see is a dark future, come on now people be careful what you write here, cause the whole world is reading this and what we say as intelligent genuinely concerned Kenyans is a reflection of our beloved country. Let us support those who are truly willing to find a resolution for the sake of the future generation, these tyrants will be gone soon and they want to leave a mess behind that will not be easy to eradicate. let us all be more considereate as human beings first, give respect to those fallen solders who have recently died for their ocuntry, think about those thousands of hundreds of people out there with no homes, who feel helples, hopless and defeated, this is not a mater of who is right or who is wrong, right now it ia a matter of truth and making hope alive again in Kenya.

  8. I think that folks subconsciously start off with their interests and then go looking for ideologies to support those interests. The difference between “good” and “bad” ideologies is the extent of how broad an interest they represent. Unfortunately for moist Kenyans most of our interests end at out tribal boundaries.
    I spent time in Kenya this last summer and it dawned on me that our conversations, ideologies and beliefs have very little to do empirical evidence. We never let the facts get in the way of a good argument especially when they get in the way of our tribal interests.

  9. Binyavanga (who I cite often enough that I owe him royalties) had a great comment a few months ago on ethnicity. He claimed that it was more often the middle- and upper-middle classes who suffered a great deal of anxiety about being appropriately ethnic. Here, think about the number of articles in the media that begin, “Ben lives in a house with a swimming pool and cannot speak his ‘mother tongue.'”

    I think in the past few days we have entered a rather stale conversation regarding whether class or ethnicity is to blame. It reminds me of similar debates in the US over class and race. The more difficult, and to my mind productive, task lies in seeing how class inflects ethnicity and vice-versa.

    One of the problems at a time like this is that all sentiments acquire a retrospective coloring: the joke told 5 years ago might be read as a symptom of ethnic hatred. We need to hold on to the specific histories of pleasant, pleasurable, benign and benevolent interactions that comprise our histories. We need to remember when jokes were jokes, not alibis of simmering ethnic hatred.

    Thank you all for engaging, and I hope we continue to do so. I will say again, I am trying to think through a set of problems; in such endeavors, the best results come from additional provocation and engagement. On my own, I have no answers. But I do hope to keep some necessary questions alive.

  10. “Equitable” distribution of resource has been pointed out as one of the reason that is driving political hatred. I find this argument particularly humorous and disturbing because it is one of those arguments that has no empirical evidence what so ever but draws considerable heat and attention. We never address the more pressing issue of resource creation just its distribution, when there isn’t much to distribute in Kenya to begin with. I know that political perception is reality in Kenya despite the facts however; I would like us the “good” people to stop using this argument.
    Before those in the church of “Equitable distribution” list the now famous examples remember; you have to state your null hypothesis, your models /analysis and your confidence intervals or p values, for your arguments to have empirical value. Or at least point to some such study that shows your argument is in fact true Kenya over the last 44 years.

  11. For sure we have jouneyed a long way a nation, but we have never examined our own basic assumptions especially who we are as a nation, as a community, and as individuals. Leaders have exploited and used our ethinic identities to their advantage ever since. Today as we look back to the sad events that to the tragic events of post election violence, I personally feel it is time to look examine our own identities as a nation as well individuals.
    My conclusion is that for a long time; due to self deception and externally co-existence we have deceived ourselves and we have perceived ourselves as a united republic (Kenya), a group of peoples with a common dream and vision of a prosperous tomorrow,but the tragic events have awaken within each one of us a urgent need to look into the deeper self and accept the sad fact that we are a divided people, broken-hearted individuals at a crossroads of life in search of direction and meaning. Unless we face and accept this hidden identity within us as a nation, we can never move on. This is an opportunity for self-instrospection as a individuals and as a nation. But who among our national leaders today will have that courage to open this hidden urgly face and the wounded self within us in search for healing? No true national healing and reconcialition will take place unless leaders have the courage to unveil this hidden self-image of our nation.

  12. Good post. One thing to add: until “we, the innocent” join the subaltern in the streets, the water canon/tear gas tactics will continue, and the Kenyan right to peaceably assemble for the redress of our grievances will continue to be construed as the dangerous violence of hooligans.

  13. Observer: Excellent points about the “wealth distribution issue”. Also, those in the highlands that are perceived as “wealth hoarders” are actually just plain old hard-working men and women who have amassed the little that they have through hard work. But I know that this and others are mute points when it comes to Kenyan politics. As you correctly pointed out, “Kenyans do not allow facts to get in the way of a good argument”.

  14. Thanks for this… I had been meaning to respond to your earlier post about ethnicity, where you every so gently probed the “problem of the ethnic” … I wanted to challenge you on that, but I couldn’t find the words. I felt, somehow, that there needed to be a conversation on strategic ethnicity

    also: ethnicity + class- so much of this story has so much in common in with not only usa, but with a neighbor – sudan

  15. Good points Rottuk. I couldn’t have put it down better.
    Observer – I totally missed your point. Would you verify in layman’s terms.

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  17. hi people , finally people bold enough to talk.My opinion is that we have a class issue that has been encased by ethnic wars. Analyse this message” that tribe is one of thieves; they are rich and now they want to take it all from us.” or this one ” those people are reckless hooligans no work just talk,we cannot give our country to the dogs.”I leave in the Rift valley and for some reason i come from a tribe that was politically correct (atleast to the natives in this area) so i was ‘one of them’. From my experience the people around here felt they were voting to remove an ethnic group who had ‘eaten too much and even infested their towns taking all the big jobs in offices as well as the small ones in the market. if you think this is over because there is relative calm and you don t see Eldoret anymore on TV then you are wrong economic strikes are real here, i dare you to come and see, people arent shopping from some supermarkets or buying mtumba from some people .Not because they don’t have money but they want them to have serious losses so that they close down and leave.on the other hand, the employers in shops are employing ”ethnic ally attractive” people am telling you this madness gets worse everyday,even in the estate where i leave mama wa mboga can only sell her nyanya to those in her view support her politcal affiliation. we have serious class issuse in our country that put SOME individuals of specific ethnic groups over others ,this is what gives convenient space for peolpe to start ethnic wars.

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