August 5, 2010

I have been troubled by discussions of the August 4th referendum on the Kenyan constitution. Troubled by the insistence that one must take a position, and vote either yes or no, even when that urging is nuanced. Troubled not because I am invested in some stylish postmodern ambivalence. Troubled because the debate has proceeded along too-familiar lines of name-calling and shortened memories. Troubled because we attach too much importance to August 4th, and not enough to August 5th.

To be fair, August 4th is about August 5th, as Onyango Oloo argues. The decisions reached on August 4th—and I make no assumption that the official results will be available until much later, probably August 7th or so—will shape Kenyan politics for at least the next two years, until 2012.

Yet, I worry that in thinking about August 5th as the political child of August 4th, we minimize other ways of thinking about what we want.

Let me be more concrete.

In a recent email exchange with my friend, poet and activist Shailja Patel, I expressed that I felt hectored into choosing a position, this despite the fact that I will not be voting. As far as I know, there are no methods through which Kenyans abroad can vote. In an email posted to the Kenyan Concerned Writers (CKW), I voiced my concerns thus:

While I think we can and should be explicit about our positions, I am also interested in the forms of intellectual and political generosity that will allow positions not to consolidate or re-consolidate into hostilities. And so when I worry about “strong” yes or no positions, I am less interested in asking that these positions be “weak,” or in persuading anyone any which way.

Indeed, I AM interested in thinking of how the now of campaigning for positions will live alongside the future after the referendum. And I am interested in the practices of generosity and care and compassion that will enable post-referendum alliances and coalitions, that will be able to look beyond August into the future, in productive and generative ways.

There needs to be a space for a kind of thinking and acting that understands the stakes of living together and that withdraws, very forcefully, from the metaphorical narrative of “eating” that, for me, subtends both yes and no positions right now.

Because I am concerned about the afterlife of the referendum, I am troubled when Onyango Oloo describes some supporters of the No proposition as “anachronistic Neanderthals” and “benighted Bigots.” Surely, we can have ideological differences and still cultivate practices that enable us to live together.

I am not against passion. How can I be? Nor am I asking for some fantasy situation in which emotion is subordinated to cold rationality. That is unrealistic.

But I do want us to be more deliberate about our campaigns, no matter the camp to which we belong. To ask, first, not whether our particular position will win, but whether we can cultivate practices of generosity and compassion that will extend beyond August 4th to August 5th.

We may not have the constitution we want now. And we might not even get the constitution we want following August 4th. But we can always cultivate practices of living together, create strong webs and ties, relations of care and trust, attachments forged from mutual obligations and shared pleasures. In creating these social practices and relations, we begin to realize the Kenya we want, one in which a legal document may frame our attachments, but does not dictate the affective qualities and daily practices that make life bearable and pleasant.