Many philosophers argue that today the world is besieged by a ‘climate of fear.’ These thinkers contend that humanity has reached a point, in its evolution, when the possibility of self-destruction is so close, so pervasive and so real. Indeed, millions of people live these days in fear of harm, hunger, but most significantly of being killed.
This is the ultimate fear, simply because in death we are finally destroyed. Terrorists, or individuals whose tool of trade is terror, know this aspect of our being, and tend to exploit it to the maximum. The attack on the Dusit Hotel in Nairobi is the public performance of what is otherwise a very private narrative of fear.
In a lecture series published as 'Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanised World,' Wole Soyinka says this of fear: “A notable aspect of all-pervasive fear is that it induces a degree of loss of self-apprehension: a part of one’s self has been appropriated, a level of consciousness, and this may even lead to a reduction in one’s self-esteem — in short, a loss of inner dignity.”
In essence, the kind of fear that the terrorists seek to induce in the larger population, beyond those immediately harmed by their actions, causes a ripple effect with the consequence that it has the capacity to immobilise us.”
Such fear, although it first affects adults, it equally affects the young as well. When parents are fearful of walking in their own neighbourhood, when they are reluctant to venture out at night, when they have to buy expensive vehicles because public service vehicles are supposedly insecure, when they advise their children to avoid strangers and not to venture out on their own, the whole society becomes one large prison.
It isn’t just a physical penitentiary; it is most significantly a psychological cage. It becomes the story that guides daily life.
Violence is a story. Its language and style — the gun, the bomb or the machete — is both implied and real, as violation, destruction or death. It inscribes the body of the victim with injury or death, which become ‘living’ images of the hate, vengeance and destruction that the terrorist first sought to display or execute.
These create a cycle of suffering and further victimhood for those related to the victim or even the whole society, which has to live with the suffering or memories of the victims.
Which is why we need to not just confront the terror that fear has spawned or seeks to cultivate in our country with physical and human defences. Walls, cameras, electric fences, guns, guard dogs, human guards etc. can and often do stop individuals seeking to harm others. But it is stories that best confront terror and fear. Fear is a psychological reality. It is the mind that needs changing; that of the potential terrorist or villain as well as that of the victim. We need to urgently create stories that deconstruct the narratives of fear.
How do we create, tell and live stories that help to contest and challenge fear? It is not an easy task but it is doable. In many societies, children were or are still taught that there is some creature out there that would eat them if they ventured into the darkness or far from home. Children grow up believing these stories but progressively figure out that there is no ogre out there.
However, they also learn that darkness often has dark forces. The fear of being eaten may be banished but the individual acquires the skills and knowledge for self-preservation against the elements that the night may hold or that one may encounter if they venture too far from known and safe grounds of the house.
Part of the moral of the story of being wary of the unknown is to learn to trust the known, to seek to know your neighbours better, to invest faith in friends, to cultivate defences against strangers, as well as to be on eternal vigilance. Eternal vigilance was a warning delivered in many oral stories — the hare was eternally alert to the trickery of the hyena (who sought to eat her); the tortoise needed to be trickier than the hare by calling on her extended family in order to win a race against the latter; the frog needed to always outsmart the snake, lest she ends up as the latter’s supper.
Yet these stories weren’t just about survival of the strongest and cleverest. No, they were also about restoring social equilibrium. The point they sought to make was that the likely victim needed to be far ahead of the villain in guarding against the rogue’s machinations.
Thus, even the villain understood that they could win a battle once in a while but they had a wilier and committed opponent that they may not win the war against. The weaker — and therefore upright character — relied on non-violence to endure. Thus, nonviolence is a language of eternal vigilance, intelligent response to evil and perpetual commitment to peace and restoration of humanity — because unending war is destructive and erodes the human spirit.
Anti-violence narratives have to be told, performed and lived from the earliest possible time for the growing child to be able to tell, perform and grow with them. If the child listens to tales that reject violence — in all its forms — she will most likely appreciate the peace and human coexistence. Such a child will grow up knowing that people are different socially, culturally, spiritually, economically, politically, but they share human essence. They will better understand human diversity and begin to see the world from multiple perspectives.
Understandably we are living in a world that appears to be rejecting multiculturalism; a world in which economic inequality has consigned millions of people to perpetual poverty; a supposedly globalising world in which religious difference has become the basis of destructive hatred.
However, human encounters have been made easier than before because of faster modes of travelling and internet connectivity. Consequently, different world views meet today more often than they did just about 30 years ago. These world views come as stories. Some of these stories are the basis of terror and fear that is visited on individuals and communities that are innocent. Innocent because they may never have heard the stories of the other — the villain.
As we reform the education system, we need to banish the narratives of prejudice that Kenyans casually use to define others, and which is the source of much pain and hatred.
We need to invite, listen to and share stories from other Kenyans — our neighbours, those from different tribes and regions, those of different religions etc. — in order to create an inclusive Kenyan story. That Kenyan story would be the antidote to fear.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]