Amnesty & Responsibility

Tell your God to convert
Me to the faith of the indifferent,
The faith of those
Who will never listen until
They are shaken with blows.
—Everett Standa, “I Speak for the Bush”

Those who know Standa’s poem in full will rightly consider it to be an odd choice as a point of departure. The full poem, after all, privileges the “bush” against “civilization,” praising the old ways, what some revere as moral tradition, against the perversity of the modern. It sets up precisely the kind of oppositions that I tend to oppose.


This poem has stayed with me over the years. It was, in retrospect, one of the first poems that made class differences palpable. And, in the aftermath of the class-ethnic-generational violence in Kenya, at a time when, unfortunately, some in our political class have seemed to re-consolidate, to re-congeal with impurities, irrevocably tainted by their participation and silence, the poem seems even more relevant, but also, sadly, too optimistic.

For the poem imagines a kind of empathetic citizenship, in which blows on one body might resonate on another—this might be what we mean by body politic. It invokes, as well, the tradition of violent revolution that compels political change. Whether the political change of leadership translates into ideological and socio-cultural change is one of Africa’s ongoing problems.

It is a problem worth considering as we face what will be a major generation shift in political leadership over the next 10-15 years.

More immediately, Kenyan leaders are debating whether they should grant amnesty to the “youths” who perpetuated the post-election violence. The matter is touchy, especially given claims (supported by some evidence) that some of the very same political leaders provoked, supported, or, at the very least, benefited from the post-election violence. Shouldn’t those leaders also be held responsible? Shouldn’t a truly reformed politics develop a strategy to hold all those who circulated and participated in hate speech, in specious arguments (and I have been accused of such), as responsible in some way?

The recent lynching of 11 women and men in the western part of Kenya complicates the scenario I am trying to sketch. It offers eloquent, if tragic, testimony to the culture of violence that has, itself, been granted amnesty for too long, a culture that believes domestic violence and corporal punishments are not simply just but necessary ways to create disciplined populations, families, citizens.

It is a culture that documents, in shocking detail, acts of mob justice, but neither blames nor punishes these perpetrators of public violence.

Over the past year, I have become increasingly convinced that we must document all forms of violence (as Ushahidi have started); we must forge connections between the most banal and the most extreme acts of violence; we must be willing to refuse claims for cultural, regional, and historical specificity that justify violence.

We must deny our cultures innocence and our histories amnesty.