Previously, we have defended civil society against unfair attacks. But civil society is variegated, so is its activism. This activism comes through a multiplicity of actors who are not united in aims or style.
Recently, civil society has attracted new entrants who bring with them a different approach to activism.
But there is a growing individualisation of activism, itself partly the consequence of the shift to social media.
Some of these activists have mastered their art and seek to use social media to mobilise for mass action. Others demonstrate admirable grasp of issues and seamlessly intersect them with broader public objectives.
We, for instance, saw recently Betty Waitherero and Boniface Mwangi silence Jubilee’s propaganda kings on NTV’s The Trend.
However, individualised activism that does not distinguish, nuance, network or strategise or that indiscriminately fires salvos is self-absorbed and dangerous. Its single-minded reference to a personal belief, commendable as holding principles is, constitutes itself into a defeatist self-referential strategy.
This is the kind of activism I regrettably bumped into last Sunday in Shailja Patel’s tweets ostensibly about Lupita Nyong’o, but that targeted Prof Peter Anyang Nyong’o. She argued in one tweet: “Lupita’s stellar path is funded by Kenyan workers — the ones her father called Al-Shabaab for demanding sane wages & work conditions.” She concluded, “When Lupita wins her deserved Oscar, she (should) thank the people of Kenya who have sacrificed 3 generations of dreams for hers to flower.”
Oddly enough, Shailja conceived of this as “holding (Prof) Nyong’o accountable for crushing the potential of thousands of Lupitas.” She went on to make ill-fitting comparisons and frivolous arguments for her individualised assault on inequality in Kenya.
I hold no brief for Lupita or Prof Anyang Nyong’o, but the attack on a daughter for her father’s alleged sin is pure meanness, the kind common to juvenile school bullies. Lupita’s achievement is well-deserved, period. Any gratitude expressed to Kenyans is her choice, not our right.
I am aware that children in many ways reflect parental choices. They benefit or suffer from the status of their parents in society. If you are a child born in privilege, chances are that you will benefit from such privilege. If you are born in extreme poverty, it often takes a miracle to attain privilege.
But there is nothing inherently successful about anyone’s birth. There are many children born of privilege who have never achieved anything in their lives. Success of Lupita’s magnitude is the combined product of many things, probably good parenting, discipline, commitment, a little bit of luck and, of course, door-opening privileges.
But the assumption that “Lupita’s stellar path is funded by Kenyan workers” is a wild generalisation that is true of most of us who attended public institutions. It is an assumption borne out of misplaced activism. To imagine that somehow this activism contributes to assaulting inequality in Kenya is strangely exuberant but narcissistic logic.
Often lost in all this new activism is a sense of history and the greater good. Before he became a politician, Prof Anyang Nyong’o was one successful and progressive academic, an activist so harassed by the KANU regime, he was put under house arrest and into exile. Presumably, Lupita — who was born in exile — carries within her the legacy of those times as much as the good times.
Her father was a successful person capable of privilege before he became a politician. If he has sinned in recent times, those sins should not become Lupita’s.
It might be important for those who explain Lupita’s success solely via Prof Anyang Nyong’o’s political career to note that few of her classmates are winning awards.
I celebrate Lupita and wish her success beyond measure in that foreign land where even the children of many rich people never make it to her level. I hope she becomes a role model for our daughters from all walks of life. If she does, she will have thanked Kenya enough.