Political Imagination

If your political hopes and dreams for Kenya were to be realized, how would you experience that Kenya?

  • Describe a typical day in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible, from waking up to going to sleep.
  • Describe a typical week in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical month in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical year in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a possible trajectory for your life in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.

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It is easy to name what is wrong with Kenya: corruption, impunity, historical injustices, violence against women, land grabbing, poverty, police brutality, negative ethnicity. If you probe a little more, you will hear the problem is a lack of political will to implement laws and policies. The solution, then, is to implement laws and policies.

My sense is that “the problem is implementation” does not have a way to think about the everyday, what political theorist Wambui Mwangi describes as the ground you are standing on, the ground from which you must start. I suspect, also, that “the problem is implementation” crowd cannot translate implementation into quotidian practice.

What would be the ordinary experience of a Kenya in which all the proposed laws and policies and report recommendations were implemented?
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After posing the above questions to an organizer with whom I was co-thinking, I attempted to answer them. I couldn’t. I have been trying to account for this failure.
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Imaginations are rooted—they do not float free from the worlds we inhabit and the worlds that inhabit us. As much as Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya damaged our imaginations, it was still too close to the freedom dreams that imagined a free Kenya to halt all dreaming. Those who came of age during the struggle for independence and under Kenyatta’s regime had the memories of transformations they had created and experienced to draw on. They could imagine beyond what Kenyatta insisted was possible. Their imaginations were not unimpaired by his ethnonationalist, ethnopatriarchal, neocolonial, and anti-intellectual rule. The writing from this period is filled with disappointment and betrayal—but it had not yet hardened into the cynicism of the Moi years.

Generations overlap.

Those of us born into and raised in Moi’s Kenya had a different experience of the political. Mainstream Kenyan histories mark the attempted 1982 coup as the turning point in Moi’s Kenya, the moment the state became more explicitly authoritarian. I think that’s a nice fantasy—the colonial penal code and the constitution imposed on Kenya by the British and the structures of administration created by the British still ruled Kenya. We were born to the disappointed and betrayed—their sense of time and possibility had changed. I think this was the moment when “this is Kenya” took hold.

“This is Kenya” is a hold: stuck firmly in an ongoing present, it does not know how to retrieve the freedom dreams of the independence era and or how to look beyond current repression to imagine something that might be called freedom. This inability to look to past freedom dreams and to imagine a future freedom demands and produces inevitability.

If you pay attention, you will hear the inevitability that elections will not be credible; that the elected will be corrupt; that violence will erupt; that gender equality is impossible; that historical injustices and multi-generational damage cannot be redressed; that the police and prisons cannot be abolished; that corruption cannot be eradicated.

Stuck in the inevitability that “this is Kenya,” we cannot—dare not—imagine anything else

(This “inevitability” enables Kenyans NGOS looking for money abroad to demonstrate ongoing need. It is impossible for NGOs to imagine themselves as unnecessary, because Kenya no longer requires them. They need “this is Kenya.” I will note the paternalistic white supremacy that needs “this is Kenya,” and move on.)

“This is Kenya” names stuckness, the impossibility of imagining it could be otherwise: “let us vote for different thieves.” It traffics in unimaginative pragmatism—a bureaucratic language that derives its power from diagnosing and recording failure: “choices have consequences.” It names the class consolidation that creates a buffer between those whose futures can be imagined, and those deemed disposable.

“This is Kenya” names something that damages and impedes imaginations. I name it, here, not as something I have escaped, but as something we, collectively, might be able to dismantle.
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Feminism and Black studies have taught me how to think of the political as the quotidian, the everyday, the daily, even, at times, the banal. Reading Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and then reading those who have written in their wake—Michelle Cliff, Cedric Robinson, Hortense Spillers, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen. Pauline Hopkins, Walter White, Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde, Saidiya Hartman, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Wambui Mwangi, Katherine McKittrick, John Keene, Frantz Fanon, M. NourbeSe Philip, Dionne Brand, Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, John Murillo III, Grace Ogot, Claude McKay, Christina Sharpe, Alex Weheliye, James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, Sofia Samatar, Rebekah Njau, Yvonne Owuor—I learn how intimacy and kinship and community are invaded, arbitrarily, by property relations, by state repression, by the afterlife of slavery.

We know these stories in their Kenyan accents: the lists of the disappeared, the missing, the exiled, the murdered, the tortured, the raped. The political vernacular for this is “historical injustice.” I fear using the word “historical” relegates what happened to the past. I now use multi-generational damage, to indicate ongoing harm and vulnerability. This multi-generational damage is material: diminished life chances, increased exposure to environmental toxicity, higher risks for police brutality, higher chances for sexual violence, lower rates of education, and higher rates of child mortality from preventable diseases. Just as importantly, this damage extends to the ability to imagine something different, something not this, something that might be called freedom.

It is a mistake to believe that our imaginations and desires are not rooted in the here-now we inhabit. Indeed, it is precisely the here-now we inhabit that can only imagine cessation, first, as the necessary stopping of pain and, second, as ethnocidal and genocidal logics and practices—burn it all down, get rid of everything, fagia wote.
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It is easier to write about damaged imaginations—we experience them daily—than it is to ask how to work with and beyond them—how to imagine beyond what we think we can imagine. I suspect that the kind of remedial thinking that circulates as NGO wisdom—all those buzzwords that boil down to white supremacist paternalist bullshit with an extra helping of heteronormative patriarch—thrives precisely because it encounters no imaginations that can counter its developmental logics. More needs to be said about NGOs in Kenya and their neoliberal strategies and practices—I leave that to someone else.
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I return to my initial questions.

If your political hopes and dreams for Kenya were to be realized, how would you experience that Kenya?

  • Describe a typical day in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible, from waking up to going to sleep.
  • Describe a typical week in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical month in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical year in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a possible trajectory for your life in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.

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On further reflection, I realized that a different Kenya has to be co-imagined, precisely because it has to be a shared Kenya. Shared imagining creates a ground on which to work; it provides a world to build; it anchors and provides energy when we are tired and weak and frustrated. Shared imagining creates measurable goals. It might even shape strategies.
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This co-imagining has to start from the quotidian—from the ordinary ways we make and inhabit daily life—if it is to matter. I think this is difficult, especially during an election year.

Election years encourage us to think in big abstractions: 42 against 1, Kenya, the nation, the state, the party, the ethnic nation. The work of the voter is to support and sacrifice and show up. And while vague election promises point to some shared good that will happen—a new road, a new school, a new project—those promises are rarely, if ever, anchored in what those being addressed need or want. In part, because those promising do not know how to listen. Nor are they interested in co-imagining with those they claim to want to represent.
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Imagining and co-imagining are difficult and might even seem impossible in a Kenya where the already vulnerable are becoming even more vulnerable and more groups are being added to the category of the vulnerable. If we can start from how we would like to experience daily life, we might formulate demands we can make of those who seek to represent us; we might create strategies for living together that diminish vulnerability; and we might practice creating the worlds we would like to inhabit.

One thought on “Political Imagination

  1. If you were not cynical and complained and dreamed and believed that this isn’t right and that was wrong, beyond the moral undertone from the place of freedom. Your voice was met now by an all too familiar refrain “welcome to Kenya” …which I presume followed “this is kenya”…Generations Overlap….repeated too often…this becomes a kind of co-option…socialisation into cynicism and stopping imagination in its trucks.

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