Political Botox: Old Kenya, New Kenya

When my good friend WM first mentioned her idea for Generation Kenya, a celebration and retrospective of the past 45 years, I remarked, partly in jest, that we would have to guard against the relentless botoxing that proclaims 40 the new 30, 50 the new 20, and 60 non-existent. If, on the one hand, we wanted to avoid a narrative of seamless development and maturity (as though aging is ever effortless), we also wanted to avoid freezing time, marking 45 as a new beginning, to avoid the midwife-effect of retrospect and nostalgia.

Following the lamentable period, Generation Kenya morphed in unexpected ways, turning not into who we had been but who we were becoming, how, at 45, we were dealing with new challenges, forging new relationships, extending relationships of care and caring. Little of this needs to be repeated and, in truth, I admit to a certain weariness regarding the “what went wrong” motif that understands the lamentable period as an unexplainable rupture divorced from the histories that nurtured it.

But there continues to be an idea that following the lamentable period we live in a new Kenya, a different Kenya. No consensus exists regarding how that difference should be parsed. It’s difficult to name what appears to be a new sensibility, though I write this from a distance and with a jaundiced eye.

Botox provides an interesting metaphor through which to frame the changes we have at 45.

Known best as the poison that, in small doses, paralyzes muscles, erasing years and facial experiences, it is also used to control excessive perspiration. In fact, its effects remind one of the endlessly innocent Kenyan politicians, whose continual re-election despite corrupt alliances and disastrous leadership suggest that the Kenyan public is all too willing to accept botox beauty as truth.

Botox promises to freeze time, to hide the effects of having lived a particular way and having aged through one’s actions. It claims to erase the past but the botox face is so unnatural in its appearance that it makes visible what it seeks to deny: that one has a poisoned face, a mask dipped in toxin.

I must admit to being skeptical that following the lamentable period we now live in a new Kenya. I am not interested here in repeating a self-defeating, cynical mantra that nothing ever changes—I have some political hope. But I am interested in arresting the narrative that, even now, is being written about living in the “new” Kenya, the post-election Kenya, ostensibly a place changed radically as we discovered facts we wish we hadn’t.

Post-election Kenya has changed. We are now more aware of how fragile some of our bonds are, even as we are aware of how amazing our alliances are. We have learned—are still learning—how not to take for granted who we assume ourselves to be even as we continue to use old tools to hold on to needed bonds of identification. To take just one example, we have re-discovered the national anthem as a national prayer, as aspiration and inspiration.

But amidst the changes there remain old alliances, patterns of thinking and living that we should be careful not to overlook. We cannot assume that the lamentable period was a botox injection that has now given us smooth brows, erasing lines of care.

We cannot, at 45, accept the cosmetic option that some seem to be offering in discussing the “new” Kenya. (The seemingly unlined faces of our politicians as they negotiated deals a few months past continue to give me nightmares.)

Kenya at 45 has a lined, furrowed brow, and some of the lines will be permanent, as permanent as the scars accompanying our tumultuous birth as a nation. We are not a new Kenya, simply an aging one. And that’s okay.

Still, I don’t want to end on “that’s okay,” because I think botox is harmful. It freezes what should be displayed, hides what should be seen, un-ages even as it ages into agelessness. It makes visible the act of hiding, creating a dangerous façade.

We have had enough dangerous facades, and the new Kenya might be yet another one.

How, then, to think about the ongoing Kenya, Kenya at 45, as a product of Kenya at 1 and 15 and 30?

As should be apparent, I have no real argument, but I am uneasy, and if nothing else, the past few months have taught me to heed raised hairs at the back of my neck.

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