This past week I spent some time at Karatina University, participating in a very colourful International Conference on National Cohesion and Integration. The conference provided an apt platform for introspection on what we have done well, what we have done wrong, and how we need to move forward from here to create what the American Constitution as referenced in Barack Obama’s 2008 race relations speech considers “a more perfect union”.
In my view, the problem cannot be framed without confronting our “official” history. It is my view our official history is quite shallow and incomplete, and it focuses inordinately on the fortunes of politicians more than the totality of the Kenyan people.
The vast majority of our national heroes are people who rose, through hook or crook, up the political ladder. The lesson to our children and youth is that to become a great Kenyan you must run for political office, or get there by whatever means. This might explain why we tolerate the obscene actions of our elected politicians, including looting of our national coffers and using derogatory language against their opponents.
Importantly, in my view, the official history of our country neglects the conflicts, both pre- and post-colonial, that have caused lots of suffering among ordinary people of this country. Instead, we have magnified the suffering of the so-called independence heroes, who were mostly politicians. The result is that in many homesteads, there are many families with festering wounds that have never been acknowledged, but which determine their perceptions of “Kenyanness”, and readiness for reconciliation, cohesion, and integration.
As I presented at the conference, we cannot completely improve the environment for cohesion and integration unless we revisit our story as a republic, and complete the missing parts that might have caused so much suffering in the past and even now.
Only a common narrative will bring all our people together and reduce the conflicts that continue to hold us back in our pursuit of the happiness that we all seek. This common narrative will necessarily not gloss over the conflicts that have characterised our existence since antiquity, and the resulting traumas that have generated stereotypes about those that we have encountered on our collective sojourn on this planet.
In other words, conflict increases the risk of trauma both at individual and at societal level, and trauma influences the ability of individuals and societies to engage in reconciliation. Post-conflict reconciliation is in turn a huge facilitator of cohesion and integration. Without openly discussing the painful aspects of historical conflicts we run the risk of ignoring traumas that are transmitted to each subsequent generation, perhaps explaining the largely dynastic politics of this country.
The way forward, therefore, is to learn lessons from individual trauma work and translate them to healing post-conflict (or even in-conflict) societies such as ours. To achieve this, we must first and foremost provide a supportive, safe, and secure environment for an intervention. This means an assurance of physical, psychological, and social security to all Kenyans. The next thing we must do is then to provide a platform that allows working through past conflicts and traumas. Perhaps a new reconciliation commission may be needed, with a focus on completing our story, rather than necessarily on redressing the uncovered past wrongs.
Thirdly, these processes must help us contextualise these past conflicts and traumas, safely confining them to memory. We must thereafter be able to retell these stories without the emotional components that often result in retraumatisation. Finally, this entire process will help us understand the underpinnings of our reactions and behaviours, leading us to develop and use new resources that improve resilience in the face of future conflicts.
We must therefore revisit, rewrite, and complete our story, and replace the existing HIStory!
Lukoye Atwoli is associate professor of psychiatry and dean, School of Medicine, Moi University.