One is the repeated attack on the arts and humanities by our Education CS, Fred Matiang’i, himself a doctorate holder in Communication and Comparative Literature from the University of Nairobi. Within the last two months alone, he has repeatedly said that too many students are doing humanities and social sciences instead of science, or that Kenya’s education is too “academic” as opposed to “competence based,” as if academic is the direct contradiction of competence.
The second issue is Kenyans’ apparent tolerance of hate speech from thugs like Moses Kuria, George Aladwa and Junet Mohammed. Some of the men and women who have preached insults, hatred and murder in Kenya recently spent a stint in Pangani police custody and became instant heroes, thanks to the media that assumes that prison makes one an automatic hero. But that should not come as a surprise. We’ve been down this road before. Jomo Kenyatta was turned into a hero by the British through a stint at Kapenguria, and many Kenyans didn’t understand that Jomo really didn’t have any conviction about African freedom. But I digress.
In my gut, I knew that the two issues were somehow connected, but I couldn’t figure out how. That’s why I couldn’t blog. But two events last week did it for me.
First was a conversation about the genocide against the Tutsi as a number of us left for the airport in Kigali after a conference at the University of Rwanda. As my African friends tried to understand what happened in 1994, the conversation was trapped in the logic of a tribe against another. One friend even started to ask the difference between tribes. I had to bite my tongue to avoid explaining that the genocide was a mass slaughter organized by a government against its citizens by using tribe as a label. But the misinformation about what happened in Rwanda continues to spread, and right now an article entitled “Urgent letter to my brother Kenya” that is full of factual errors, some as basic as calling Habyarimana a Tutsi, is doing the rounds on facebook.
The second event was an encounter with a brilliant young Kenyan who intellectually challenges me, often at the moment when I think my brain is supposed to be switched off. This weekend, he began by telling me: “I’ve seen your posts on facebook complaining about Matiang’i’s attack on the arts and humanities and the limited abstract thinking among Kenyans. Have you considered that maybe it’s deliberate?”
He went on: you see, it’s in politicians’ interests that Kenyans can’t abstract issues, and that we can only think through the lens of tribe. Many Kenyans have been to school. But they are not taught their history or abstract thinking. That makes even educated Kenyans worship powerful people and rely on politicians to understand and resolve their own problems. Politicians get a high from this hero worship. And they want Kenyans to stay that way. Even me, if I really wanted to, I can make Kenyans look at me like that, now that I understand how it works.
And the two issues I was struggling with clicked.
Dumbing Down Kenyans
With abstract thinking and knowledge of history being so routinely discouraged, many Kenyans are unable to understand issues if the issues are not attached to a person, and if that person is not attached to a tribe. On social media, you will find a common Kenyan proverb: “your name explains everything.”
Because of this mental degradation, many Kenyans find it difficult to grasp the idea that the genocide in Rwanda was not by Hutu against Tutsi, but by a government against citizens. They fail to understand the institutional structure of the genocide: a land-starved country running out of options because it would not industrialize, a population that was largely illiterate, a school system teaching the privileged few citizens a history written by European colonial anthropologists, a political elite lacking in nationalist imagination, a media spoon-feeding its illiterate population with falsehoods, a church unable to craft an African theology of liberation, a government importing machetes from Egypt, training militias with army personnel, and receiving international support from its position as a non-permanent member of the UN security council, from the cowardice of the US government and the obsession of the French government with protecting its language in Africa.
And so there's a gloriously ignorant facebook post doing the rounds that equates the Rwandan genocidaire government with Hutus. It goes on to prepare us - it seems – for a second Uhuru presidential term by reducing Kenya to Kikuyus and Luos and telling them to kiss and get along.
As Kenyan institutions crumble around us.
As the police and our courts seem toothless in the arrest, prosecution and conviction of hate mongers paid by our taxes.
As the Deputy President and Education CS essentially tell students not to think, but disguise it as concern for science education. As the TSC tightens its grip on teachers, and as KNUT – instead of fighting for the broader principle of professional, rather than ethnic identity – keeps talking about money but not about the broader fight against workers organizing.
As the doctors are reduced to beggars because the counties are afraid to employ them, even though we’re being told that not enough Kenyan youths are taking science. As primary and high schools replace learning with cramming and paying for leaked exams, and universities are plagued with copy-pasted assignments and commissioned theses.
As the media converts hate mongers into heroes, offering them a platform on prime time TV while remaining silent about Kenyan soldiers and policemen dying in wars and protecting civilians.
As the Church’s head remains buried in the sand and as the church preaches prosperity and self-correction.
As public services grind to a halt because of a voracious, corrupt elite stealing from public coffers and consoling us with CSR.
As banks collapse and tenderpreneurs give Kenyans advice on hard work and entrepreneurship.
As our appetite for land witnesses a renaissance, and our government talks less of ideas, innovation and industrialization and more of tourism and ports. As Fanon would put it, it’s not about the brains and muscles of the citizens but about the natural resources which the African faux-bourgeoisie pimp to the rest of the world.
And the collapse of the ICC cases proves that the international community can’t help us either.
But in the midst of this institutional and cultural failure, Kenyans – bless us, our hearts are in the right place – preach peace, diversity, love-one-another, respect-each-other's-cultures, and other sentimentalism that doesn’t make us think more intelligently and practically about our social problems. Yet, the real lesson of Rwanda is that society collapses when institutions decay.
We need to stop the sentimentalism and ask: what are INSTITUTIONS doing to foster nationhood?
Essentially, it's nothing. And that's what could send Kenya to the dogs next year. Not tribalism, as we like to lazily think. Tribalism is like a flu: it's simply an opportunistic disease that will take advantage of a Kenyan society with no social immunity, a society where things are falling apart and the center cannot hold.
If we want to avoid this scenario, we have to start holding every institution we have to account. From the hospitals and the schools. From the police to the prisons. From the armies to the businesses. From our theaters to our places of worship. From our forests and rivers, to our wildlife and food production. From the media to the arts. Unless our institutions work, our songs against tribalism will be as useless as King Canute ordering the waves to go back.
Let we who have ears listen. And study. And understand. And fight for our institutions. Simplistic thinking and cheap slogans cannot competently tackle complex problems. A middle-income country, which the Kenya government aspires for us to be, is one in which citizens collectively think with maturity, complexity, and respectful dread for what God and the universe can do to us, if we fail to take up the responsibility to think and act historically, intelligently and creatively.