Our national spirit is in a coma
“Patrick Henry, a prominent figure in the American Revolution, known and remembered for his ‘Give me Liberty, or give me Death’ speech, once said: “‘It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts — For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it.’
“How long shall we continue dreaming of a great and glorious Kenya? Isn’t it time we accept the painful truth and provide for it!!
“The republic is dead, my good people, the republic is dead!”
A post on Muigwithania 2.0
What kind of Gikuyu are you? This question has been circling around and inside me for many years. Especially now. Kenyan’s fate is uncertain, and people are running around looking to firm up their certainties.
Not a Gikuyu at all, is one possible answer to this question. If we want to get all nativist. I do not speak the language. My mother’s family was not Gikuyu. I did not vote for Kibaki. In Kenya, of course, this means that I voted for Raila—because it turns out that we have become black and white. The truth is that I fled to Lamu and listened to the 2007 election on the radio, feeling too nauseous about the tone of public rhetoric to vote.
In the MeMe Post-Modern world it turns out I have a lot of options. I am a field of identities picking here and there: I can be a whole Gikuyu, be a Kenyan, be an internet conspiracy theorist called Bob from Iowa. I am a Gikuyu because I say I am, a national school Gikuyu, who spent much time in good state schools with the children of professionals from many tribes. I am a Gikuyu because I read Decolonising the Mind when I was 17, and at the time it seemed to have been written as a very special admonishment to me personally.
According to Gikuyu cultural law, I am a Gikuyu, whether or not I want to be one. My father is Gikuyu, and so I am Gikuyu.
To find this ethnic certainty is to seek a kind of insanity. Confused and cosmopolitan elites “discover” their “true selves”, partly on the back of grievance: perceived or real. These elites have come to believe that the larger cosmopolitan state as presently constituted cannot represent their desires and hopes, their dreams and ambitions.
Now we have on the internet a new fever of self-searching. Often sober and thoughtful, these conversations are already being drowned by the primal scream of those who want absolute certainties. If the tens of thousands of Gikuyu refugees in Kenya remain in camps, this is an open wound. If they look like refugees, they are refugees, they are not “internally displaced people”. It means that there are other nations in Kenya who are hidden from the Constitution, and who unite to decide that we are not of them. We heard this said, by members of the opposition, that the elections were a battle of 43 tribes against one. This became the unifying moment in the ODM election campaign in 2007.
So, the ethnic nationalists say, if this is the case, this pretence by you, Binyavanga, yes you, that you can be all fluid and undecided, it is a betrayal. You have to choose. Your true nation.
There is more, our lost brother, Binyavanga, some of them say. There are those of us who seek our secret history. For we are Jews, yes, Jews. We came from Israel, we are Kabbalah, we ruled Axum. Our origins are Cushitic. We are biblical people. We need our Canaan. We are in pain, in villages across Gikuyuland, Binyavanga; Gikuyu are butchering Gikuyu as our directionlessness sinks us even further and faster.
There is no time to think about it, Binyavanga Wainaina, they say, come across and join this certainty, for it is certain and you shall sleep well.
There is such a thing as a spirit of a nation, the intangible thing that animates all action and policy. Our national spirit is in a coma. We cannot pretend anymore that our crisis is about “governance” and “corruption”. Or an election.
I know that I have no tolerance for a Kenya made up of Luos or Gikuyus or Somalis or Gujaratis who cannot examine their own role in our crisis. What I am sick of, what I hate even more than I hate our corrupt politicians, is these defensive intelligentsia—from all our communities—who seek to save “their people” by only pointing fingers at the others. This attempt to make an unnatural nobility of the self turns the rest of Kenya into beasts, and has only one possible conclusion. It will not lead to noble self-determination, no Gikuyu Canaan or Majimbo Nation. It will lead to the kind of bloodshed that does not stop, that cannot think, that will only end when the fever is exhausted.
We are not done with the violent tests to our common nationhood. I keep telling myself that on the side of this seemingly irresistible surge towards a grim end, there must be some immovable good, a force for us all, that we cannot yet see, that grows with every dark act, something from the hearts of citizens, and not the games of leaders, or the secret desires of the vengeful.