My parents’ generation wanted us to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects. Social achievement came marked Professional Degree, University of X. The tarmacking generation invented its own language, de-linking scholastic achievement from social approbation.
In Nairobi, this transition is marked by the vulgar (common) euphemism: doing well. One “does well,” “is doing well,” or “is doing very well.” Each of these carries finely shaded meanings.
It is a language that is notably devoid of specifics while being laden with social direction and directives. It is a language of where one lives and shops, where one works and plays, who one knows and, sometimes more important, who knows one.
It is a world where one is constantly reminded that “Nairobi is very small,” the irony being that Nairobi’s “smallness” exists in the minds of those who construct it as such. It is a world where, as a still-to-be-published work by MMK reminds me, there is a distinction between Mwangis and The Mwangis, Otienos and The Otienos, where asking which Mwangis or which Otienos betrays one’s origins.
What is most fascinating about this class-demarcated society is how it replicates and combines the inherited smallness of the village with the class-created smallness of the city. If class tensions (this needs work) are responsible for one kind of violence, then the tensile strength of class helps one transcend other kinds of violence.
Those who do well choose to avoid troubling topics, deferring and displacing their own urgencies, and the country’s emergencies, onto those who do, but not well.
Class allegiances provide enough shared ground that one can avoid certain topics. We do well to avoid troubling conversations.
Yet, doing well is more than simply having money or spending money. Nor is it, as columnist Clay Muganda implies, being able to distinguish between Stacey Adams and Hush Puppies (seriously? Someone cares about this?).
Doing well and continuing to do well, these are forms of social production and reproduction, how class status and privilege (hearing about violence is a privilege) travel and replicate themselves.
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Doing well troubles me because it is so often divorced from doing good. The fissure between doing well and doing good, or, better yet, the chasm between doing well and doing good is littered with the bodies of those who often try to jump across—there are no bridges.
In conversations with those who do well, those who are doing well, I’m startled by the “I made it” and “that’s their problem.” I am naïve, or choose to be naïve so I can be startled. It’s easier than being disappointed.
Of course, what remains disappointing is the idea that one needs to be doing well to do good, even though few of those who actually do well do good.
We do not need wealth to be kind to one another. We need not drive cars to offer each other lifts. But this move between the literal and symbolic is one more chasm we need to bridge.
To do good is to move beyond the circle of one’s attachments. It is to dare otherwise, to risk the foreign flavors of hunger and new spices, to stumble in another’s tongue, to lose one’s fluencies and pursue someone else’s expectations.
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Yet to ask we who are already deeply unsettled, already deeply concerned about how to live from this now to the next, to ask us to abandon or risk our fluencies is already too much.
And in a country where the informal charity of kitu kidogo frames all our charitable endeavors—one gives what one can—to ask that we lose our hard-won fortunes, that we stretch our symbolic capital in new, unexpected, and risky ways, to ask this might be to ask too much.
How does one ask others to risk their attachments? How does one ask others to leap across chasms?