There is a belief that has been around in Kenya since the advent of the prosperity gospel and the flood of self-help books in the market: that the key to the change we so desperately require in Kenya, be it solving our flooding problem or ending corruption, is positive thinking.
Recently, we have faced successive lows as a country, such as the Garissa massacre, the Nairobi floods, the dipping of the Kenya shilling with relation to the US Dollar and the Euro among others, and the purveyors of the positive thinking school of thought have blamed these incidents on the attitude of Kenyans, especially those online. It has been said that Nairobi is flooding because we litter too much and this blocks our drainage system, that our currency is losing value to key international currencies because we only ever rave about negative things happening in Kenya as opposed to giving more attention to the positive, and that we cannot fully blame the government’s response to the Garissa massacre for the deaths that occurred.
These arguments ignore basic facts: such as, when we do not upgrade our sewerage and drainage system, and fail to build storm pipes in an area like Nairobi which is a catchment for many rivers, flooding is inevitable. That when we are corrupt and build on riparian land, which is protected by law, our houses and neighbourhoods will flood when it rains. That when roads are built without adequate drainage because contractors want to take shortcuts and make more money, our roads will look like lakes when this happens. That when we live in a globalized world where information is mobile and our country is experiencing multiple failures, the value of our currency will drop, regardless of how much we try to hide it. That when we have a corrupt security apparatus, it is actually the government’s fault when massacres such as the one in Garissa occur, and no amount of spin and positive thinking can change this.
This insistence on positive thinking removes the responsibility and accountability from those who have it, and leaves it to forces such as karma, or God. It also stinks of victim blaming, as it causes people going through hard times, be it terrorist attacks or flooded apartments, to think they have brought it upon themselves. It may be argued that we are complicit in these tragedies, for example, because we chose to live in houses built on riparian land, however, if we are to actually apportion blame, I feel the victims of such tragedies hold very little of it as compared to the perpetrators, who are the rich and powerful of this country.
Positive thinking as a solution to national problems is also very unrealistic: we cannot expect people to suffer injustice after injustice and still “be positive”. This stinks of privilege – and privileged people have no business preaching to those who are less privileged than they are about how exactly they should live their lives, because they enjoy more mobility, and through their power, can avoid many of the situations the less privileged find themselves in. A privileged person has no right to tell others how the government cannot be held wholly accountable for the Garissa massacre yet there is no likelihood that this person’s children would have been at that university – they do not empathize with the situation, and should have the humility to realize this.
Positive thinking as a national mantra has become so pervasive that when the Garissa massacre happened, Dennis Itumbi, a government operative, thought it would be wise to start a hashtag on Twitter to celebrate two years of the Jubilee government’s so called successes even as the country mourned the loss of its children. This type of thinking informs the mantra “accept and move on”, which encourages Kenyans not to critically think about situations that have occurred. Instead, it leads to them feeling somewhat helpless, thrusting into the future with naïve optimism with little to no learning happening from these crises, and creates fertile ground for them to keep happening.
Indeed, science backs this up, as it has proven that positive thinking is more of a hindrance to human progress than it is useful. Fantasizing about better lives does not help people achieve their dreams. Instead, it calms you down by lulling you into a place of false security and happiness, and drains you of the energy needed to take action on your goals. Positive thinking fools our minds into thinking that we have already attained our goals. Worse still, it creates greater shock in the future when things do go wrong, because the positive thinker who has worked so hard to maintain only positive thoughts about the future, is found less prepared and gets more distressed when things that are obviously not good happen.
One of the members of #teampositivity called Kenyans “little rascals” for what she thinks is an abuse of our freedom of speech because of all the things we get away with saying on social media, reminding us that if this were the Moi era, we would be in a basement at Nyayo House being “taught manners”. The tone deafness of this statement, as well as its blatant disrespect for all those who suffered at the hand of that tyrant was shocking.
As opposed to only “thinking positively”, scientists and researchers advise on an approach called mental contrasting that combines this type of thinking with hard doses of realism. There is even a school of thought that has found great success in recognizing the usefulness of the negative path, which recognizes the value of realism, failure, uncertainty and even anger, in building better lives and societies. Isn’t this what the “little rascals” on Twitter do when they discuss governance in Kenya? They clearly state things as they are, express their dissatisfaction, and attempt to hold those who are responsible accountable. They would not do this if they did not care for Kenya; they do it because they do. It is foolish to imagine that these people do not want Kenya to improve; that #teampositivity are the only ones who do.
As a country, we require deep reflection on past events because the frequency with which Kenya finds itself in crises is worrying. The conversations we engage in on Twitter, and other platforms, are very useful. Why are we so easily misled? Why is it taking us so long to become a better nation; to reduce poverty and corruption, and create an equitable and just society? It is my belief that the work of dismantling oppressive systems is painstaking, and requires deep thought and organizing, as these systems are entrenched over years.
A good place to start is debates on what is going wrong in the country, as well as reflections on the past, no matter how uncomfortable they may make #teampositivity and their ilk. So keep doing so, and let us keep working to untangle Kenya from its perpetual mess.