Guilt Free! Guilt Free! I’m Finally Guilt Free!
Kenya, I have discovered, likes its foreign-trained humanities professors distinguished and wealthy. One hears that “X” very distinguished professor flies in every few years and gives a lecture. Content, irrelevant. It is the fact of his (gender matters) reputation and prestige that matters.
Many years ago, Evan Mwangi wrote a short article about the reception of his work in the US. He marveled that there, his ideas about African metafiction (I think I have this right) were received with intellectual curiosity and excitement—he found a place where thinking and ideas had value. That long-ago article has stayed with me.
Even as I left the country to pursue “all the degrees possible, even up till the Ph.D.,” as one relative put it, I continued to wonder about the role of the humanities in Kenya.
Sadly, unfortunately, and to our social and intellectual detriment, we seem to believe that the humanities teach themselves, that attending religious services suffices to have us think through the big and small questions, that what we don’t know we need not think about, need not dwell on abstraction because, after all, the deity will reveal it all one day.
And those who read too much, my mother warns, go mad!
Better to read the bible and a newspaper every day. Kenyans will recognize these two as sometimes opposing, sometimes complementary genres.
This is all a prelude to say that I have discovered (I keep discovering!) when the government speaks of “brain drain,” they do not mean me. This should not come as a shock, but it does sadden me.
I once thought I had an opinion about those who stayed versus those who returned, convinced I should make a case about the conditions that allow for return.
When Kenyans talk about brain drain, they refer to people who create wealth, people who do not “disturb the world” with their ideas.
* * *
One of my best friends tells me, via anecdote, that I am worthless.
“A girl wanted to get married to,” slight pause, “someone like you, someone with a lot of papers. Her father said,” I paraphrase, “show me the money!”
* * *
It is precisely our distrust of and disregard for humanistic training that accounts for our impoverished social discourse. I yell at the newspapers and television daily, frustrated that the writers for KTN do not know how to craft a sentence that communicates easily, that I have to wade through clause after clause to glean some meaning, that the news anchors run out of breath when using needless polysyllables.
I remain amazed by reporters’ inabilities to summarize and paraphrase specialized discourses, that legalese appears in the newspapers unchanged, is read on TV unchanged, that we understand communication as passing on words, not meaning.
I remain worried that, on being told Nairobi University ranks somewhere in the 4,000 range, a university student replied, “things used to be lax, but we are much improved, and, anyway, those people did not come here to see us, and did not make their criteria clear.” His answer betrays a certain critical lack, not, “when I researched their criteria, I found it unclear or inapplicable,” but, “I did not see them here, so I can’t trust them.”
A few months ago, Wambui Mwangi wrote an incredible article about what Kenya would have done to Obama. Writing from Nairobi, she argued that it would have demeaned and destroyed him. I continue to struggle with this article, even as I am forced, daily, to concede its truth. Being here, one of Kenya’s most astute young minds says, “saps one.”
We do not consider our humanities intellectuals to be part of our brain drain. In fact, we are almost too happy to get rid of people whose ideas make our brains hurt.
* * *
We are in the midst of reforming education, again. And the cant is distressingly familiar. We need more emphasis on math and science; we need to catch up with the world; wealth and prosperity lies in math and science.
Kenyans, for all their frantic running around, worry about being left behind.
We are “proud to be Kenyan,” though what “Kenyan” means remains murky. And those, who like me, remain ambivalent about belonging, attachment, and allegiance, remain suspect, tainted, out of touch.
It becomes ever more difficult to believe that Kenya desires me, and I leave unrequited love and unreciprocated desire to teenagers and fictional characters.
Yet, one does not write a “Dear John” letter to one’s country. Or, I might say, I remain aware of the ties that bind.
* * *
My balance is off, and this rope bridge fragile.
One pauses between there and (t)here.