I am impressed–and frankly intimidated—by people who consume and regurgitate large amounts of information. In primary school, these people memorized every single political figure in Kenya, from the president to every local headman. In high school, they memorized every single Kenyan export, knowing where it was produced, in what quantities, how it was processed, and where it shipped. Today, they memorize every single bit of data on Kenya from the World Bank and are happy to recite it all, if prompted. These people are at home in the age of Big Data because they have been practicing all their lives.
We admire these people, describing them as clever, wise, informed, and, at times, radical.
sidenote: my brain does not work like this—I have zero abilities to memorize anything
sidenote: some of the most popular Kenyans on Twitter specialize in generating facts and information, some historical, some contemporary, some statistics, some images
rarely, if ever, do these figures specify *where* they get their facts and information—knowledge asymmetries generate and fortify power relations
the subject who knows
One version of the narrative goes like this: under Moi, the government was secretive. We lived with rumor and gossip—we survived through rumor and gossip—but it was difficult to get proper, uncensored information. The “witnesses say/state agents say” structure of the Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission demonstrates this difficulty. Repeatedly, state agents who participated in atrocities fail to remember what happened, when it happened, if they were involved, and if they knew anything about it. Repeatedly, the Commission chooses to “witnesses say/state agents say” as opposed to siding with witnesses.
State policy: we cannot know for sure.
Under Kibaki, as part of what has been termed “the second liberation,” information became more available. More accurately, the internet happened. Government reports and other data circulated more rapidly. We were IMF this and World Bank that and African Development Bank this and X, Y, and Z Commission that and Report this and Report that and Report the other. It felt like we had been in training for all this information: we read and ate and devoured and gorged and charted and graphed and created more reports and more data to read and eat and devour and gorge and chart and graph. If knowledge was power, we felt like the most powerful, most informed, most knowledgable, most adept thinkers in Kenya’s history.
We blossomed into thousands of NGOs, each with a Mission and Vision, a Board of Directors, a schedule of Workshops and Trainings, a Grant cycle, a list of Projects, a Reporting schedule. We generated more data, being careful to send it to Partners Abroad—not sure how people who fund and monitor and approve and disapprove and create precarious structures while upholding white supremacist power structures are partners—and, when possible, passing on copies of our reports to “relevant” government departments.
Our key terms were “human rights” and “development,” “brave” and “heartbreaking,” “heartwarming” and “tragic,” “courage” and “resilience.” We were “creating solutions to problems,” “working on the ground,” “engaging the grassroots.” Producing more data about “the ground” and “grassroots” and changing lives.
Elsewhere, I have described the dominant aesthetic structure that emerged under Kibaki as “report realism.” Report realism generated the figures we could see and imagine, the narrative trajectories we could develop and imagine, the concerns that dominated fiction and poetry. I would now amend that earlier claim to say that report realism dominated Kenyan imaginations, not simply those of creative writers. The problem-solution model of report realism, the data-gathering, data-spouting, data-publishing, data-graphing, data-fetishism dominates Kenyan thinking.
Information is useful. Data is useful.
I do not think the cram habits we learn teach us how to use information and data in interesting ways.
Kenyatta and Moi succeeded in eliminating radical Marxist thinkers from Kenya’s higher education and politics. (Marxists are excellent at helping us see and track systems and structures. Right now, we are stuck at firing individual people, instead of dismantling unhumaning, white supremacist, ethno-patriarchal systems.) Kibaki embraced and championed the neoliberalism that had been imposed on Kenya through structural adjustment. Concepts and practices of economic justice became unthinkable under Kibaki’s “hustle and grind till you make it” Kenya.
It became difficult, if not impossible, to name the systems that were destroying us: capitalism, ethno-patriarchy, ethno-nationalism, colonial structures of administration. It became difficult, if not impossible to imagine radical, anti-colonial, freedom-practicing actions.
We cannot reform colonial institutions. Their ongoing mission is to uphold white supremacy and to make black and African life unthinkable.
Little of how Kenyan education and civic life is organized helps us grapple with the coloniality and white supremacy of the institutions we inhabit and navigate. It is not simply that criminality is still governed by a colonial-era penal code designed to criminalize and unhuman poor and black Africans; it is also that our terms for achievement continue to draw from colonial paradigms: civilized, mannerly, gentlemen, ladies, developed, cosmopolitan. Instead of thinking and working through and across difference in creative ways, we continue to use “primitive” and “undeveloped” to dismiss each other.
I have benefitted from all these systems too much not to be part of the “we” and “us” I am using. Plus, I want to dismiss any sense that I stand apart from the map I am describing.
We should not mistake the sophistication of the tools and methods we use for the complexity of the work we undertake.
We know that white supremacists recruited Africans as clerks during colonialism: to count and record. I think gathering, arranging, and transmitting data to “international partners” is much the same thing.
Power asymmetries abound. White supremacy rules.
Data-gathering is an unending exercise. Every single report I have read includes “more research required” as one of its recommendations.
Radical ideas are disciplined. Radical imaginations are disciplined. Freedom becomes unthinkable and unimaginable.
What do we need to know to desire freedom?
What do we need to know to pursue freedom?
What do we need to know to practice freedom?
I must use “we” because freedom is a practice of sociality. Freedom is co-imagined, co-created, co-pursued, co-practiced. It is not granted by an authorizing figure or document. It does not appear fully formed for us to grasp and use.
a confession: a beneficiary of these unhumaning, anti-black, ethno-patriarchal systems, I continue to struggle to imagine freedom