Why we shun literature only to end up with all these poor leaders

Saturday November 25 2017

From the social media to the political rallies,

From the social media to the political rallies, Kenyans are spewing hatred that clearly shows a lack of empathy due to literary ignorance. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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There is fire, burning on social media. There are unbearable insults being traded in Twitter.

It is difficult to face the book that is Facebook in many cases. The mainstream media is full of thinly-veiled invective, innuendoes and slights by peddlers of rumours and falsehoods.

Reading the newspapers is increasingly becoming an art in avoiding poorly written and unedited jingoistic opinions that masquerade as ‘analyses’ of Kenyan realpolitik.

These analysts give a wide berth to history or social reality in Kenya. They write as if politics is ahistorical. They do not even pretend to couch what they are saying in logical generalities.

At most what passes as educated opinion is really crude cheering for ‘homeboys’, ‘our people’, ‘our party’, and incoherent political claims.

But it is not just fellow villagers, friends, or colleagues in a party who read the newspapers, listen to the radio or watch TV.

The general public reads the papers. They tune in to the radio stations when stuck in traffic jams and they still watch the news — for lack of something better to do — in the evenings, often together with relatives, friends and children. So, how is it possible that individuals who speak in public and are deemed to represent reasonable, learned or wise thinking and opinion are fulminating all the time, spewing crude language, issuing threats or simply lying openly?

Is it a question of a deficit of ustaarabu? Is it about Kenyans lacking that sense and sensibility that would help one audit and edit what comes out of their mouths?

Is it that when Kenyans speak in English or Kiswahili — although I suspect this happens even when many of us speak in our mother tongues — they suddenly fall short of standards of civility in public? I have asked this question in this forum before. But I ask again. What afflicts our public figures such that language often fails them at the most crucial moment when they are supposed to convince the public about the ‘good’ that they seek to offer?

What one increasingly sees in Kenyan politicians — and other significant men and women in public — is a group of people who seem not to have ever read literature or been told stories by their parents or grandparents.

Literature is a great civilizing tool.

Literature opens the eyes and ears or readers. Literature sophisticates the tongue.

Literature, like the blacksmith does, forges the mind — enabling it to weather the destructive whims that afflict motor mouths. Literature teaches one to see ‘others’ — in the text, in this case — as human.

Literature can temper emotions. This is why some characters in a mere storybook make us cry, shudder, laugh or sit in silence thinking about them. This why we fall in love with the language of some books.


This is why the so-called learned fellows will not stop quoting from literature to buttress their arguments.

Great nations or societies or civilizations teach their young ones literature as a way of helping them understand who they are, why their people are the way they are, why the world is the way it is, and what could happen if one were to transgress the rules and codes of conduct or sets of relationships that bind the community together.

This is why all Kenyan communities had the stories of the relationship between human beings, between people and animals, and fables about other unknown worlds – including the land of the dead.

These stories were really about reaffirming the humanity of all living (and even dead) people. Here, though, we sneer at literature, wondering why our children should waste time reading mere fiction.

Yet, today, Kenyans are telling too many terrible stories about the others.

These are tales of estrangement. Sure, some of us grew up hearing from our elders about ogres. But these were moral narratives warning of excesses, pride, anger, violence, greed etc.

They were meant to instill moderation, respect, love, fear, sympathy etc in the young ones.

However, there are countless imaginary tales online these days about this or that community turning into an ogre were it to gain or retain power — it will eat your children; it will swallow your women; it will emasculate your men; it will expropriate your land; your wealth will all disappear in its mouth if you give it a chance etc.

This language of distancing them from us in fact de-humanises all of us. It puts one in a difficult situation, for instance, if one were speaking about those people and one of them walks into a room. It even makes social interaction between members of the same family impossible. Banter has died at the altar of this new church of incivility. But how did this art in crudity come to afflict us? How did this modern day art of dehumanisation, in a world that claims to be civilised, seize our homes, offices, classrooms, churches, newspapers, radios, TVs, matatus, markets? How, how did it happen that many now speak about Kenya only in terms of how ‘I (un)belong’ to instead of how ‘we are’ Kenyans?

I think that the rain started to beat us — Achebe, may you rest easy among ancestors — when we uncritically decided that the market was more important than the market goers. When our national policy — literally in every sector — became driven by a crude capitalism that destroys rather than builds the society; when making money rather than creating wealth became the single most important pursuit of Kenyans ; when Kenya became a project instead of a lifelong communal quest; when schools became certification centres and not institutions of learning; when our art and culture were displaced from the curriculum by ‘market-driven/marketable courses’, where everyone was supposed to be a businessperson or entrepreneur (as if art, literature and culture can’t be businesses) and not necessarily an educated individual; that is when we lost the ability to see plainly, hear clearly, sense sympathetically, speak intelligibly and became inhuman.

Scientists will tell you that human language isn’t necessarily superior to the languages of other animals. But human language has got the incredible ability to generate endless stories about the world. These stories allow the reader or listener to see, hear, feel, or appreciate the world from different languages, perspectives or regions. They remind one of the abiding human spirit found in all places where there are people, irrespective of colour, language, religion, political persuasion, region etc. Yet, one has to be taught stories and has to be willing also to learn them and re-tell them to others.

A good story will silence a warmonger. A well-told joke will lighten a tense situation. A lively anecdote will remain memorable to everyone. When we re-tell such a story, joke or anecdote at another time, we civilise humanity and make the world livable for all. And that is why literature has to be at the centre of the new curriculum in Kenya.


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]