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A child who went to school beginning in the 1970s, like I did, was fed on a steady dose of “the white man stole our African cultures” as a slogan for explaining all of Kenya’s socio-economic problems. And if one pursued literature as a subject, that slogan was repeated to the point of becoming shrill. At least that’s how I see it today. Back then, as a child, I treated it as the gospel truth and I carried it with me through all my student life, up to my doctoral studies. After all, many of the gurus of decolonial thought are Kenyan, with the classic text on decolonizing the mind being written by a Kenyan. There is no way one could get away with not quoting them, especially not in literature.

But once I was employed as an academic, the decolonial trope would not work, despite my best efforts. The Kenyan education and elite space is a suffocating animal that I had not reckoned with as a student. While I was a student, it was easier to get away with thinking outside the box. Easier, because I was still bullied, beaten and called a rebel (my self-esteem suffered greatly as a result), but I passed exams decently enough, and I would go home to be fed by my parents. My parents, however, suffered ostracization, job loss, and public humiliation for doing the same thing which I was imitating them in doing.

Now that I was employed, I had to walk the same tight rope that they did. That is when I discovered that raising the question of decolonization was not as straightforward as it looked like in the classroom. After all, even the scholars who raised it in the 1970s and 1980s were persecuted by the government and ended up in exile. However, what was left behind was a very strange phenomenon. Decolonization would be constantly cited in academic work, students would talk of colonial mentality even when discussing texts produced as recently as five years ago. But at the same time, there would be no innovation, no thinking about concrete issues, and sad to say, a huge emphasis on guilt and shame.

One instance that I’ve often cited was a conference on the state and identity that was hosted by the Samosa Festival. One interest of the Samosa Festival is to interact with the histories of Kenyan communities that face serious obstacles from the Kenyan state in terms of citizenship. Because African collective identities are locked in tribes, a phenomenon that Mahmood Mamdani explains in Citizen and Subject, tribe is the only political identity which the Kenya state recognizes. Therefore, communities which migrated to Kenya two or three centuries ago, or which live along Kenya’s borders, like the Makonde, Asians, Somalis and Nubians, are subjected to harrowing processes of obtaining identification documents and passports. And that is when they are successful.

The histories of such communities are not part of the mainstream Kenyan national memory. For example, little is known in the Kenyan public memory about workers’ movements during the colonial period, because many of their leaders were Indians who brought an international consciousness to the workers’ and freedom struggles. Yet these workers’ struggles scared the British and the Americans so much that the two governments worked hard to ensure that the radical, anti-colonial worker consciousness was kept at bay.

This was the issue for discussion, or so I thought. Instead, it became yet another session of delving into the riches of our pre-colonial past and shaming the younger generation for not knowing it, without talking about where they would learn it. The conversation got so exasperating that at one point a few of us wondered whether it was possible to have a conversation about Kenyan life without talking about ethnicity. What about other aspects of our identity? We asked. The response I got still makes me shudder.

Someone went through a list of different towns in Kenya, asking me which ones I had visited. I was then informed that people in Nairobi don’t care about ethnicity because they do not know their ethnic identity. I was being shamed into silence with an underhand suggestion that I had no right to speak because I was not African enough.

I refused to back down. I said that the conference was called to talk about the problem of Kenyans whose identity is questioned by the state, who cannot get identity cards, which means they cannot go to school, and as adults, cannot buy property, open a bank account, even get a death certificate for their parents, and here we were, talking about dances, funerals and weddings before colonial times. My friend Adam Hussein, whom I later wrote about in my account of that conference, and who has since passed on, was a great rugby player who qualified for the Kenya national team, but he could not play because he was denied a passport. Later, employers in Kenya would not touch him because he was Nubian. But when he got a job abroad, he could not travel to work without a passport. In other words, he was not wanted in Kenya, but he was not allowed to get out of Kenya. We were here to talk about such problems with identities, and now I was being asked for my travel itinerary as an individual.

I was being shamed into silence with an underhand suggestion that I had no right to speak because I was not African enough.

That has been the frustrating career of decolonizing in Kenya. It has been moralistic, messianic, and individualist and yet unable to address daily Kenyan life. I know of students who have been shamed in class by lecturers claiming that the students are not African or Kenyan enough, while at the same time being given assignments requiring them to discuss the benefits of colonialism. The recently instituted Competency-Based Curriculum is based on the racist ideology of settlers that Africans do not need knowledge, only technical skills. CBC also has a “parental involvement” component that directly draws from family values of US evangelicalism.

None of these problems seem to bother educated Kenyans. For scholars, we will decolonize if this racism is taught in African languages. I have even seen others say that TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) is decolonizing pedagogy. And the same people who thought parental involvement was fun for their own kids, are now ranting about politicians and evangelical churches.

How do we arrive at this spectacular dissonance? In my view, this absurdity is exemplified by one man: Carey Francis.

An honourable man

Edward Carey Francis was the foremost educator in Kenya. He studied mathematics at Cambridge where he later became a fellow. At some point he served in the British army. He then came as a missionary to Kenya, and eventually became well known for his work in two elite schools in Kenya: Maseno in Kisumu, and Alliance in Kikuyu.

The strange thing about Carey Francis is that he embodied major contradictions. He was devoted to wrong ideas, but he was also an honest man. He was committed to the British Empire and believed that Christianity and British civilization were the way forward for Africa, but he was also blind to the reality that colonialism was destined to be violent. He was so idealistic that he criticized the colonial government for its atrocities and the settlers for their racist attitudes towards Africans. He frowned on his former students joining politics because he felt that politics was a deviation from their more noble calling of teaching and service.

The man’s ideas were deeply flawed, but the wide range of his graduates all had one good thing to say about him: he was sincere and devoted to his students.

The man’s ideas were deeply flawed, but the wide range of his graduates all had one good thing to say about him: he was sincere and devoted to his students. In a biography written by LB Grieves, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga wrote a preface in which he called Francis “a moralist – almost too strict a moralist” who was “only slightly concerned that his model African Christian would never be quite equal to the European Christian”. He praises Francis for being devoted, dedicated to teaching, and showing genuine concern for his students, observing that,

In a newly independent country like Kenya, there are many people who suddenly find themselves in positions of power and influence. In the present materialistic world, temptations to use these positions for personal gain are bound to be great, as morality, honesty and other virtues become blurred. Under these conditions, it needs strong personal conviction and integrity to resist. I am satisfied that although some of those who went through the hands of Carey Francis at school have become victims of such temptations, there are nevertheless many more who have successfully maintained the trust bestowed on them by the Kenya public and who are helping to lay down the foundation of an honest public service for the country.

Duncan Ndegwa, who became the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, wrote in his eulogy that Francis “was the first European who called me an ‘ass,’ kindly.” He added that Francis

“Was a man whose great intellectual talents were supported by an intense personal faith – a kind of moral rectitude which saw life in simple terms of individual good and evil.

He left his pupils in no doubt of what kind of persons he wanted them to be. This element of paternalism in his approach was perhaps at fault. But the transparent honesty which illuminated all his relationships and the strictness which he applied equally to himself and to others, greatly mitigated such weakness as there may have been.

An individualist himself, he saw his purpose in life to work through individuals. An essentially simple man, he never understood that large organizations also have motivations, dynamics and momentums of their own quite apart from those of individuals.”

Benjamin Kipkorir, the Kenyan historian who did major work on analysing Kenya’s educated elite, and who was also an alumnus of Alliance and Cambridge, had this to say:

Francis was in every sense a great man. The tributes that have been paid to him are legion. Here, it seems to me, lies his greatness. He was “called” to service. No serious historian, no matter how agnostic, can scoff at such a reason.

As an educationist, Francis espoused the elitist approach. He was opposed to mass education – “casting pearls before swine.” He advocated the Colonial office tree-structure approach by which quality literary education was given to a few who in turn should go out to educate the many.

One side of Francis’ character which must be stressed was his ruthlessness. In everything he did, he was thorough. In tackling things he believed to be wrong, and therefore evil, Francis was thoroughly ruthless.

Francis, the missionary, first rate teacher of Africans, bitter and effective critic of government wrongs against Africans, failed to acknowledge that the only solution to African problems was political action. With Mau Mau he was able to have a deeper insight of the African plight. He was thus able to marginally modify, in private, his earlier hostility to politics. But overall, his pronouncements, delivered with his forceful teaching (…) had the effect of preventing many of his better pupils from ever venturing into politics.

From these snippets of his former students, many of whom became major government and political actors in Kenya, we see a conundrum. One, is Francis’s hatred for politics, and two, is Francis’s individual morality. Ndegwa explicitly names the problem here: individualism. What Francis embodied is the rather naïve belief, which he was able to implement as a European pioneer missionary, that individual morality and honesty were enough of a foundation for society. This promise is articulated by Jaramogi in his hope for an “honest civil service” that uses individual morality to avoid exploiting Kenyans.

What is wrong with this picture? Kipkorir and Ndegwa have named it, Carey Francis was anti-political. And to use Lewis Gordon’s formulation of the term, Francis was acting in bad faith. Francis thought that social problems could be solved by individual morality and was blind to the unique dynamics of societies and institutions, and their impact on individual behaviour. This lack of social consciousness was also combined with elitism, the belief that only a few individuals were enough, and deserving enough, to change society.

What Francis embodied is the rather naïve belief that individual morality and honesty were enough of a foundation for society.

So these themes emerge from Francis’s career: individualism, universalism, an aversion to politics, and the ability to hold individual views that contradict one’s social context – the very characteristics of decolonization in the experiences I began with. Decolonization discourse in Kenya is highly moralistic, and it is used to judge people’s individual credentials to qualify as African. It eschews the discussion of social and contemporary issues, which is the substance of politics.

And as I indicated, decolonization in Kenya encourages guilt and shame for being a victim of colonialism. This guilt and shame is now being used to push women to seek genital mutilation to pay a debt to their ancestors. Meanwhile, major social issues, like the geographical spaces still bearing European names, the export of Kenyan workers to countries abroad (to the extent of Kenyans being blamed for the injuries they suffer from rogue employers), the dominance of education policies from the west, the discrimination against Kenyans within their own country and the rampant economic inequality; all these take a back seat in comparison to personal redemption through the return to a pre-colonial past.

Euro-Christian Protestantism

Anyone who knows Christian Protestantism can see the same tropes here: African culture is presented as a redemption to individuals who have erred by being colonized, and which they can obtain through personal conversion such as reverse baptism (dropping European names) and literally crucifying (especially the woman’s) body.

In governance, the same epistemic foundation is expressed through a naïve belief that one’s morality is the sole measure of politics. Honesty is the measure of good public service, hence the current overarching political conversation is that the current president is a liar. If one raises the question of whether lying is a category with which to assess a wide range of political issues, the reply, again, is personal: it’s your ethnic group, it’s how you voted (never mind that ballots are secret), and you need to provide a solution to a problem that is not named. And although this moralism is highly Christian, it is common to professing Christians and secularists alike.

Carey Francis embodied the Euro-Christian liberalism that undergirds governance and politics in Kenya through the education system. Francis was moral and honest at the individual level, at the universal level, he believed in the British Empire. In between, he had little to say about the self-determination of African peoples. After independence, this dynamic became moral and ethnic at the individual level, and anti-colonial at the universal level, with little to say about racist policies and inequality in healthcare, education, employment and environment. Ali Mazrui, Kenya’s foremost liberal intellectual, articulated the problem of Western education when he noted that Western education is committed “to both individualism and universalism . . . what is missing is the intermediate category of the particular society in which the scholar operates”. And this problem is specific to the educated middle class, for as JF Ade Ajayi has explained, the missionaries in Africa promoted schooling to establish an African middle class as the “enlightened” purveyors of European-style industrial progress in Africa.

Decolonization discourse in Kenya is highly moralistic, and it is used to judge people’s individual credentials to qualify as African.

This inability to deal with the intermediary category of the local is Kenya’s greatest intellectual weakness, and it affects decolonization as well. We are seemingly unable to see each other as human beings in all our complexity, and to see colonialism as just an aspect of the great historical trajectory of Africa. Instead, we make suffocating demands for proof of authentic African expression which we equate to decolonizing, yet colonialism was a political project, not an individual one.

The same character has been mapped onto Kenyan political life. Kenya is not only facing a tanking economy but a Kenyan middle class that cannot engage in a social conversation without resorting to name calling and character aspersions. The problem is that this is the class with access to international platforms, where it projects itself as secular and anti-colonial. And so the international impression of Kenya is that it has a vocal, anti-colonial, progressive, constitution-quoting educated class, with no idea that at home, the same anti-colonial rhetoric is inflicting injuries on ordinary Kenyans – especially on our children. Again, Mazrui observed this dynamic when he stated that “local African academics are less radical unless confronted with reactionary colonial academics”. Binyavanga Wainaina described this irony even better when he said:

To be a Kenyan is to be cursed by a system that pretends to function. There is enough of a school system, of a health system, of a private sector, good banks and tall buildings for everybody to see them. What nobody tells you is that this splendour is available only to the 5% who make it through the filters.

What is hidden in all the noise about African culture and lying politicians, is a very narrow area for engagement and conversation. When we limit politics to personal morality and ethnicity, we have no space for context, conversation or even innovation. And if one tries to widen the conversation, we accuse them of hypocrisy, which we almost always link to their ethnicity or personal experience. Rarely does the conversation extend to the social and the political.

We make suffocating demands for proof of authentic African expression which we equate to decolonizing, yet colonialism was a political project, not an individual one.

But that instinct of educated Kenyans to narrow the space for conversation makes sense when one looks at the life of Carey Francis. Francis appeared honest when he was judged within the narrow parameters of the school, the exam results of his students, and the prestigious jobs the young men got after school. But his honesty stopped being relevant when it was confronted with the political and institutional reality of colonialism. Nevertheless, the strong culture of individualism and moralism has remained entrenched in Kenyan public discourse. And, ironically, its epistemic foundation of Euro-Christian protestant liberalism seems to be the same foundation of decolonization in Kenya.