Before I left Kenya, a friend told me that freedom is overrated. It is far better, he said, that we have economic prosperity and safety. I wonder what it means to be safe and un-free, and whether my freedom is a price I’m willing to pay. This question is neither new nor unique. Living together means we have to sacrifice elements of what we want.
Yet, I wonder how freedom has become such a maligned concept in Kenya.
President Kibaki signing the Media Bill into law is tragic. That Kenyans online and on the streets support him and hold the media culpable for the post-election violence is more than tragic. It is frightening to read how many Kenyans believe that a gagged media is better for Kenya. It is terrifying to comprehend how many Kenyans believe that the tyrant, dictator Moi is now a figure to emulate. It is astounding how many Kenyans believe that John Michuki’s harsh and unrelenting methods of administration are what this country needs.
How did we come to love un-freedom?
Increasingly, I am convinced that we must answer this question if we are to understand why we keep electing the same kind of people into office, why we keep working against our own best interests. And we do.
I had thought, before I went home, that the problem was with the middle-class, those who can afford to complain because they have full bellies. That a certain apathy, part of it induced during the trauma of the Moi years, foreclosed political engagement and fostered an uncritical, while loud, attitude toward politics.
Yet, we are not a middle-class country. And so one must look around, use compound vision, and try to understand why and how the political class continue to manipulate us, and we follow blindly, supplicants to their will, loving and reveling in our un-freedom.
In forum after forum, in plush hotel rooms and unsafe buildings in Kibera, I heard the same thing: we need to talk to government. We keep looking up. Looking toward indifferent sources of support, and while we look up, we remain in quicksand.
Contrary to myth, one does not sink and die in quicksand. One remains suspended, and one can maneuver one’s body out, but one has to look to the side, work with one’s body, with what’s around and available. Looking up keeps one suspended.
Kenyans look up a lot. As long as we keep looking up—to the government, to donors, to foreign institutions, to powerful individuals, we fail to realize we are a chain of people, we can pull each other along, up, out of the quicksand.
But we have to value our freedom.