One persistent error of most political analysis is that it looks toward structures of established power to create (ir)rational narratives of the present, histories of why we are where we are. I say error, not because such a strategy is always wrong, but because I often think it is too wedded to disciplinary conventions and knowable formations (government, state, political parties) to get to what might be irrational and idiosyncratic about political acts and political actors. Contrary to our fondest hopes and dreams, political decisions, or decisions with political consequences, are not always hatched while we remain clutched in rationality’s bossom.
I begin this way to critique what I see as a constant failing in our political discourse: the emphasis on “leaders” providing the solution. Somehow, if we see Kibaki and Raila shaking hands or hugging, the negative affect which, in many cases, predates them, will dissolve. Their staged bonhomie will radiate like a warming sun and melt our cold smiles, frigid hearts, and arctic pangas. To be clear, I do not claim that their symbolic acts of reconciliation may not have an effect, but I do not hinge our future on it.
While waiting for plane of national reconciliation to arrive, we might turn our attention, instead, to the local ways in which rage and anger accrete and spread.
Was there a moment when John’s son accidentally hit Simon’s rooster with a stone, inadvertently ending its life? Was there a time when Mary’s children “stole” fruits from Zipporah’s garden, as children are wont to do? How have such acts, in the current climate, been transformed from childish antics to vicious identities: John’s people are killers. Mary’s people are thieves.
If these examples seem silly, it might be worth our while to dwell on the complex way in which silly narratives are now being re-written: accidents transformed into malicious acts, petty insults re-framed as murderous threats. My father can beat yours has become a terrible script, not a childhood chant. Incidents where a borrowed hoe was returned late are now being re-written as long-term plans for genocide.
There is a terrible (il)logic to these re-writings, re-framings, and re-scriptings. But it is not a logic anchored solely in our national leaders. To focus on them would be like spraying water, desperately, at the point where a fire started, and ignoring the places to which the fire has spread, finding new fuel, cleaner air, opportunities to flame out.
And so, much as I refrain from offering solutions, I have to say, our solutions need to be multi-local, focused on small community leaders, individuals who have sway, the self-appointed leaders of youth groups, the young men and women who have leadership abilities. Our conversations need to be about killed chickens and stolen fruit, borrowed hoes and undelivered fertilizer. They need to deal with small, petty resentments and festering injuries: who was assigned to sing a solo in church, who bought the prize ram on sale, whose cow produces the most milk.
To use a term I will continue to use: we need to arrest the transformation of amusing anecdotes into evidence of malice. We need to arrest the changing of our pleasurable memories into occasions for injury. We need to arrest the unruly way in which our pasts are becoming occasions for retaliation, not gentle humor.
We need to stop waiting for the plane and focus on our chickens and hoes.