Kenyan Exceptionalism

Kenyan exceptionalism continues to rear its ugly, arrogant head.

We were “on the edge of the precipice,” “at the brink of disaster,” “facing an uncertain future.”


Unlike that country and that country and that country, we “pulled back,” “resisted the few bad apples,” “recovered our grounding,” “remembered who we are.”

Kenyan. Exceptional.

We need to be very clear about what we did to each other. We administered the “shibboleth” test on each other. We pulled each other from matatus and hacked each other to death. We pursued each other into forests and hacked off hands and feet and ears. We trapped our people in buildings and burned them alive. We killed each other violently, with intent, with full awareness. We fanned ethnic hatred. We hated our neighbors and friends.

We have pictures. We have witnesses.

Yet the report from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights bears the title, “On The Brink Of The Precipice.”

Unlike those other countries, we held back

Earlier this year, I asked about the impossible debt we owe the dead, impossible because it can never be repaid.

At the very least, we owe them honesty.

We were not “on the brink” or “at the edge.” The moment the first person died we jumped into the chasm, eyes open wide, hands clutching a panga.

It is disingenuous to have a debate about amnesty—what limited debate there is—to point fingers at “those who were really responsible.” Increasingly, I find myself uninterested in the “list of names” of those who “incited violence.” The line between legal investigations and witch-hunts has always been very tenuous here. We are very good at pointing fingers, and cries of mwizi on the street are guaranteed a quick response, always.

We enjoy meting out justice—and this biblical word must be employed here.

We are less good, often no good, at thinking about complicity, about the “we” that merits collective justice, the “we” that cannot stand apart from history, cannot distinguish itself from the “we” that deserves punishment.

We search for guilty raindrops in poisoned wells.
To our great detriment, we are using the Kriegler and Waki reports as glass houses. Now that the “really guilty ones” have been identified then we need not examine our own complicity.

This is dangerous. Very dangerous.

What social, cultural, historical, political, and economic factors allowed the so-called guilty parties to succeed? Why were we bribed and seduced into forwarding text messages and lifting pangas? (The debate on scale needs to be more complex than it is currently.)

We cannot and should not use the Kriegler and Waki reports as excuses to withdraw from the deep, painful, and necessary labor of self-analysis we must have as a nation. We cannot and should not use lists of guilty parties to absolve ourselves of all responsibility. We cannot and should not continue to believe the stories we circulate about our goodness.

Too much is at stake.

6 thoughts on “Kenyan Exceptionalism

  1. Just saw this many years later. Looks like we were on the same page about the nation getting away without a broader accounting for its complicity in the violence. Too convenient how six people carry the weight of that season’s madness.

  2. This is the post I was looking for. I would ask that I reblog it on BMAG, but I’m not going to—I find it unfair to reblog such a well written and thought out piece. I start to feel like Puff Daddy back in the day—living off of the singing careers of others and shouting “Bad Boy, babe” in everyone’s video while making all the chums.

    Anyway, let me see if I can paraphrase you over there on BMAG. I want to write about this exceptionalism in relation to the war we’re fighting right now. But really, I should be doing homework. Like five papers past due. Ah, bana, I am tired of my miseducation.

    Tunasonga mbele.

  3. It’s funny you end with the homework. Much of my writing on here has happened while I’m working on other things–the dissertation, articles, and, now, the book. It’s a useful way to keep writing fingers limber and the mind agile.

    I was thinking of how difficult it is to respond to posts I wrote 3 years ago. I still stand behind this particular one–not sure that’s true of everything I write.

    Looking forward to reading what you write.

    1. The post I had in my mind collapsed on itself. Was it Modigliani who said the painting is never as it is in the mind of the artist? He’d get frustrated with every painting. I get that way with everything I write.

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