A curious thing has happened that is, I think, both telling and worth remarking. A few days ago, I wrote a short piece titled “Bitter Herbs.” It was meant to reflect on the ongoing psychic and material costs of this post-election cycle. In short, it suggested that Raila and Kibaki signing an agreement and their subsequent plans to create new business opportunities were insufficient to address the hidden, but nonetheless palpable psychic injuries we have incurred.
What I had hoped would focus on the realm of the psychic quickly morphed into a discussion on the material: on the role of infrastructure, federalism, and the GDP. At this point, the discussion has veered so far away from where it started that it seems unrecognizable. I say this not to chastise the individuals who have generously given their time to engage and re-engage my own thinking, opening up new and interesting possibilities—I will confess, I am in English. I am the least informed person about economic structures that I know.
Instead, I point to this to open what, I think, might be a fruitful discussion about our inability to deal with the psychic. I take my lead here from Anne Cheng who writes,
We are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief. It is reassuring . . . to believe in the efficacy of grievance in redressing grief. Yet if grievance is understood to be the social and legal articulation of grief, then it has been incapable of addressing those aspects of grief that speak in a different language—a language that may seem inchoate because it is not fully reconcilable to the vocabulary of social formation or ideology but that nonetheless cuts a formative pattern. (The Melancholy of Race x)
If I may simplify Cheng and translate her into the Kenyan context: we want to believe that allotting more seats to a particular region, pledging more material resources to a particular location, giving more power to certain people will redress issues of inequality (grievance) and also our past feelings of disempowerment and impotence (grief). Yet, Cheng would have us pause before aligning the two. It is not that grievance should not be redressed. Indeed, material forms of redress are vital to redress inequalities. However, we should not confuse material and political redress for solutions to psychic wounds, what Cheng aptly calls “grief.”
To be sure, the task of addressing collective wounding and woundedness, psychic grief and loss may seem insurmountable, not least because it remains unclear whether we are all suffering from the same things or in the same way: for some of us, anger may be directed toward leaders we find incompetent if not criminal; for others, the rage may be directed toward young men who have destroyed property; for others, irritation may be felt toward ineffective police forces. Still, other of us may resent Kenyans abroad, those who were not present to share in the trouble. The list may be multiplied. How do we begin to register emotions that are so diverse and fragmented, rhizomatic in their scope and reach?
To compound the matter, the issue of being psychically wounded asks us to dwell where we might not want: in the area of bad feeling. Talking about feeling bad or wounded often means that we inhabit that position of bad feeling. It refuses the comfort of getting over it or moving on. Instead, it requires an admission of vulnerability, a return to the site, the scene, the psychic space in which we first encountered injury, trauma, and loss. This is not an easy thing to ask of anyone. It is not an easy thing at all.
Yet, if we are to address the problems the elections made manifest, the tensions that could so easily be mobilized, the violence that almost seemed spontaneous; if we are to address how we could so easily become strangers to each other and to ourselves; if we are to address how husbands could leave their wives, wives leave their husbands, friends become enemies, colleagues become bitter rivals; if we are to create a Kenya where, once again, we can buy vegetables, visit a hairdresser, take a matatu without worrying about our ethnicities, then we have to talk about what hurts, how it hurts, and why it hurts.
I will emphasize again that what I am suggesting is not easy. However, it is necessary.