Politics of Contempt


Of all the fine and pretty sights in this fine and pretty world, none is finer or prettier than the sight of the full-bellied urging the empty-bellied to chagua amani.

But peace is an outcome, not a choice. Peace is an outcome of visible justice, felt equality, universal access to resources, to lives of meaning, to infrastructures of opportunity. Not a choice.

Chagua amani this weekend. Spread the amani around. Go to a packed Java and spot the largest, fullest, most ebullient table. Walk over and tell them they won’t get what they order. Invite them to “Chagua Amani.” They won’t get any food at all. Chagua amani, people. But they will still need to pay for what they’re not getting. Chagua amani! If they start to protest, summon security guards. To help them chagua amani.

Let me know how that goes.

* * *

To qualify for contempt you must be disposable. Invisible. Shameable. Usable. Silenceable.

In 2011, Kenya’s Health Services Minister Anyang’ Nyong’o, a man who had once been a political reformer and intellectual, started an Africa Cancer Foundation. It was a vote of no confidence in his own docket. A health minister who flies to California for private medical treatment raising funds for private research? How likely was it that donors would seek favors in return? He appointed his daughter the CEO, keeping it in the family. It was no surprise that 2012 brought a nationwide nurses strike, doctors strike, EMT strike, in protest of intolerable working conditions. As Keguro Macharia put it, it is a terrible thing to ask medical professionals to go to work and watch people die.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Nyong’o fired all the striking nurses. He claimed he could conjure two thousand new doctors out of thin air. In an interview on Citizen TV, Nyong’o compared the doctors’ and nurses’ unions to Al-Shabaab. He berated, talked over and mansplained the young female news anchor, then rose and clumped off the set before her startled gaze. Raila Odinga’s CORD, the opposition party, appointed Nyong’o their spokesperson for the 2013 election.

In the Moi years, we got used to contempt. No information. No apology. Derision and threats if you complained. And the world is divided into those who wait and those who are waited for.

Uhuru Kenyatta respects international law. Just like Moi. That’s why every ICC witness is in hiding.

My names are Uhuru Kenyatta, and I want everyone to stop hating on me for my family’s five hundred thousand acres of land. It’s not our fault we’ve been tripping over willing sellers since 1963. I remember waking up in the morning, looking out of the window, and seeing people already lined up to beg us to buy their land. You don’t get it the way ugly people don’t get Angelina Jolie. Land comes to us the way cameras are magnetized to her. We would drive through the highlands and peasants would come out of their hovels, bow to the ground and beg my father to take their land. And their daughters. And their land. Some would already be packed, just in anticipation of us coming. Some had heard we were coming and burned down their homes to make their land more attractive to us. As Zuma would say, an African man cannot leave a willing seller unsatisfied.

Mama Ngina, mother of Uhuru Kenyatta, was gifted to Jomo Kenyatta by her own father. Chattel. A good bottle of wine. A fertile cow. She was seventeen or eighteen. He was fifty-eight. Forty years older. Willing buyer, willing seller.

Our choices in this election were Uhuru Kenyatta’s Catholic Divine Right Imperial Monarchy or Raila Odinga’s Talk Left Walk Right Patriarchy. Two Mount Kenya Mafia lords facing trial for crimes against humanity, or a 68-year old male candidate in a country where 62% of the population is under 25.

What would it look like to queer a Kenyan election? Would it mean to refuse binaries?

* * *

I spent the week of the elections at the national tallying center, Bomas. Sitting on hard battered metal chairs, drinking too much coffee, listening to choir after choir after choir, waiting for Godot.

It was extraordinary to witness the full-spectrum contempt of the Electoral Commission for all Kenyans.

Wait. Sing. Dance. Pray. Be patient. Stay calm. Pray. Wait.

A nation sentenced to slow death by choir. Indefinite waiting. Unseen big men. No information. Welcome to 1985. It’s all retro from here.

The big auditorium screens showed the wrong tally numbers. The numbers on the screens didn’t add up to the total votes shown at the bottom. As if we didn’t have calculators on our phones and tablets. Contempt means our calculations don’t matter.

The Electoral Commission has still not explained what went wrong with the electronic system, a system bought with 9.5 billion shillings of taxpayer money. The Electoral Commission took out a loan of 2.7 billion shillings from Standard Chartered Bank, and all Kenyans will repay it.

If you buy a fridge, and the fridge doesn’t work, you demand your money back. If you invest in a company, you want audited accounts. And if the company refuses audit, refuses to make its books available, you have your answer.

On Friday, four days after we voted, the final result was promised by 11am. At 11.54am, we were told the Big Swinging Dicks were at breakfast. The millions who hadn’t eaten for three days, the paralyzed country, could just keep waiting.

No apologies. Apologies, like taxes, are for the little people.

Our Obama will come, tweeted Boniface Mwangi, anti-corruption activist. Pity the country that needs to hope for a savior.

* * *

What are the accommodations made by those living in a polity of contempt? Contempt for those below you, and pretend that everything is fine. Positive thinking.

Baby steps, an old friend reassures me. The televised presidential debates… do you realize what a game-changer that was? Yes they were bad, but we have not had that before! These men, who have never been required to answer a question in their lives, not even in their own homes, were being questioned by the entire country. I watched it with my house-help, it was something she could feel a part of.

This friend, a single mother, works sixteen-hour days to give her children an elite private education. I pray, she says, and I don’t allow negative energy into my home, into my space, anywhere near me. I want to focus on the positive, because otherwise I would collapse. For her children, there are no baby steps. They get the same quality of teaching, the same educational resources, as the children of the wealthy in Zurich or Palo Alto. If my friend were told to wait two generations for her children to have opportunities, she would take up arms.

But we will tolerate a sham of a democracy. One that’s good enough for the servants.

We will fetishize patience for the poor while the rich vault over the queues.

* * *

How do we exist in the air of this contempt and not be defined by it? Rage is a reaction. Armed revolution is a reaction. Silence, invisibility, self-loathing, acquiescence… Those are not reactions. Those are the desired effects.

Contempt means you can make people wait all day in the heat and dust to vote. No one stood in line for twelve hours in the sun, without water, because they didn’t want their vote counted and tallied correctly. People died in voter queues.

Above all, contempt is shaming the victims. Survivors of rape, massacre, and displacement are unpatriotic tools of imperialism if they dare to enter international fora, if they seek the avenues of redress that are there for the ruling class to use daily. Who do they think they are, Kenyattas?

I propose the ICC go and build their court properly, wrote Binyavanga Wainaina in The Guardian, then come back and talk to us when it is grown up, when there are a few convictions of people who are not Africans. Don’t muddy the picture by mentioning that the ICC Prosecutor representing Kenyan victims is an African woman, going head to head with Uhuru’s white male British lawyer, the same lawyer that defended Milosevic. If Binyavanga were raped, his home burned, his family killed, would he believe that the interests of oligarchs should determine his access to justice?

The best public entertainment in Kenya right now is the furious gyrations of middle-aged Gikuyu men for places in Uhuru’s court. It’s the dance of the Swazi virgins before King Mswati. Replace the sea of female nubility with a heaving scrum of raddled male flesh, bloodshot eyes, jiggling hemorrhoids, and roars for the heads of  peasants who forget their place.

About our 2007 election I wrote: The opposite of hope is not despair. The opposite of hope is denial.

The opposite of contempt is not a charade of transparency. The opposite of contempt is equality.

What was the fear that silenced us as we watched this travesty unfold? That people would die. That women would be raped. Homes burned. Thousands turned into refugees.

This fear came from two sources. A state apparatus which did not hesitate to kill Kenyans in 2008. A presidential candidate and his running mate facing trial for these crimes. And an opposition which has betrayed its base over and over again. An opposition that sent young people out to face police bullets in 2008, while its leaders and their families holed up in gated mansions. An opposition that ordered the razing of churches filled with people, armed and deployed militia against innocent communities.

So we huddled, at Bomas. We weighed what we saw with what we needed for proof. We asked agonized questions about responsibility.

The screens stayed fixed, no updates released, figures blatantly wrong. We said it was for peace.

Will we refuse, ever again, to be so cynically used?