The Citizens Know Best

Michael Onsando
29 October ,2019

“In the colonial countries, the spirit of indulgence is dominant at the core of the bourgeoisie; and this is because the national bourgeoisie identifies itself with the Western bourgeoisie, from whom it has learnt its lessons. It follows the Western bourgeoisie along its path of negation and decadence without ever having emulated it in its first stages of exploration and invention, stages which are an acquisition of that Western bourgeoisie whatever the circumstances.”

Before I begin I should probably say that this essay might wind a little – bear with me, the thing I’m trying to talk about is not as straightforward as I’d like it to be. As a writer and someone who dips his feet in the arts industry every once in a while, I’ve been fascinated by trying to understand where our hearts and minds are turned to. Where do we get our stories from, who are we listening to? Who are we reading? Basically, who forms the identities that we shape ourselves around?

This is mainly because it is the work of the artist to craft work that can be consumed by their people. And this is often to look at their current palate and ask questions like “how is this cuisine made?” “what goes into this mix?” and “where can I find these ingredients?”

Looking into the past we can see, with some clarity, the cycle of influences on the zeitgeist by simply following things like top songs, movies and books of a period. We see the (for the most part) cycle between pursuing purely Western interests to vivid periods of “decolonization” where there is a peak in consumption of local art before the inevitable swing back to the consumption of Western media.

Of course, there are deviations in this data. And to say “this is being consumed” is not to say that “this has entirely been ignored.” But there is something in, say, what the globalization of rap culture says about where we, as a whole, are looking for our social cues. And it only takes one look around to see who is in charge of how we dress.

But this is not an essay about the depth of Western influence on our lives. I’m reminded that to see moving towards ourselves as a moving “back in time” is reductive. This is actually an essay on infrastructure, building, growth and imagination.

Take David Ndii:

“Before London built its iconic underground, it first built the world’s first modern sewerage system. Before Japan industrialised, it reformed governance and modernised and massively expanded education. The East Asian Tiger economies industrialisation was preceded by the Green Revolution.”

Because it’s one thing to say we are listening to music from here or watching there’s TV shows. That takes away from us in certain ways but mendable ways. It’s another thing altogether when we have defined what it means to have infrastructural progress by these same metrics. In his essay on Nationalism Fanon talks about how the middle class of colonized nations will define themselves by their ability to enjoy the same level of decadence that the previous middle class (comprised mostly of colonisers) has enjoyed. In order for this to happen they have to be ready to keep the means of production running as it was. Which will basically mean further enforcing the social engineering that brought in by the colonial state. We already spoke here about how Kenya is still (for the most part) stuck in models of production where we are a nation for export. Which is to say, mainly, exporting raw materials overseas for value addition before importing finished products at a much higher cost. Not only that, the goods we decide to maximize on are not necessarily aligned to our needs as a nation.

“The search for truth in local attitudes is a collective affair.”

Of course this all begins to have some kind of listening from the state (which opens up a whole conversation on trust, citizen investment in state actions and modes of governance). But even framing this as the state “listening” sounds like a sort of naomba serekali. It sees the government as having the power to listen and discern what is of value and what isn’t. When rather the level of listening needed needs to come up to a level of inclusion in the decision making process rather than this “daddy knows best” form of governance that we find ourselves stuck in.

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice our state’s aversion to any form of public participation. All one has to do is look at the Huduma Namba process, or at the implementation of the CBC or even at the SGR project.

The problem, of course, with state building is there are no pauses for thought. The work cannot be suspended for one month as we hold statewide dialogue about re-organising from the ground up. The people invested in the already existing system will always seek its continuation for their prosperity. And it’s wrong to assume that everybody who dreams of a different order has the best interests of the people at heart. But this isn’t to say steps can’t be taken to create a more inclusive Kenya, organized for Kenyans. Instead it is to ask at what we might need to put aside in the short term to create a more plausible long term situation.

After all, there’s only so many times we can raise the debt ceiling in the name of keeping up appearances while a little rain still causes “flash floods” across the country.

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