Redeeming the Soul of Our Nation
[As Kenyans struggle to find meaning in the shenanigans surrounding their body politic, Njonjo Mue challenges the youth to join an army of ordinary people to fight the good fight; to defend our freedom, dignity, heritage and our children’s future, by engaging in brutal self-appraisal and refusing to aid decay. It is a call to arms - for men to leave the bars long enough to know what their children will eat for supper; for women to cease their escapism and confront the problems facing our communities; and for all of us to individually take responsibility for the future of our country.]
An army of ordinary people
A kingdom where love is the key
A city, a light to the nations
Heirs to the promise are we
A people whose life is in Kenya
A nation together we stand
Truly by birth are we worthy
Inheritors of the land
A new dawn is coming
A new age has come
When the children of promise
Shall stand together as one
A truth long neglected
But the time has now come
When the children of promise
Must fight together as one.
(adopted from a hymn by Dave Bilbrough, © 1983, Kingsways Thankyou Music)
Of being, belonging and identity…
What is Kenya and what makes you a Kenyan? Is it your ID card? Your blue passport? The fact that you were born here? Do you feel connected? Do you belong? Are you more or less Luo, Kamba, Kipsigis, Mijikenda, Asian, Caucasian or Arab than Kenyan? Are you more or less male or female that Kenyan? Are you more or less Christian, Muslim or Hindu that Kenyan? How do these multiple identities play themselves out in your psyche? Do you feel the need to run away from any one of them in order to embrace your Kenyanness?
In other words, what is your identity and what real connection do you have with Kenya? What makes you proud to be a Kenyan? If you had a choice among all the multiple identities that you have, would you choose to retain or drop your Kenyan identity? Why or why not?
The ties that bind…
Our parents’ generation was born into 42 different nationalities. However, they became Kenyans as they united to fight the common enemy of colonial domination. Once that enemy was defeated, they then went about determining the terms of their social contract, in Lancaster House and at home, in commendable attempts to build a nation. Have they succeeded? How and where have they failed?
What about us? 45 years later, what common enemy do we face? On what basis shall we negotiate our new social contract? Will the glue that held our parents’ generation together remain strong enough to bind us?
The answer is clearly in the negative. For we can see all around us depressing and alarming evidence that the social compact that once defined Kenya is quickly coming apart. The demon of political tribalism rears its ugly head with reckless abandon, as politicians declare that it is their turn to eat and then form all sorts of diabolical alliances to prepare how they might divide the spoils, and as they look determined to fight it out to the end, grabbing for power without caring if the nation falls apart in the process.
The need for renegotiating the social contract has been acknowledged by all, but there is seemingly no committed leadership with the courage and vision to lead us in navigating through these uncharted waters. We wander aimlessly in the wilderness of our despair, longing for our Land of Promise, but not even the mirage of social cohesion appears on the horizon.
Yet we have no choice in this matter. We must hold a genuine national dialogue on how to define our new dispensation – and by this I don’t mean merely discussing how to share power, for a society is more that the power structure to which it subscribes. The more we prevaricate on the need for national dialogue, the more certain quarters of our society continue to hold destructive monologues that push us ever closer to the brink.
We cannot leave things to run their own course. The train of liberty does not roll forward on the wheels of inevitability; it must be pushed, sometimes pulled; but always kept on track and moving towards the goal of social justice and the true wholesome development of the human person.
The generation gone before us appears to have run out of ideas on how to do this. This is hardly surprising considering that those who call the shots have been on the scene forever – they are exhausted, old and without a real stake in the future of our country. It is now up to us to take a stand and impose an environment of order to eliminate the daily chaos in our midst. In so doing, we will start to define a new vision for this country and to march decisively towards our collective sustainable future.
Heart of the Country or Soul of the Nation?
Politicians pretend to care a great deal about the need for a new constitution, but we all know that for them, the process is little more that glorified power play. Although the Constitution is the heart of the country, from which the entire legal system gets its lifeblood, in the end, only a small number of people will dominate the constitution-making process. Further, even if they came up with the best document in the world, it would still only be half the job done.
The other, more fundamentally half, is to reconstruct the soul of our nation. This is the responsibility of every citizen and cannot be left to politicians and their gate-keepers alone. It is an exercise which defines what the essence of being Kenyan is. What is the soul of our nation? What are the ties that bind? What are the criteria for belonging? In other words, what are the core values that make us who we are, above our diverse ethnic nationalities and beneath our common citizenship of the human family? As our favourite native son, Barack Obama reminds us, the Constitution is not just a source of individual rights, but also a means of organizing a democratic conversation around our collective future.
And so it is vital to reach a consensus on the values we espouse as Kenyans, for we cannot move forward as a nation until we know and internalize what that nationhood entails. Until we each individually and voluntarily subscribe to a core set of beliefs. Once consensus on this is attained, then we can ascribe censure to those who choose to transgress our compact through mutually agreed coercion. This is the essence of a society governed by laws and not by men.
Currently, we only belong to Kenya largely by accident of birth. We largely identify with the State only in its coercive sense.; in the sense that we see policemen telling us what to do on pain of punishment in accordance with a legal code we had little input in promulgating. We are also Kenyans by virtue of the fact that every June 30th we have a date with KRA which comes knocking on our doors seeking to know how much income we earned the previous year and whether we have given to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. We also think we belong because we demand rights that are hardly recognized or protected and services that the government is unwilling or unable to provide.
We understand the workings of government better today than we did ten years ago. However this has not made our lives better because, in spite of more transparency, there is no corresponding accountability on the part of the government or ourselves as citizens. We live in an age of lawlessness and impunity. Citizens feel no obligation to obey laws that do not bind those who make them. There is no sense of enlightened self-interest in making our systems work or in contributing to the public good. In addition, there are few role models left to follow, for we have allowed politicians to dominate our public space and to perpetually pollute our air with the stench of their incorrigibly bad manners.
Therefore, we need to find positive things that draw us to our Kenyanness, things that will make us assert confidently, ‘We are Kenyans by choice!’ We need to find a new focal point for our allegiance as citizens of Kenya.
What is Kenya and who are Kenyans?
At its most basic, Kenya is a juridical fact in international law. It is also a piece of real estate comprising 583,000 hectares occupied by some 37 million people who are as diverse as can be in ethnic belonging, religious affiliation, occupational persuasion, racial origin and social status.
In this dynamic mix, is there value in being called a Kenyan? By all means, I believe there is. But we are yet to fully appreciate it. That is why many of us continue to retreat into our ethnic cocoons whenever it crises arise. But we need to start defining that value and to clarify to ourselves what value we as a country and as a people add to the world around us.
All this cannot be done within a short period of time, for the search for nationhood is a long-term project. It is a conversation with ourselves that shall have no end, for what constitutes Kenya and Kenyans will continue to evolve as the world around us changes. But as globalization makes the world ever more homogenous, we need to identify and nurture our core values, those that make us uniquely Kenyan.
This exercise is not the preserve of any one person or group of people however defined. The endeavour to define these values has to be a national exercise involving all who bear the name of Kenya and reaching across all the strata of our nation. It will not be easy to arrive at consensus. Yet we must keep faithfully on this course until we are able to define ourselves and know and fully internalize who we really are.
For as long as we keep allowing others to define us – politicians and tribal chiefs, Western hegemonic geopolitical interests, the World Bank, the IMF, and a myriad other amorphous interests and agendas – we shall remain buffeted by winds of change, ones that make one demand of us one day and another the next. Instead of being the masters of our destiny, we shall forever react to the actions of others. Always waiting for them to tell us who we are and what we must do next to water out the fire of self-destruction in our own homes.
In other words, we shall be enslaved to the whims of others. Tossed hither by torrents of oppression and thither by waves of despair, all the while becoming the laughing stock of neighbours near and far; the subject of after-dinner conversations from South Korea to South Africa – whispers about a people who once seemed to be going somewhere but who got shipwrecked in the high seas of greed, economic collapse, socio-political confusion and moral decline.
If things appear desperate for us today, it is because they are. The road to our Land of Promise has been long and treacherous and there is no end in sight. One’s heart has to bleed as one looks around our country. Low intensity warfare and conflict violently and routinely disrupt the lives of innocents in urban and rural areas while Mungiki and other criminal gangs terrorize the populace with impunity and with the tacit support of the political class; all this while trigger-happy policemen gun down perceived criminals and answer to no one but themselves.
Poverty, inequality and underdevelopment are the defining feature of our age. Famine is the order of the day in many communities, hunger a constant companion to children across the land. AIDS continues to wipe us out indiscriminately, ravaging our fragile economy, leaving orphans to fend for themselves and frail grandmothers to look after helpless grandchildren. Crime and corruption are eating away at the soul of our nation, and responsible political leadership is a concept that has altogether eluded us. We have touched the nadir of despair, and darkness has fallen across the land.
We have become exiles from and refugees in our own country. IDPs continue to endure life in desolate ‘transit’ camps; our children find solace in the streets where drugs or regular sniffs of glue help them to accept the morbidity of their daily existence; our men have taken refuge in bars to consume large quantities of liquor to dull the gnawing pain of helplessness and the silent pangs of despair; and our women have found shelter in religious crusades to be fed generous doses of the sweet by-and-by to enable them to endure the nasty now-and-now!
The rest of us have become so impoverished and bereft of ideas and morality that we have lost our way altogether and become ourselves predators. We have no qualms about robbing the poor and exploiting the weak in our midst. We have sadly fulfilled Mwalimu Nyerere’s prophesy about Kenya being a man-eat-man society.
Amidst all this confusion, we have pushed politics to the centre of our existence. We continually engage in a strange conversation where all do the talking while no one is really listening. We conspire against the poor when they cry out for real solutions to real problems by forming endless commissions that only end up creating jobs for ourselves for which the poor are forced to pay us astronomical salaries and benefits.
Our politics is a politics of the stomach – of greed and exploitation. Having presided over the wholesale dismantling of our collective hope, the political class can now set the rules, rules that revolve around money – stolen money! And so this cycle of poverty goes round and round. I steal money today which I use to bribe you to send me to Parliament or the Local Council tomorrow with the single aim of stealing more money to purchase my seat the next round and make a handsome profit in the process.
When shall we stop this cycle of madness?
I say NOW!! Now is the time to draw a line in the sand! Now is the time to say to anyone who subscribes to this madness, ‘ENOUGH!’Now is the time to take a stand against these predators! Now is the time to reclaim our human dignity! Now is the time to start our long march to our true Land of Promise!
What we do now will determine what kind of country our children will inherit. Let no one fool you that it does not matter what we do. The choices we make today shall have irreversible consequences for generations to come. We are the people who shall save or lose Kenya. We are not perfect and we will make our mistakes, but the greatest mistake we can make now is to do nothing.
So, do something!
But first we must first do away with the futile search for a messiah who will come and fix everything for us. For the messiah we look for is to be found inside each one of us. We must each take personal responsibility in defining and enforcing our new social contract. We must say ‘No’ to any person who would seek to exploit us and use us as stepping stones to the corridors of the abuse of power. We must find the courage to believe in ourselves again and say ‘No’ to their destructive ‘favours’ and demeaning patronage for which we have hitherto sold our birth right. It is time to impose a new set of rules: a paradigm that puts country above personal comfort, our children’s inheritance and collective security above individual gain.
Fighting the good fight
Kenya is at war. And this is a fact whether it is acknowledged or not. We may not see tanks and troops on the streets and we may not go to bed with the sound of gunfire ringing in our ears. But we are at war.
The enemies we face are more dangerous than a conventional army. They may not destroy our infrastructure or kill our mortal bodies, but they have stealthily found their way through our defenses and are slowly eating away at the soul of our nation. We boast a form of civilization, but it is an empty shell and it is a matter of time before the whole edifice comes tumbling down. The cost of that eventuality is too ghastly to contemplate.
But unlike the politicians, I do not dangle the threat of cataclysmic implosion before your eyes in order to paralyze us into doing nothing, but in order to galvanize us into action. We must urgently retake control of our destiny and our country and start rebuilding the walls around our nationhood. It is not too late to reconstruct the soul of our nation, but the work must start now. Every moment of delay pushes us ever closer to the brink!
This is therefore a call-up notice:
All Kenyan men and women are requested to enroll into the Army of Ordinary People. Our sole objective is to defend our heritage from enemies within and without, to reconstruct the soul of our nation, and to lay a firm foundation for our new Republic.
And these are our rules of engagement:
The primary theatre of action shall be within ourselves, for ‘there is only one small corner of the world that we can truly change and that is ourselves’. We cannot impose rules on others that we are ourselves unwilling to live by. And so we must start by changing our own behavior, attitudes and mindset. We must become the change that we seek.
The next theatre of action is the world around us – our homes, our schools and colleges, our workplace, our communities and on the road as we drive and commute. We must politely but firmly point out whenever someone transgresses the human dignity of others or of ourselves – all the time being careful not to demand of others higher standards than we ourselves faithfully subscribe to. We must seek to faithfully influence our colleagues to act in the best interests of Kenya. In everything we do, we must constantly ask, ‘will it contribute to the reconstruction of the soul of our nation?’
What weapons shall our army wield?
Our conviction, our minds and our bodies. We shall scale the citadels of oppression to proclaim our humanity to those who have forgotten what it is to be human. We shall shun violence in all its forms – violence of thought, language and action. We shall engage in non-violent direct action when necessary to draw attention to our concerns and to bring about positive change. In everything we do, we shall conduct our struggle on the high plane of integrity and honour. Not seeking to conquer our opponents, but to convert them, for our fight is not against persons, but against injustice, against indignity and against oppression.
Counting the cost: What risks do we face?
The forces pitted against us are many, varied and vicious, and before we engage, we must count the cost. It will cost us – all of us – our very lives. The cause for which we fight will be here long after we have all passed the baton to a new generation. But some of us may have to go before others, for the entrnched forces we oppose are not benign. Therefore, like any other army, the army of ordinary people requires you to prepare to pay the supreme price for your convictions. You and I could die. This is a reality we must be prepared to come to terms with before signing up.
But if we wage our struggle with honour and discipline, and if we raise our cause above ourselves, then, even if we die in the struggle, death becomes redemptive. For hundreds and thousands will rise up to take our place; and our blood shall water the tree of freedom and invigorate our nation. Soon, our nation shall be truly free!
We could go to prison. But this should not perturb us unduly because for countless people who endure life in the slums or live under the specter of urban insecurity or rural poverty, there is a sense in which our country is one large prison today. And should we end up behind bars, we should take solace in the fact that in those very prisons are men and women, both jailers and jailed, who need to hear our message of hope. We will go to prison willingly and shall ‘transform our jailhouses from dungeons of despair into havens of freedom’. Soon, both prisoner and prison warder shall be free!
We could get physically injured. But what else is new? We are already bleeding from a thousand wounds. We suffer the daily indignities of hunger, oppression and disease. The thing to do is to regard every blow that lands upon my unarmed body as the blow of a hammer and chisel that will shape the stones that wound us into the forms of people. So that we might liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor and forever throw off the shackles of fear and brutishness from around the neck of our nation. Soon both the oppressor and the oppressed shall be free!
And what is in it for us?
I can promise you only hardship and persecution. These are the only guarantees. Our country did not get to the dark place where we find ourselves today overnight, nor will we get our overnight. It will get worse before it gets better. But I also promise you destiny. We were born for such a time as this. Future generations shall be beholden to the army of ordinary people – young men and women who had the courage of their convictions.
I call upon you to give up the material comforts of today to build a nation for tomorrow. I dare you to cross the line of the familiar and into the unknown in pursuit of a vision for another country, a better homeland. I challenge you to sow the seeds of a tree you may never personally sit under, that another generation may reap the fruit of dignity, security and prosperity for all. And I call upon you to invest in a future we may both never see that your children and mine might never again be called the children of a lesser god.
And may I remind you, my brothers and sisters, that Kenya was the first country in black Africa where the colonial master was not just asked to leave, but was pushed out of our country by our young men and women who risked their all to wrest our country back from those who had stolen our land.
A generation has since passed. Our parents can at least claim to have attained that formal independence. What about us? Do we want to leave behind a legacy of having let our country disintegrate during our watch?
Amkeni ndugu zetu!
11th May 2009