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Monday, October 20, 2014

My Mashujaa? Why, Bitches and Kvetches, Of Course!

In her insightful article, Memorialisation and memory of human rights abuses: a Kenyan example, Laragh Larsen notes the importance of memorials in not just commemorating the past but also in sanitising it. She also highlights the importance of alternatives to the official histories propagated by the state: “While official memory of Mau Mau was suppressed through decades of state-endorsed amnesia,” she writes, “published memoirs of former fighters and detainees of the rebellion allowed Mau Mau to stay alive in the public memory.”

As we mark Mashujaa Day, a day which is meant to commemorate the heroes of the past as well as those of the present, it is important that we remember that many of these heroes (and heroines) will not be found in the official rosters put out by government officials. Indeed, many will be offering subversive alternatives to the official truth propagated by government spin doctors and media pundits. Because these narratives will generally seek to debunk the optimistic vision that these are selling, their purveyors are easily branded as inveterate complainers and doyens of negativity.

In fact, complaining has never been particularly appreciated as part of our national democratic discourse. On Mashujaa Day, Machakos Governor, Alfred Mutua had no problems preaching “unity and development free from poverty politics,” to a county with poverty levels of 64 per cent. The very word “complain”carries a negative connotation as do its synonyms, such as moan or grumble. As Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth, says, “to complain is always non-acceptance of what is. It always carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain you make yourself a victim.”  It is many times associated with empty, supposedly unconstructive criticism, a capricious exercise of the vainglorious power of the put-down. "Complaint gives you power, even when it's only the power of emotional bribery, of creating previously unnoticed levels of social guilt," writes Robert Hughes, author of Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America.

In a 2001 article for Time, Hughes bemoans “the all-pervasive claim to victimhood,”  and “a juvenile culture of complaint in which Big Daddy is always to blame and the expansion of rights goes on without the other half of citizenship: attachment to duties and obligations. ”

 But the fact is whiners and gripes are critical to the proper functioning of any democracy and any governance and service delivery framework built on the tenets of free consent. They are the ones who alert us to wrong doing and incompetence, who let us know when we are getting a raw deal. An inquiry into the appalling care offered between 2005 and 2008 at the main hospital in Stafford in the UK acknowledged the importance of bellyaching. “In the end, the truth was uncovered in part by attention being paid to the true implications of its mortality rates, but mainly because of the persistent complaints made by a very determined group of patients and those close to them. This group wanted to know why they and their loved ones had been failed so badly,” says the Francis report, which was released last year. The House of Commons Public Affairs Select Committee in a follow up inquiry found “that valuing complaints and supporting people who feel the need to complain should be at the heart of the values which drive public services,” and even recommending that “there should be a minister for government policy on complaints handling.” As the late American novelist, Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you keep silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

In Kenya, it was malcontents and inveterate complainers such as Dedan Kimathi, Bildad Kaggia, Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Achieng Oneko, Daniel arap Moi and Pio Gama Pinto, who hastened the onset of independence. They took their gripes right to the heart of the colonial edifice. And when the regimes they formed turned to be little different from those of their British predecessors, it fell to moaners like Jean-Marie Seroney, Martin Shikuku, Raila Odinga, Koigi wa Wamwere, Wangari Maathai, Timothy Njoya, Kivutha Kibwana and John Githongo who kept the fire of resistance alive.

Today, these and many others will or should be honoured for what they did. But even as we raise memorials to them, we must beware that which is sanitised, not just the unsavoury past of many of our heroes, but also the contemporary grouches whom we will not acknowledge. In the last few years, despite the “expanded democratic space” Kenyans love to crow about, it has actually become much less fashionable to bitch about and challenge official narratives of progress and development. It has not been easy for those who have sought to develop and propagate other stories and to keep alive memories that the country would rather forget. 

In fact, there has been a concerted effort to silence alternative voices, to generate an atmosphere of unremitting optimism which is oppressive to any suggestions to the contrary. Questions over the utility of the infrastructure projects the government is undertaking are given short shrift as are concerns over its subversion of the constitution to protect the President from trial at The Hague. During his Mashujaa Day address, President Uhuru himself decried what he called "constant negativity" and "endless, noisy and unproductive politicking," urging the country to concentrate on "development." Those who query his government's commitment to values such as justice, the rule of law and equity are accused of being agents of foreign powers, lacking in patriotism. Sovereignty is conflated with uncritical support for the government and love for country with silence over its many shortcomings.

A recent example can be found in the furore over reports that civil society activists had called for sanctions if the government was found to have breached its obligation to cooperate with the International Criminal Court. Putting to one side the fact the the activists in question say they issued no such call, it is curious that concern over the alleged failure by those in authority to live up to the requirements of a treaty that is part of our own laws is controversial; that demanding action against such a government is somehow unpatriotic. Here one is reminded of the calls for economic sanctions by the then opposition during the struggle against the Moi dictatorship. Further, when the Kenya government, which has itself raised matters before the ICC at international fora, including at the UN, expresses concern when others do the same, it arrogates to itself the sole right to fulminate and affirms the view that the official truth is the only one that should be heard.

Yet we need to hear the issues, stories and memories kept alive by the moaners. By the people at Brainstorm, by the refusal of Prof Wambui Mwangi to forget the suffering of our women and Denis Nzioka that of the LGBTI community, by the likes of Shailja Patel, Prof Keguro Macharia and Abdullahi Boru who will not let us forget about Kasarani and the victims of Operation Usalama Watch, the folks at Maskani and Pawa 254 who are generating new and useful conversations about where we are headed as a country. The much denigrated denizens of civil society who refuse to be silenced. These and many others, too numerous to name, both online and offline, are the one who dare to raise their voice, to say it is not all sunshine and roses, to demand equality and justice.

So here’s to the complainers and the bellyaches, the grouches and the gripes, the bitches and the kvetches, the grouses and the squawks. For their non-acceptance of what is, they are my Mashujaa.

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