Friday, November 13, 2020

The dead deserve no mercy

I am not a scholar, and for that I and I alone bear responsibility. But I have lived with scholars - continue to live with them, on and off - who have created, explained and generously shared knowledge in ways that I hold in the greatest awe. That they love me unreservedly is neither here nor there; they are, to my criminally untrained mind, the greatest thinkers I know, though they almost always correct me that if they are great, their greatness only comes about on account of their standing on the shoulders of true greats. I do not make these declarations lightly; after all, in this country alone, there are men and women who have thought through some of the most difficult questions of our times, detailing them in ways that have invited awe, surprise, anger and, on so many terrifying occasions, violence and murder.

It is why I can appreciate the nadir that current knowledge finds itself in Kenya for a thinker to declare that Kenyans are aggressively ignorant, none more so than those who are privileged to have received many opportunities to think but have chosen to publicly practice a certain kind of ignorance that wears the superficial garb of academic credentials but in truth reveals them to be intellectual cowards. I speak, of course, of men and women of letters who have betrayed a life of letters for the pottage of high government offices and ephemeral political quasi-power.

The Kenyan academy has been hollowed out, first by the murder of great thinkers, and second by their suppression through assimilation - or exile. Murder as the weapon of choice has gone out of vogue - though the murder of Dr Odhiambo Mwai continues to hurt seventeen years later. Exile as well isn't as popular in the age of social media and activist judicial officers. Assimilation, a tactic used to great effect by Mwai Kibaki, has worked wonders in styling independent thinking and tarring independent-thinking intellectuals with the same brush as the dyed-in-the-wool brown-nosing sell-outs. The depths to which the Kenyan academy has sunk continue to be revealed by the utterances of its new-ish members who deprecate the value of the arts and sing the pro-market praises of STEM disciplines - provided the STEM-ists stay well away from theoretical sciences and concentrate their minds on practical sciences.

There are a few holdouts in the crumbling academic redoubt - Dr Njoya at the Daystar University and Dr Ogada, the eminent carnivore ecologist, readily come to mind. But they are a rare and vanishingly small species of public intellectuals, shunned by their peers in the upper echelons of the public service and viewed with contempt if not scorn by the makers of things, like the senior-most wheelbarrow salesman of today and his acolytes.

In Kenya, it is no longer a fertile soil for new ideas - or old ideas reexamined anew. In Kenya, to reach the highest parapets of the academy, one must suppress the instinct to challenge received wisdom. One is expected to conform. One must go along, even if one doesn't get along. In Kenya, to think is to invite trouble. To think fiercely is to invite violence. To think radically is the nearest one will come to drinking petrol and pissing in a camp fire. It is how medical professionals who have reached the highest levels of governmental power and authority are not mentoring their junior to scale ever greater medical heights but have become the pre-eminent inspectors of classrooms. The special form of a professor of medicine inspecting Grade Three classrooms to see if they are fit for teaching during a pandemic is one of the most devastatingly dispiriting things in the world. But what is worse is a putting is man best known for selling mouldy cheese in charge of health policy. The academy, my dear friend, is dead. All that remains is the generations to come to perform its last rites and inter it together with honour, ethics and integrity.

When the history of this sad and cruel time is written, I pray that history's judgment is harsh. We must serve as a warning to future generations. They must point to us as the example of a promise betrayed. They must place our cowardice in the proper historical context and render, harshly, the judgment that for all our perceived "progress", we are no better than ornery buffalos. We deserve no mercy.

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