We Have Given Him An Education

“We have given him an education. But what good is it for him?”
– Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease.

The Kenyan school is no longer at ease. From every corner of the country, the children are speaking. And they are saying it in what they know to be the best way we have taught them to present their case. The young man and woman in Form Four in High School today is on the fringes of the age of majority – age eighteen. Nine years ago, this youth watched in shock and confusion as adults set their country on fire in the post election violence of 2007/2008. The child has since been going through teen age and now stands at the threshold of adulthood.

But what childhood has she had? What lessons has the child drawn from the adult world around him? Our county lives in the fast lane of active hate and violence. We have heard that the carpenter thinks that every challenge is a nail. The solution is the harmer. And so he will address a mosquito bite with a harmer. Kenya’s harmer is violence. Violent language and physical violence is the natural cause of life.

We have learnt to face every challenge before us with viciousness. Senators and Governors engage in punch-ups at formal committee meetings. Members of the National Assembly give us a free for all on national TV. They pour water on the Speaker and reach into each other’s underwear on the floor of the House. MCAs do the same. Legislators blow rude whistles and shout down the President during the State of the Nation Address.

Elsewhere, the clergy exchange blows in the middle of a church service. The holy men of God run after one another with stones, as after rats. They throw chairs at one another and set church buildings on fire. Demonstrating political crowds burn private property, without any provocation whatsoever from the owners of the property. A man will walk up to a former Prime Minister and administer three canes upon him at a public rally and Kenyans laugh this off. And politicians preaching ethnic violence will be paraded across the country as heroes at functions christened “homecomings.” Idle crowds turn up to clap and cheer. Politicians exchange both angry words and blows at funerals that they had no business attending in the first place.

Even at the family level, spouses push murderous knives through their partners. Husbands kill their wives and children and set family property on fire.  Young men who don’t know the art of persuasion consider it their right to end the lives of the women they claim to love.

Our people say that as mother cow chews cud, the young one watches her mouth. She also begins chewing. The fires in Kenya’s schools tell of a wider social crisis than we are ready to accept. Experts have attributed the burning of schools to examination related pressure and to an extended school term. Others have cited the clampdown on exam cheating and banning of a cocktail of activities in schools.

Whatever the true grievances, the big question is why the young people think setting their schools on fire is the solution. For, even after we get down to the factors at the heart of the present grievances, there will still be other grievances in future. Such is the nature of society. Should we expect that fire would be the natural option? The assignment before us is twofold. We need to establish what has rankled our children and reach an understanding with them on it. But we need to go beyond that and ask, why the fire option?

In a sense, the fires speak to unfinished business. In December 2007 we burnt our compatriots in a church building. They had sought refuge here from bloodthirsty human hounds. We killed them in cold blood. We set other people’s property on fire throughout the country. We raped, maimed and killed. Today we pretend that this did not happen. But even where we admit it happened, we close our eyes and say that we have moved on. The bad news is that there can be no moving on in such matters, unless it is first comprehensively addressed. The culture of violence over the past two decades has come back to haunt Kenya.

Those looking for solutions to the present crisis within schools have the wrong end of the stick. We are in the throes of a bigger and wider social malady. If it is about exam stealing and cheating, it is because we steal and cheat everywhere else, all the time. We talk these days about “working smart” and not “working hard.” This is euphemism for cheating your way through life. People with brains don’t sweat. They cheat.

The child knows that when he leaves school he will be expected to steal and cheat. Only well connected cheats and thieves thrive in Kenya. The child’s real test is therefore about stealing and cheating in the exam.  Why would they want to work hard when they know that doing things that way will not be too helpful after school?

Another factor to consider is the older sibling or other relatives and neighbors at home. There is the fellow who graduated from university a few years ago and remains unemployed. Young people in school are often inspired by the thought that they will be like some person they know out there – a role model. They are encouraged to know that education is the path to what they wish to become. A sense of hopelessness and disillusionment will overwhelm even the most optimistic learner whose educated relatives and neighbours remain jobless.

Ultimately, the answer to the fires raging through our schools resides not in the schools, but out here where you and I are. The social, economic and political fabric is badly tattered. We must repair it before we can hope for better in our schools. Focus on the schools can only address the symptoms and provide palliative intervention at the very best.

A Universe Of Familial Emotions & Loyalties

We live in a universe of familial emotions and loyalties. Centuries of scientific and technological advancement have not weeded out of us the breed instinct and loyalty. We are like wild beasts. Like the jungle creatures, we troop together for self-preservation.

It is a simple law of nature. A breed that does not hold together will perish. Breeds hang together for breed preservation by bringing offspring into the world. This way they resist extinction. They also stay together for security against external enemies. An animal that strays too far from the common breed will perish. Even zebras will troop together. This way, they can kick hard when they come under attack by the big cats.

Millennia of Christianity have not converted the breed from ancestor worship. Allover the world, Christians worship both God and their ancestors. In the volume Nationalism and New States in Africa, Ali Mazrui and Michael Tidy write, “Even pride in the history of one’s nation (read tribe) is a form of ancestor worship.” He comments further, “ . . . forces of biological reproduction lie behind social and political phenomena which range from ethnic consciousness to race prejudice.”

In this context, is there such a thing as Mulembe consciousness, as ODM rebel politician Ababu Namwamba has suggested? His erstwhile political hero turned adversary, Raila Odinga, quipped in Budalang’i this week, “What is this thing they are calling Mulembe consciousness? It is pumbavu (which is to say pure idiocy).” For his part Namwamba insists that Mulembe consciousness is a reality whose time has come. He invites his former boss to respect this consciousness.

It is instructive that writing in 1984 Mazrui and Tidy recognized the potency of ethnic nationalism as a platform for political mobilization. Listen to them again, “  . . . forces of biological reproduction lie behind social and political phenomena, which range from ethnic consciousness to race prejudice.” Mazrui and Tidy have an example galore of this consciousness (and prejudice, too).

Primitive forces of ethnic consciousness are at work when a black man is lynched in the United States for taking erotic interest in a white woman. It is the same thing at work when Idi Amin expels Asians from Uganda because they are socially and sexually exclusivist. When Adolf Hitler asserts the doctrine of the superiority of the Aryan race, the same forces of biological reproduction are at work.

In the end, we cannot deny familial nationhood. But we can deny familial consciousness among some families. Indeed, all nations are familial and tribal. Equally important, they are emotive. The levels of emotional response to external stimuli will vary from one nation to the other. This will depend on the extent of the community’s consciousness about itself as a nation. Hence Mulembe consciousness may be absent. But Mulembe   nationhood cannot be denied. At this level, the Mulembe Nation is not any different from the Mwanyagetinge Nation in the Gusii Highlands, the Ramogi Nation in the Lake Basin, or the House of Mumbi in the Mt. Kenya region.

The fundamental difference between the Mulembe Nation on the one hand and the House of Mumbi and the Ramogi Nation on the other hand is self-awareness among the children of Mumbi and those of Ramogi. The Mulembe people lack this self-awareness. It is possible, for example, for a perceived “outsider” to go to the land of Mulembe and quip, “What is this Mulembe Nationalism? It’s pure abracadabra.” He will get away with it. The very children of Mulembe that he is addressing will even applaud him. The same cannot happen among the children of Mumbi, or those of Ramogi. They are more conscious and protective of their nationhood. This could be a good or bad thing, depending on how they protect their nationhood.

The Kenyan nation as we know it is in the end a function of artifice. For 53 years, we have been trying to build a common cohesive nation from a diversity of over 40 nations. Some ethnic nations have accepted the notion of the Kenyan nation. Others have not. The Mulembe people belong to the former category. They place Kenya before their tribe. Others place the tribe before Kenya.

Namwamba and others like him are trying to arouse ethnic self-awareness among the Mulembe people. They would like them to be conscious of their ethnicity like the rest of the populous Kenyan nations. This could be good or bad, depending on what they do with this consciousness, assuming that they can find it. For his part, Cord leader, Raila Odinga, intends to nip this Mulembe consciousness in the bud. It must not be allowed to blossom. If it does, the Mulembe people will be most difficult to do political business with. So, kill it in the embryonic stage. This explains his current mission in the Land of Mulembe.

But Odinga is not alone in this regard. Deputy President William Ruto plays in the same league. The DP has recently publicly scoffed at the insect eating habits of the Mulembe people and their leaders. They must remain in tentative space for ease of political utilization. Yet is there anything new about this? Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga introduced into Kenyan psyche the notion that there was no such thing as the Mulembe Nation. Tom Mboya had a slightly different perception. He admitted the existence of the Mulembe Nation. However, he said, the Mulembe Nation was no more than a ladder. Anyone who knew how to use it could do so with ease. Retired President Moi came quite close to Mboya in this respect. He said the Mulembe Nation was like a pot of the traditional busaa beer. Anyone with a drinking pipe could siphon from the pot at will.

The seasonal fight for the populous Mulembe Nation has only begun. It is too soon to tell who the victor will be. Will Namwamba and Co stir up the sleeping Mulembe soul? Or will external huntsmen tear it in different directions in the traditional manner?

Single Story

Prof. Edward Kisiangani calls it the prime narrative. Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie calls it the single story. And social science scholars Daniel Lerner and Everett Rogers called it the dominant paradigm. It all boils down to one thing – intolerance. It is the intemperate belief that there can only be one way of looking at things. There is only one truth and it is a gospel truth. The higher the source of the single story, the more binding it must be to all who hear it.

The single story is always a fanatical narrative. That was why Lerner and Everett called it the dominant paradigm. It seeks to repress all other perspectives while demonizing freedom of thought and conscience. Independence of mind descends to thought-crime. George Orwell wrote about the acme of the rule of the dominant narrative in the volume Nineteen-Eighty-Four. In the end, you have a massive sleepwalking population that worships Big Brother, the master of the single story.

Orwell tells us of a downtrodden community of Big Brother’s worshippers. They were “swallowers of slogans, amateur spies and nosers-outers for unorthodoxy.” They are the big man’s civilian army. In Orwell’s world, they will hand you over to the authorities to be vaporized. In our times, they will run you out of town with invective. The master narrative allows no debate, no conscience. In the place of these there is only insolence and diatribe. It is all meant to stifle the birth of a new free world.

The culture of the prime narrative defines the political reality in Kenya today. As is the case in every dystopia ruled by single narratives, there is an unhealthy political duality. Each duality demonizes the other. Hence, in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Big Brother, his party and thought police focus the public’s attention on Immanuel Goldstein, their nemesis.

We are told of Goldstein, “He was an object of hatred . . . He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author . . .” In short, the outsiders are the devil’s own people.

Are we coming to this pass in Kenya? Can we only see things in the unhealthy duality of the Jubilee Alliance and the Forum for Reform and Democracy (Cord)? And is either of them at once paradise and the devil’s kingdom, depending on where you look at it from? If you see it from inside it is paradise. If you are on the outside it is the devil’s kingdom.

I don’t where Ababu Namwamba is headed, after his fallout with Raila Odinga, whom he at one time glorified. Kenyans will recall the day in February 2008, when Ababu attempted to digress from the usual parliamentary oath of office. He tried to pledge his loyalty to “my President Raila Amolo Odinga,” to the dismay of many. Now that political amity is on the rocks. Ababu says that he is being sabotaged in ODM. For their part, ODM chiefs say Ababu has abdicated his responsibility as the Orange party’s Secretary General.

There has been no useful debate after the press conference that Ababu and several other MPs from his ethnic community held to catalogue their grievances. Perhaps these would have been matters best sorted out within party forums. But they say party organs had long ceased to function. Only they and their nemeses know the truth, one way or the other.

Whatever the case, what should have given ground for debate on how political parties are managed in Kenya has turned into a mutual hate campaign.  Ababu and his team are accused of having “been bought by Jubilee.” In other words, there are only two spaces in Kenya – the Jubilee space and the Cord space. Are we being told that if you leave Cord then you must of necessity exit into Jubilee?

The same intolerance is also in Jubilee, of course. The slightest shade of different opinion from the common narrative will lead you to be demonized. Today their focus is on dissolution of Jubilee member parties and creation of a monolith. Those who question this are demonized. They are considered Cord moles and enemies of the alliance.

The country is sitting in a dangerous place if the only possible response to dissenting opinion is demonization and insolence. The advent of social media has taken this to a new high. Social media is itself a good thing. Like Chairman Mao use to say, “Let a million flowers blossom.”

Citizen journalism on these platforms can be very useful in reigning in rogue leadership. Yet most of the time there is no reasoned argument. People are unhappy with what you say purely out of emotions – mostly ethnic based emotions.  They don’t, therefore, pause to reflect on the merits of what has been said. They resort to intolerant insults and cheap propaganda.

Going forward, Kenyans may need to encourage each other to face issues without the raw anger that comes out of dominant single stories. Free debate and divergence of opinion must be encouraged. This cannot, however, be the same as insolence and character assassination. I have often found myself being enlisted in social media groups whose members excel in trading mutual intolerance, anger and insults. Needless to say, I don’t last beyond a few days in any of these forums.

More fundamentally, this country could be gravitating towards the ultimate Armageddon. We are fast losing the capacity to listen to each other and to agree to disagree. We are incubating disastrous intolerance, with political podiums and social media platforms as the breeding and testing grounds. We might just see all this coming to full maturity at the next general poll.

The need for preemptive tolerance and peace dialogues that support healthy political plurality cannot be overemphasized. Meanwhile anyone posting hostile and abusive messages on any of my personal social media platforms – for or against – will be permanently blocked. Debate must be sober and dignified.

Eliezer Wiesel Died Last Saturday

Does the world learn anything? Eliezer “Ellie” Wiesel, who died last Saturday, aged 87 liked asking this question. Ellie was born a Hungarian Jew. He later became an American citizen. As a teenager, he was tortured at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Adolph Hitler’s Germany. He lost both parents and many other close relatives in the Holocaust.

Having survived the camps, he would go on to devote the rest of his life to creation of awareness about the Holocaust. A distinguished academic and Nobel laureate, Wiesel has been very highly respected in Western scholarly and political circles as a crusader against intolerance and injustice. Critics, however, say he has not approached the Palestinian question with the same gusto as he has addressed the Holocaust. The jury is still out there, however.

Wiesel wrote many books. He taught many students and travelled far and wide giving lectures on conflict, war and peace. His abiding memories and reflections on the Holocaust are captured in the volume titled Night. First published in French, Night has been translated into 30 languages. It sold in its millions. Dawn and Day are sequels to Night. There are two overriding thoughts in Wiesel’s philosophy. First is that the world has the propensity to look on in silence as the captains of wickedness and evil do their worst. If the world did not embrace the conspiracy of silence in the face of intolerance and injustice, it would be a safer place. But those who should speak out will usually remain silent if, in their judgment, the injustice does not touch them.

It was Wiesel’s perception that the world remained silent as Jews died in their millions in Hitler’s concentration camps. Indeed, the original title for Night was And the World Remained Silent.

The second overriding thought is that the world learns nothing from the unending tragedies that afflict it. Four days before Wiesel died, the merchants of intolerance and terror attacked the airport at Istanbul, Turkey. Forty-four people died. Another 240 were injured. Before the world could even adequately express shock, gunmen took over a bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They killed twenty-eight people. Baghdad was next on the cards. At the time of this writing, a car bomber had claimed 292 lives. The numbers could rise. Medina followed. This particular attack was on one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Prophet’s Mosque.

So who said that these people were fighting for Islam? But do I run ahead of myself? The same day, the merchants of terror had attacked sites in Jeddah and Qatif in Saudi Arabia.  All these dastardly acts took place in the space of five days. Instructively, they came towards the end of the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan.  We could ask again with Wiesel, does the world learn anything?

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was meanwhile in the news this week, alleging to have learnt something. In 2003 Blair escorted President George Bush to war in Iraq much the same way a poodle accompanies the master. The two went to Iraq in defiance of the UN.  Now Blair has half-heartedly apologized to his country for precipitately taking it to war. His reluctant admission comes in the wake of a damning seven-year investigation his country carried out on the war.

The report was terrible on Blair. He wrote an email pledging to follow Bush to the dessert war, “whatever the case.” Regardless of what the then Mohamed ElBaradei led Atomic Energy Agency would find out on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, Blair would take the UK to war! When Robin Cook resigned from Blair’s cabinet in protest he was parodied in political insolence.  Now Blair admits that the war was not justified. Yet he goes on to say he did the world a great deal by going to Iraq to kill Saddam. Humankind would be in a worse place had he not invaded Iraq, he says.

It is difficult to imagine anything worse than the blasts that rock us everywhere all the time, despite the security rigours that are now a part of our lives. We live in fear of the unknown attacker, everywhere. You just can’t tell when and where they are going to bring your life to a sudden end. In all this, the solution seems to be more and more securitization. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama told us that we had come to the end of learning. He published the book titled The End of History and the Last Man. Western Capitalism had defeated Eastern Communism with the end of the Cold War. What remained was for capitalism to rule the world in tranquility, forever.

Does capitalism need to ask itself where it went wrong? In the prime of our youth, my generation found Marxist socialist notions exciting. If Karl Marx had described religion as the opium of the masses, Marxism was the opium of budding undergraduates the world over. We believed in the imminence of a scientific revolution that would never be.  In the fullness of time, our excitement was nothing more than harmless youthful hot air.

The demise of Marxist socialist idealism has today given way to an intolerant religious idealism and fanaticism among young people. Yet does the world need to pause and reflect? To ask why young people are so angry about the established global order? In response to Fukuyama’s book, his teacher Samuel Huntington published, in 1996, the volume titled Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the World Order. Huntington argued that people’s cultural and religions identities would be the source of conflict in the post Cold War dispensation. It is certainly happening.

Is the world learning anything? Global securitization would hardly seem to be the solution to the terror and fear that rules our times. Does the case for structured global cultural conversations seem to justify itself? In tandem with this is the need to give young people the world over something to hope for; something to believe in. The emerged world order does not seem to care at all about the future of a majority of the youth who wallow in poverty and hopelessness in Africa, Asia and in the Arab world. Emerging global conversations must address the cultural and existential questions that Huntington has raised on the remaking of the world order.