Part 2: Encountering and Resisting Hierarchy
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The author takes a look at perceptions of belief, the purpose of humankind, and the societal repercussions of "the system," of which his schooling is a product.
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It was during my time as a senior student that my mum introduced us to a vast array of literary material. These were the works of African writers, such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, etc. My mum taught literature in high school and so we had several books both of English literature and African literature in the house. These books happened to be mainly stories of resistance and decolonization. The critiques put forth by these writers, against so-called modern societies, made a tremendous impression on me. Why, I thought, did we have such little understanding of our own communities and localities, when in fact they offered such vast, abundant experiences to draw from?
This period of time was important for my understanding of institutions of thought-control. Slowly, I was becoming aware of an internal struggle that I was having around a polarized view I was having of the world, which pitted traditional society against modern society. This bivalent vision was influenced by the way in which we were made to perceive the disciplines of Art and Humanities in school. For example, literature courses were either "African Traditional Literature" or "English Literature". Notice how the word "traditional" was used discriminatingly! Religious studies were likewise demarcated accordingly – "African Traditional Religion", and "Christian Religious Education". Now this may have seemed like an innocuous interplay of words, but its impact on our thought processes was massive. "Traditional" to us symbolized the past – or specifically, something backward or inferior – belonging to a different error, nothing we could connect with. In school, at least, however compelling or real these so-called traditional arguments/accounts/postulates were, the "traditional" stigma always reduced them to romanticized cultural affirmations, of some, distant, fictitious tribe. It was a strange feeling. When I used to "study" about the Luo (a community), in class, it was like I would forget that I was Luo myself.
Fortunately, I got an opportunity to go beyond this easy labeling and gain a more complete picture when I read Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart". The author used a character, Okonkwo (the principle defender of a community' way of life), to talk about a West African community (Umuofia) that disintegrates after being invade by white people. He provides a deep illustration of life in this community before this invasion, then goes through an absorbing account of the relationship that ensues between local communities and their world would-be colonizers after the invasion. At the end of the book, Okonkwo commits suicide on learning that the community has "lost the stomach to stand up and resist the colonizer". What the people of Umuofia had to go through to accept "civilization" was horrifying, not only in terms of loss of life, but also in terms of identities and relationships.
Semblance of Belief
On the whole, Things Fall Apart provided an insight into the value of diversities, interdependencies and multiple ways of knowing in a community, cultivated over centuries, and sustained by an intricate web of relationships, I learnt that fragmentation or isolation from any of these vital elements can become the source of prejudice, friction, and animosity. I felt, after reading Things Fall Apart, an increase 'hunger' to read and understand more about what was happening.
I remember that in high school we had a student's Christian Union Club. The members of this club, especially its officials, were so absorbed in interpreting the sacred writ (the Bible), that many times, they ended up creating apathy among the student population. Once, a friend of mine asked, (before the start of a Sunday school mass), "Why do we have to see God through the eyes of the Christian Union students?!" But what strikes me about the church is the way that it is so heavily bureaucratized/regimented; the hierarchy is modeled along the lines of Government. This may, superficially, look good because don't we all want good, efficient governance (even if only a semblance of it). But the danger with bureaucratizing the church is that it kills spirituality, it kills the core upon which Christianity claims to be founded. It diverts attention from 'why', we go to church and institutionalizes our lives even more. I go to church, on an average of 10 times a year, but the images I always come up with, at the end of every sermon, are of stern faced ministers standing on the pulpit to heap tons of blame on ordinary people for their thieving, cheating, dishonesty… Not once have I ever heard a preacher relate all these vices with a larger systemic reality or even with economic and political oppression! Of course, nobody excuses thieving and cheating, but to spend so much time dueling on these 'moral trivialities' (petty sins), while ignoring the major sins in society makes the church party to systemic oppression.
As a young person growing up in Kenya, it does not take much time before you notice the multiplicity of faiths within the Christian faith – there is the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Salvation Army and… The average person hardly knows how an Anglican differs from a Methodist. And this "hardly knowing" is because it simply does not matter and because in trying to understand human purpose and especially human spirituality, these "schisms" do not help.
And I think with regard to Christianity (indeed regard to religion), the most important area to which, perhaps, we should direct our attention, is reclaiming our sense of spirituality. But in order to do this, we must look at how our religions are nurturing in us the capacities to understand, more deeply, human purpose. We must ask whether the only purpose of Christianity is to prepare is to be "obediently" take our places in industrial society. We must ask whether the phrase "suffer silently" makes any sense in the face of such blatant cruelty.
Concepts of Freedom
It was towards the end of high school, the early 1990s, when Kenya was going through an extraordinary time in it's political history. Like many African countries at the time, it was changing its constitution to allow for multi-party politics. The mainstream press billed it as the country's most historic moment since independence. It was pitiful that the vision behind the freedom struggle was being reduced to the demand for multi-party-ism!). Again, I noticed that politicians, the dominant media, and the academia had cleverly bifurcated [the nation], their battle lines: choose between the "freedom" of multi-party-ism" or else stick with the "autocracy" of the single party system!
In hindsight, I feel that there has been, over the years, a terrible conceptual confusion – not entirely unintentional, about the concepts of freedom, independence, liberation, empowerment etc. These concepts were, in the 1950s and 60s originally intended towards redistributing wealth and political power. They were meant to de-center power, move it away from the state and therefore pre-empt its proprietorship by a few. But these concepts must today be regarded as both hollow and delusive because they have been co-opted and turned into verbal symbols for re-concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a small clique of politico-corporate ruler elite. In the Kenyan context for instance, the mere presence of many political parties has been touted as representing greater freedom, choice, democracy etc., but this is nonsense really. Political parties are all part of the same economic-political arrangement… Sure they may have small differences in policy or ideology, but they basically represent one system of power.
I did not share in the great optimism shown by people at the time because the "new" faces that were being presented as Kenya's liberators were actually recycled politicians, who had fallen out with the ruling clique during the single party dispensation. Within a year, and after much acrimony, bitterness, bickering, and in-fighting among politicians, many people were back to the old distrust of politics and politicians.
Poli-Tricking All the Way
The "scourge" of corruption had also become a big issue at the time – we were given the message that the System was okay, it was just full of bad people. The cure was of course, more accountability/technocracy, privatization, and Western management systems. Also, quite prevalent at the time was talk about he infamous miracle solutions under Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), which were being aggressively sold by the World Bank – International Monetary Fund consensus. What the WB – IMF people were asking my country to do defied common sense. They were in effect saying that Kenya had only one economic option – the adoption of SAPs. What the WB and the IMF institutions were turning a blind eye to (the politicians seemed to be providing the blindfolds), were the very visible consequences of their demands: wages nose-dived, people were losing jobs en masse, basic commodities and subsidies vital for limited income families were being eliminated… But no, the WB – IMF were not accepting any responsibility in their contribution to the massive crisis. They would instead be seen – with politicians in tow – on national television condemning those asking questions of SAPs as irrational, inefficient or self-serving!
Not-so coincidently, the same set of people who were peddling the gospel of multi-party-ism (this time the "intellectual community" too joined in the chorus), were now pushing Kenya towards the market economy and liberalization! So there was a disturbing scenario here: because of SAPs, people were losing their financial and resource securities. Yet, the government was busy assuring people that the entry of foreign products and corporations –- impoverishing even more common people – would help cure this poverty. This was probably the first time that I reflected upon the nature of Democracy. Or it would be more accurate to say, the time when I lost faith in representative democracy and political leaders.
Part 4: In India
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