Thursday, April 11, 2013

An Easy Patriotism

This morning, I attended my daughter’s school’s prize giving ceremony. One of the many presentations put on by the kids was a rendition of Eric Wainaina’s Daima Mkenya. As they sang sweetly and innocently, I found myself mourning a lost childhood, a bygone age when being Kenyan was easy. When all one had to do was fly a flag, sing an anthem and say a pledge of loyalty. When we did not need to be convinced of our Kenyanness.

By contrast, much of the rest of the programme was spent lecturing us, the adults, on the need to keep peace, to stay united, to remember our Kenyanness. It seems that as we grow older, the easy patriotism of childhood, unencumbered by complicated issues of identity, history and ethnicity, becomes less satisfying. How we understand ourselves and the ties we have to others, even to childhood friends with whom we may have once stood on a stage and performed a patriotic skit, become hostage to the vagaries of experience and exposure. We still have our moments of easy nationalism, such as when a national sports team does well or when one of our world-beating athletes wins a gold medal.

For most of the time, however, Kenyanness is something we have to recreate and rediscover for ourselves. It is hard work to be empathetic to your fellow countrymen, to try to understand and find common bonds with people -sometimes thousands of kilometres away, sometimes just across the road- whose experience of reality is far removed from ours, whose culture and customs are alien to us. It is uncomfortable to countenance the poverty and misery that exists in our midst and to contemplate our role, and that of our fathers, in the subjugation and impoverishment of our fellow citizens. For the most part, we prefer not to think about these things. We just want to get on with our lives.

Time heals all wounds, we tell ourselves. If we work hard, produce enough to grow an economy, then all will be forgiven and forgotten. The discomfiting issues will go away, or at least we will not have to deal with them. This now seems to be entrenched as Kenya’s post-election maxim. Let us move on and build the nation. To be honest, there’s nothing I would like better. I would love to agree with President Uhuru Kenyatta that, a few moments of anxiety aside, the poll “helped define and make stronger our democracy” and that “Kenyans had real choices.” Or with Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan graduate student at the University of Oxford, who wrote that the poll showed that “democracy in Kenya is working the best way it can."

I would like to believe that what we just witnessed was nothing exceptional, in the grand scheme of things. After all, as Charles Onyango Obbo puts it, “are messy and divisive not just in Kenya but everywhere.” So what’s the point of dwelling on it? Like everyone else, I long for an easy patriotism.

But I know that something is seriously wrong when we have to be constantly reminded that the outcome of an election is not a matter of life and death, when people stockpile food and water in its anticipation. I cannot ignore the fear that the election exposed, and the ease with which we were stampeded into tribal stockades. I know that this was not the best election we could have had, and that a democracy in which a large proportion of the population feels it has no say is neither working nor strengthened.

I sense a problem when choices have less to do with the welfare of the people than with that of those who lord it over them, when election campaigns are used to undermine global institutions.

I also know that while the economy matters, a lasting peace can only be built on a foundation of justice. And that it is only when we openly acknowledge and address the wounds of the past that we can truly move on.

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