After Bitter Herbs

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.

9 thoughts on “After Bitter Herbs

  1. Keguro,

    As one of the folks that hijacked your agenda I apologize. I was attempting to address the issue of economic bitterness that seemed to fuel much of the violence and very deep seated hatred. Being an engineer and statistician by training I am forced to first look at the figures as a means to understand the issue.

    I have to quantify the bitterness, develop a null hypotheses and a confidence interval to use when I try to validate the validity of the bitterness vis-à-vis the facts. This is what drove the discussion to the weird territory that you speak off.

    I admit this may not be the best way o deal will bitter psychic issues however, if the figures do not support the basic claims of the bitterness, then adopting the alternative hypothesis gives us a place to start. Evidently, there is something more sinister at play here that is outside the realm on my understanding since numbers can only go so far.

  2. Actually Keguro this is not outside your realm if only you can get down to basics. Its often said that part of trauma therapy is for people to face situations that brought them there in the first place as ugly as they may be. In Kenya such a process is inevitable as we have constantly heard people rallying for the formation of a Truth and Reconcilliation Commission.

    I think such an initiative will greatly help in relieving the agony of those people directly affected by this violence i.e the IDPs of this and past election related violence. As for the other complicated psychic wounds of people not directly affected, a holistic approach may suffice. For instance in middle class Nairobi where unity in diversity has usually been showcased, simply going on with life as usual is fair enough instead of re-educating them on the need to coexist.

    It is highly likely that many people in the country may have developed psychological problems e.g. anxiety, paranoia, agitation, etc as a result of the political climate. Some people may lose interest in being productive economically because of such complex psychological and emotional processes. The governement should offer free psychological assistance to persons requiring to be treated for post election traumas. In a society that pays lip service to the mental health care of its citizenry, it remains to be seen how these issues will be handled.

    I know the idea of leaders making a pact may seem not to be strong enough to resolve the issues affecting us, but trust me its one of the best things that can happen to alleviate the suffering. You only need to see the cessation of violence to appreciate this.

    Once solid structures are put in place and economic gains reach marjority of Kenyans in the new dispensation we will hopefully be grappling with benign issues. I wish we argued about whether men should be wearing colognes instead of dwelling on ethnicities. In some ways for a number of Kenyans there may not be need to open a can of worms,as it were, by dwelling on the issue of tribalism as long as the fundamentals are seen to be working in their favour. In such a situation time will be the best healer.

  3. Thanks for your responses.

    First, I would point out that I have no monopoly on what a psychic language may look like or how it will function. It might well be that a language spoken via economics may be more appropriate than one couched in terms of trauma. But I think we need to be able to hold both.

    Second, I wanted to highlight the *difficulty* of speaking about the psychic, and how often, even when we think we *might* be speaking about it, we turn sideways and speak in oblique ways–this, I think, is what a turn to the material, to grievance does.

    Psychic wounds are not immediately diagnosed, understood, or even manifested. We would like to have, I think, easy ways to think about it, to suggest that psychological counseling will “fix” what ails us, even to mark specific names, “trauma,” “paranoia,” “psychosis,” but I wonder to what extent such naming can only pathologize the most extreme cases of woundedness–the children who withdraw, who start acting out in schools, the women who can’t leave the house, the men who begin to carry weapons–while, at the same time, refusing to acknowledge the banality of shared wounding: that even those in Nairobi who are happy-go-lucky and secure in their diversity are just as affected, still need to have some way of addressing their sense of wounding. I would also note that while I do support a broadening of mental health services, I am mostly interested in what a politicized and public notion of the psychic might entail, as distinguished from the private, individualized world of therapy.

    I am, finally, suspicious of the tendency to smile and move on, the crazy idea that “we are tough” and need not dwell on our wounding and woundedness. It has not served us well. It will not serve us well in the future. And I absolutely disagree that time will heal the abrasions of now, such that we really should “just move on.” Kenya has been a country where we “just move on.” Unfortunately, this has been a luxury for many of us, and has left deep and still painful scars. That my generation begins its sentences of wounding with “I grew up under Moi” is telling and suggests that rather than moving on, we have been stuck somewhere, marinating in a particular bitterness and woundedness that, to mix metaphors here, needs to be expressed as one expresses pus.

    What I am suggesting *is* counterintuitive, perhaps even impossible, but the option of blindly moving on and ignoring our cancerous lumps when the promise of remission is not even sure seems much too dangerous, way too deadly.

  4. I hold it that economic empowerement is key to resolving some of these psychological issues that I bet marjority of Kenyans must be facing. I think many people may fail to appreciate just how much trauma is out there by people including those not even directly affected by the violence. As someone said Kenyans may never be the same again. Of course we are not worse(or so I believe), but a part of us has changed even if we cant quite say what that is.

    A lot of things that Kenyans do, including their laughters, carries a lot of the post election undertones. People are whispering in their houses as if there is someone watching or listening to their conversations. There is a rush to reach work and a similar rush just to get home. All sorts of emotions play out when we meet new people. People say things that things when they mean the opposite. Nowadays a Kenyan will communicate a lot just by his/her body movements.

    I have somehow come to believe that money is crucial to the well being of people in the modern age. Its one thing to offer counselling to someone but unless that person can make enough money to massage his/her ego then some of these efforts may come to nought. That is why in an earlier post I called for a holistic approach to dealing with the mental state of our nation. The State should embark on serious economic and social programmes to address the mess that we have created.

    I can think of the following from top of my head:
    -Creation of social halls in all consticuencies through the CDF. Here free counselling can be offered for the marjority of Kenyans who cannot afford a visit to the private practitioners.
    -Programmes on TV and Radio to promote reconcilliation.
    -Reduction of crime by the police.
    – Curbing alcohol and drug abuse especially in Nairobi which often spills to the streets creating fear and despondency among residents. At this moment a drunkard can cause panic by uttering provocative words in public, hence the need to regulate the notorious drinking culture of Kenyans.
    -etc.

    For cases that may not be addressed by these approaches then its upto you as a person to intervene. Some people may just be needing simple support such as a lunch time buddy or someone to go home with after work. We are all in this process as Kenyans!

  5. Is there a way of editing on this blog? Instead of making money to massage their egos I meant to say boost their self esteem. But I guess the message still came out.

  6. On the technical side of things, I have no clue. Others build, I simply use.

    On the non-technical side of things, I had two responses. One was that your argument for material compensation and redistribution actually made Cheng’s argument: we are at ease with grievance but not with grief. Faced with the psychic, we turn immediately to the material.

    The second response follows the first and is in the form several questions: why do we believe that the psychic is reducible to the material? Is it because the psychic seems too “western,” or too “ineffable”? How have we misunderstood and, to my mind, bastardized insights from psychoanalysis, such that they are reducible to Dr. Phil and “simple support”? Why do we understand psychic trauma only in relation to medication and private treatment? To misuse Freud, what is our “resistance” when it comes to thinking about, even imagining the possibilities of, the psychic?

    I do not ask these questions because I have answers–I am not a trained psychoanalyst or psychotherapist. I do ask them because them seem urgent in a nation that seems wounded in ways that prayers, smiles, and free shambas will not fix.

  7. Once the wheels of economic empowerement get rolling, we will be telling our kids of how we lived hard lives. And they will be giving us that blank look. Most of us still remember how our parents would tell us how they had it rough and that we are really lucky. They would rub to us how they would walk for miles to school, how they survived with little pocket money. And hey they all were number one in class. Of course if people are not making money then this may turn to be a vicious cycle that young kids will be subjected to again.

    The point is time actually really heals. All we need is support those in need of psychological help. Yes simple support such as talking with your colleague, neighbour is the least you can do. The prayers and smiles that you seem to doubt their efficiency are actually powerful cures.

  8. But isn’t part of the point of the “late unpleasantness” that time *doesn’t* heal? Analysts are reaching back to Kenyatta and before to account for the resentments of now. There are 40+ years of resentment that exploded.

    I am not talking about the silly myths our parents told or even “overcoming” adversity. In truth, we are discussing in different registers. I believe there is such a thing as a psychic register that is irreducible to materiality and exceeds the “healing” of time. I believe it is incredibly difficult to talk about it and, in fact, it’s easier to talk around it or over it, but that, ultimately, it persists and continues to shape our most banal interactions.

    I think we toy with time when we claim it heals. I don’t believe that we wait for time to heal us–here’s not the place, but there is a long conversation to be had about the massive rates of alcoholism in Kenya and their relation both to material deprivation and to psychic wounding. I am *not* discounting the material. It’s important for individuals to have jobs, feed themselves, support families if they are so inclined. I am saying that beyond, or in relation to, the material, we must also find languages and strategies for identifying and dealing with the psychic.

  9. I ll have a go one last time at this thought stimulating issue. I reckon social dynamism can play a vital role in mitigating the effects of what you aptly refer to as psychic wounding. By this I mean that people need to discover new social frontiers- the ones that differ from their usual enclaves. It may seem a distant idea but remember in the midst of the recent madness heroic cases have also been plenty e.g.couples who refused to be separated by the negative ethnicity, churches that promoted tolerance, ordinary people who simply refused to take sides in this conflit, etc.

    People need to associate themselves with such environments if they want to heal their bruised psychics. Otherwise one might end up in the very same circles that sowed these seeds of discontent, whereby it was convenient for one to regress into cheap tribal talk or even being a target of ethnocentrism by one’s peers. Work is a good way to distract the negative thoughts and with time achieve serenity in one’s mind. You know what they say about idle minds.

    When you claim that these psychic feelings will persist that is akin to saying that people will continue keeping grudges. While our naiviety as a nation is questionable following the recent macabre events, I would rather be optimistic that this time we shall not only be able to forgive and forget, but also truly heal. After all, throughout history people in Kenya and elsewhere have been able to heal psychic wounds after tortorous events in their lives.

    So dont despair, things will turn out just fine.

    I rest my case.

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