Confessions of a Middle Class Kenyan
May 9, 2005 15 Comments
I have spent the last few hours listening to audio tapes of James Baldwin and Malcolm X, reading of the anti-slavery exploits of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry and reading the last letters that his fellow raiders wrote just before they were led to the gallows. I have done this as a result of a question that has been on my mind for at least a year, a question that has refused to let go: what are we and what is wrong? This I ask about my home Kenya: why is there a profound sense of dislocation between the majority of people and their government? Why are we beggars? Why is there so much violence in a country that prides itself for being peaceful? Why, I ask trying to avoid despair, are we not equal to our problems?
I have wondered what constitutes knowledge, what role I have to play in the Kenya that is or possibly could be. And I have concluded with some reluctance that I was raised to be a ruler, a governor and civilizer of the savage. That I, and the middle classes that birthed me, struck a great bargain on that day when Kenya won its independence all those years ago: to continue that moral mission that Britain set itself, to govern and civilize the native. We have become a pustule, an encroaching and violent class that with charity on our lips criminalises, exploits and yes, oppresses those who are not like us.
I have often written of it in the past especially in a March post called Babylon System is the Vampire, here and here. But until now, I have not come to grips with the moral vacuity of the class that dominates the state or terms itself civil society. We are mercenaries for hire, ready to do whatever bidding any foreign donor desires. We hate the poor, with their smells, strange accents and backward ways. Of course we never admit this since we prefer to hate them as we speak of their dignity and their ‘authenticity’, and even drop our Christian names to be more Afrikkkan. Yet we hate them for being lost – at least according to us – and even more because despite their inferiority in our eyes, they are the only meal ticket we have.
They annoy and embarrass us with their circumcisions, their patriarchy, their unreconstructed tribalisms, and their bible-thumping ways. We fear them as criminals – we quake at their approach at the traffic lights. Yet we feel a need to be joined with them because we know that we lack something that we suspect that they have. We middle classes have become obsessive seekers of authenticity, listening to Fela Kuti, being BLACK, taking on WHITE RACISM and praising tradition. Yet we are alienated here in our air conditioned cars and gated suburbs where we live on the money we earn being the purveyors of mercy (NGOs) or the enforcers of progress (Government and Development).
We are Soyinka’s tigers, ever proclaiming our tigritude. But hating doing this all the while for we know that what we are is a posture, an attitude aimed at the European who is at the centre of all we do. If he has a welfare state, so must we. If he is into environmental rights, so must we be. We mime like parrots except our mimicry is garbled and has no clarity; our works can never equal those of the European because we are infected with the lethal mediocrity bequeathed to us by our ancestor: the settler. We have the laziness and decadence of the slave owner. The language fails me because we have perverted it. When we say unite, we mean unite in obeying our dictates. When we say we are for freedom, we mean we are for our freedom to be in charge. When we argue that capitalism is right, we say it because we are charged to say so by our foreign sponsors. We cannot be capitalist because we do not respect the property or the person of the average Kenyan. When we say we are against capitalism, similarly, it is because we are miming attitudes suggested to us by a West/East/South/whatever that promises us some prestige and money. When we talk of our development partners, we are talking of our beggary. When we talk of security, we do not care about the insecurity that has been the lot of most Kenyans due to our actions, our stealing and let us never forget our killing. When we say up we mean down.
By our nature, at its most fundamental, we are liars. We lie to ourselves more than to anyone else. We mime nationhood when what we have is rip-off-hood. Our nature is to be corrupt because we are corrupted. We owe no allegiance to anything other than our self perpetuation. We do not believe in sweat or in the property that results from it. We do not seek excellence or innovation or competition, goals that are intuitive and instinctive to most honest people seeking to live well. We believe that we are owed the world, but have never put in a single decade of real effort to earning it.
The only safety for Kenya is for us to be boxed in, to be ushered off the stage or at the very least constrained. That is why I believe that our greatest aids in our vulturehood – the state and the development industry – must be curtailed, cut down to the smallest proportions. Everything our state has touched it has destroyed or stolen. But we shall not do this voluntarily; we shall fight to the end knowing that to curtail the state is to destroy our access to other peoples’ efforts and winnings. And that is why we have become targets of a growing violence and hatred that if you have not noticed, I announce to you now.
Politics has moved out of the political arena. It is now in the car jacker’s slap and the random killing. Observe the crime wave and understand that you are seeing the beginning of a culture that we have begotten: the democratisation of the crimes we have been committing against people for four decades and that are the fount of our privilege and power. We shall be its targets because this crime wave covets what we have, as we have coveted the land of the Taita or the Maasai; it shall rip what it wants from our tight grip just as our GSU and police and Provincial Commissioners and District Officers have ripped what they desired from the hands of millions.
When Baldwin warned of a ‘fire next time’ all those decades ago, he was warning not just the White people who refused Black folks the vote and lynched them, he was warning all those who would dare compromise others’ humanity. He was warning the middle classes that sprang up all over Africa and continue to this day to act like the mkoloni and who thwart the best efforts of people to just live.
After this rant, let me please beg you to ignore it if you will but read Chapter 3 of Franz Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’. It is the most incisive study of the middle classes in the former colonies. I will post it on this blog.