When President Jomo Kenyatta asked newly-independent Kenyans to forgive but not forget the atrocities committed by the British colonialists, did he set in motion a national amnesia that would define the Kenyan character for the next 50 years?
Is that why the most heinous crimes committed by political leaders are quickly forgiven – and forgotten? Are we so afraid to reveal the truth about ourselves that we reconstruct our histories so as not to confront our demons?
These are some of the questions that arose during a lecture given by the University of Stellenbosch’s Grace Musila at the British Institute for Eastern Africa.
Ms Musila’s lecture titled “Writing Project Kenya” examined the writings of one of Kenya’s most brilliant journalists, Parselelo Kantai, who represents a sector of Kenyan society that he calls “The Reddykyulass Generation” whose “central experience is survival”.
This generation of youth, who were either born during President Moi’s regime or came of age in the regime’s dying years, are the heirs of Kenyatta’s forgive-and-forget policy, which was perpetuated by Moi and perfected to an art-form during President Kibaki’s tenure.
In the last decade, allegations of major corruption by individuals within and outside government have emerged.
Yet, there has been little or no reaction to these allegations from the State machinery, even when these scandals have been documented in books and published or aired by the media.
(The logic seems to be: If the State does not comment on an event, then the event might as well not have occurred.)
In many cases, commissions of inquiry are set up, but these serve to obfuscate, rather than reveal, the truth. Recommendations from these inquiries are rarely made public.
Kenyans, long used to forgiving and forgetting, do not take their outrage to the streets. The media, on their part, have also failed by not staying with the stories, and not asking the difficult questions.
This has left us in an extremely precarious situation where the State, the media, and the public unite in an unholy alliance that allows impunity.
Forgiveness has its virtues, but forgetting has fatal consequences, especially when the forgetting is accompanied by total erasure of memory.
The Kenyatta policy distorted our history, made heroes out of villains, and confused successive generations that, on the one hand, were told that hard work leads to success, only to find that who you know – not what you know – matters most in our society.
Kantai’s writings examine what it means to be a Kenyan at a time when “Project Kenya” (the idea that we are one nation) gave way to a Kenya where ethnicity became one’s defining characteristic.
He dares to confront the deafening silences that surround major scandals and assassinations, even when they are of such historic importance that their impact can be felt from one generation to the next.
Could it be, as Musila stated, that “memory in Kenya is dangerous”? Are we too afraid to look at the skeletons in our closets lest they haunt us?
Do we delude ourselves that our individual destinies are not tied in any way to the destinies of the rest of Kenyans, and especially not to the destinies of people belonging to other ethnic groups?
Will Goldenberg, Anglo-Leasing, the Artur brothers, Robert Ouko’s assassination, and many, many other scandals and assassinations, be erased from our collective memories as the State (and to some extent, the media) reconstructs our histories?
Will we never know who did what, when and why? Shall we wait for curious foreigners to deconstruct our histories, and after they have done so, we dismiss them because they are not indigenous or not Kenyan – and therefore, not qualified, in our eyes, to write the history we should have written ourselves?
Mwalimu Mati of the Mars Group and others have documented the contradictions, brutalities and silences of the State and society.
They have done this despite the risks associated with truth-telling. Unfortunately, their revelations are often dismissed as distractions that impede the country’s march towards “development”.