National Disavowal

A few days ago, President Kibaki told the Post-Election Victims (PEV as opposed to IDP) that they should return home. According to him, the violence, and the bad feelings that engendered it, ended the moment he and Prime Minister Elect, Raila Odinga, signed a power-sharing agreement. History, for our leaders, is written in ink, not in blood.

As continuing reports indicate, the violence is not in the past. It continues. Why, then, this blindness on the part of our leaders? And why are we willing to believe in it? Macharia Gaitho, for instance, has written of Kenya’s “bright new future,” seemingly unwilling to deal with its ongoing, murky now.

This strategic disavowal is not unique in Kenya’s history. In fact, disavowal is a national habit. I take the term disavowal from psychoanalysis, where it refers to seeing something only to reject having seen it. As Kenya’s so-called leaders look at pictures of PEV and receive reports of ongoing violence, they insist that everything is all right.

This habit of seeing by not seeing is deeply ingrained within a political system caught up in personality squabbles and ethnic partisanship. I hazard if one were to look through parliamentary records for the past two decades, we might find little on issues of ethnic and religious conflicts in, for instance, North Eastern; little-to-nothing on the problems of landless populations, known ignominiously as “squatters”; little-to-nothing on the problems of urban poverty, except perhaps in complaints about “street children” and crime.

To be fair, I have not read through these reports, so I might be wrong. However, I do know that we have had very little systematic and systemic efforts to address the banality of ideological and material violence in Kenya.

In a grotesque parody of The Sound of Music, I often imagine our so-called leaders signing in perfect harmony: “how do you solve a problem like our country”?

As I have argued elsewhere, part of the problem is that we have not yet learned how to think of ourselves as citizens. This, for instance, is why I have reservations about the initiative that says “Kenya is my tribe.” While it seeks to overcome ethnic strife, it still subordinates the legal obligations, responsibilities, and rights we have as citizens to the notion of tribe, with its associations of kinship, lineage, and tradition. We privilege the ostensible intimacy of “tribe” over the-still undervalued concept of citizen.

I do not claim that a closer attention to the notion of citizen would “fix” the ideological problems we inhabit nor address the banality of violence. However, it might begin to change the terms of our national conversation in ways I can only imagine.

For now, it seems to me that the most urgent question we can address might be how to refuse the disavowal that makes certain kinds of violence banal—usually against women, rural citizens, and the poor. How do we rip away the veils of complacency and the myth of being happy from our national psyche? How do we resist the desire to embrace a normality predicated on disavowal?

2 thoughts on “National Disavowal

  1. i completely agree with you about moving away from seeing ourselves as members of tribes, and as citizens.

    Have you read Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject? He has another essay in the book Identity where he summarizes his argument. I can email you the PDF or post it on my blog if you’re not familiar. He’s my favorite academic and his work is what I want to write when (if) I grow up.

  2. Mamdani glares at me balefully from my shelf. He wants to be read carefully and with love. I can only tell him that there’s a very long list (growing longer) and when I turn, finally, to African politics, I’ll be glad to love with him.

    Post the essay on your blog. It will make a fun break once the current madness, mine not Kenya’s, slows down. Fanon has reduced me to idiocy upon idiocy.

    I am, I must admit, a bigger fan of Achille Mbembe, whose writing maddens and enlivens me.

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