Bringing together non-believers …
— By Kingwa Kamencu —
I recently joined the Atheists in Kenya (AIK) Whatsapp Group and it has been an interesting few weeks, peeking into the minds of fellow Kenyans, via this platform. One thing about this group of people is that they are extremely intelligent, open minded, well informed and up to date in matters both local and global.
Often there are discussions about the problems in Kenya and what can be done to change, transform or improve Kenya, which invariably evoke a lot of debate and discussion. But one thing that is agreed on is that the social fabric needs to be improved. The situation is that values in Kenya have been turned topsy turvy, with morality presented as a waste of time, and immoral behavior lauded as the ideal way to act. Corruption has been turned into a national sport, as Kenyans die due to lack of necessary facilities and medicines in hospitals.
My interest and involvement in the public space has mainly revolved around this notion as well, that there is a lot of potential in terms of unifying and patching together the torn social fabric. And by this I’m not just talking about the ethnic rifts that pull further apart every election year, or the distrust and dismay caused by the hearing of yet another national scandal, but a practice that revolves around looking into the plight of the weakest among us, setting up safety nets for those at the bottom of the pyramid.
One book that has influenced me in recent years is Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. In this book, this former Catholic monk-turned-psychotherapist talks about living a sensual life, a life with emphasis on spirit and soul. Moore explains that life is not just about surviving day after day but seeking connections with fellow human beings, with beauty, with transcendence, with higher ideals. He talks about the soul as the wellspring of everything else, and that only once it is in harmony with itself, will harmony manifest in our own material lives. It is the principle of starting within and then moving without. While it is nice to read his thoughts, it is also important to realize that this spiritual relationship to life is the same one that was practiced by our African ancestors before the coming of Christianity.
What these two things did is that they divorced the African from his own soul, they set him on a trajectory of no longer living from his inner wisdoms and ideals but only from outward ones. It shattered the guiding ethos of his/her life: Ubuntu – I am because you are. Where humanism was once the guiding ideology, the ideology of Christianity which was really the Trojan Horse bringing in rapacious capitalism, has left this country morally decrepit and defunct. We live, not to care for each other as people, not so see each other as a community, but instead, to compete with each other, to scrabble around for the most. It is an ethos of man for himself and God for us all, a worldview that always brings out the worst in people.
And so when we see things happening today like corruption of national leaders, a politics that divides and kills, rising crime rates, Kenyans getting recruited into terror networks, young people negotiating relationships like business deals, we should recognize that they all stem from a source: the lack of soul in us.
It was in Tanzania in 2004 that I first realized that there is not just one way to live. Growing up in Kenya, you take it for granted that life is to be lived as far removed from your fellow humans as possible, that coldness, detachment and lack of caring are the best ways to navigate life. The thinking is that if we start to put down our individual boundaries, people will come rushing at us from all sides with their problems and expect help from us and we will be overwhelmed, because we only have enough energy for ourselves.
But being in Tanzania for a month opened my eyes to the fact that total strangers could be warm with each other. That affection did not only have to be reserved for close family members, that caring could become a national ideology.
If you have not been to Tanzania, you have probably heard of the jokes of their overwhelming politeness, their outstanding gentleness, how just speaking to them is a humanizing experience in itself. You have probably heard how their very language is one of concern and fellow feeling, rather than simple grasping and one-up-manship. In the shops, you do not go and say , “nipatie hii, nataka kununua,”. No, you say, “Naomba unisaidie na…” The inflections in this different wording is worlds apart. The people of Tanzania are closer to soul than we are, seen even in their veneration for Swahili, their local language, while we in Kenya struggle to outdo each other in speaking in strange foreign accents. We are a people vastly out of touch with ourselves.
It’s not just this. If you lose an item of yours in public in Tanzania, you will be likely to get it back. In Kenya, you do not have to wait to lose something, it will be grabbed out of your bag as you stroll down Tom Mboya street. This worldview that our Tanzanian neighbours have explains why for the longest time, corruption was unheard of in Tanzania, until the Kikwete regime. Even now, nevertheless, the Magufuli government is genuinely trying to put that practice to a stop. And even though we’ve been making jokes about how Tanzanians can afford to show each other that kind of kindness and how it might be related to their lack of economic savvy, we might be in for a rude shock. In the same way Rwanda’s economy is quickly dwarfing Kenya’s, will be the same way that Tanzania too will speedily race ahead, now that they have a firmer and more dedicated leadership in place.
In many of the more industrialized countries I have visited, this ethos of caring is also a norm. From bus drivers in London greeting you with a winning smile and wishing you a good day as you get off the bus, to American families opening their houses to host you for something that will not directly give them anything in return. From Scandinavian governments taking in our political exiles just because they need a safe space, to Germany opening its doors to refugees, even if it hurts it in the near future.
We could explain away the ethos of violence and distrust that is rife here, as stemming from the violence that accompanied the colonial process, but it is now more than 60 years since that took place. At some point we must choose to heal, so that we do not inflict the same traumas on those coming behind us.
To be good citizens, we need to do what we can to make our worlds better places for ourselves and our children. On a one-on-one basis, we can each commit to making Kenya world a more affectionate one, to being more sensual with ourselves and our fellow citizens. Let us not forget that love itself is the most revolutionary ideology, to paraphrase Che Guevara, and that embracing it, is the beginning of changing the world
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