Kenyan Exceptionalism Reconsidered

PREAMBLE: Among the many problems of a rant is that it condenses many related and unrelated items. And, really, by now I should know better. While I do want to complicate the info-driven read-in-one-glance internet approach, it really is too much to expect others to read my mind. So in a more schematic fashion, here is what I’m trying to think through in discussing Kenyan exceptionalism.

NATIONAL CHARACTER—It remains startling to me that Kenyans, despite their many differences, really do believe we have a national character. Composed partly of tourist clichés we believe (warm, friendly, loving, hospitable); religious ideas we promulgate (meek, patient, and definitely longsuffering); and political ideologies we inhabit (cooperative—hence harambee, and patient). We have a well-developed sense of what it means to be Kenyan.

To use the language of my primary school teachers, we really do believe in the bad apple theory. Citizens, wananchi, are good apples. Within the good apples, there are a few bad apples that can infect the good. While my theoretical side quivers in delight at what is quite a complex theory of contact or frottage—apples rubbing against each other—my more cynical, practical side objects to this theory of the vulnerable, perpetually innocent citizen.

BAD IS IDIOPATHIC—Despite burning up with multiple fevers, we always suffer from idiopathic ailments (thank you House!). Idiopathic—without any known cause. There are never any structural or historical explanations that will suffice. Indeed, we blame witchcraft, demon possession, greed, or plain evil. Absent from such discussions, as so many others note, is a deeply contextual, richly textual historical approach that would begin to account for how we came to be where we are. Once again, the myth of national character comes to our aid, for we are, through our goodness, also immuno-suppressed.

WE HAVE TRUST ISSUES—While we may not trust the government, and have real problems with the judiciary, we also rely on them. (Long abbreviated discussion of ideology and hegemony.) Thus, we turn to them for guidance even while we point fingers at their blindness.

WE HAVE A TAINTED NOTION OF JUSTICE—We have yet to work out what justice is, how it functions, and which group has the moral authority to administer it. Despite what is becoming a refrain—people were paid—we have to consider that those who carried pangas considered themselves to have a just cause.

WE HAVE SKIRMISHES, NOT WARS—We have been debating whether we had ethnic cleansing, a pseudo-genocide (whatever that is), or, as Kibaki put it, “a little mistake.” In part, this debate reflects how we consider ourselves in relation to other countries. We are not Rwanda, Somalia, or Sudan. We have the unique capacity to trivialize death and suffering, even as we cry “never again!” As the Waki Report notes, “the post-election violence . . . was but an episode in a trend of institutionalization of violence in Kenya over the years” (viii).

ABSOLUTION WORKS—I want to avoid using the notion of scapegoating and absolution is not quite the right word. It is that we believe in plucking out diseased eyes and amputating sinning hands. We believe that blood does not flow through the body and thus we can remove afflicted parts and we will be fine. This is one reason we have been so eager to know the contents of the “envelope” even as we ignore our complicity and culpability.

THE REAL RUPTURE IS YET TO HAPPEN—This frightens me the most and I am not sure how widespread this belief is. Two members of CKW have expressed their belief that we are headed for a real rupture, a real break that will re-organize the social. I remain skeptical that such a rupture will happen or that it will happen as we anticipate. If there is worse to come, there is no guarantee that we will have a more just society afterwards (Animal Farm, Handmaid’s Tale).

It should be obvious that I don’t have a handle on any of these. I’m still trying to think about them.

I worry that what has turned into a debate about whether or not to implement the Waki Report (seriously, why do we debate implementing reports we’ve commissioned?) will make irrelevant or sweep under the rug some really vital, important issues.

I continue to ask what we owe the dead.

I’m not sure “justice” as it is currently being framed is adequate. And if it is only the beginning of what we owe, this debt that cannot be paid, then we must also consider what else we owe and who gets to pay and how.