Notes Toward a #kenyasyllabus

A syllabus is generative. The framework of readings and activities creates a shared space for thinking and creating. Objects of study produce shared frames of reference—those assembled by those objects may disagree over how those objects mean and work, but the objects create a ground from which to begin and a space to which to return. These processes of beginning and returning, subtended by difference and enriched by interpretation, guide imaginative possibilities. These processes lead to co-imagining, even when difference makes co-imagining difficult and even impossible. Impossibility is often a function of a time-lag: the uneven interval between encounter and transformation.

Shall I be idealistic and say that all co-imagining encounters leave their trace?

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I learned the phrase “dream of a common language” from Adrienne Rich. Before I encountered it, primary school had taught me the difference between official languages—Kiswahili and English are Kenya’s official languages, the languages of governance and administration—and home languages—in polyglot Nairobi, these included multiple ethnic languages inflected by the experiences of urbanity; the varieties of Swahili spoken across accents, never sanifu, always functional; and Sheng, the language of urban youth culture. Vernacular was an odd word, a word we learned early in primary school that purported to describe what was not official.

In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s hands, vernacular was a decolonizing tool—but we are no longer in Kenyatta’s 1970s and Moi’s 1980s, and the decolonizing potential of vernacular languages has been co-opted by Kenyan ethnonationalisms.

From Ngugi’s experiments with community-based vernacular theater, I learned to think about vernacular arts—perhaps vernaculars, in general—as calls to assemble and co-imagine. From Rich’s work, I learned to think about the space of difference in language—those extended white spaces between words in her poems. To think of vernaculars as calls                 to assemble that succeed                 to the extent that they recognize their incomplete nature and always leave                 room for the changing call                of the political. From the varieties of languages spoken in Nairobi, that stew of official and home, functional and invented, I learned to think about creating the languages that are needed, bending and twisting and borrowing and weaving to generate possible worlds—worlds that make us—those assembled—more possible.

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When Kenya promulgated a new constitution in 2010—and in the process leading up to this promulgation—those people designated as “stakeholders” encouraged the rest of us to read the constitution. At the time, I wondered what made a document created by legal experts and NGO bureaucrats legible to those of us not familiar with legal and NGO vernaculars. It was disingenuous to expect non-experts to understand what experts had crafted, especially because non-experts had not been involved in the process of crafting the constitution. Consider, for instance, if the draft constitution had been peer reviewed by primary school students (Std. 6 or 7). Consider if it had been tested in the low-income neighborhoods that make up most of Nairobi. What might those experts who drafted the constitution have done differently if they had made it speak to those it was meant to serve?

The constitution, a legal document full of bureaucratese, was offered as a Kenyan vernacular: a syllabus, if you will, that would guide our imaginations and create possibilities for living and a common language that would provide our differences with a common frame. On the very day it was officially promulgated, it was violated. A few years later, when then-ICC indictees Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were permitted to run for office, it was violated again. I cite only two instances of ongoing constitutional violations. Those who fought for a new constitution continue to insist that it is the “most progressive” constitution in Africa, refusing to acknowledge that a constitution is only as valuable as the promises it enforces. For now, we are saddled with a lumbering, cumbersome document full of bureaucratese that the majority of Kenyans can neither understand nor navigate. The constitution is offered as a vernacular, but it cannot fulfill that role.

The other vernacular offered to Kenyans is human rights.

In the 1980s, Moi singled out Amnesty International as a dissident organization. Dissident was one of Moi’s keywords. Every critique of Moi’s regime from a human rights organization was dismissed as supporting dissidence and attempting to undermine the peace, love, and unity we enjoyed under Moi. Human rights entered Kenya’s vernaculars as a foreign tool—Moi and his propaganda machine described it as foreign—designed to undermine Moi’s regime and something described vaguely as traditional values—a stew of religion and invented traditions. By the early 1990s, human rights assumed a more local face: a signal moment is 1991, when the Kenya Human Rights Commission was established in Washington, DC. It was registered in Kenya in 1994. This movement from DC to Nairobi might seem minor, but it continues to mark how human rights is apprehended in Kenya: as a foreign import.

Kenya’s independence-era government was intent on what was called “Africanization”: to build a skilled, educated labor force that would take over the administrative and professional jobs that had been withheld from Africans. The most significant blueprint for this process was Sessional Paper No. 10: African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, authored by a young Tom Mboya. In the opening section of the Paper, Mboya outlines the objectives of societies:

The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include—

    1. political equality;
    2. social justice;
    3. human dignity including freedom of conscience;
    4. freedom from want, disease, and exploitations;
    5. equal opportunities; and
    6. high and growing per capita incomes equitable distributed

These objectives were to be grounded in African Socialism:

In the phrase “African Socialism,” the word “African” is not introduced to describe a continent to which a foreign ideology is to be transplanted. It is meant to convey the African roots of a system that is itself African in its characteristics. African Socialism is a term describing an African political and economic system that is positively African not being imported from any country or being a blueprint of any foreign ideology but capable of incorporating useful and compatible techniques from whatever source.

Whatever African Socialism was—Mboya’s tautological definition does not help—it was to be African, not imported. Indeed, the entire passage hinges on the distinction between African and foreign.

Human rights is not a key term in the 1965 Sessional Paper and, in fact, the emphasis on African Socialism embedded in African values and “not being imported” casts a long shadow over the reception of human rights in Kenya. African Socialism does not survive long—it is certainly not part of the vernacular that circulates in 70s and 80s political, academic, and popular cultures. But the African/foreign distinction lingers.

Human rights frames were essential to challenging Moi’s regime and creating new ways of imagining ourselves. They have continued to provide legibility for many minoritized Kenyans—poor, queer, sex workers, refugees, stateless—who may speak and be recognized as human rights activists and defenders. At the same time, the transformation of human rights into an industry in Kenya (and elsewhere), most often supported by donor funds from abroad, and now conducted in donor-mandated vernaculars (buzzwords) has made it a difficult frame. Instead of domesticating human rights, finding ways to make UN and donor bureaucratese speak in Kenyan accents, the human rights industry has made learning its buzzwords and bureaucratic procedures a condition for engaging it. Moreover, because human rights frameworks have not been domesticated—made available for popular, everyday use—they remain open to the charge that they are foreign and elitist.

If the constitution and human rights fail to be effective vernaculars, what is circulating in their place? By which I mean, what circulate as shared objects—visual, aural, and written—that assemble Kenyans in ways that generate interpretation while making space for difference?

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What are our shared objects of study? What objects provide the ground from which we depart and to which we return, with our varying interpretations that make space for difference? What objects generate our vernaculars? What objects shape our imaginations?

These questions may seem irrelevant in an era dominated by data. We have data and more data and more data and graphs and charts and statistics and infographics and facts. So many facts. And we are hungry for even more facts.

Forgive me, I hear Mr. Gradgrind:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!

I worry that the data-ification of our lives means that even when presented with disparate objects—history, fiction, poetry, music, photography, sculpture, anthropology—the impulse will be to extract data from it. I worry that our imaginations have been so badly trained and damaged that all we can do is produce more and more data: more reports, more charts, more statistics. From what I’ve observed, the circulation of data does not generate transformative vernaculars.

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Instead of shared objects of study, I think two things circulate: bureaucratic processes and affects.

Bureaucratic processes circulate as the demand for solutions to problems. Those solutions come wrapped up as commissions, committees, task forces, working groups, reports, and endless recommendations, and a key recommendation is always that more study is needed, so more commissions, committees, task forces, working groups, reports, and recommendations, setting up yet another cycle. You cannot complain that nothing is being done, even as you wonder what this thing being done actually is.

Affects circulate, mostly frustration, anger, and exhaustion. As they circulate, they attaches to different bodies and situations: the anger directed toward an indifferent and murderous state finds targets in workplaces and domestic spaces and public spaces. Anger and frustration are gathered and dispersed by ethnonationalisms, generating temporary catharsis while also accumulating more energy.

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Without shared objects of study that might become a #kenyasyllabus—sounds, images, words—we are incapable of creating shared vernaculars that matter to the possibility of a we-formation. We are unable to remain tethered to each other by those objects, even as we co-imagine away from them. We trade data and opinion and quote the constitution and human rights frames at each other, but I am not sure what this produces.

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What might a #kenyasyllabus look like? I don’t know. I assume it will vary across regions, as different objects have different weight for local populations. I assume that its genres will be varied, as it must make room for difference. I assume that as it circulates it will create shared vernaculars—guided by diverse interpretations and open to difference. I assume that it will assemble people and, as it assembles, it will change. I assume that the process of assembling it will model what it means to learn from each other and to share with each other and to live with each other. I assume that the range of objects assembled will be as broad as those who are assembled by those objects, and that the process of studying the assembled objects will take seriously the lifeworlds those objects occupy.