Thinkings (from the safety of the States)

Over the past year, Kenyan writers, intellectuals, and activists have worried that we are forgetting the post-election violence. In newspaper articles and online forums, private conversations and public meetings, we have complained about Kenya’s seemingly inevitable condition: amnesia.

We forget too much and forget too quickly.

Bemoaning our collective amnesia, we have placed too much faith in memory, believing that what is remembered cannot be repeated. In part, we believe the old canard that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

We must question this naïve faith that memory and history have the power to prevent future violence. Amnesia may be a peculiarly Kenyan condition, but it is not what ails us. If we are to create what U.S. intellectual Van Wyck Brooks termed a “usable past,” we need a better understanding of how memory and history function.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, especially in the wake of decolonization movements in Asia and Africa, the growth of the civil rights movement in the U.S., and the birth and spread of social movements including feminism and gay rights, a new breed of intellectuals began to question the idea of History as it had been taught previously. History with a capital H was about great white men and their successes. It featured kingdoms and empires and the glorious battles that had secured both. It was a march to progress in which brown and black peoples, women and homosexuals played supporting roles.

We black and brown peoples were servants and maids, loyal ayahs and irresponsible shamba boys. Occasionally we might produce one or two great people. A Fredrick Douglass or Mahatma Gandhi, but, collectively, we lived in someone else’s History, we did not create our own.

Throughout the twentieth century, and especially during the latter half, we began to write our own histories. We visited with our elders and recorded their memories, redefined ourselves as heroes and freedom fighters, not outlaws or terrorists. By producing a multitude of local, home-grown histories we changed, forever, the idea that there is one History.

Along the way, we discovered that history is not fact, as we had been taught. History is event and interpretation. Every single historical event can be interpreted several ways, depending on the audience. Thus, to take a Kenyan example, some of us view Dedan Kimathi as one of the bravest freedom fighters while others consider him a murdering terrorist.

History is made up of several competing interpretations. It is constantly being made and re-made. Those deemed outlaws during one political regime are esteemed as heroes in another regime.

If we understand history as a set of always competing interpretations then we realize that we do not suffer from amnesia. We have not forgotten the post-election violence. But the event has been subjected to several competing interpretations, and those individuals with the easiest access to media resources, often self-serving politicians, have privileged a de-fanged history.

While many of us are still horrified by the post-election violence, many of our leaders seem to consider it a minor incident. While many of us want to see justice enacted, members of parliament have dragged their feet in establishing the required structures and, worse, do not seem to believe that the Kenyans who were died and displaced require justice and reparation.

While some of us believe Kenya was altered by the post-election violence, our leaders have dismissed it as a “little mistake.”

We live with two different versions of history. Each version has its own urgencies and priorities. Each one drives a different agenda. The version of history a group privileges is not inert, but performs labor. History justifies current and future actions.

Those who dismiss the post-election violence as a minor hiccup ignore the humanitarian crises breeding in IDP camps. They can ignore the ongoing ethnic-based mutterings that promise “next time, we’ll be ready.” Those who see a minor hiccup blind themselves to the urgent labor of nation-building that will not be accomplished by signing expensive pieces of paper in plush rooms in front of television cameras.

However, those of us who believe in the version of history in which Kenya is deeply flawed, our political process corrupt as outlined in the Kriegler Report, and our social processes badly damaged face an uphill task.

If we only had to ensure Kenyans did not forget that would be easier to accomplish. We have witnesses and documentary evidence. Instead, we are facing a history-making machine supported by powerful interests that is fabricating a version of history in which the post-election violence was a “little mistake.” We face a history-making machine that urges us to forgive, forget, and move forward.

This mantra of forgive, forget, and move forward is not new. Indeed, it forms a recurring motif in Kenya’s political history. At independence, Jomo Kenyatta urged national reconciliation between former colonizers and colonized by telling us to forgive, forget, and move forward. Succeeding regimes have used this formula to exculpate their repressive policies and socio-political failures.

Political thieves and liars and murderers in our midst know they are safe, protected by a national mantra that always guarantees their freedom and safety. In this country, justice based on the law always takes a back seat to forgive, forget, and move on. And our history tellers celebrate Kenyans’ ability to forgive, forget, and move on.

Forgive, forget, and move on is a history-making formula. It writes, un-writes, and re-writes histories of repression and violence, of unjust imprisonments and public humiliations, of suspect deaths and blatant assassinations.

Forgive, forget, and move on denies Kenyans justice. It denies us a history-making process that tells the truth of how we have lived and lost, how we have loved and struggled, how we have succeeded against the odds, repeatedly.

To claim we are forgetting what has happened is to misrecognize the active process of erasure being carried out in the name of official history-making. If we suffer from amnesia, it is repeatedly induced by ongoing trauma to our national memory centers. It is an amnesia created by and maintained through the ongoing violence of official history-making.


President Kibaki has signed into law a Media Bill that allows the government to open and monitor email. He has demonstrated that the raid on the newspapers some years ago was not a fluke, not the act of a rogue minister, as some of us thought, but sanctioned by the history-muzzling, history-rewriting government that rules us by disregarding our rights.