What is the relationship between anger and complaint in Kenya? Is complaining a symptom of anger or might it be a re-channeling of anger, a directing away of its energies elsewhere, a valve that dissipates much-needed social energy? What interests does complaint serve? And is it really as insidious as I increasingly think it is?
As I have written previously, Kenyans complain a lot. In fact, complaint is both a national practice and aesthetic, a form with rules that sutures. If one says that life is hard, there’s a ritual way of responding. The addressee must agree, and continue the conversation in the same vein, often by offering examples. This is a ritual that forges cross-class, cross-ethnic, and cross-gender solidarities, fragile though they might be.
Yet, these affective solidarities (and affective might not be the right term) do not translate into effective solidarities: the non-action action of complaint forestalls other kinds of transformative actions. And we complain about those who attempt such actions. They are “kichwa ngumu,” “suspect,” “don’t know how to be Kenyan.”
We pride ourselves on our abilities to manage anger through complaint.
And we dismiss socially-directed critique as complaint, refusing to accept that critique may have different potentialities, that it may lead to different kinds of action, that it might change what complaint is contentedly discontent to note.
It is “un-Kenyan” to critique. One may be loud in complaint, not in critique.
On this last trip home, I found myself branded “angry.” It was “foreign” and “weird,” and I kept being reminded “this is Kenya.” “Here,” my family kept telling me, “we do things differently.”
Differently often translated into inefficiently or not at all. Opening a bank account was impossible at a highly reputed local bank. (Dear Equity, I opened my US account in about 3 minutes, start to finish. Thank you for the 3 hours of my life you wasted because you were incompetent.) Even there, I was not allowed to be angry. My mother told me, “don’t be angry.”
It is “un-Kenyan” to be angry.
But what does our resistance to anger license? Who does it allow to get away with what? How do our political, cultural, and social systems nurture and encourage complaint as a way to manage, or better, diffuse anger? How are political actions calculated to elicit complaint rather than anger? What is that mechanism that prohibits complaint from turning into anger?
I have no answers.
But we can hypothesize that something about impunity, corruption, inefficiency, and political repression, some combination of all of these has made us afraid to be angry. And so, we are more content to be complainers. We accept the unfreedom of complaint because the freedom that anger might bring might be too much.
Increasingly, I wonder about the trauma we have suffered such that unfreedom seems not only like a good, but the best social option for us. Not simply good, but the best.
Ironically, the PEV is now being used to justify unfreedom, and mention anger and you will be directed to the PEV. Look what anger causes, you will be told. We seem unable to conceive of a productive anger, an anger that changes the social without completely destroying it.
The PEV is being used to manage citizens, to control our actions and reactions, our emotions and feelings, even our movements. We tread carefully around imagined minefields while those who serve us poison our food and drink.
We are encouraged to be actively passive in our complaining and warned that anger will destroy us. It might save us. We need to save ourselves.