“The type of black man we have today has lost his manhood. Reduced to an obliging shell, he looks with awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as the ‘inevitable position’… in the privacy of his toilet, his face twists in silent condemnation of white society but brightens up in sheepish obedience as he comes out hurrying in response to his masters’ impatient call. In the homebound bus or train, he joins the chorus that roundly condemns the white man but is first to praise the government in the presence of the police and his employers… All in all, the black man has become a shell, a shadow of a man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity…”
Those were the words of a young activist in South Africa called Steve Biko whose vent against the cowed and submissive attitude of the black population was well captured in a student’s magazine called SASO (SOUTH AFRICAN STUDENTS ORGANISATION) published in September 1970.
When I was reading that portion in the liberation history of South Africa, I couldn’t help but see in it, our own inclination as Kenyans towards self-hatred. A majority of us are drowning in a sea of negativity. It’s like we have believed the lie that the challenges that we face as a nation are beyond us. That is a lie generated from the pits of hell.
Kenya is a land where looters roam freely and justice is sold to the highest bidder. A land where judges allegedly receive bribes and issue favourable rulings to whoever can afford them. We live in a land where negative ethnicity is the foundation upon which coalitions are built and the tyranny of the politics of exclusion is the order of the day. Corruption exists everywhere. The media is partisan, young people don’t mind getting rich through corruption and some opinion writers are proposing that our nation should be broken up into different ethnic nations so that we can abandon the failed ‘project’ Kenya.
That forms the basis of my chat in a class that I’ve come to love. Every Wednesday in Daystar University, we usually take the time to deviate from media studies to discuss the state of the nation. Every week, it’s always a battle between an optimist who chooses to believe in the potential of our nation against a crowd that is convinced that our nation is headed in the wrong direction. To them, it’s a wrap. Kenya is like the titanic that has hit an iceberg and is quickly sinking. Our nation’s foundation is built on quicksand.
While Kenya undoubtedly has its fair share of challenges, I don’t believe that we are sinking. I don’t believe that we are beyond redemption as a nation. They tell me that I need to be a realist. That corruption is here to stay. That we might not slay the dragon of negative ethnicity in our time. So they call me a blind optimistic man. That I need to get off whatever substance of optimism I’m on and launch myself back into the reality that has engulfed Kenya.
And while all that might be true to some extent, there are amazing things that are happening in this nation. Our economy is one of the fastest growing in sub-Saharan Africa yet it’s not driven by mineral resources. We have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, our youthful population is the envy of many, our literacy levels are among the highest in Africa, our democratic space is progressive and media freedom light years ahead of our neighbors. Some of our beaches have been voted as among the best in the world. We are an island of peace in a sea of chaos, our entrepreneurial spirit is on another level, we are tolerant in terms of religion our athletes make us proud on international platforms frequently among other achievements.
But why do we always want to focus on what is not working? Could it be that negativity is a career to a section of Kenyans? Is it patriotic when we always portray our nation as being on the verge of collapse to the world that already has a low opinion about Africa?
When scanning through current conversations and events in Kenya, the ‘accept the inevitable’ mentality is impossible to miss. It’s a situation that is reminiscent of South Africa after the arrest of Nelson Mandela.
Following the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the arrest of other ANC leaders, there was a general silence concerning the struggle for freedom for a very long period in South Africa. Yet in 1970, a new group of young activists came together to solve a problem that had bogged down their nation. They argued that the primary fuel of apartheid in South Africa was a lack of black consciousness. So they called the movement black consciousness; a sense of black assertiveness more in line with the Africanist tradition of black politics. This was worlds apart from the concept of non-racial activism that Mandela and other ANC leaders had fought for.
Their leader, Steve Biko, was a young medical student. He was an eloquent black activist who was very bold. Returning from a secret meeting in Cape Town in August 1977, he was arrested at a police roadblock. For the next 20 days, he was held in solitary confinement, kept naked and given no proper washing facilities. During interrogation, he was savagely beaten by a group of white policemen and collapsed from head injuries.
Though Biko was nearly comatose, the security police arranged for him to be taken to a prison hospital in Pretoria, some 1120 Kilometers away. He was put naked in the back of a police van, covered with a prison blanket and given nothing but a bottle of water for the eleven-hour journey. He died on 12th September 1977 a few hours after arriving in Pretoria, lying on a mat on a stone floor. He was thirty years old.
I wonder if any of us are as passionate about Kenya as Biko was about his country. How many of us are willing to believe in our nation despite all the odds? How many are willing to see through the clouds of negativity and to believe that we can fulfil the aspirations of those who gave their lives for our freedom? How many of us care enough about our nation to risk all and fight for Kenya’s future? How many of us are willing to endure persecution to see a better Kenya?
These are questions which the citizens of any nation destined for greatness must ask themselves. I believe that unless we dig deep and find the spirit of patriotism, destruction and doom shall be our inevitable destination as a nation. We shall live down to our own catastrophic expectations. Only the spirit of patriotism and love for our nation can turn us from this apocalyptic path. Mine is a call to the Steve Bikos in Kenya, few as they may be, to rise up and inspire the majority to take Kenya to heart and to refuse to give up. To fight for this land until the promise of greatness that resides in its soul is made manifest for the world to see.
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country~ John F. Kennedy