Eulogy: 1982

1982 broke my uncle. He died last year. Disappointed.

He hated his meds. Never took them. Hated the silence they created. Hated the whispers of friends turned betrayers. Hated the promise of liberation turned, now, to the night stench of coffee plants.

He was young, barely 50. A casualty of independence myths and the audacity of dreaming. His life barely started, he lived the rest of it as a cautionary tale, evidence that the government breaks bones and minds. Resistance is a one-way highway to psychiatric prescriptions.

If Vietnam, in the U.S., represents a lost, undistinguished generation of soldiers, doomed never to be heroes, 1982 is our unmarked graveyard, where truth lies interred while the minds of those who hold it are broken or held captive in dreamless sleeps, the State’s gift to dissenters and dissidents.

Mau Mau may be a badly written chapter. 1982 is an absent footnote.

My mother asks if I remember it. It’s one word: curfew, a new word in my then seven-year-old vocabulary. An earlier bedtime for everyone. She does not fill in the gaps.

This silencing. 1982’s legacy.

What are the legacies of 1982? How did it shape us? What did it denude? Make impossible? Is it what made us value humility and order over freedom and dignity?

My uncle did not speak. He shouted. He shouted greetings and farewells, shouted request for money and condolences to the bereaved, shouted at friends and enemies, doctors and faith healers, always with a sudden, generous smile.

It was an idiot’s smile Evidence of conversations we could not, dared not, hear. A smile at peace with history’s erasures, immured from that loss by the certainty of having acted.

There are no accolades for men like him, no memorials for those who follow the foolish dreams of youth, those we despise because, unlike us, they privileged vision over their own survival. These men who abandoned their families, refused to embrace the comfort of apathy and the refuge of cowardice.

Like my uncle, such men become family jokes, warnings to those who dream too much, who enter deep waters with no assurances, simply belief that action is not futile.

January 24, 2009

With jewels in my heart, it is heaven here and the light that glows inside my heart feels like the salvation that will hopefully free my soul and brighten many others.
—Dr. James Kariuki Muiruri

I learn, today, that a young Kenyan has been shot, a man half my uncle’s age, who describes himself as the “grandson” of freedom fighters, and sings of his vision for Kenya and the world.

Dr. James Kariuki Muiruri considered himself an “idea that must find expression,” willing thought into action, dreams into possibilities, and, at each step, insisting that he was not unique, that others, too, could travel the same road.

In a June 6, 2006, blog post titled “My Letter to a Young African Sister,” he writes,

Think of high ideals, think of children’s dreams, think of trees and waters flowing down the stream, think of the poor and look at the grass and wonder at how you fit so neatly in nature its best. This is a journey, some of us are chosen.. start your life by realising this, that as much as your are your parent’s child, you are very much a child of this world with parents that are blessed to bring you into this life.

Dr. Muiruri grew up in the shadow of the dream-killing 1982, and still he dared to dream, for himself and for others. He dared to choose what some consider the less wise option of returning to Kenya after he successfully completed his doctorate in international law. He dared to imagine there was space, or that he could create space for himself and his dreams.

Reading through James’s blog, I am tempted to speculate that it captures my uncle’s pre-1982 hopes and dreams, the certainty that past victories ensure future success. For my uncle, the legacy of uhuru directed a vision toward a different Kenya; for James, his personal successes and academic achievements set against a past history of Kenyan-measured failure, assured him that his story was possible for him and for others like him. A recurring thread throughout his writing is that if he could make it, then others could.

And so I mourn for two men I did not know. And for the dreams they held. And for the dreams that die everyday in Kenya.