Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On violence

Kenya is not a nation at war with itself; it is a nation that finds it completely normal to engage in debate in a violent manner. From the use of strong language to fisticuffs to "running battles with police." Kenyans have been educated by their political classes that the solution to their problems, whether be they domestic, social, economic or political, lies in violence and violent confrontations. We have taken the adversarial aspects of our administration of justice and political systems and transferred it, without modification, into our day-to-day lives. We have been paying the price for this for two decades-and-a-half now.

Few youth remember when local football matches dominated the public zeitgeist. Football commentary on the radio was one of the few joys Kenyans had in the 1980s, especially after Baba Moi outlawed, more or less, all other forms of social discourse in Kenya.Our footballers - Joe Kadenge, Washington Muhanji, John Abbas, et al - were heroes to the hundreds of thousands of  listeners hunched over their transistor radios at home, at the local pub or in the market place every Saturday or Sunday. It was the same with gospel music; when Munishi sang, I challenge anyone to remember any of his lyrics that were so overtly confrontational as those of today's Gospel "artistes."

Gone are those halcyon days. The zeitgeist now is filled with confrontation. It is about "victory" at all costs. In politics, calls for the Minority Party to "move on" are partly based on the argument that they "lost" the March 4 battle; Raila Odinga is described in pretty violent language by Uhuru Kenyatta's and William Ruto's sometimes unhinged supporters. The professional classes, especially teachers and nurses, use violent rhetoric in their on-going pay dispute with the National Government. It is only over the past decade that secondary school students have set their schools' properties on fire, sometimes murdering fellow-students in the process. Policing in Kenya's main towns and border areas is more often characterised by fatal shooting encounters between the forces of law and order and suspected criminals than not. Indeed, even in the realm of football, Kenyans' favourite pass-time (the Euro-version, though), there are fatalities among supporters of one European team or another. Sometimes there are suicides.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find ways of de-escalating the violence in the public space. The government is still trying to find its way around a much more constrained environment; it's muscle-flexing is a vestige of the resistance of "experienced" civil servants unwilling or unable to accept that constitutional limits have irrevocably changed the political environment. Kenyans are unwilling to go back to an age where serikali ndio baba na mama. The government and its agencies, we hope, will ultimately learn to moderate their violent tendencies.

It is in society that we face greater - and graver - challenges. In the family, fathers and sons must accept that mothers and daughters are no longer chattels; and mothers and daughters must accept that it is not by a light-switch that the male members of their families will accept them as equals. The law may say one thing; it will take a cultural and mental shift before this legal truism is actually true. In society, the man-eat-man definition advanced by Tanzania's Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, should be redefined. We cannot make our success as individuals on the failure of someone else. The greed-is-good mantra popularised in 1987's Wall Street must be abandoned if we are to raise a nation of well-adjusted youth out to win but not win at all costs. In Gandhi's words, there is enough for our needs, but not for our greed.

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