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.”

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