Nairobi saps something. I had been warned. One must resist the easy lassitude of complaint, and it is difficult.
We complain a lot.
I’m yet to understand the social construction of “complaint,” how it functions, how it’s produced, who produces it and to what end. How complaint engages and disengages from the political, grants and withdraws agency, positions us as particular kind of citizens—wananchi is actually the right word. To understand the discourses of complaint is to understand one major way in which Kenyan-ness is constructed, how class is consolidated and unsettled, how we learn to inhabit our publics as citizen-guests (wananchi-wageni).
If there’s a discourse of complaint there is also a practice of complaint, as a way not simply of accepting but of negotiating with the social. Some of these negotiations are, paradoxically, sotto-voce, insofar as they consist of us yelling at newspapers and televisions, muttering angrily about politicians and civic leaders as we sip tea, resisting the absence of tomorrow’s promise with our recalcitrant walks, sexy in their sulkiness. One need only stand somewhere to watch Kenya’s sulky-sexy walks. Our bodies speak our engagement and disengagement, our walking into tomorrow with a sulky smile.
Yet, to imagine complaint simply as a form of citizen disengagement misses the broader and, arguably, more serious point about how citizens are constructed as complainers—as those lacking in solutions, lacking in agency, lacking in engagement. How, that is, our political discourses, our social and political and cultural systems encourage us to complain, to be complainers, and, in the process, to be compliant in our complaining.
To think about how complaint structures class is more complex than we might imagine, for it is not simply the case that complaint is a middle- and upper middle-class occupation, a way for those of us who don’t suffer as much to register their perpetual dissatisfaction. It is, in fact, a way to construct conversations across class—one cannot talk about class solidarities for the discourse of complaint does not lead to action, or leads to action infrequently. How to think about cross-class chatter is yet another project one that, in Kenya, must consider other forms of attachment and allegiance that criss-cross class.
I am interested in how the discourses and practices of complaint are anticipated and absorbed by the political, appropriated and de-fanged by process, forge class conversations at the expense of class solidarities, create chattering wananchi as opposed to citizen-activists.
Even when complaint does work—my sisters are great complainers, which works great for me—its effects are neutralized, seen as idiosyncratic rather than structural. Huyo Mama! Certain women—and it is gendered in this way—complain too much, make too much noise. Complaint is registered and disregarded.
But if we are to talk about management, we must also consider what complaint manages, how we use it, what it accomplishes for us. Apart from letting us vent our frustrations, complaint constructs us in very specific, if contradictory, ways as particular kinds of citizens, informed and uninformed, but with opinions. Here, we begin to stretch out of the infantilizing straitjacket of mwananchi, though how that stretching takes place and where it leads remains indeterminate, a site of potential.
To complain is to inhabit and create multiple spaces, to be denuded of power and find new resistances, to have voice and be un-voiced. It is to have and create a relationship to how one is embedded and hailed, to answer, not with a “yes,” but a different kind of sound altogether, another way of becoming in the world.