this feels familiar . . .

Across a range of Kenyan spaces, one hears worries about “losing gains” and “returning to the Moi era.” Silence has started to fall, especially in areas where necessary fluencies had never been acquired. Feelings trained under repressive regimes are reactivated. Now, we act as we have been trained to act: lie low like an envelope.

Untraining did not happen.

Two elements concern me: the narrative of “gains” obscures the very real ethno-patriarchal and elite-making forces that have guided Kenya in the post-Moi era, forces that have more deeply entrenched the idea that only the well connected can and should lead. Second, many Kenyans lack the necessary tools and frameworks to understand, engage, and critique power.

The post-Kenyatta and post-Moi eras were supposed to be post-patronage eras. Regional, ethno-patriarchal “mafias” would lose influence and, in their place, more radically diverse coalitions would be embraced, or would be possible. This has not happened.

Those groups classified as vulnerable in the TJRC Report—minorities, indigenous people, persons with disabilities, persons living with HIV/AIDS, refugees, prisoners, the poor, women and children—remain vulnerable. Somalis, long a target of state repression and worse, continue to be targeted, treated as “un-Kenyan,” and, worse, as unhuman.

A post-Kenyatta and post-Moi world would have changed the status of groups labeled as vulnerable: measures to move past patronage economies, measures to break down the elite/vulnerable distinctions, measures to create strong coalitions that reduce vulnerability. This did not happen.

Instead, the strongly ethno-patriarchal nature of Kenyan politics has intensified: we are now in a Baba v. Baba economy.

While we have strong cohorts of women representatives at the national and county levels, these women never feature—or are never featured by the mainstream press—as active, engaged, important, or transformative.

CORD v. Jubilee is a Baba v. Baba affair. The principals of both coalitions are men. And while, every so often, a woman will peek through or be seen in the background, rarely, if ever, do women feature as key decision makers. Rarely, if ever, are we called on to rally behind women. Rarely, if ever, are we asked to see women’s labor as world building and world sustaining.

A recent broadcast featured Rachel Ruto, the deputy president’s wife. She has been traveling across the country teaching women how to “grow” themselves: to improve their crop yields, diversify production methods, and build better lives. She spoke of seeing women who, having learned how to “grow” themselves, could now speak in public, afford better clothes, afford cars, dream of different, more possible futures.

Friends and I have been thinking about women’s work: about growth and sustainability, about making and sharing, about enabling dreams and facilitating ambitions. About what this labor, enacted across numerous small groups across the country, teaches us about how to live together. About the politics of this labor. About how to make this labor visible and political, a foundation for what it means to live together.

Kenya continues to lose as long as we refuse to learn from and emulate women’s practices of world building and world sustaining.
Here is Antonio Gramsci on the intellectual:

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organisers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc.


One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.

I have been puzzling over the idea that Kenya is anti-intellectual. Increasingly, I am unconvinced by this claim. Now, I am more interested in trying to figure out what kinds of intellectuals populate Kenyan spaces. Gramsci’s notion of the “organic intellectual,” one who emerges with and justifies the dominant order has been very useful.

Across Kenyan spaces, one encounters many organic intellectuals willing to defend the state’s actions: Dr. Martin Kimani, in the New York Times, defending Kenya against the ICC; Professor Githu Muigai, on TV, defending the state’s right to limit freedoms; solicitor general Njee Muturi, on TV, defending the state’s right to limit freedoms. Moses Kuria, Ngunjiri Wambugu, Mutahi Ngunyi, Dennis Itumbi, all willing to defend the state’s actions. To see these men—and many others—as organic intellectuals—is to recognize that their role is not only to justify the dominant order, but to circulate those justifications in a range of technical and common vernaculars, harvested from political science, anthropology, sociology, economics, rumor, gossip, and religion.

That is: we must see how the state uses economic datasets in conjunction with rumor and gossip and religious discourse. We must see how each of these amplify each other.

Simply: the work of the organic intellectual from the dominant order is to justify the dominant order. Sometimes, this justification entails a wholesale, unquestioning defense of the dominant order. Sometimes, this defense entails saying that, for instance, “the president has bad advisors.” Sometimes, this defense entails saying that damaging institutional frameworks and structures are sound, but they simply need better administrators. Much-needed structural critique is, thus, impossible.

Simultaneously, we must figure out what freedom-pursuing intellectual work looks like. It must be work that prioritizes human life over development indexes. It must be work that speaks about people before numbers. It must be work that diminishes vulnerability. It must be work capable of institutional and structural critique—work that knows how to work with policy, but pursues freedom.

My sense is that freedom-seeking work has been superseded by policy-making work, that details have crowded out goals.

Nudge economies have taken over Radical economies.

Nudge economies can too easily become complicit in dominant orders—because their focus is never structural, can never see or take on the whole picture. Kenya is full of nudge economies. We need radical economies.

We need radical economies and movements and knowledges that will impede and, if possible, undo our docile bodies. We need radical critiques that name and work against fear, intimidation, and silencing. We need robust intellectual work that names and works against the state’s repressive strategies.

While we will need the vulgar and the obscene, the insults and the jokes, we also need strong, compelling arguments, richly detailed, grounded in the best thinking available, anchored in freedom-seeking imaginations.

Thinking that looks to histories of liberation—from Haiti to Zimbabwe, from Sojourner Truth to Thomas Sankara. Thinking that looks to radical imaginations—from Ida B. Wells to Wangari Maathai, from Nina Simone to Miriam Makeba. Thinking that navigates what it can and undoes what it must.

Our survival is at stake.