Why Kenyan intellectuals rock!

On Friday I attended the most intellectually and politically rigorous workshop I have attended in a long time. I don’t know how long “a long time” is, but suffice to say it was certainly one of the best academic events I have attended in my entire academic career – a staggering highlight. It is at moments like these that I am glad that I chose the life of the mind. It is also at such times that I am almost happy about my choice of institutional affiliation. But this is not an advert for where I work. They don’t pay me enough to do that – and I certainly need the ocassional brilliance to deal with the regular irritation. Let’s just say the workshop happened in Johannesburg. But I digress.

Back to the workshop on Kenya, then, called “Conflict resolution in Kenya: taking stock of a political crisis”. Although the programme ran from 08h30-18h30 officially, but really much longer, previous commitments meant I only attended 2 of the 4 sessions. The first under the title, ‘”mediatisation” of politics: writing violence and ethnicity’ and the second ‘literature and the imagination of a Kenyan public sphere’.

Mediatisation of politics had presentations on the famous and substantial Kenyan blogosphere at the time of the Kenyan conflict resulting from the latest elections. Jennifer Musangi outlined how that blogosphere staged a war of words with “truth”. She focused on mashada.com and how even this incredibly popular site was overwhelmed by the kinds of contestations going on about what was and could be “true”, what was allowable and not. mashada.com was shut down for a period due to the kinds of activity and postings following the conflict. Musangi was interested in how – because truth is unreliable (we can’t find it, whose truth?)- we use narratives to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. Many times in Kenya and elsewhere, such narratives rely on ethnic stereotype and what she calls historical rumours. How does this kind of narrative tell us about the search for truth, especially in the context of a Kenyan public that is good at “forgetting and moving on”? Dina Legaga’s paper also focused on electronic communications arguing as she did that the internet is attractive for getting a sense of what people are thinking on a particular issue, especially sites and exchanges that are raw, unedited and sometimes anonymous. She showed us that in the aftermath of the post-election violence such sites often relied on stereotype as narrative, and reminded us that stereotypes are not innocent. Fascinatingly, she showed how such stereotypes were used to divide Kenyans into numerous “sub-nations” which were very interesting for how they construct new truths using a “political tribalism” that demanded loyalty from some while breeding division. Jacob Aketch focused on the international press coverage of the conflict and showed sharp contrast before and after the elections. Much of the idiom after the elections relied on ethnic stereotype, while also circulating older stereotypes known from generalised Northern coverage of contemporary Africa. Western media outfits produced medicalised explanations for the violence, failed to engage interestingly with the causes, timing and patterns of the conflict and showed remarkable silence around why government offices were often the targets of violence. Additionally, there was no addressing of the intensity of the conflict or non-violent responses to its outbreak. He then went on to offer some ways in which more nuanced analysis and coverage could have engaged with the conflict.

The discussion session introduced by Dumisani Moyo (acting as discussant) flagged questions such as the contradictory roles played by useful and open spaces for debate since these could sometimes be platforms for the rehashing of stereotypical representations found in the mainstream press. Is there an escape possible from these kinds of representations circulated further through the rumour mill, sometimes called pavement radio, Moyo asked. It was also important to reflect on the large numbers of Kenyans in the diaspora who take up much space on the Kenyan blogosphere even as we continue to understand the resilience of ethnic chauvinism, and how modernity’s non-linearity is supportive of ethnic chauvinism. Does Kenya resort to collective amnesia or do the narratives of the rumour mill suggest otherwise?

The second panel I attended featured Grace Musila, whose scholarship is of such consistent brilliance that I make a note to attend whatever presentation she gives. I really do think – without the slightest hesitation – that Musila is going to be one of the African studies/feminist studies/Af Lit/postcolonial studies greats in a few years. She spoke about how the state and individual agency are gendered in Kenya, but moved beyond what has become standard discourse about the gendering of the nation state. Musila deepened this discourse considerably when she unpacked how the Kenyan state is not just masculine/phallic, but also that it was a phallocracy. She refered to three Kenyan presidencies to illustrate the mutating phallocracy (Kenyatta’s heroic, elder, struggle credentialed to Moi’s ultra-masculinity, “first lady-lessness”, paranoia, mother & father of the nation styling of Kanu to Kibaki’s very visible first lady-presence, the questioning of his masculinity, and absent presidency). She spoke equally compellingly about how women figure in the Kenyan politicalsphere either through female masculinity (similar to what Ramphele calls honorary male status in SA liberation politics) or excessive femininity. Like Musila, the latter group is more exciting for me, and I also share Musila’s excitement about the figure of Wambui Otieno, a key feminist in Kenya who routinely threatens the ridiculous masculine ideal by destabilising hegemonic masculinity and the meanings of class. Next, the Af Lit giant, James Ogude spoke convincingly about how “cultural sites that deal with human subjectivity help us deal with the relationship between state, class and ethnicity” more so than much of the studies that rely on political economy. How do we read the Kenyan stance (“those who are rich are so because they govern”) which is an inversion of the Marxist axiom? Why the persistance of the metaphor of Kenyan nation state as food (to be carved up by sharp knives and distributed through big men)? How does the highly localised metaphoric associative eating (“I eat because a clansman eats”) work? For Ogude, something is missing in the existing explanations that do not address that people are still grappling for a nation; that ethnic citizenship continues to hold greater pull than national citizenship; the failure of the concept of/desire for the nation state to be fully domesticated; the meanings and implications of the strong kinship bonds retained by the middle class; and the lack of civic culture and civic responsibility.

As though Musila and Ogude had not blown my mind enough, Dan Ojwang’s presentation is going to haunt me for a while to come. Some of the things he said about memory I continue to turn over and over in my head. I work on memory, so this was significant in a field where much repetition happens. He pointed to how academic intellectuals speak about others and very seldom about ourselves, and addressed himself to Simon Gikandi’s argument about the failure of the intellectual class to be distinguished from the political class (as guns for hire) and the ensuing failure to use reason. Gikandi’s comments came because of the near complete silence by the Kenyan intellectual class in the face of the recent conflict. Ojwang admitted to varying degrees of distance from and agreement with Gikandi’s stance. He probed further the meanings of intellectual responsibility and complicity. Is intellectual work useful at a time of crisis? What might that mean? What does it mean? Given that much of our work remains professionalised, how do we mediate the expectation that we are to produce answers/solutions? If knowledge’s entanglement in the world is the condition of secular intellectualism since intellectuals are always also subjects of the state, how do we make a useful impact on the world? What are the implications for Kenyan memory, for recognition of Kenyan collective trauma, the place of the irrational? Why has ethnicity been so sacralised in a politics framed as consumable melodrama?

The discussion (shaped and framed by Garnette Oluoch-Olunya) again rose to the challenges posed by these three speakers. And as I listened, asked questions, and reflected on the goings on as well as those in attendance, I will admit that my ever-present Kenya-envy was quite strong:) But claimed honorary Kenyan status only gets you so far, sadly. I also could not help relating some of these questions to South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the ways in which some parallels were obvious. I was glad for the benefit of the work presented and the opportunity to deepen my own thinking & writing about Southern African embattlement on democracy, public sphere contestation, memory and forgetting processes, the codification of language on resources and the phallocracies down here.

Of course, I now write from memory, so the actual papers have been condensed and no doubt crudified. I hope there is a book out of this that I can read and read and re-read. This would also give me a chance to read work from the sessions I missed.


Posted on 20 July 2008, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. “I am glad that I chose the life of the mind”…A moment of genius!!!

    Should I say anything? Your pieces are always so full of meaning!!! Amazing. I didnt come here to praise you, no!! I am not saying this because it would be a ‘cool’ thing to be a friend to a prof!! If anyone tells you that I visited your blog because I like your views on African feminism and Calixthe Beyala or the portrayal of sexuality in the novels of ‘the wasted brains’ of Sello Duiker please do not believe them (though I do like your views).I am here because you seem to feel the same way that those of us who were at the Kenyan workshop have felt, feel and will always do (unless something happens).

    This piece “written from memory” is such a brilliant ‘review’!! Should I use your words girlfriend? YOU ROCK!!!

  2. Hey there,
    This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting
    a new project in a community in the same niche.
    Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You
    have done a wonderful job!

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