Quincy Jones, the 79-year-old winner of 27 Grammy Awards, has risen to this status of global acclaim from a childhood of immense pain.
Living with his grandmother in America’s rural south, young Quincy was assaulted by extreme poverty.
Years later in Chicago, the pre-teen Quincy suffered the pain of systematic exclusion common to people of colour in post-slavery America, and the emotional anguish of seeing his psychiatric mother lose her mind to the point where she was confined in a strait-jacket and carted away to an asylum. For good.
Quincy’s immersion in music has, no doubt, soothed some of those old pains. He says his life now is shaped by this profound declaration from Dr Gordon Livingstone’s book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: “The statute of limitations has expired on all childhood traumas. Get over it and get on with your life”.
As Kenya turns 50, can we agree to exorcise once and for all, all those traumas, angers and ghosts from the past?
Is it possible for us to lay bare the terrible things that happened to all those who have stood in the line of fire as our democracy has evolved — to erect living archives of their pain and sacrifice and then say to the physical edifices that will represent that pain: “There, I see you, I acknowledge your power in the past and want you to be an example to all future governments but I am no longer bound in chains of humiliation and anger by your memory”?
We should rewrite our history books and kindergarten primers. Fill them with heroic chapters on Me Katilili, Dedan Kimathi, Achieng’ Oneko, Martin Shikuku, Willy Mutunga, Koigi wa Wamwere, Rumba Kinuthia, Miguna Miguna, Raila Odinga (three time detainee), and Wasonga Sijeyo (longest serving Kenyatta detainee).
We should talk about Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the late Titus Adungosi, Pio Gama Pinto, JM Kariuki, Robert Ouko, forgotten exiles like Mwarigha and Shadrack Gutto, and perhaps even Hezekiah Ochuka, for as Roy Gachuhi recently reminded us in these pages, “truth is like a buffet lunch — select the portion you like”.
Perhaps the time for us to indulge the 1982 coup plotters is finally here. I say this not to trivialise the agony of assassination, unlawful persecution, detention without trial, torture, exile and disrupted families, but to call for an indelible reckoning with our nation’s past and find closure for those chapters of our history.
But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps what Kenya owes our first and second liberation fighters is a debt that can never be repaid beyond the court awards given thus far.
Maybe we should leave them and their progeny permanently lined up on the queue at our National Restitutions Bank, repeatedly cashing in on that one debt, be it detention, exile or torture.
If we agree that the debt to our liberators is eternal, that we still owe them even though some have been in Parliament for 20 years now, have served as ministers for over a decade while others have held premier positions as commissioners, judges, parastatal heads etc., then we must be ready to sit quietly on the counsellor’s chair and put up with their evolving psychosis.
What they wrestle with may be locked deep within them but since this society occasioned it, we must individually and collectively stomach their thirst for public adulation as they book visits to their tormentors (who now reside in stately retirement homes); give public lectures at the university where they were unfairly dismissed; hold court at the prisons where they were once held, and cruise in the motorcades that symbolise the total exchange (not change) that has occurred between them and those who once reigned.
Perhaps their past liberation activities were meant to serve no more than their personal aggrandisement.
In the meantime, we must acknowledge that the trauma of a nation is the sum total of the individual suffering of each one of its citizens.
Acute hunger and privation remain the hallmark of the failure of Kenya’s 50 years of independence.
In continuing to use State coffers to extravagantly cash in the individual cheques of our liberators, are we not postponing the moment when we must decisively write off the nation’s debt to the starving, poorly sheltered and quasi-literate millions?
Dr Nyairo, a former university lecturer, is a cultural analyst. (jnyairo @gmail.com)