Meet the New Dissidents: Activists

Children growing up in Moi’s Kenya knew their basic words: cat, dog, man, woman, dissident. A dissident was a “bad man or woman” who “did not love Kenya” and wanted to do “bad things” that might give “baba Moi” pain. Dissidents were un-Kenyan.

In fact, the label dissident was applied indiscriminately, and strategically so, to anyone who departed from the party line, who refused to follow “nyayo” and to uphold law and order. Dissidents were disorderly, wanted to cause chaos, spread foreign ideas like communism, and dared to criticize the government.

Once accused of being a dissident, one lost whatever constitutionally guaranteed rights existed. The dissident became an object of fear in the popular imagination.

It’s important to write this from a child’s perspective. It was not clear what dissidents would do. They were like irimu or ogres, creatures in folk tales who wreaked terrible havoc on the worlds they visited, breaking up families, eating children, destroying resources. Dissidents, to borrow from feminist Sara Ahmed, were objects of fear and anxiety, though it was unclear what they would actually do.

It was precisely because we did not know what they would do that they became capable of anything. University lecturers, such as Maina wa Kinyatti, were tortured and imprisoned for teaching about class struggle and for critiquing the government, ideas that might infect students who might then demand forms of social and economic justice from the Kenya they inhabited.

The rhetoric of dissidence turned citizens on one another: we adopted what Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling terms “constant vigilance,” fearful that our proximity to would-be dissidents would implicate us in their actions and so willing to turn on would-be dissidents. We learned how to offer the thinnest, meanest pieces of evidence against each other and, like the hood-wearing Gikuyu who turned on their friends, family, and neighbors by identifying them as Mau Mau collaborators, we adopted hoods to abandon each other.

Dissidents had to be controlled. Dissidents had to be purged. We had to protect our families. We had to protect Kenya.

As a literary scholar, I study how ideas sediment and remain available to be used later. Thus, for instance, we have found that ideas used to describe class relations in sixteenth-century England were later adopted to describe race relations. The poor were described as dirty and lascivious, unwilling to work and wasteful. These ideas became key to describing non-white individuals that white Europeans encountered as they traveled to other parts of the globe.

Ideas do not fade from history. They move between bodies and histories. They circulate, now attaching to this body now attaching to that one. In our most recent histories, we have seen how ideas attached to the poor and foreign—they are socially dangerous, they bear threat—have attached to brown bodies in the aftermath of 9/11. Racial profiling, once restricted mostly to black citizens in the U.S., is now also attached to brown bodies, and even black citizens adopted techniques of surveillance against brown bodied subjects.

While we may not use the word “dissident” right now, the idea of the dissident continues to circulate and to shape our social imaginaries. Dissidents destroy Kenya. And are especially threatening to the upper-middle and middle classes who survived the Moi years by learning how to watch each other and laying low.

Activists are the new dissidents.

They are “disorderly” do not “know how to behave,” threaten “peace,” and are “funded from abroad.” They are objects to be feared and hated, precisely because they want “to destroy” Kenya.

A recent newspaper report claims that a demonstration by university students was peaceful until “activists” joined in and disrupted it.

The message: Beware of Activists.

The very same ideas once used about dissidents are now being used to demonize activists and activism. And we are drinking the kool-aid, as the Americans would say.

In part, this is because ideas do not fade from history. They live in our minds and bodies and once re-watered by the rain of familiar language bloom and flower.

Indeed, it is striking that during these years of multi-party rule, we have not had any sustained discussion of how the idea of the dissident circulated and helped to create us as fearful citizens, willing to turn on each other to maintain order. In this supposedly new era, the dissident remains an object of fear and ridicule, a disordered and disorderly jigger in our nyayo-following feet.

And because we have not yet deconstructed the idea of the dissident, the ideas of dissidence, what it is and what it does, remain available to be re-used by the State to control our actions and make us turn on each other.

It is sad that in a Kenya that we all supposedly want to change, the very individuals willing to stake their lives and bodies, our vocal, proud, courageous activists, the very individuals who are dying for us, are among the most maligned and misunderstood. They are “disorderly,” lack “reason,” should “know better,” and “threaten Kenya’s peace.”

Why do we believe this? Why are we willing to stand back and buy into this rhetoric? Why are we so willing to embrace the fear of change that was fed to us in our nyayo milk?

Even those of us who claim to be progressive malign activists and activism. And this is a tragedy.

We are still haunted by the fear and paranoia that the Moi era produced, and getting rid of it will require more than one exorcism.

We cannot wait until our activists become martyrs for us to get upset and demand that “government do something.” And we must question our distaste for activists and our love for martyrs, yet another painful legacy of the long colonial and post-colonial era: many of us would, no doubt, have hated Dedan Kimathi during his period of activism. But his image has become an object of reverence precisely because he can be contained in the past.

Activists are our new dissidents. We fear them because they might disrupt our nice lives, nice lives in which we can complain about the government while attending “functions” at nice places and eating nice meals. Those silly activists threaten the niceness of our lives.

Change will come, of course. There’s no need to be loud and disorderly. Change will come in a nice way that will not disrupt our nice lives.

This dangerous fiction of niceness enables social and economic inequality. Feeling bad for others who “have problems” is nice. It shows we care. And we can feel good about ourselves because we have the ability to feel bad.

Feel bad for those who deserve it. Malign activists.

Changing Kenya requires action. It requires activists. It will be loud. It will be disruptive. And I continue to hope that, this time, we stand on the right side of history: with the activists

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