Toward Freedom

Image| Wambui Mwangi
Image| Wambui Mwangi

Wiathi began with a word my mother gave me, a word that taught me how to imagine and desire a livable and shareable world. Wiathi is a grounded word, though it lives in that “leap of invention” Fanon writes about. It’s a word that my mother learned when her father was arrested by the British in 1952, her family home bulldozed by colonial forces, and her family forced into a colonial village. I think it’s the word my mother learned to chant when she sold sweet potatoes to train passengers to raise school fees. It’s the word that allowed her to survive when colonial officers laid out dead bodies in front of her school and taunted her to check whether her father was among them. It’s the word she held on to when her grandmother handed her packages of food and told her to place them where freedom fighters could collect them. It’s the word that flooded her body when her father returned from detention seven years later and when she first saw the Kenyan flag going up. Wiathi is a grounding and grounded word, a world-imagining, world-building word.

As this blog goes on hiatus—though I’ll still be blogging at gukira—it’s only fitting that it pause on more of my mother’s words.

About six months ago, she said: “my father’s generation fought to get back some of the land; my generation fought to get some economic freedom; your generation must fight to free our minds—you must create knowledge.”

I have been thinking about the clarity of her vision, her understanding of generational change, and her model of historical responsibility. Over the past year, she has kept telling me that I know much more than her father ever did—I’ve simply read more books. Her father, for whom I am named, was a teacher. Many of my aunts and uncles became teachers. I am a third-generation teacher within the frames created by colonial modernity, which means that I inhabit and work in and against those frames.

I return, as always, to the example of my grandfather, who taught in what were called independent schools, systems established to think beyond the frames the British created for the natives. Independent schools pursued freedom. When those schools were closed, Kenyan education changed forever, moving from pursuing freedom to creating state-building skills, suitable for the colonial and post-independent state. What kind of knowledge is needed to pursue freedom? How is knowledge to be freed? How can our minds be freed?

Over the past year, I have been thinking about political vernaculars, about the words we use to describe who and where and how we are. A more extended discussion of political vernaculars will be published at The New Inquiry very soon, but let me offer a preview:

“Political vernaculars” announce a conversation about politics: they are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political, and that gather different groups around something marked as the political. They are the words and phrases that disassemble people around the political, as when “I prefer not to discuss politics.” They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we-formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all of the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying.

I was jolted to think about political vernaculars when I returned to Kenya in 2013 and realised that I did not understand how Kenya was being discussed. Development-speak and, more precisely, NGO-speak had created a host of terms that seemed to be speaking about something experienced as the political—good governance, civil society, capacity building, accountability, transparency—but that had the effect of creating massive class barriers: those fluent in these terms could access conferences and workshops held in elite hotels, but didn’t seem to have a vision beyond what those terms offered. This experience was also true of the political spaces I encountered, where the conversations kept looping around creating systems and making systems work—corruption is a problem, we need development, the problem is implementation. It’s not that these statements are not true, but I was fascinated by the faith and resignation with which they were repeated. I was fascinated by what they did not seem to do. If these vernaculars gathered us, and they did, it was not to pursue freedom.

What kind of knowledge is freedom-building, freedom-creating, freedom-pursuing, freedom-sustaining? What’s the relationship between this knowledge and state-sanctioned knowledge? What will ground this freedom-oriented knowledge?

Wambui Mwangi has been teaching me how to think about grounding, how to think and act from where one is standing. Because I think with the black diaspora, I am also compelled to ask about how one thinks and acts from dispossession and deracination. What does thinking with still-extant colonial villages produce as an orientation toward freedom? What does thinking with IDPs do? What does thinking with squatters do? What does thinking with those who live in “informal settlements”—I’m unconvinced that “informal settlement” is more dignified than slum; what gives a settlement form?—do? What does thinking with and from the North Eastern region do for how Kenya is imagined? What does thinking with women who have low rates of owning land do? How do we assemble these various dispossessions and create freedom-seeking knowledge with and from them?

Shailja Patel taught me how to say #mybodymyhome: “Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.” How do we pursue freedom for and through our bodies? What claims to freedom should be made? What kinds of freedom should be pursued? If our bodies are the grounds on which we stand—the only grounding we can speak from, even when that ground is violated—how do we pursue freedom dreams?

I’m certain that mastering World Bank, IMF, and NGO vernaculars will not lead to freedom. I’m ambivalent about much of what is sold as civic education in Kenya—state attempts to create degrees of fluency in state management strategies. Freedom will not come from learning how to speak and act as the state desires. I’m also certain that the term freedom needs to be populated with meanings that work, grounded in love and care and mutuality. We must imagine and create and practice freedoms that promote livability and shareability.

What would happen if we placed freedom at the center of Kenyan knowledge practices? What would happen if knowledge practices were oriented around and toward freedom? What would happen if we learned how to marry political critique to a demand for freedom? These are not disciplinary questions—they are not for the humanities and social sciences. They are questions for all knowledge-imagining, knowledge-creating, knowledge-distributing structures.

Fanon writes,

Decolonization never goes unnoticed, for it focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor, captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History. It infuses a new rhythm, specific to a new generation of humans, with a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is truly the creation of new humans. But such a creation cannot be attribute to a supernatural power: The “thing” colonized becomes a human through the very process of liberation. (modified because I don’t roll with Fanon’s sexism)

These are the stakes. Too often, in discussions of decolonizing knowledge or decolonizing the university--vernaculars that are now circulating--we lose sight of what is at stake. It's not "transforming universities." It's not "increasing diversity." It's not "making universities safe spaces." These are worthy goals, but they are partial. The goal is to alter being and relations, to create "new humans." That is what decolonization does. That is what freedom does.