Imagine Freedom

We must insist on our capacity to imagine and pursue freedom. To do so means questioning the political morality that valorizes suffering, to refuse the “we” constituted as those who “just survive” or “endure.” To imagine and pursue freedom means insisting on populating our lifeworlds with the word freedom, to act toward freedom, to enable each other as free. And to think, continuously, of what it means to be “we,” to be free together. For freedom dreams, as histories of liberation struggles teach us, are dreams about who we shall be together, about how we can imagine being together as those who are free.

Neither those in power in Kenya now or those who are, ostensibly, in opposition, offer any freedom dreams. As legal scholar Yash Pal Ghai argues, security discourse has taken over as the dominant frame within which Kenya is to be imagined. It is a security discourse that, increasingly, guts constitutional guarantees of security of person (ironically), privacy, movement, and expression. New digital IDs will intensify ethno-nationalism and ethno-factionalism, with their demands for kinship bonds and asset holdings. The much-promoted National Youth Service program is a thinly veiled attempt to produce a ready militia of disposable bodies. The incompetence of those in charge of security has produced a citizenry who demand more security, increasing the state’s hold on us. And we might as well abandon any idea that our cell phone activities are private.

The surveillance state is increasing its grip on us: on our movements, our forms of expression, and our imaginations. As satisfying as it might be to critique the government as inept, such a stance overlooks the many harmed by this ineptitude: those unable to collect documents that will let them work, travel, live. Those whose much-needed voices are silenced.

Amidst all this, many activists have simply adopted the state’s thinking and tactics: their definitions of power are based on domination and fear; their desire to hold power takes precedence over any consideration of how freedom and justice might be expanded; their desire for spectacle overrides the messages they might be able to convey. An activism that simply wants to change one set of rulers for another without questioning the structures of power leaves us in the same impoverished, disposable position.

We must be able to imagine freedom. This is no small thing. We must be able to imagine what freedom looks like, feels like, tastes like for those of us constituted by and through our freedom dreams. That women and girls should be able to walk freely in any part of Kenya at any time of the day not simply unmolested, but with the confidence of knowing that the very land and all who inhabit it see and respect their full humanity. That all those in educational institutions will receive all the support necessary to succeed, no matter what their talents and skills. That all those in public service receive all the support they need to have full, satisfying lives as they devote their lives to making Kenya more livable. That we refuse the distinctions between “central” and “border,” “major” and “minor,” used to deem some lives killable and disposable. That our famed hospitality moves from being a tagline in tourist brochures to a practice of everyday life. That strangers among us be welcome and safe. That we remain open to life forms and life practices that we might find scary but that teach us to expand our definitions of how we can be human together. That we take seriously the foundational principle that I exist because we exist, that we are bound to each other, that we seek the best for each other.

At a moment when we are faced with our increasing killability, when we are told that security “starts with us,” we must insist on our abilities to imagine freedom, to imagine a world where we can all thrive.