Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Kenyan Roulette

Once, when I was young boy, one of my numerous uncles, a policeman by trade, came calling. He had with him a rifle and he set it down in the corner of the room. I couldn’t take my eyes of it as he and my dad chatted away. Its presence in the room was both terrifying and comforting. Terrifying because of what it could do. Comforting because, at least in my childish imagination, it would be doing it on my behalf, wielded by people on my side against those who would do me harm.

As I have grown older and hopefully wiser, I have come to see that the state’s capacity for violence is rarely comforting, that the state rarely wields its violence on my behalf. Rarely does it carry guns into homes to protect the people within. Neither is it a source of comfort to encounter them in the streets.

Though we like to tout ourselves as exceptional, as an island of peace, Kenya is actually a very violent place, where the language of violence is routinely used to mediate relationships, between parents and their children, teachers and their students, the men and their women, the rich and the poor, the state and its subjects Security and peace seem to have become the passwords to a system of exclusion that means at any time any of us could be at the receiving end even as we declare we have peace and security. On the receiving end, in fact, to preserve peace and security.

Violence has become normalized, acceptable, desirable even. It has become a way to build the nation by constantly defining ourselves in terms of opposition to one another. Kenyanness is constantly recreated  by acts of violence. Thus it becomes the height of patriotism to call for a war with Uganda over a tiny piece of rock in Lake Victoria. And unpatriotic to question the actions of the government in Somalia or in a shopping mall in Nairobi.

In the aftermath of the Westgate attacks, Kenya will again be redefined by the violence we will mete out against those we have othered. Today it is the Muslims, the refugees, the Somalis, and the Somalians. There will be little outrage when doors in Eastleigh are kicked down and people in Garissa are hauled away and some village in Somalia is leveled the name of fighting terrorism. Just as when it’s the turn of civil society activists and ICC witnesses to be threatened or hunted down in the name of preserving a tenuous peace. Before them, the Kikuyu, the Luo, the the Kalenjin the Oromo, the Sabaots, the Pokot, the Turkana, the Whites, the Indians. Everyone gets their turn on the Kenyan Roulette.

In this Republic of Fear, there is little need for justice, or values, or rights. Only someone on whom to focus our ferocity, and with whose body and dignity to establish our claim to togetherness. We constantly terrorize and dehumanize. It is a place where the victims of that violence are told to accept and move on. Where cops laugh at women reporting rape. Where a senior public official can tell the hundreds of thousands displaced by the 2007/8 post-election violence that they came out “way ahead” and face no opprobrium. It is a place where we fight, not to end oppression, but for our turn to be the oppressors, our turn to eat.

The republic is defined by the very violence we say we want to end but yet celebrate. Where the fear, adorned in the language of civility, is what unites. Where we are one because, not despite, our terror of one another. A place where reconciliation becomes a euphemism for “until next time.” A place where economic growth need not generate good jobs nor end poverty, where the purveyors of violence take what they want, when they want. Where we dare not question official truths lest we are ourselved othered.

I suppose we are not unique. It is in the nature of states to be violent. They are after all the product of exclusion. Parceling out the world according to arbitrary imaginary lines drawn on maps by men of power can only create communities where the state is allowed to decide who is a human being and who is not and where we can legitimately have otherwise obscene arguments over who deserves dignity and who doesn’t. Where humanity is accessed and indeed defined by things like citizenship and passports and IDs, the state gets to certify your very existence and can declare you a non-person.

The malevolent power, represented by the menacing presence of that gun in the corner of the room, can only offer a temporary comfort, an illusory safety, a false peace. True comfort will only come with true community, when we embrace our humanity and refuse to be defined by the logic of the state, by the logic of othering, the logic of fear. When we are one with all, not just with those who look like us or speak like us or believe what we do. Otherwise, we'll just have to take our chances on the roulette.


Anonymous said...

this was sad to read, in all its truth. does Kenya need a complete reinvent? who will be fearless and strong and committed enough to see it through? will we the people understand and accept a reinvention?

Anonymous said...

since states are based on exclusion and arbitrary lines (they really are!) drawn by powerful men, and are unceasingly violent, what do you suggest? A gentle garden with a global village in which people are not 'othered' and they all join hands and sing of the wonders of soy protein? what precisely is your point other than to cry that the world is a really bad place where really bad things happen?

Unknown said...

Waw! This is eye opening. How often do we point fingers, at those "others"! I agree that to go round the Kenyan roulete, we need to embrace each other, in our diversities, as a community.

Ace Maxs said...

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