You become passive aggressive. Or childish. You refuse to directly say what you really think, and attack people who do. You never take responsibility for your position. Instead, you blame the next person for not saying what YOU want to say. Or better still, you offer them a cup of tea and completely evade the topic.
This has become the Kenyan character, thanks to very effective lessons from Great Britain. We too are ruled by a royal family which considers Kenya its personal property, maintains power through an election by the minority, and has a government run by bureaucrates who refuse to be held responsible for their actions. To cover up our trauma, we become passive aggressive.
- Wewe mjuaji (you are a know it all)
- "On whose behalf do you speak? Talk for yourself."
- "Why are you talking about only X and excluding everyone else?"
We are very skilled at doing this: if someone mentions going to visit a neighbor Y, we ask
- "Kwani is Y the only neighbor?"
- "Why are you excluding other neighbors?"
- "Are you saying that other neighbors don't deserve to be visited?"
- "Are you saying other Kenyans don't have neighbors?"
- "Why a neighbor and not a relative? What do you have against relatives?"
Woe unto you if you perform below average so that people stop attacking you. Oh no. We wont praise you for your humility. We will say
- You are a cheat
- Who do you think you are?
- What is wrong with you? You are such a failure.
The national path of average
So our lives in Kenya are a constant and painful bumping between the two walls of the narrow national path called average. The goal of this national character of Kenya is to ensure that, as much as possible, we are not seen despite what we do or say. So we debase and lower ourselves so much, and refuse to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions, and instead, we blame others who see or hear us using statements like "let us not judge one another."
And the role of the police and the instutions is to remind you of the two walls of failure and excellence at every waking moment. Think of it. You excel in Std 8, you're carried shoulder high and interviewed by TV stations saying you want to be an engineer or a doctor. You go to the national high school of choice, and in form 4, you repeat the good results, and then again, the singing and media interviews.
Then you land in engineering or medicine, and everything starts going south.
You are told degrees are useless. You're asked why you're in a uni and not at TVET. You're told to be an entrepreneur, but you graduate and you have to pay your HELB loan, so you cant entrpreneur. And then the government wastes billions on a white elephant built by Chinese engineers, or employs and pays Cuban doctors on terms better than it employs Kenyan doctors .
And if you are not the top in class, the abuse is just as bad. In school you are mocked by teachers. Given less food. Put in the foolish class that gets less attention. After results, Matiang'i announces that you have always been cheats, so if you failed, it's a legit result.
After school, you're told to entrpreneur your way out of this punishment. But you cant get loans from the bank, you have no title deed. The Youth Fund is looted. Meanwhile, you are starting a family, so you have to smuggle your new born out of hospital in a bag.
And if you are male and survive to the age of 30, sober, you are a miracle. Because you could either be shot by police for not hearing them call you, or you could drown in drugs and alcohol, or you could simply reach your wits end and do something drastic to others or yourself.
If you are a woman, you are either poor and broken from being put down by family and institutional violence, or being insulted as a non-woman because you are not poor and broken from being put down by family and institutional violence.
So those who survive all this abuse end up living with survivor's guilt for not falling under the weight of abuse.
Kenyans' inability to discuss or reality
This Kenyan character of passive aggression comes from our inability to confront or discuss reality. In the run up to the 2017 elections, I noticed that Kenyans articulated their inherent fear of violence (which politicians deliberately use to make us accept any election result) by shutting down any conversation on social issues. We do this by enforcing a suffocating literariness on conversations, where we interpret words only by their literal meaning and refuse to allow any implications or symbolism in language.
This means, for instance, that when we talk of Muigai, or of Raila, or of Sonko, Kenyans do not allow a conversation on what these politicians represent, or reflect about the Kenyan political context. Instead, we reduce each others' words to feelings about the politicians as individuals, and we reply by either asking why the person hates the politician, or by affirming support or hatred for the politician. With those kinds of replies, Kenyan political conversations remain childish and unable to extend to issues and ideas.
But this kind of rhetoric is not only about intellectual stagnation. It is also about individual isolation. When we Kenyans cannot agree to talk about what politicians represent (not whether they're nice and whether we love them), we are unable to have common conversations as a nation. We don't have to all agree with each other on our positions, but we all have to be talking about the same thing.
However, the current practice is that when will some talk about themes (democracy, secession, electoral integrity, education, healthcare), the reply is personalization - you're bitter, your belittling others, you're never satisfied, you're abcd. When you reply to that accusation, they raise a different point altogether. This kind of behavior is passive aggression and bad faith, because the person is insisting on being part of the conversation but actually refusing to participate in it.
Bad faith, and the fear of freedom
At the heart of this abuse is the fear to confront the traumas of Kenya's past, the inequality that leads to 8,300 Kenyans owning as much as the rest of Kenyans, and the reality that Kenya and its capitalist convenant are abusive to the majority of the Kenyan people. The political suppression of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, and the church propaganda of "forgive and forget," have prevented us from nationally confronting our violent past. Our avoidance of national trauma has been famously captured by the phrase in Yvonne Owuor's novel Dust that "Kenya's official languages are English, Kiswahili and silence."
Similarly, the rampant corruption is a sign of Kenyans' rabid anxiety from our battered self-esteem, and our faith in grabbing and hoarding as a way to economic insecurity. Our fear of battling against inequality, and the systemic problems that cause inequality, leads us to grab what we can.
We grab not only land and money; we also grab ideas, many times before the ideas are mature. It has become a national culture for people to ask each other to meetings "pick your brain," or to work with a group on an idea before grabbing it and selling it off or developing it on one's own. When we cannot alienate the idea from the person, we encourage the person to excel but belittle them when their excellence threatens our power and profit.
This power game, which is common in the Kenyan workplace, is typical of the pedophilic nature of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. The US, especially, is notorious for gathering young Africans in incubation centers in the name of promoting the youth. Instead, the centers harvest the youth's energy and ideas before they are fully mature. And when the ideas cannot be seperated from its innovator, the developer of the idea is bombarded with awards, trips abroad and other material goodies, and eventually the idea remains stunted or the innovator burns out. Paedophilia is not only sexual; it applies to the capitalist instinct to prey on anything that has not matured in its instinct to be first in the race.
Also, the enforcement of Thatcherist mantra that "there is no alternative," and the war against imagination by the Kenya government (especially people like Ezekiel Mutua), has made it difficult for Kenyans to question the system. Immediately one questions certain assumptions, one is bombarded almost immediately with accusations of advocating for communism and given a sermon about how it did not work in USSR, or given advice ranging from not judging individuals to letting go of the past. The education system is particularly notorious for reinforcing conformity, and the new curriculum has only made things worse.
Releasing Kenyans from the tentacles of the UK-aping ruling elite must include
- restoring the ability of Kenyans to discuss social issues and be seen to do so. We must fight against tyranny that denies our words social meaning by taking our words literally and personally
- naming and resisting the passive aggressive behavior designed to batter down Kenyans for standing out, and for deviating from the national path of average
- naming the instinct of Kenyans to avoid responsibility for what they think, say or do. For instance, Kenyans have this annoying habit of disagreeing with you on the basis of what you did not say, which is usually what THEY want to say but do not want to attribute to themselves. Bureaucrats are particularly notorious for hiding behind policy and throwing around vocabulary like "benchmarking" and "best practices" when they are called upon to explain what they are doing
- addressing institutional violence, especially in school and the workplace, which is reinforced with management practices inherited from slavery.
But eventually, Kenya will have to disregard the assault on history by politicians, and come to terms with it. We can't keep running away from the truth.