Creating hope (or, when rage becomes the norm)

Michael Onsando
9 October ,2018

“You will begin to forgive when you understand the many ways in which the world has killed those who try to survive it.”

“We’re not evolving emotional filters fast enough to deal with the efficiency with which bad news now reaches us”

It’s easy to lose hope these days. Especially when one gets themselves sucked into the cycle of rage and the restorative labour necessary in nation building. When looking around yields nothing but stories of stolen money, unnecessary projects, rises in taxes and a debt problem we are yet to solve it hard to start calculating positive outcomes.

It becomes even easier when you begin to notice that the people who are supposed to be fixing those problems are often the major cause of the problems, and those who stand up to “fight the good fight” turn on the people in the end.

Eventually, we get tired of throwing ourselves at the windmill over and over again. And the pain that we carry from the numerous battles we fight carry on into the next one. In this state of rage fatigue, it’s easy to lose sight of the cause and begin to lash out.

“Part of the privilege of a privileged identity is being insulated from things that people who don’t have it often face. A shadow of that is immediately checking their tone when they express their truth.”

When dealing with intersectionality it is important that we are able to organize bodies into groups. The way a body is perceived will often define the experience the body is allowed to have. To go against this experience is to have your body act in ways that people do not expect from bodies like yours. To have a large intimidating body is to work extra towards not being seen as aggressive. To have a smaller, frailer frame is to work extra towards being seen as capable of aggression, and so forth.

I use the word body very particularly because it speaks to something that one largely has no jurisdiction over. Modern science allows us to change our bodies to fit our perception of ourselves rather than the ever moving shadows of how other’s perceive us. This is particularly helpful for those who are most affected by this discrepancy in identity but these operations are still far outside the financial and imaginative reach of the general population.

And bodies speak in many ways, most of which are involuntary – or at least impulsive. They fold, they turn away, they swell, they shiver and so forth and so forth. Tongues fail to form letters properly, shaping language that points to a history. A history that tells a story of class, of tribe, of upbringing. Faces show echoes of who your people are.

“Babiness signals a beingness in place. To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?”  Without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say, “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”.

In this way there is no running away. What this means is that, no matter how much you do, your body will be recognized as your body. And whatever memory your body evokes will be how you are seen, which will affect how people relate to you, depending on their own relationship with that memory. And how you relate to that perception will create the image that people have of you (perhaps this is what we mean when we say step into your power – navigate your perception with knowledge of that landscape).

Those who do the work of remembering take notes on bodies. These bodies carry violence. These bodies carry deceit. These have a tendency towards shame. These ones are not to be trusted.

It hit me yesterday that I have been, for a long time, uncomfortable with my identity as a Kikuyu man and what comes with it. Because that identity has been translated to me as an abuser, as competition, not just by other Kikuyu, but by everything.

The rise of identity politics brings more significance to this. In order for identity to exist there must be a body to be identified. Bodies are the markers of identity. And of course we remember. And, in a time like this, it’s easy to lose hope. For the bodies themselves to become the enemy, to lash out in the name of calling out. To forget the collective labour of undoing, unearthing and pursuing to better each other and focus on the destruction.

But the truth is indifferent.

The truth just is. It bears no ill will, it carries nothing with it other than itself. And in knowing this, we know what to listen to when trying to hear the truth and know how much of ourselves is between what we are trying to say and what the truth is.

“We need stories of belonging that move us towards each other, not from each other; ways of being human that open up the possibilities of being alive together; ways of navigating our differences that deepen our curiosity, that deepen our friendship, that deepen our capacity to disagree, that deepen the argument of being alive. This is what we need. This is what will save us. This is the work of peace. This is the work of imagination.”

Perhaps in seeing how far away we are from each other, buried by whatever blindnesses surviving in our bodies lived experience imposed upon us, we can begin the work of moving together, towards unburdening, untangling and rebuilding the systems of perception that oppress us all, creating new truths and, possibly, hope.


On Building People Up

Michael Onsando
13 July ,2015

A lot of the people I find myself in discussions with are often of the “break you down” mentality. They see the value is tracking and actively curbing a perception of the self that sees ability/a certain kind of ability. A lot of this breaking down is often hidden in “truth.” While truth can, and often is uncomfortable there is a line of thinking that imagines truth needs to be distilled as a violence. Beyond that some truths are then modified to amplify their impact so ensure they “reach.” Some truths are modified so they injure.

Many times this is something that seems to be done from a point of defense. Having experienced the world in its harshness people imagine that they are preparing others for an otherwise harsh world. But what exeptionalism exists in imagining that the world has only been harsh to an yourself? Further, what does the language of cruelty do but alienate?

Further, even with truths we avoid giving the good parts in person because “they’ll become too big.” Surrounded by a society that would much faster give out harsh “truths” to help each other and do little building there is little belief. Belief is a weird thing. The little engine that could had to think it could before it did. I’m wondering what it means to kill belief before action exists to either confirm or disprove the need for this belief to begin with. I’m also wondering how many times one is allowed to fail before belief can be disregarded. Whatever the limit, belief has been broken. And, broken, we begin to wonder if we can.

Then we don’t.

Cocacola recently launched their Billion Reasons to Believe campaign. The campaign, on one hand, is steeped in the Neoliberal counter narrative of Africa Rising, which came about to challenge the idea of a poverty stricken Africa. Though when we say Africa I’m reminded that no one really knows who we are really talking about.

While it’s easy to dismiss the existence of a counter narrative as reactionary, one needs to examine the need for a counter narrative to begin with.

And this is the problem.

Having believed that here is a space of nothingness it feels necessary to remind each other of this. That somehow we can’t dream here, we can’t dream of making, building and establishing vastness. In fact, often, it is met with a skepticism “how dare you think you can.” Any further insistence is then met with “truth.” In a search to call ourselves honest people we go around breaking aspirations.

It’s easy to say “just ignore,” or “haters gonna hate,” but I’m beginning to wonder what it means to be constantly working against. To know that every step you take will be met by intense resistance. I’m wondering how many people have stayed still because they are afraid to move.

(Think of how many people stay silent because they are afraid to speak)

This is not though, to invalidate the cautionary tale, which seems to have existed since Icarus flew too close to the sun (a story, I have been told, is more about wax as an impossible adhesive than about the dangers of flying). It is, however, to push back on the idea of statements that we throw out there to “keep people grounded.” To ask for a wariness about arguments we keep having just to “keep people in their place.” To track discussions that we seem to have only because we have them. And, in part to wonder about what a kinder truth looks like. What truth looks like when it wants to be a path and not a truck coming down Waiyaki way as you’re about to cross.

That truck will not save your life.

More likely, it will knock you down without a second thought. Truth cannot be the thing that assaults, because truth, being truth, is neutral. A knife can either stab someone in the back or slice up the ingredients to create a meal – neither of these things make the knife a non neutral object. The same should apply to truth (not to guns. Guns were made for one thing and one thing only).

And, if truth is a form of power to be yielded, then like all power, it can be abused. Also because truth, especially when it comes to people, is often subjective, it becomes important to analyse truths before presenting them, knowing the weight and power that they yield.

This is fine in theory but what does it mean when we go out into the world? On one hand to employ an endless stream of patience and tact exposes oneself to the default position of teacher, especially on the matter of expertise. This point of expertise often also a point of grinding against the social grain. For example a queer person in a heteronormative society would be the default expert on LGBTQI* matters. This then increases the burden on the oppressed person. (See not your teacher).

This answer ends up in a more complicated place. It becomes about creating balance in the number of conversations you can have and picking your battles. It also comes down to excusing yourself from many conversations. And, on a fundamental level, it comes down to finding a level of discomfort that is survivable. Liveability is impossible.

However, I’m wondering particular about the battles that we do chose to fight. I’m wondering if these battles included the truths that would keep us flapping – especially since we have already decided that the sun won’t stop us. Then, maybe then, we can have a discussion about creating safety nets for each other. But first, we need to find words that will help us fly, otherwise we’ll keep thinking that wax is the best adhesive we could possibly find.