But Kenyans have courageously fought back. The vibrant public sphere and citizen mobilization have stopped insidious policies like Huduma Namba and BBI. Landmarks in jurisprudence have been achieved. Amidst these victories, both Uhuru and the civil service bureaucrats have struggled to hide their irritation that Kenyans have used the constitution to demand proper governance.
That is a whole arsenal of political energy that has made the West afraid. With the Swynnerton plan of 1952, the British crafted a Kikuyu-centric African bourgeoisie whose job it was to contain not just the Mau Mau, but further Kenyan resistance. And this agenda was quite effective due to the size of the civil service, the largest in the region, which had been initially set up to maintain Kenya as a settler colony for British aristocrats.
And so in 1963 began the agony of independence without freedom. The British left behind a Kenyan bureaucracy that is the most conservative and empire worshipping in the region, if not the continent, and that maintains an economic logic focused on Western principles rather than African aspirations. It took 50 years for Kenyans to significantly tame that monster with a constitution in which they declared the people sovereign. And over the last 10 years, the Kenyan people have been putting that constitution to work.
That kind of political energy is enough to make empire nervous. A country like Kenya could give ideas to other Africans in the continent and the diaspora, like the Mau Mau did in the 50s when they inspired Umkhonto we Sizwe in South Africa, Malcolm X in the US, and the Rastafaris in the Caribbean. And so over the last 50 years, Kenya has been suffocated by government bureaucracy and donor money.
The influence of the bureaucratic state, politicians and donors is so pervasive, that where two or three Kenyans gather to act politically or creatively, a Kenyan politician and civil servant, or a Western donor, will come between them. From sports, to unions to arts to political parties to tech hubs, it has been difficult for collective endeavors to succeed before being undermined by careerism, bureaucracy and PR, and many times even violence. We can’t breathe. But to keep up our hopes, we are fed with media propaganda on achievements of Kenyans abroad in order to block questions why those achievements cannot happen here at the source of that inspiration.
In summary, in the eyes of empire, the greatest “resource” of Kenya is her people and their energy. And those need to be harvested to keep the parasitic imperial machine going.
The function of elections in Kenya is to impose five year interruptions on Kenyan political energy, history and memory, and channel that energy into resetting the decadent political and bureaucratic establishment. As is often said by many academics, the political elite use elections to reset and realign the political alliances between each other. What is often not highlighted is that this process constitutes the extraction of political energy, which in turn leaves Kenyans emotionally and intellectually drained. And by the time Kenyans rebuild their energy and emotions, it is almost time for the next elections, and the abusive cycle starts again.
The emotional and intellectual labor which is harvested by politicians and empire is not immediately visible for several reasons. For one, the racist narrative that Africans have no brains and that they are simply bodies for exploitation is an enduring legacy that we see from racist education policies to anti-black police violence. In Kenya, there is a strong narrative – repeated by the Ministry of Education itself – that ideas are a luxury for Kenyans and all that we need is food, shelter and medicine in their rudimentary forms. Second, capitalist stealth has been busy undermining how black people think and feel, through diverse forms of sabotage at the level of language, culture, education, spirituality and psychology.
How Africans interpret their experiences, express their feelings and relate to their social and natural environment have been infiltrated, distorted and battered in ways in which even I have not fully come to terms with. It was only until the exposure of Cambridge Analytica’s actions in the 2017 elections that I understood that the war against emotions and spirituality. In the name of European secular enlightenment, the colonial state has created a reservoir for empire to tap into and manipulate our energy and emotions for their own use. In the Channel 4 expose on Cambridge Analytica, one official’s statement provided the Damascus moment for me. After explaining the role of the emotions and subconscious, the Cambridge Analytica official proudly explained their principle in electoral campaigns as follows: “Our job is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep seated underlying fears and concerns…there’s no good fighting the elections on the facts, because it’s all about emotions.”
This cynical exploitation of our emotions makes Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotional labor” come alive. Emotional labor is the work we are forced to do on our emotions in order to adjust to institutional demands. In Kenya, the demand for this labor increased exponentially during the Uhuru Kenyatta regime. We were fed with toxic narratives like “tyranny of numbers” to justify ethnic bigotry. Violence against opposition strongholds was justified by clearly organized campaigns on social media. The civil service manipulated media and distorted the concept of public participation to avoid accountability for their decisions. In the midst of this toxicity, it is Kenyans who were supposed to ignore the manipulation of their emotions and ideas and be the “adults in the room.” We were expected to defy the gaslighting, ethnic manipulation and downright dumbing down which politicians, civil servants and the media literally threw at us. Meanwhile, donors and venture capitalists splashed funds that drowned different Kenyan innovations, from politics to gender to technology. The effort of Kenyans to remain humane and creative, in the midst of all this psychological noise, is form of unnecessary emotional labor.
And this pressure on Kenyans gains momentum as elections draw nearer, when desperate politicians whip up emotion, and the media narratives become so narrow. Unfortunately, we have little room to wiggle in, given that our sports, arts and culture are suffocated by poor policy. Kenyans are therefore stuck between becoming more emotionally weary or feeding on the adrenalin triggered by the toxic environment, all the while as their social, mental and financial fortunes decline. Many intellectuals and pioneer voices crack under the pressure and take sides. By the time Kenyans are casting their vote, everyone is tired and wants the noise to end so that we can get on with our lives.
Unfortunately, what we go to deposit in the ballot box is more than our vote. At the polling stations, we lay our energy at the feet of politicians, who promptly channel it into negotiating new power relations with each other. Worse, we are subjected to the emotional abuse of waiting for results and hoping that politicians do not misbehave. Once the presidential winner is announced, we go through grieving or catharsis, depending on our choice, and through a deep sense that even if we voted for the side that won, it is unlikely that all the issues which we narrowed down to a tick on a piece of paper will ever be addressed.
It is no wonder that our youth see no point in voting.
What this means is that we Kenyans must continue to do the work of dealing with the social issues that make us emotionally and intellectually vulnerable to the harvest of our energy every five years. We need diverse media, a humane education, a revival of the arts and sports, and basically a vibrant social life outside of government and politicians. More than that, we need to understand the parasitic role which politicians, bureaucrats and donors play in undermining our political, social, intellectual, spiritual and emotional life, and how they use elections to harvest and drain our political energy every five years.