Visionary Writing

I have been trying to figure out how to feel about Makau Mutua’s latest writing. At first, I thought it was rage, then sadness, then disappointment. I am not yet sure. Probably a mix of all three. Simply, I expected more.

His article a few weeks ago hailing the Kamba as a bloc was irresponsible. Not that I believe we inhabit some post-ethnic fantasy. I have argued elsewhere that we must work our way through the complexities of tribe. Fantasies of post-ness are incredibly violent, muting much-needed critiques, as we see in the ostensibly post-racial U.S. And while it’s nice to believe performative statements utterly change history, sediments are not so easily moved by loud voices, even earthquake-tinged loud voices.

His latest article on the Kamba, Kalenjin, Kikuyu (KKK) alliance is even more frustrating. Not because it might not contain truth, but because it has already given up on Kenya, on Kenyan politics, on grassroots activism, on anything that does not flow from the leaders to the masses.

Mutua’s vision of politics is disheartening. It tells us that political elites control everything and we follow blindly. That ethnic-based politics will continue to dominate the political space. That the real world of politics consists in following around Big Men and those who aspire to be Big Men. It is a dark, terrifying vision, rooted in something he might term “reality.”

It’s a failure of the imagination. Steeped in a too-knowing cynicism. Framed by a politics of despair. And poisonous to any new visions and versions of Kenya.

We need utopian thinking, and that is in very short supply right now. The post-referendum moment has become tediously predictable, as the people in whose name the Constitution was supposedly promulgated are relegated to their roles as five-year voters, petty and irrelevant. The will of the people, still invoked in political rhetoric, has taken a convenient backseat as current politicians try to figure out how to maintain their political alliances and affiliations.

Favors are being called in. Secrets traded. And it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that the desire to keep certain administrative figures and units in place is driven less by the needs of efficient transition and more by an intricate web of power relations structured by favors and obligations, secrets and lies. Political intimacies that we can only imagine.

I suspect this is the world from which Mutua writes.

But he is only a symptom of a much larger problem.

Since the promulgation, the papers have focused on petty battles between should-be-obsolescent political and civic leaders. The sense that the promulgation would nurture fresh dreams, inspire radical new ways of thinking, that visionaries would finally be allowed to offer hope and direction dies. Every day. A little more.

Those of us who dare to dwell in possibility continue to wage affective and psychic battles against a too-knowing, too-familiar world-weariness. It is tedious to be told “this is how the world works.”

Dream crushers threaten all possibility.

I had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that Mutua would continue to be a visionary, as he sometimes has been. That he would see the situation on the ground and imagine other possibilities, work to realize them. But his public writing is cynical, jaded, unimaginative, and dangerous. Dangerous because it refuses to accept alternative trajectories, refuses to imagine a world that can be different.

We need a politics that embraces surprise, welcomes innovation, dares to think beyond the visible, to imagine beyond ourselves.

Our public newspapers need to imagine beyond what they do now. They need to embrace big, bold ideas. To promote writing that reshapes our social imaginaries.

I continue to hope that Mutua along with Macharia Gaitho, Gitau Warigi, Mutahi Ngunyi, and L. Muthoni Wanyeki will be visionary writers, grounded in particularity, but never restrained by circumstances. We need them to be this. Now more than ever.