When something has to give (or, towards hope)

Michael Onsando
24 July ,2018

“The system adopted in Kenya is African Socialism, but the characteristics of the system and the economic mechanisms it implies have never been spelled out fully in an agreed form.”

  • Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965, Part I, 6

“There are two African traditions which form an essential basis for African Socialism—political democracy and mutual social responsibility. Political democracy implies that each member of society is equal in his political rights and that no individual or group will be permitted to exert undue influence on the policies of the State. The State, therefore, can never become the tool of special interests, catering to the desires of a minority at the expense of the needs of the majority. The State will represent all of the people and will do so impartially and without prejudice.”

Perhaps the imagining of an idea must always happen at it’s purest. Perhaps there was more room to be optimistic at the birth of the nation. Whatever it is I always feel a sense of possibility when I read article from around post independence Kenya. There’s a feeling of thought and deliberateness from the collective on what things should mean/how they should be.

The story of the Ndungu Report is one of systematic perversion of established procedures meant to protect public interest for political gain and the unjust enrichment of a few. It needs to be told.”

Ndung’u Land Report

Still, the story itself is in the telling. It’s also around the time that these ideals were being spoken of that the country was being divided amidst anyone who could afford to be in the room (or, as legend has it, according to how long mzee Kenyatta slept).

“Corruption scandals have become a “fact of life” for many Kenyans, who have come to regard them as just another facet of Kenyan life, alongside high taxes, poor service delivery, our “cult of personality” approach to politics and religion, and the misfortunes occasioned to us by terrorism. These burdens seem to be ours for the long haul, and we seem to have accepted them, albeit half-heartedly. It is tiresome to watch or listen to the news; even being on Twitter at a time when one was not prepared for shock or disappointment can derail one’s entire day.“ 

Maybe it is the rise of report realism, maybe it is the coming out of 24 years of repression under Moi or maybe the writers are just often in a bad mood. Today’s tone is less hopeful, less believing. It’s impossible to go through the papers without sensing the despair. There is no hope, looking for hope or trying toward hope. Only a resounding cry of how deep in it we are – and how much deeper we are going.

A theory I’ve heard floating around involves institutional memory. This narrative begins with Kenya as an idea that was imposed upon these 43 peoples. Not through war, territorial battles and forging of trusted relationships are we bound, but by subjugation. In this narrative, corruption becomes a machine for the redirection of resources back to the people (idealized). Of course, in the absence of a colonial overlord, it just becomes stealing the meat from your own soup and serving it to the dogs. But institutions remember, and so corruption becomes the embedded language of the August house.

A friend writes on email,

“At some point many of the people who start off working against corruption end up in the very positions of power that dictate that they steal. Because people have failed to realize that politics is not a subjective game. You don’t come into it with your feelings and try to change it. The people who have been the greatest change factors have always done so outside of the political system – especially when the issue was corruption.” 

There must be more at play here.

Another friend of mine talks about how it is not what power is but rather what it is about spaces (obligations, responsibilities and roles) and how those spaces shape us. To come up against institutional memory is to have an institution remind you what you are coming up against.

“If they want to fight drug barons if they want to fight the al shabaab, if they want to fight crime – they can do it. But they can’t fight crime, they can’t fight al shabaab, they can’t fight barons because everyone has a cut in it.”

Mohammed Ali

“In a video, the angry youth called out Moha for betraying the trust they had on him by associating with the Jubilee government despite corruption scandals rocking the government from within.” 

“The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include— 

(i) Political equality;

(ii) Social justice;

(iii) Human dignity including freedom of conscience;

(iv) Freedom from want, disease, and exploitations;

(v) Equal opportunities; and

(vi) High and growing per capita incomes, equitably distributed.”

Perhaps, when working towards this goal, and in defining this goal – we lost sight of what it looks like.

“We must see killability as too high a price to pay for development, for peace.” 

  • Keguro Macharia

And maybe we’re tired of paying the price.

Between Hope and a Hard Place

Michael Onsando
29 April ,2014

On many occasions when talking about Brainstorm, the journal, the future and the work that we believe that this journal should do, I’ve been asked about hope. This question comes up again with people who read my blog. And it’s not just me, it’s like the message that is being passed across by many writers, many thinkers is, “we’re screwed.”

In Kampala during a question and answer session, I’m asked this by someone who reads me often. They ask why I don’t write happier things, why I don’t give people hope. In response I get angry. “If happier writers do not have a burden of sorrow imposed upon them, why must I carry this burden of joy?” are the exact words I use to reply. I remember these words verbatim because they stay with me for months.

In ‘Beyond Hope’ environmentalist Derrick Jensen writes:

“When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.”

Then there’s this word ‘despair.’ It carries an utter desolateness within itself. It is defined as ‘the complete loss or absence of hope’ but, I believe, that is not the meaning that has attached itself to the word. While I do feel, to a large extent, completely without hope for Kenya, I do not feel despair.

Despair carries with itself the connotation that nothing can be done. And, because nothing can be done, nothing will be done. Further, in doing nothing, the original statement is proven – nothing can be done. Despair is, within itself, a self fulfilling  prophecy.

I have never been a big fan of hope. Even as I write that, however, I realize I have never been a big fan of despair either. Both seem to create a situation of inaction. In ‘Problems with Names’ Sara Ahmed writes:

“I would argue that if feminism is to have a future in the academy, we need to name sexism, we need to give this problem its name; we need to revolt against sexism.”

While she is talking about sexism, I think this applies to much more than that. It is important that we be able to give things names. That we be able to touch them, feel them, identify and analyze them. There is a space where I am now. It is not a place where I feel hope, neither is it a place of despair. What do we call this place? How do we interact with it if we can’t touch it?

When I started writing this, I was thinking about how to be hopeful about the country. How does one navigate and  keep their chin up when we are actively un-humaning an entire community? Even the things we find to be happy about are vastly outweighed by the others. I, for example, really like the ice cream at Sno Cream. How does this weigh in what I need to write about vis-à-vis everything else that is happening in the world, the continent, the country – my neighbourhood?

There is a two way divide that has been created in Kenya. This divide has been created for writers who exist here.  The writers who pretend nothing is wrong and are very happy about Kenya, and the writers who, basically, say that “We’re screwed.” Both these writers run off the need to tell a different story. (Think about how we repel stories of a backward village type Kenya with stories of skyscrapers). This divide has been extended to emotion. One is either hopeful for the future of the country or in complete despair.

This is obviously not true.

The first reason this can’t be true is that we know that human beings are complex creatures capable of holding more than one emotion at once. How many times have you been angry at someone you love, yet still loved them? Who said emotions must exist in this place of black and white when we know that everything is grey?

The second reason for this is the complete failure of English as a language. I toyed with the idea of naming this space but decided against it. I’m sure there’s a language that has a name for it (please tell me down there in the comments if you know it) and English, as a language has just failed us with its limited range – as it often does.

The third reason is slightly more nuanced. What does this divide do? In a country where everybody either hopes the place will fix itself or knows nothing can be done, we end up in a space where everything will remain the same. It creates two positions that are inactive and inactivity is great for the status quo.

I intend to stay in this place. This place is where the magic happens. It is where I am comfortable and functional. I just need to know where this place is so that the next time someone asks me “Michael, is there no hope?” I can calmly look them in the eye and say “There is no hope, there is only this – existence.”