Notes on Bullies

The figure of the bully in Kenyan schools is both loathed and respected. Those of us who lived under bullies—the under being quite literal as one strategy required younger, weaker students to lie under a bully’s bed—speak with admiration of the more inventive bullies, those who went beyond simply making one wash socks and performed pseudo-scientific experiments. We knew how electricity moved through bodies because we were attached to live wires.

We learned to enjoy our calluses, to boast of having endured the worst. Those of us who were less bullied were deemed less worthy. In retrospect, the notion that one’s worth relied on one’s ability to endure pain and humiliation should give us pause. We were learning how to relate to power and authority, with submission and resentment, praise and even grace. We were learning that normal social relations consisted of repeated exposure to violence.

We learned to attach respect to violence, to understand violence as ordinary, not needing comment, essential for daily life. It was a lesson that was reinforced by fevered imaginations of Nyayo House, a place that linked the ruling philosophy to torture, suggesting that the ruling philosophy consisted of torture. In our minds, the elite military General Service Unit (GSU) was the arm of government dedicated to taming recalcitrant university students and political dissidents. Those of us whose primary schools abutted the main universities witnessed university students fleeing through our corridors as the government tried, once again, to beat them into submission.

There is a complex multi-layered narrative to be told about how the figure of the bully became inextricably bound to education. Bullying became normative and normalizing, creating us as students and citizens.

It should come as no surprise that one of the first proverbs we learned was “asiyefunza na wazazi hufunzwa na ulimwengu.” Pedagogy and discipline, discipline and violence, discipline as violence, and a world eagerly awaiting to teach.

The relationship between pedagogy and discipline, pedagogy and violence, extends into all areas of Kenyan thought and action. Even outside of strictly pedagogical settings, we continue to understand living as a mode of pedagogy. The claim, “I learned so much,” uttered after church services, business meetings, and conferences speaks, I think, to the hold that pedagogy as a mode of living has on our collective identity.

Yet, if the scene of pedagogy is inextricably bound to discipline and violence, and if pedagogy defines, in some substantial way, what it means to be Kenyan, then we have to contend with the centrality of the bully within our national imagination, for this figure mediates, in an important way, how we approach the national everyday.

Theorizing the centrality of the bully to our self-imagining as a nation requires that we contend with the difficult task of recognizing we rely on and desire this figure. In some perverse way, we need the bully. Our continued encounters with this figure confirm that we belong, that we learn, that we survive, that we are. This is why a gathering of those who were bullied invariably returns to those scenes of humiliation and pedagogy: groups of “old boys” confirm their shared sense of belonging by discussing monsters-turned-teachers and friends.

If we are to confront the specter of the bully that lies at the heart of who we imagine ourselves to be, memories need to be recalibrated, turned into opportunities for self-critique. We might begin to ask the difficult question of how we learn to love, or at least revere, our submission. Confronting the revered bully means re-thinking how we have become who we claim to be. It means changing the nature of our anecdotes, refusing the uneasy laughter of those who learn to laugh through pain.