Last Week

Last week, a suspected thief was captured by the television cameras. For close to five minutes, the press documented his fellow villagers evict him from his house, tear apart and set his house on fire, abuse his wife, and destroy his possessions. The local administration watched this village justice. That it replicated in stunning and frightening detail some of the elements of the lamentable period should press our still-delicate skins against the sharp, cutting edges of that ironic coinage.

We are a nation at ease with violence and its consequences.

How did we become this way?

It’s easier to track inter- and intra-ethnic disputes, to document the economic rivalries and class jealousies that we have focused on so assiduously, to write page after page after page of easily identifiable, because easily quantifiable, histories of how Musa and Gitau turned into enemies.

But there remain other, even more vital and frightening histories of how we came to accept and relish violence, to believe in the saving power of corporal punishment, high school bullying, instant, vigilante justice. How we have misunderstood the right to privacy as the right to abuse, the code of family as the code of silence.

Yet, these histories cannot be confessions, cannot be tales about our strength in the face of adversity, cannot be told as anecdotes of what we have gone through.

There is, I tell my sister, an all-too familiar narrative pattern of fighting the odds and surviving adversity, and each new encounter with the world provides new opportunities for injury and recovery. We are proud of our scars, lovingly recount how we got them, fetishize them as evidence of living.

And life becomes an accumulation of scar tissue, though the events might be cosmetic.

This Kenya is unrecognizable, hidden or repressed behind the wide smiles, the welcoming arms, the bright eyes, the hands that so casually reach out in friendship.

Yet, I am not interested in “uncovering” or otherwise “demonstrating” the “dark underside” to paradise; such ambitions I leave to novelists. I am interested in what happens in those lightning fast moments of social rupture as social organization, of expulsion and cleansing, of the wounds created and the scars left behind.

I am interested in the collusion between justice and terror, how easily we slip from one to the other, how quickly we conflate one with the other, how readily we accept one as the other.

That, even now, having seen what we can do to each other, threats of violence still fall readily from our lips, there being no necessary relationship between discipline and violence. That we continue to claim that a lack of discipline causes unrest, unwilling to recognize that it was the repressive discipline of past regimes that fed resentments. That we continue to believe in the public display of dead criminals, to make banal the consequences of crime, to understand punishment as spectacle and entertainment.

What turns in a moment.

We have yet to reckon the costs of necessary violence. And it is such reckoning that might, finally, teach us the costs of quotidian violence.

* * *

Mostly, I am struck by the pace.

Nairobi has always been fast-paced, but now it feels frantic, filled with too many bodies that cluster together. Even those walking alone walk together. We cluster in houses, on streets, in bars, in churches.

We have always gathered, now we cluster, bound by stories we have heard, stories we have lived, stories we have imagined, stories that we hoard, to be shared among select people, stories that worm in deeper and deeper.

The hurt is palpable. The anger is palpable. It hurts to feel. And there is a lot of feeling in the air.

We still don’t know who won the election—and I can’t quite figure out how it matters. The narratives have so swamped the site of storytelling that truth, always elusive in Kenya’s politics, will not, can not emerge.

I want to be confident that some kind of truth will win out, that the stories will form some kind of fugue, be braided into a national narrative.

Instead, a too-loud drum beats, a heavy bass line that has driven some, I am told, to participate in mass orgies.

It is curious, I think, how we affirm living without affirming life.