Charles Kanjama and Wachira Maina are two of the most outstanding modern social thinkers in Kenya. These two gentlemen have golden minds and brilliant loquacity.
They do not agree on most things, but their discourse, discussions and sometimes disagreements are enriching beyond expectations.
A few days ago, after an exhausting intellectual discussion in a common WhatsApp group, Kanjama closed the discussion by quoting one of his favourite modern writers, G.K. Chesterton.
Chesterton (1874-1936) was a sharp, exuberant and witty English writer and thinker. His English essays, novels, critiques and short stories are full of common sense, depth, acute observation and a refined but sarcastic humour.
Kanjama quoted Chesterton, who said with his usual wit: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus, we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins...”
As we walked with Cheptum and Allan, two brilliant law students, from the Peace Palace to our dinner place, the Fat Mermaid, in the cold beachfront of The Hague, I put across some of the arguments that had triggered such an exciting conversation between Kanjama and Wachira in our common group.
I wanted to pick the students’ minds. Douglas, one of the lecturers, also joined us. He was accompanied by a group of other students, Kimberly, Keega, Catherine and Olivia, who are all very strong-minded on social issues.
Kimberly argued that in Kenya we have a copycat mentality that we inherited from the colonial regime, and that remains with us until today. “We have copied our colonial masters’ systems, laws, morals, values and anti-values, as well as their labels. conservatives and liberals…what does this mean today? What does this mean for us in Kenya?” she asked rhetorically.
Perhaps nothing relevant, Olivia said. “Maybe a liberal for us is the one who accepts Western values more eagerly. A conservative is the one who sticks to African customs. Yet, a few years ago it was the other way around. There are African customs that are quite liberal and Western values that may be labelled as conservative.”
Superficially, we have tended to deal with this confusing nightmare by resorting to copying without contextualisation and reflection. It is expensive, inefficient and bureaucratic. Yet, it encourages government expenditure and sort-term economic growth, of course in unsustainable ways.
Kimberly added that we have created task-force teams on artificial intelligence, blockchain, disaster preparedness, gender, alternative dispute resolution, reforestation, forest protection, climate change, etc.
“We want to launch satellites into space, but we cannot repair our potholes or paint zebra crossings. We are great and communitarian when looking at problems. We must do this together, but we seem rather poor in finding pragmatic solutions, and are a real disaster in implementation.”
Kimberly continued by arguing that Kenyan society seems to have neglected an in-depth and contextual study of key societal issues like road infrastructure, food security, healthcare and relevant education and that even when we copy solutions, we are terrible at implementing them.
Cheptum added that our copycat mentality did not start yesterday. “We actually copied it from our colonial systems”. Catherine interjected, “why should the railway houses in Mtito Andei have chimneys? Chimneys made sense in England where fireplaces keep houses warm in the winter, but absolutely not in Mtito Andei.”
Our society is full of intellectual chimneys and copied labels… We have got used to looking at our problems from Western lenses which were made for a different reality. We classify our ideas with imported labels. We face our problems with ready-made solutions.
What a joy to see young minds challenging the status quo in positive ways. It is not a matter of destroying or denying the past, which would be quite easy and degrading.
Rather, they are reflecting, redirecting their thoughts, rejecting what makes no sense, and willingly accepting the positive aspects that can apply to our reality; focusing on the real priorities of our society, which are still quite basic.
We were already inside the Peace Palace, seat of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). I could see Jeff still murmuring to himself “conservatives and liberals” and finding no real sense in these divisions created by other people for other realities.
Suddenly, Kimberly asked our good presenters a question they could not answer:
“If the ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, why isn’t the Security Council bound by its decisions? Why should the ICJ be bound by the decisions of the Security Council? Isn’t this a contradiction to the rule of law in the United Nations?”
Our presenters were short for words and could not answer the question. Kimberly was left thinking, could this be the same problem CS Matiang’i was complaining about before the parliamentary security committee inquiry…? This is of course a long subject for a future piece.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi