09.05.08

By Standard 3 we knew that one should not cry when caned, and by standard 5 even the most sensitive ones among us knew better than to demonstrate pain when caned. I have yet to understand how our teachers felt, but I suspect they were both frustrated by our pretend stoicism and secretly proud: they had done their job in hardening us.

Take pain without flinching. This foundational lesson.

This early structure provides a useful paradigm for considering our schizoid relationship to time: on the one hand, caning disciplines by infantilizing and on the other the stoicism displayed in the face of pain displays something our teachers termed “maturity.”

In fact, we grew up by being told to grow up. At age 2, we were already being told not to be babies. We all wanted to be what my 2 year old niece calls “big.” Over and over she says she wants to be “big.” I hesitate to term this desire to be “big” a desire for agency. Increasingly, and pessimistically so, I think of it as a desire for hardened calluses, a desire to master pain.

I must pause here and insist, if only to myself, that I am not interested in writing a counter-narrative of “growing up Kenyan.” I climbed trees, ate mangoes, played shake, and, with the exception of my grandfather’s death, the most traumatic incident from my childhood involved my cousins decapitating my teddy bear (I know who they are, I have not forgotten, and am still waiting for an apology 25 years after the fact).

Instead, I want to trace the more subtle, often darker, but no less important threads that form part of our national warp and weft. To follow the brown that is so often overshadowed by the red and green.

I begin from standard 3 because I am interested in how we continue to be infantilized by our leaders. Last week, for instance, in what seemed to be a “government approved” message, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta told us that tribal politics (my phrasing) are “retrograde” and “childish” (my word). In this new Kenya, this coalition-government Kenya, this post-election violence (PEV) Kenya, we had to think nationally, be Kenyans, not petty, squabbling tribes.

That their rhetoric repeats in form the colonial apprehension of tribes (or ethnicities) should come as no surprise. As numerous scholars of postcolonialism have pointed out, the post-independence era saw the new national elites redeploying colonial categories and discourses. Encountering the man who had signed his detention order, Kenyatta admitted that detention could be a useful tool—and used it with great relish himself.

However, to reduce local antipathies—tribal seems inadequate to describe the complex local-based negotiations of the PEV—to petty squabbles, and to reduce lingering resentments and injuries to forms of sulking, and this has been an ongoing theme in the government’s response to the IDP situation and various critiques from human rights groups, is to refuse to engage with citizens as citizens, as presumably mature enough to choose their leaders.

To return to my niece for a moment: to ask a child to be a grown up is to continue to infantilize the child. To ask grown ups to be grown ups is to infantilize them. To ask Kenyans to be “big” is to refuse to take their rights as citizens with any degree of seriousness or care.

More to the point, and I cannot underscore enough how fundamentally I believe this, to infantilize citizens by asking them to be grown up is intricately and inevitably bound to how citizens should react to pain and hardship.

To be grown up in Kenya is to take pain without flinching, learning, instead, to recite a rhetoric that begins with “life is hard” and ending with “God will help,” and I cannot overstate how pervasive this rhetoric is, cutting across classes and ethnicities, genders and occupations. The formulaic nature of this sentiment undercuts, to my mind, any real belief—it is less an expression of faith in religion than it is a shared, oft-repeated mantra, comforting in its banality, as all clichés are.

To be Kenyan is to be stoic: to be a child trained through pain to feel and not to feel.

And so those of us who dwell in feeling, or dwell on feeling, are placed in the strange situation of being deemed infantile, not having learned the appropriate lessons, or of having unlearned them through foreign education (and this, I suspect, is one key theme of the been-to novel, in which protagonists who return from abroad to Africa feel “improperly,” this for another day).

The philosopher Kenneth Burke uses the wonderful phrase “trained incapacity” to diagnose one of the effects of hyper-industrialization. Within economies where one’s job is both hyper-specific, one becomes incapable of learning anything else: one is too trained at one task to be proficient at any other.

And, so I return, once again, to that standard 3 classroom, to the role of corporal punishment in shaping who we are and continue to be, about the ways we learned to deal with pain and injury, or, rather, not to deal with them, about the impossible injunction to be grown up children, which continues to haunt our national discourse.

Increasingly, perhaps because I am a teacher, I continue to think about the role of what might be termed the pedagogical imaginary and its persistence in shaping who we are and who we desire to be. I continue to wonder about the relationship between discipline and violence that seems so fundamental to our infantile citizenship. I continue to wonder about our inability to deal with injury.

And I continue to worry about what we do when we tell our children to “grow up,” when we tell crying babies who have fallen and hurt themselves that they should not cry, when we believe that pain can be wished away or should be borne with stoicism.