AN AFRICAN’S COUNTER
Here’s my story: I was born. Went to primary school. Passed high school and graduated from college. That’s it. I’m done telling my story. This is how I felt when I was asked to reflect upon my life and come up with my life’s "story of resistance." "Me? Resistance? What resistance?" I did think about it though and discovered how amazing it was that when we do look back on our lives we are able to find numerous stories of personal resistance. The point is that our lives, in many ways, seem to run diametrically opposite from the sort of life The System would like to mould us into. (I use the term in this context to mean the major structures and institutions in modern society aiming at common goals. The processes, goals and objectives of these institutions flow from basic structural facts, relationships, a common history and a set of values which they have together, internalized. The element of top-down control and an elite bias are however its most distinguishing characteristics. There is a dichotomy with the more holistic, ‘natural’ systems of living organisms: ecosystems and social systems which are essentially self organizing, uncoercive and free of premeditated direction.) The kinds of things we cherish, our dreams, the kind of relationships we hope for with our fellow human beings, rarely factor into The System’s hard and fast rules.
Growing Up, Connecting with The Soil, Family, and Society
Early on in my life I had less questions than I do now. But I still had enough of them to keep life interesting. During the primary school holidays1 my dad would take us to visit my grandfather. My grandfather (Jaduon’g Ayim) drew immense honor and prestige from ‘living from the farm’. He would get virtually all that he needed from the farm. I particularly admired his self-reliance, that he would do things with his hands ¾ plant, construct, mend ¾ with such supreme ease. I contrasted this with the formal, daily, work routine I saw my parents go through. Though my parents worked as full-time professionals, I still preferred my granddad’s way of life, because there seemed less formality and protocol surrounding it.
My grandfather would let us do a lot of planting and gardening too. So when we returned from school, for the holidays, we would each be eager to check on our plants. Then there were the details about farming that we were introduced to ¾ he either familiarized us with these or sometimes we just "stumbled upon" them: the topography, the types of soil, crop rotation, the nutritional and hydrological cycles, the weather patterns, the organic fertilizers and irrigation patterns. All these connected in a unique set of linkages, one necessarily influencing the other. For example, the soil was predominantly clay and when we let in the water, we had to keep in mind the low absorption rate of this type of soil, so as to prevent water logging. It was most interesting when, at times, my grandfather would let us "use our discretion" on the farm. He would, for example, refuse to specify the seed spacing or the quantities of organic fertilizer needed, telling us instead, in his inimitably spoken Luo, to "see for yourselves."
My dad graduated from Makerere University in neighboring Uganda. It was said that this was one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind in Africa. But luckily he, like my grandfather, remained very connected to the soil. My mum was firm, and she made it a point to have us pray every evening "for everybody" before going to bed. Each of us were to ask for forgiveness if "you had done anything wrong to offend your sister/brother during the day." The atmosphere in my family, like in many families I guess, was friendly and sincere. I do not once remember being spanked, but I do remember being "spoken to" by my parents whenever I displeased them. I do not remember any of my brothers or sisters being coerced into doing things, nor having "curfews" imposed on us.
Looking back, I think these experiences cultivated in me a sense of regard for human beings and nature, as well as a profound sense of concern for whatever was happening around me. One of the reasons we were always enthusiastic about leaving school for the holidays was because we liked the way our relatives spoke with us – none of them ever ordered us around, shouted at us or intimidated us. We also saw that that the non-schooled (our relatives at home) would demonstrate such warmth and concern towards us, whereas the people we met in school always seemed to be issuing orders! My impressions of life through childhood were fairly mixed. On the one hand, there was life in boarding school — rigid, uncompromising, spiteful, regimented, competitive, pretentious and immensely exacting. Then there was life out of school (during the school holidays) with my parents and family – warm, caring, respectful, even though we still had to complete the "holiday homework assignment."
Encountering and Resisting Hierarchy
When I entered high school, I looked forward to greater "freedom," with less (or maybe none) of the coercion2 that was such an integral part of life in primary school. Whereas there was less "monitoring" in secondary school, the same tools for dispensing punishment on the "non-conforming" still existed. Most famous, of course, was the threat of suspension from school. We all lived in dread of this. In a way then, I felt a frustrating sense of déjà vu from my primary school days. Ironically, high school was perhaps more regimented. It was in high school that I became conscious of Hierarchy. Whereas in primary school the pressure came from the teachers, in high school, the senior students, plus the teachers, imposed themselves upon "junior students." But it was the self-righteousness produced by the hierarchical nature of the school structure that I detested. The senior students considered themselves beyond reproach by virtue of their "seniority."
I remember one incident that would influence the way in which I viewed authority for years to come. We had a school newspaper, which was run by senior students appointed by the teacher in charge. Obviously, it was assumed that senior students were "better equipped" to deal with the intellectual rigors of a newspaper. But this assumption, like many others, put us in a perpetual state of servitude¯ something which I strongly resented (I know many of my "junior" colleagues did too). During many parent-teacher meetings, the publication would be displayed to demonstrate how, in our school, students were allowed to build their personalities and self-confidence by expressing their views freely.
It was an attractive phrase: self-confidence. I also wanted to build my "self-confidence" and express my views "freely." When I became a senior student, I wrote an article in which I recall saying that most of what we were learning in school was unrelated to our daily activities. What made me write this? Once when we were out of class, a classmate had asked me to solve a couple of mathematical equations we’d done a few days earlier. I could not, but told him that I would memorize them for the coming exams, so I need not bother answering them out of class. "They are irrelevant," I had said. The article never found its way to the magazine. When it reached the teacher in charge, she asked that I be suspended from school instantly. This experience embittered me, mainly because I could not make out very clearly how asking questions about what we were learning could be construed as in-discipline or insubordination. It hit me that the newspaper, despite its rhetoric about freedom of expression, was also subject to rigid institutional supervision. It only allowed for those views that extolled the virtues of our school while subdued any "non-conforming" voices (like mine).
De-conditioning myself of Basic Polarities and Contradictions
It was during my time as a senior student that my mum introduced us to a vast array of literary material. These were the works of African writers, such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o etc. (My mum teaches literature in high school and so we had several books both of English literature and African literature in the house). These books happened to be mainly stories of resistance and de-colonization. The critiques put forth by these writers, against so-called modern society, made a tremendous impression on me. Why, I thought, did we have such little understanding of our own communities and localities, when in fact they offered such vast, abundant experiences to draw from?
This period of time was important for my understanding of institutions of thought-control. Slowly I was becoming aware of an internal struggle that I was having around a polarized view of the world which pitted traditional society against modern society. This bivalent vision was influenced by the way in which we were made to perceive the arts and humanities disciplines in school. For example, literature courses were either "African Traditional Literature" or "English Literature." Notice how the word "traditional" was used discriminatingly! Religious studies were likewise demarcated accordingly – African Traditional Religion and Christian Religious Education. Now this may have seemed like an innocuous interplay of words, but its impact upon our thought processes was massive. "Traditional" to us symbolized the past – or specifically, something backward or inferior – belonging to a different era, nothing we could connect with. In school, at least, however compelling or real these so-called traditional arguments/accounts/postulates were, the "traditional" stigma always reduced them to romanticized cultural affirmations, of some distant, fictitious tribes.3 It was a strange feeling. When I used to "study" about the Luo (my community) in class, it was like I would forget that I was Luo myself.
Fortunately I got an opportunity to get beyond this easy labeling and gain more complete picture when I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The writer used a character, Okonkwo (the principal defender of a community’s ways of life), to talk about a West African community (Umuofia) that disintegrates after being invaded by white people. He provides a deep illustration of life in this community before this invasion, then goes through an absorbing account of the relationship that ensues between local communities and their would-be colonizers after the invasion. At the end of the book, Okonkwo commits suicide on learning that the community has "lost the stomach to stand up and resist the colonizer." What the people of Umuofia had to go through to accept "civilization" was horrifying, not only in terms of loss of life, but also in terms of loss of identities and relationships.
On the whole, Things Fall Apart provided an insight into the value of diversities, interdependencies and multiple ways of knowing in a community, cultivated over centuries, and sustained by an intricate web of relationships. I learnt that fragmentation or isolation from any of these vital elements can become the source of prejudice, friction and animosity. I felt, after reading, Things Fall Apart an increased ‘hunger’ to read and understand more about what was happening.
I remember that in high school we had a student’s Christian Union Club. The members of this club, especially its officials, were so absorbed in interpreting the sacred writ (the Bible) that many times they ended up creating apathy among the student population. Once a friend of mine asked, (before the start of one Sunday mass) "Why do we have to see God through the eyes of the Christian Union students?!" But what strikes me about the church is the way that it is so heavily bureaucratized/regimented; the hierarchy is modeled along the lines of Government. This may, superficially, look good because don’t we all want good, efficient governance (even if only a semblance of it). But the danger with bureaucratizing the church is that it kills spirituality, it kills the core upon which Christianity claims to be founded. It diverts attention from why we go to church and institutionalizes our lives even more. I go to church, on an average 10 times a year but the images I always come out with, at the end of every sermon, are of stern faced ministers standing on the pulpit to heap tons of blame on ordinary people for their thieving, cheating, dishonesty…Not once have I ever heard a preacher relate all these vices with a larger systemic reality or even with economic and political oppression! Of course nobody excuses thieving and cheating but to spend so much time dueling on these ‘moral trivialities’ (petty sins) while ignoring the major sins in society makes the church party to systemic oppression.
As a young person growing up in Kenya, it does not take much time before you notice the multiplicity of faiths within the Christian faith — there is the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church and the Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church and the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the Salvation Army and... The average person hardly knows how an Anglican differs from a Methodist. And this ‘hardly knowing’ is because it simply does not matter and because in trying to understand human purpose and especially human spirituality, these "schisms" do not help.
And I think with regard to Christianity (indeed with regard to religion), the most important area to which, perhaps, we should direct our attention, is reclaiming our senses of spirituality (it has been often said that to merely belong to a religion does not make one’s spirituality a sure thing.) But in order to do this we must look at how our religions are nurturing in us the capacities to understand, more deeply, human purpose. We must ask whether the only purpose of Christianity is to prepare us to "obediently" take our places in an industrial society. We must ask whether the phrase "suffer silently" makes any sense in the face of such blatant cruelty.
Anyway, let’s proceed with our story. It was towards the end of high school, the early 1990s, when Kenya was going through an extraordinary time in its political history. Like many African countries at the time, it was changing its constitution to allow for multi-party politics. The mainstream press billed it as the country’s most historic moment since independence. (It was pitiful that the vision behind the freedom struggle was being reduced to the demand for multi-party-ism!) Again, I noticed that politicians, the dominant media, and the academia had cleverly bifurcated (for the rest of the country) their battle lines: choose between the "freedom" of multi-party-ism or else stick with the "autocracy" of the single party system!
In hindsight, I feel that there has been, over the years, a terrible conceptual confusion ¾ not entirely unintentional ¯about the concepts of freedom, independence, liberation, empowerment etc. These concepts were, in the 1950’s and 60’s originally intended towards redistributing wealth and political power. They were meant to de-center power, move it away from the state and therefore pre-empt its proprietorship by a few. But these concepts must today be regarded as both hollow and delusive because they have been co-opted and turned into verbal symbols for re-concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a small clique of political-corporate ruler elite. In the Kenyan context for instance, the mere presence of many political parties has been touted as representing greater freedom, choice, democracy, etc. But this is nonsense really. Political parties are all part of the same economic-political arrangement… Sure, they may have small differences in policy or ideology but they basically represent one system of power.
I did not share in the great optimism shown by many people at the time, because the "new" faces that were being presented as Kenya’s liberators were actually recycled politicians, who had fallen out with the ruling clique during the single party dispensation. Within a year, and after much acrimony, bitterness, bickering and in-fighting among politicians, many people were back to the old distrust of politics and politicians.
The "scourge" of corruption had also become a big issue at the time – we were given the message that the System was okay, it was just full of bad people. The cure was of course, more accountability/technocracy, privatization, Western management systems. Also, quite prevalent at the time was talk about the infamous miracle solutions under Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) which were being aggressively sold by the World Bank-International Monetary Fund consensus. What the WB-IMF people were asking my country to do defied common sense. They were in effect saying that Kenya had only one economic option ¾ the adoptions of SAPs. What the World Bank and the IMF institutions were turning a blind eye to (the politicians seemed to be providing the blindfolds) were the very visible consequences of their demands: wages nose-dived, people were losing jobs en masse, basic commodities and subsidies vital for limited income families were being eliminated… But no, the World Bank-IMF were not accepting any responsibility in contributing to this massive crisis. They would instead be seen ¾ with politicians in tow ¾ on national television condemning those asking questions of SAPs as irrational, inefficient or self-serving!
Not-so coincidentally, the same set of people who were peddling the gospel of multi-party-ism (this time the "intellectual community" too joined in the chorus) were now pushing Kenya towards the market economy and liberalization! So there was a disturbing scenario here: because of SAPs, people were losing their financial and resource securities. Yet the government was busy assuring people that the entry of foreign products and corporations — now impoverishing even more common people — would help cure this poverty.4 This was probably the first time that I reflected upon the nature of Democracy. Or it would be more accurate to say the time when I lost faith in representative democracy and political leaders.
On completing high school, I moved to India for college. I breezed through (along with virtually everybody) under-graduation and post-graduation and got my degree. College education did not seem too different from the high school version. All we did was memorize facts/information, reproduce these at exams, and bingo! a degree.
I can recall a few instances in college when I got an opportunity to get to know about new ways of life. Following from the keen interest I had developed many years ago for "village life,"5 a friend of mine and I decided to visit Ajmer, Rajasthan. I was a second year student then. The place was a village about 50 km from Ajmer city. It was my first experience of village life in India and a thoroughly enjoyable one. Our host introduced us to numerous aspects of his community’s cultural life, festivals and rituals related with marriage, ceremonies and rites connected with harvest, etc.
This experience helped in strengthening my feelings about non-urban people: their simple-ness, respect, genuineness and a sense of belonging (aspects that reminded me very much of what I regularly saw at home). In this too, I recognized a deeper and profound sense of connection with the basic essence of our being — the co-operative spirit and a deep awareness of being part of the web of life.
I was getting a feel for other aspects of life in India as well. In my country, as a way of stifling people’s resistances against Development and other oppressive frameworks, politicians and government people hold up certain countries as models to be emulated. South Africa is one and India is another. The dominant voice says that India, having largely retained its socio-cultural and civilizational values, still adopts its own brand of technological and material Development and rivals the big super-powers. It is on its way to soon becoming a super-power itself. But I saw that many people in India were reeling under the weight of an oppressive economic system. I observed the same passivity and indifference towards politicians by ordinary people. Whereas Indians have very many political formations to choose from at election time, there was, on the whole, no great enthusiasm or self-satisfaction to be gained from this fact.
By this time, I had gathered a lot to see that the nature of problems facing "us" (the so-called Third World) are insoluble by a few "impeccably honest" personalities.6 But I was still not too convinced that the problems facing our countries were of a deeper systemic nature. At the time, this argument appeared, too easy; it absolved policy-makers of their accountability to common people, I thought.
It was during my time in college that I became part of an African students discussion group. The group was not part of my curricula studies. I was skeptical about being part of this "group," because I initially saw this space as similar to the ones we used to have in school, or even like the school magazine that "encouraged us to develop our self–confidence." But I stayed on because I liked the way in which questions were framed for discussion. In the group we would ask ourselves, for instance, fundamental questions like: "What do you understand by democracy?," "Who benefits from the present model of Development?," and "What have the impacts of Globalization been in your community?" These questions seemed fairly easy at a superficial glance but had much more depth than I thought.
Encountering New Visions of ‘Reality’
These meetings continued and at each meeting, a topic was often chosen to be discussed. Each time, at the close of a discussion meeting, questions would be raised. Each time a question would be raised challenging a common assumption I would think more seriously. A question such as "Is the classroom (and the monopoly it has been given over learning processes) the only ‘authentic’ learning space?"
My reading went on. One of the most inspirational books I read was Ngugi’ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind. I read about how Colonialism imposed its control over Africans and their production of wealth, how it sought to impose its control over what it considered the most significant area of domination ¾ the mental universe of the African. The book shows why this mental control is crucial if colonialism is to be perpetuated long after the colonizer has left African soil.
True, in school we were told about how "the fathers of our nation" resisted ¾ to death — colonialism. What we did not read about, nor were taught about, nor did we even talk about, was how colonialism worked, what its effects were and whether it had any other manifestations beyond the historical political struggles we read about in the school textbooks. Decolonizing The Mind certainly helped me in understanding how colonialism works. It was not just about a few white men conquering and dominating the black race but was much more complex and multi-layered.
I had also started reading Arundhati Roy’s The Greater Common Good. I was horrified (and, for a few days, dumbfounded) at the manner in which human beings — and millions of them too — were having their lives snuffed out in such a cavalier manner, just so that a dam could be built! I could not reconcile myself to the fact that so many people were being crushed virtually un-noticed.7 It was then that I unlearnt the myth about the "naturalness" of Progress. Usually Progress is assumed as desirable for us all. It is our way of moving several steps above the "doomed"’ pre-scientific, pre-industrial cultures. But I was left questioning this assumption. What is so desirable about stripping common people of their resources and natural means of autonomous subsistence, of their senses of identity and community?
Apart from Development, this book opened up other questions as well, especially about "Independence" and "Democracy." I have now met and spoken with diverse groups, individuals and activists who urge us to reject those conceptual models that have outlived their usefulness: that life is nothing but a competitive struggle for existence, that Western science is the only valid approach to knowledge, and that we must all adhere to a devout belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic growth.
Today’s experiences with Development and Modernization mean that we need to reprioritize the local values discarded from earlier cultural periods. Oops!! Earlier periods? No, certainly not. A lot of our people (the ‘invisible’ 80% who are often described as the "uneducated") still remain deeply connected to these humane values. They would not, for instance, sacrifice co-operation for competition. I can straight away mention the example of my grandfather. If one looks at the world from my grandfather’s perspective ¾ a perspective that does not prioritize money, textbook education, status or prestige, but stresses on nurturing the capacities of the self to produce their life without being dependent on outside forces (the market system or the government, for instance), then it becomes clear that that a majority of our people live this kind of life in diverse ways.
Which is not to say that Development, Modernization or western technology, have no place in our lives today. The case I am making here is simply that it is very important to understand what has been—and is being— lost as we let ourselves be immersed in Development, etc. The indiscriminate imposition of Development in our societies also invites the adoption of a whole set of alien social conditions. When peoples attitudes, long standing social relations, deeply planted institutions and a host of other moral and ethical factors stand against Development, the obvious decision is to BREAK THE RESISTANCE.8
I know that it might be said, for instance, that the billions of poor/starving people would have all perished had it not been for science and technology which now makes it possible to feed poor people. But this is untrue. The process of globalization — by insisting on industrial agriculture — seeks to merge agro-economic systems that are unique to particular cultures(see what I said on page 1 about different crop varieties being suited to distinct soil characteristics and climates ). The forced shift, from subsistence farming practices and subsistence relations to industrial agriculture and ‘industrial relations’ (large-scale farms linked by global markets) has at once impoverished billions. The introduction of high-tech fertilizers and pesticides has instead led to the preference for water thirsty cash crops and of new pesticide-resistant varieties of crop pests and diseases! Speaking strictly financially, Development, western science and technology, Modernization were/are massively expensive projects. Their benefits have accrued and can only accrue to a few and these projects must, of necessity, lead to the creation of a leisured class and of so-called have-nots in great numbers.
One of the reasons why I have developed the urge to further deepen my understanding (of "what is really going on in the world") is the awareness that in a new struggle, it is no longer enough to have "inspirational personalities" take the lead. In a way, all of us have roles to play as agents of change. In many countries around the world, the national sentiment often revolves around certain "heroes." Many revolutionary struggles too are often associated with certain "radical," "outstanding" or "firebrand" personalities. These are words we often read and hear via the dominant media system.
But in this new struggle, I recognized two things. First, that it would have been impossible for any of these people to become "heroes" had it not been for the fact that millions of ordinary people – whose names will never appear in history books or in newspapers – lost their lives. There are thousands of others working daily, dedicated and committed to change. Even the biggest revolutions in the world only became so because lots of ordinary people (sometimes thought of as "ignorant") provided the basis for popular action. Second, this understanding (that we are all agents of change) is important so that each of us not only reposes confidence in our own capacities, but also to pre-empt the kind of manipulation that often results from having representatives! In fact, this calls for a fundamental shift in perception and requires that we ask questions and engage seriously with such important ideas as self-learning, self-growth, self-empowerment, etc.
These days I am helping to edit The Counter Renaissance, a publication for African youth that raises questions around themes such as Development, Democracy, Globalization, Consumerism, Justice, Colonialism, etc. The Counter Renaissance is an open opportunity for young African people to reflect upon and take up their own youth leadership with respect to the issues that they feel are most important in their diverse contexts, connecting these with a larger systemic focus. Why the name The Counter Renaissance? We understood that the destruction (of people, of communities, of local resources and capacities, of collective futures) has very strong systemic roots. What followed then was an attempt to ask certain vital foundational questions about The System9 . We traced the genesis of the current arrangement to the European Renaissance — a period that saw tremendous flowering of artistic expression and scientific advance unknown for millenia hitherto. The renaissance led to great explorations of the world and the establishment of colonial empires. The continued rise of science, new technologies (and with it ‘new’ native localities/peoples/resources to exploit and devour) and capitalism, reached its apotheosis later in the 18th century, and this period was christened The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was the period in European history which laid the foundations for modern thought and also saw the birth of the idea of Progress. To this day, the idea of Progress has provided an uplifting sense of material and moral destiny that has been central to the identity of western peoples but is today also central to the psyche of many non-western peoples, especially to the educated amongst them.
But while the renaissance and the enlightenment envisioned a smooth (in fact aesthetic) process of improvement in well-being, they also concealed an ominous side — their impact upon non-western peoples and their environments have been largely destructive. What we experience today is entire communities and nations being crushed by political systems, socio-economic structures and technologies which redistribute wealth and opportunity in favor of a minority. Progress is little more than romantic rhetoric because it comes at a very high price: environmentally, socially, economically, spiritually.
A counter renaissance does not simply offer counter-perspectives to the assumptions of the renaissance, but also creates the space from where we can regenerate those systems and wisdoms that are particular to our contexts. A counter renaissance rejects the understanding that there is only One Way of thinking and of doing things — One Right Method, One Right Religion, One Right Progress. For example, that the only place to learn is the classroom or that the only vision of success is material wealth, or that the only path to spirituality is an affiliation with one of the world’s dominant religions, or that the only way to challenge existing political arrangements is to sign up as a member of one of the numerous existing political formations/parties. I got involved with The Counter Renaissance because it gave me an opportunity to write about issues and matters that I connected with, someplace where I could share my experiences especially with regard to issues that I was most interested in.
Working on The Counter Renaissance pushes me to reflect upon many of my personal experiences to understand and challenge the system and how it works. It is my way of working through a first person’s narrative to reach the philosophical and the conceptual.10 This is important for a number of reasons. First, I get to understand that we live within an overall structure controlled by forces (complex and impersonal systems) that exist beyond our immediate feel. We cannot hold them responsible for their actions because they operate from an abstract level. And yet their roots are drawn from real events in history which gave (and continue to give them) groundless acclaim/dominance over ordinary people’s actual experiences: those of us from the non-Western world, especially the so-called "masses," having been ruled under colonialism, have been depicted as belonging to a sub-human species, low in intellect and ethical standards, while those from the Western world (including their sciences, knowledges, etc), are portrayed as occupying an exalted position, high up in the ladder of humanity. This is, quite obviously, false, because the warmth, caring, understanding that I have experienced in my own family (and I believe this to be true for many other families in Africa), does not testify to any of the casual observances made about Africa. Through The Counter Renaissance, I try to identify these forces, establish their connections with ordinary people’s day to day experiences and hence create a basis for interrogating their very existence.
Second, modern narratives are assumed to work for common good and towards accepted utopian ideals. But this logic is actually turned on its head when looked at more closely and experientially. For instance, it is said that Democracy is rule of the people, by the people, for the people, etc. But many of us are also familiar with the vested interests and influential lobbyists existing within our democratic institutions, negating the very essence of democracy. (The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have penetrated the state power apparatus and are literally residing there. They do not care about Democracy as long as the sacred principles of free-market enterprise are followed by our rulers).
Another modern narrative is Education, which is said to make us more enlightened and self-reliant. My experience with Education however provides a case study on "how to make someone insecure and dependent." For me and many others, Education kills our understanding of our localities and makes us slaves to a capricious Market system whose control will never be in our hands).
I have heard and read numerous times, about calls to reform the system. I do not think there is any merit in such calls for reform because so doing implies an implicit acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves. One of those points is that human beings are, by nature, "empty-headed," or "stupid" and so a comprehensively bureaucratized/regimented set up — a la police state is what will ensure functionality. This is sheer nonsense. Given the facts of today’s present situation, where certain groups swim in privileges at the expense of others ¾ and this is happening not just within our so-called backward countries ¾ but can be seen in the way that international relations/ economics are constructed — then it becomes apparent that any hastily arranged reform ‘packages’ will sooner die than make any meaningful impact upon peoples real lives.
Third, working through my narrative helps me seek out philosophical and conceptual perspectives of another kind — African civilizational perspectives which provide vital counterpoints that could be used to give space to local knowledges and initiatives. For instance, in his work The African and Democracy11 , Julius Nyerere provides a rich account of Democracy, its meaning, how Africans internalized it in their socio-cultural fabric and why today’s dominant understanding actually trivializes it. Nyerere talks about discussion as one of the central tenets of a democracy. Most African societies did not have a strong centralized government or an aristocracy. The structure of the society was a direct extension of the family. The family unit merged into a larger blood family which merged into the tribe. Discussion started right from the family units and extended into other arena. It is difficult for the European mind to imagine and accept that when a village of about one hundred people gathered and talked together until they agreed (on) where a well was to be dug, that this group was in essence practicing democracy. Nyerere observes that in the west, unless a section of the group acted as an opposition group opposing the ‘motion’, and that this group was organized, and that it would consistently vote for or against the motion as a group, only then will democracy be viewed as having taken place.
I also open myself up to learning about the diverse lifestyles, struggles, resistances of individuals and groups from different parts of the world. Through their activism, I learn about how these groups and individuals challenge, among other things, dominant representations of human beings as "generally passive" or as "mass consumers."
Looking to the Future
While working on The Counter Renaissance I have been encouraged by the responses received particularly from African youth. Recently three university students expressed appreciation about what they read in certain issues of The Counter Renaissance. One of them said he found the issues raised in the publication "relevant" and he wanted to be a contributor. There is a growing understanding among the African youth that the dominant political-social-economic institutions have become too anachronistic and that new lenses for perceiving our different realities are needed.
But even though this in itself has been encouraging, there are still very many young people who do not perceive the dynamics, dimensions and workings of formal modern society — in this case African society ¾ as connected to and having systemic/institutional roots. In this instance, I have heard of things said of "Africa by Africans" that sound absolutely ludicrous, even laughable. And when such things are said by young people, I singe. For instance, many young people still see African history through colonial lenses – implicit reference is often made of a peoples humanized by colonialism! However, I am concerned that fellow young people do not lose the understanding that true humanism, the kind that we all hope for among our people and people all over the world, must be rooted in the diverse histories and cultures of people around the world—and also that such humanism must emerge from within rather than be imposed from outside.12
The transition to societies that respect and trust our individual and collective capacities (learning societies) is really under way now, not merely in terms of the new technologies, but in a deeper sense as a profound individual transformation of our-Selves and dominant systems. For me this transformation is happening in the way that my individual attitudes and values have changed for example with regard to the way I understand such concepts as "success." It is also happening in the way that I have, for some time now, felt that the system is flawed, fundamentally. But to facilitate this individual transformation, I have made commitments to explore and learn more deeply about my leadership capacities…to open spaces (both a physical open learning space for young people and in terms of relations) where young African people can also engage with and nurture their own capacities for leadership…not the kind that uses control and domination, but the kind that counteracts the emphasis on such attitudes as command-and-control and domination.
You’ve found, in this story, several references made to community. In fact, lots of African people may wonder whether I’m advocating a return to the ‘old’ tribal affiliations. For me, the question then would be, what does it mean to belong to a community? What does it mean to be a Luo?13 Because today it is generally expected that educated Africans must espouse European ideals, my own attempts to make a case for local values once met with a typical response from an African reader.14 He said, "Oh but you know, we now live in a different time and age. Why are you becoming so chauvinistic?" Ever since I started on my journey of unlearning, it has been clear to me that all the means of physical, economic, political, spiritual and psychological survival of local communities have sought to be grabbed away by modern ‘public’ institutions.
Being a Luo, for me, means a couple of things: the first has to do with cultural context of my existence. I need a secure cultural context to give meaning to the choices I make or to the experiences I share. For example, when I share my experiences in The Counter Renaissance, I would not like to remain abstract or academic, but would like that practical examples come out. Being a Luo, for me, means recognizing (and challenging) the explicit logic of Development which is that only ‘atomistic’ individuals should be free to choose…a logic which has been used to break down cultural ties around the world and internalize market exchange relations. Collective resistance around the world is increasingly becoming difficult because more people are losing their cultural ties — the sense of connection to a wider group. As our faith in Progress continues to evaporate, it will be difficult to offer counteracting perspectives if we allow our senses of the collective to disappear.
Secondly, I strive to create for myself the space to say I am an individual, unique and self-creating. This, again, must not be confused with a picture of the "atomistic" individual creating his own rigid identity and pursuing his interests independently. The word ‘dialogue’ I understand in this sense, as an effort at creating my identity through interactions and relations with different people. This leaves me space to deliberate about those aspects of identity that I share with other citizens because identity is also constituted by collective dialogues. And for me, ‘collective’ would not only mean a mutual sharing with people — as an individual — but would also mean being conscious of where I come from, as I share and dialogue.
What of questions regarding Kenyan Nationalism? Am I not a Kenyan? In the end, a great deal of my understanding about the nation-state has been shaped by what I have seen. We all know, anyway, that African nation states are creations of imperialism and as a consequence, the economic, political and cultural structures of colonialism have more or less remained intact. I have seen, in Kenya, a tremendous emphasis placed on preserving the perceived integrity of the nation state. I have seen the same image of power held by colonial rulers exercised by today’s rulers —spaces for democratic expression shut down and individuals thrown in jail. I have seen thousands of young people recruited into the armed forces to protect the nation, even when just about every Kenyan knows that the "nation" faces no threat to its security from neighboring countries.
I am also aware of the terrible role played by our system of education in glorifying the abstract notion of the nation-state — through the national anthem and the through the loyalty pledge — while dumbing down our own creativities and capacities. I am not too keen to identify with the cold individualistic approach that is the cornerstone of the nation-state. The whole idea of the "nation-state" is too abstract and there is no specific or concrete point of connection between "me" and the nation. I would not, for instance, know what to tell you if you asked me to prove that I was Kenyan.15
There are many things I wish to learn more deeply about. For example, the possibilities of nurturing diverse forms of learning as a way of creating visions of new societies, rejuvenating confidence in ourselves and re-weaving the hidden threads of partnership and co-operation. How do we break through today’s prevalent notions of individualism, competition and rivalry? How do we instead support relationships and organic processes of personal and community growth?
As an individual, there’s probably only so much I can do to motivate people to undertake revolutionary missions or even spirit-ize people to interrogate their long-held assumptions about the world. But I am seriously engaged in a process where I hope to create and expand spaces for African youth to reflect upon matters that impact their lives in a variety of ways. And one of those matters is the whole business of Development.16
In raising these questions, I hope that we can discover new partnerships — to establish relationships and links, co-operate, ‘live inside one another’s experiences’ and connect.
1I was in a boarding school and so we had only about three months in a year for holidays.
2There was virtually nothing in my school that was not "compulsory"! Even eating was a compulsory "exercise." I could not, for example, refuse to take my meals, because the rule said "all students are supposed to be in the school dining hall, without fail, by 7:00 p.m for dinner. " There were countless roll calls too for good measure.
3Later, in the September 2001 issue of The Counter Renaissance, after going through several self-learning processes, I have talked about how Language is used to create a false picture of our environments as well as drive to us apart from one another.
4Profit is the decisive measure of Market economics. In The Absence of the Sacred, Jerry Mander states that "to make Profit means to under compensate or exploit." Poverty is therefore one direct consequence of a system that is built around the profit imperative. Profit takes precedence over everything else, including people’s right to life. It was hence a mystery how this perceived "cure for poverty" would happen.
5This is a limited phrase because it is often used to stigmatize rather than appreciate a way of life that provides diversity, richness and fulfillment to very many people.
6To believe that these problems, many of them deep-rooted, can be fixed by a select and, until now, invisible set of individuals is utterly inadequate. It provides a false therapeutic treatment to the mind, while preempting a critical analysis of ‘what is really going on’. Perhaps the pertinent question that could be asked in this regard would be "If they are so good, strong, etc, then what’s preventing them from showing up?"
7I say unnoticed because I never became aware of such massive oppression and destruction from dominant literature.
8The order is to change people’s attitudes, destroy social relations and reduce age-old institutions to a shambles.
9I have for some time now believed that if you want to know how a particular system works, it is important to have an understanding of its history, who controls it/organizes it, and who, exactly, stands to benefit most from its continued existence.
10In the July 2001 issue of The Counter Renaissance, I have talked about how the much-believed fable about Africa’s backwardness is a conceptual myth, patently ridiculous, serves a purpose and destroys our capacities for regeneration. In the September 2001issue, I have discussed how institutions use Language to distort and create misunderstanding between us and our environments. I have picked particular experiences in school and unearthed their connection to a larger conceptual base rooted in and serving Western civilizational experiences and institutions.
11Charles Otieno reviews Nyerere’s work in this regard in the March 2001 issue of The Counter Renaissance.
12We are familiar with the great hullaballo that’s often created in honor of some sacred cow. For instance, the United Nations celebrates International Peace Day or International Day against Violence. These observances do not make any difference to the state of the world we live in. Everyone is made to think they have participated in an event of historic importance, when the question of how our inner growth and understandings of what really constitutes humanism, goes unanswered.
13The fact that "tribalism" is one of the most sensitive issues in Africa —and on many occasions has been used as an excuse to spill blood — is not an accident. It is a very old ideology of control through divide and rule, weakening resistance by weakening a sense of who we are or want to be.
14One of my articles in The Counter Renaissance talks about why local languages are an important tool for self-definition.
15Sure I can show you documentation but then anybody can buy these in the open market.
16Development as a concept and as a philosophy. I include dominant understandings of Democracy, Justice, Freedom, Progress, Western Science and Technology, Enlightenment, Education, etc, as essential parts of this Concept/Philosophy.