Are We Civilized Yet?

Kenya’s media is obsessed with civilization. Repeatedly, we are told that we “not yet” civilized. Lest I be accused of making up stuff, here are a few samples:

In spite of our national consensus that we want to live together as a united nation, our tribal tendencies still haunt us.
. . .
[We want to be] a truly civilised society. Dominic Wamugunda

In civilised nations, people respect and accept the judgement of others even where they may not agree.—Paul Muite

In what civilised country would [ICC suspects stay in office]?—Makau Mutua

Machetes have no place in a civilised society that is founded on the principles of justice and the rule of law.—Nation Editorial

In a truly civilised and democratic society, anybody who is under investigations, or who has been indicted for crimes against humanity should never be allowed to stand for any elective public post.—William Ochieng’

The South African Constitutional Court famously declared in the 1995 case of S v. Williams that the State must be foremost in upholding those values which are the guiding light of civilised societies, including respect for human dignity… even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity.—Ababu Namwamba

Bad behaviour is everywhere, and it is worsening every journey for everyone. Simply making drivers behave like civilised human beings is now the burning issue. I hope someone will step in to address it.—Sunny Bindra

It is pointless to engage the government in civilised conversation when it comes to improvement in terms and conditions of work in the public service.—Lukoye Atwoli

The examples can be multiplied.

What is this obsession with being civilized?

My sampling is not random: I have included at least three academics (Mutua, Atwoli, Ochieng’) because they should be familiar with longstanding critiques of “civilisation” within African studies and postcolonial studies.

But, my interlocutors would say, we are well past the point of colonialism. Haven’t those terms taken on new meaning?

To which one might respond that we need to turn to Fanon. In Wretched of the Earth, Fanon warns that post-independence governments risk replicating colonial-era abuses:

The colonized . . . roar with laughter every time they hear themselves called an animal by the other. For they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory. (pg. 7)

More directly:

The national bourgeoisie, which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime, is an underdeveloped bourgeoisie. Its economic clout is practically zero, and in any case, no way commensurate with that of its metropolitan counterpart which it intends replacing. In its willful narcissism, the national bourgeoisie has lulled itself into thinking that it can supplant the metropolitan bourgeoisie to its own advantage. . . . The business elite and university graduates, who make up the most educated category of the new nation, are identifiable by their small numbers, their concentration in the capital, and their occupation as traders, landowners and professionals. This national bourgeoisie possesses neither industrialists nor financiers. The national bourgeoisie in the underdeveloped countries is not geared to production, invention, creation, or work. All its energy is channeled into intermediary activities. Networking and scheming seem to be its underlying vocation. The national bourgeoisie has the psychology of a businessman, not that of a captain of industry. (pg. 97-8; my emphasis)

Independence does not bring a change of direction. The same old groundnut harvest, cocoa harvest, and olive harvest. Likewise the traffic of commodities goes unchanged. No industry is established in the country. We continue to ship raw materials, we continue to grow produce for Europe and pass for specialists of unfinished products.

Yet the national bourgeoisie never stops calling for the nationalization of the economy and the commercial sector. In its thinking, to nationalize does not mean placing the entire economy at the service of the nation or satisfying all its requirements. To nationalize does not mean organizing the state on the basis of a new program of social relations. For the bourgeoisie, nationalization signifies very precisely the transfer into indigenous hands of privileges inherited from the colonial period. (pg. 99-100)

Sorry. Got carried away. I could happily transcribe Fanon all day.

It is now over 50 years since Fanon made these observations. Those once tenuously perched as the national bourgeoisie are entrenched as such. In weight-loss parlance: their job is now maintenance. It’s getting harder to enter Kenya’s middle and upper-middle classes. The children and grandchildren of those who went to Alliance and Makerere, and who, in turn, attended elite national and private schools, police their borders jealously. It’s striking, for instance, how many of the people I grew up with in Loresho married other people from Loresho (or Lavington or Muthaiga and a handful of other neighborhoods; Alliance marry Alliance, St. Mary’s ditto). We do not stray far from the protections of class and education.

Given class entrenchment and policing, being civilized takes on other connotations. The civilized are those entrenched in class privilege (which, at this point in time, is rapidly becoming divorced from actual income—Kenya has its shabby genteel). Their task as the civilized is to police the uncivilized. They have no real intention of letting anyone else join the rarefied ranks of the civilized.

Simultaneously, colonialism continues to cast its long shadow: we still believe there are “civilized countries,” often defined as European or American (I include Canada here), who have “figured things out.” Who act in “civilized” ways. Often, it boils down to their having more power—the technological ability to bomb folks from long distances. One might rightly ask whether I am trying to rescue the word civilized, to cleanse of its associations and histories, and claim there is something valuable about it.

Not at all.

I’d like to jettison the word civilized from Kenyan discourse. It means nothing. Less than nothing. We could talk about equality and fairness and justice. We could talk about corruption and impunity. We could talk about living together in harmony. None of these need to be anchored to “civilization.”

I’m not very interested in becoming civilized—though, to be honest, a measure of class privilege means I’m not really at risk of being considered uncivilized. But only in Kenya. Being in the States is good for me—my uncivilized African-ness keeps me in check. (Sometimes I wonder if my colleagues believe I will arrive on campus with an ivory horn through my nose—the Gikuyu don’t do this, of course, but I could smear my body with rancid animal fat.)

Fuck civilization.

There are richer, more valuable ways of talking about who we are and who want to become.

5 thoughts on “Are We Civilized Yet?

  1. I think they use the word ‘civilised’ simply out of reflex and not with any intent. The Kenyan newspaper writers use many ready-to-use words which they probably don’t give much thought to. Keep in mind the quality of language in the Kenyan newspapers is kind of retarded…they kinda assume Kenyan are not yet clever enough so the newspaper writers (who are apparently very clever) are not yet bothered about thinking seriously about the kind of ready-to-use words like ‘civilised’ etc.

  2. I am interested in these “reflex” words, ostensibly without intent. In an earlier post, I’ve borrowed from Fanon the idea that what is said and done *without intent* is actually more important than what is deliberate, for it is precisely in moments of reflex action that the isms of our world proliferate. More generally, I am interested in how an undisclosed and self-interested class bias inheres in uses of “civilised.” I think it’s really important to become deliberate about language use, and not simply because the threat of “hate speech” lurks over us.

    Ready-made words can be minefields. Much like processed food.

  3. This is certainly not unique to Kenya, I’m sure I’ve noticed the same in Nigeria though I don’t have the sources at hand. If the word ‘civilised’ is used in reflex, then it is simply a reflex created and honed by the agents of colonisation and imperialism. The large majority of us Africans still view our ancestors pre-colonial contact as ‘uncivilised’ and really any time the word is used, it is in comparison to Western countries. This is obviously problematic.

    Fuck civilization.

    There are richer, more valuable ways of talking about who we are and who want to become.

    I completely agree with this.

  4. In Kenya being ‘civilised’ and ‘gisty’ is synonymous. Unfortunately, we are socialised that way. Coming into money does not graduate ones status- it may be conferred to a subsequent generation though.

  5. In Kenya, ‘civilised’ and ‘gisty’ is synonymous. When one ‘ comes into money,’ their status is not automatically graduated- can be conferred to a subsquent generation though. I suppose in UK it’s a different story, huh! The masses were considered to be ‘uneductable.’

Comments are closed.