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The curtains part to reveal an empty makeshift theatre stage. The lights from the PAR cans illuminating the stage flicker uncertainly, before shining steadily and then going off abruptly. Pitch darkness. From backstage a cadence rises:

The State is my shepherd, I shall not want; it makes me to lie down in affordable housing

It leads me to political tranquillity; it restores my faith in a lucrative future

It leads me into paths of fuliza and madeni ya mama mboga…

The cadence breaks off as abruptly as it had started and a husky voice, still from backstage, announces, “Welcome to the theatre of the absurd! Here we are pawns on a chessboard and the chess master moves us as he deems fit. We are ever so grateful! Because look, hii Kenya sio yetu, we are here because we are here!” 

It is 6:30 p.m. on a balmy December evening and I find myself seated among the tiny audience at a dress rehearsal somewhere on the outskirts of Nyeri town. Not too far away is the historical Ruring’u stadium. A little historical detour: It is at Ruring’u stadium where, on 6 July 1952, freedom fighters gathered to declare war against the colonial regime. It is also at the same venue that, on 16 December 1963, following a rallying call from Jomo Kenyatta, freedom fighters gathered to surrender their pistols, rifles and simis as a sign that the war was over.

Suffice to say, for some reason or other, the play was never staged. However, seated there, exactly 60 years after the freedom fighters had surrendered their weapons, 60 years after Kenya had gained independence, the words, “Hii Kenya si yetu, we are here because we are here” swirled around and lingered in my mind.

Welcome to the theatre of the absurd!

Sixty years after independence, we are the largest economy in Eastern Africa. About ten years ago, our economy achieved middle-income status, that is to say that we are developing, or so we imagine. We have superhighways and expressways, we have the second-tallest skyscraper in East and Central Africa, and Nairobi is a darling of the expats. In fact, not too long ago, Nairobi was declared the top city to visit in 2024 by United States-based travel agency Lonely Planet, ahead of cities like Paris, Montreal and Philadelphia, among others. Every so often we have malls sprouting and growing, here, there and everywhere, like weeds. We are on a pedestal above our neighbours; we have a “functional” democracy unlike the Ugandans whose democracy only exists on paper, never mind the fact that our elections are bungled from time to time. We are not like Tanzanians who can barely speak in English and we are not like Somalia, Ethiopia and the two Sudans who are always wrestling to tear their countries apart. When our people aren’t breaking marathon records or scooping up Oscars, they are becoming presidents in the US and Prime Ministers in the UK. 

Sixty years after independence, we suffer from selective amnesia. Every so often we (pretend to?) forget that there are 19.1 million Kenyans living in poverty, or that Nairobi harbours the largest slum in Africa, or that about 43 per cent of Kenyans are unable to access primary healthcare due to poverty. These facts are bad for publicity. We are a middle-income nation, we are among the fastest-growing African economies, we have superhighways and expressways and malls, we speak in accent-free English unlike other Anglophone African countries, we produce presidents for developed countries, we are developing! This is what matters most!

Sixty years after independence, we are a prayerful, God-fearing nation. It is a good thing that we have a Nabii (prophet) for president. Remember when, sometime in October last year, Nabii proclaimed that Kenya would not experience El Nino rains as predicted by the weatherman because God had said so and then it went on to rain heavily in November, and thousands of households were displaced by floods? Still, we cannot, under any circumstances, blame him nor God for we are a prayerful, God-fearing nation that respects its god-chosen leaders. It is also why, with plausible razzmatazz, we recently flew in a certain American-Canadian televangelist for a government-sponsored (read taxpayer-sponsored) mega-crusade. As a God-fearing nation, it is also very apt that we have a taxpayers’ money-funded faith and diplomacy office domiciled in the Office of the First Lady and that we hold annual national prayer breakfast prayers to pray for the unity of the nation, and for wisdom and knowledge for our god-chosen leaders to deceive and perpetually loot from a people and still get re-elected requires a sprinkle of knowledge, a touch of craftiness and more. 

Sixty years after independence, we are a country of hustlers. At the very fore, the government is hustling you to pay for access to government services on e-citizen, never mind that your taxes are meant to fund access to those same services. And then there’s us hustling each other; the matatu conductor who is always conniving to cheat you of your change, or that land agent who’ll sell you a buroti maguta maguta complete with a legit title deed only for you to later discover that that same piece of land is also owned by three other folks, or your local pastor who asks you to panda mbegu ya 310 and he’ll intercede for your income to miraculously multiply, or the guy from Kamiti Prison who is always calling to ask you to tuma kwa hii namba, or that supposedly physically challenged fella at the end of your street begging for donations to fund a medical procedure only for you to find them standing at the corner of a different street at night selling mahindi choma or mitumba. It’s the nature of the hustle, we’ve got to survive bana!

Sixty years after independence, we are eternally resilient. Over the years, we have been battered and bruised, our souls and spirits wrung out but we have still managed to hold our chins up. We pride ourselves in this resilience. And even now when our nation seems rudderless, we still lean on our eternal resilience never mind that this resilience is a silent acceptance of the status quo. It is us accepting that we can never change things. We have left our fate in the hands of destiny, or more accurately, in the hands of the political elite. Que sera sera. 

Sixty years after independence, we are constantly redefining what it means to be Kenyan. To be Kenyan is to be perpetually angry; angry at the president, angry at the overlapping nduthi rider, angry at traffic, angry at KPLC, angry that your tax deductions are being pilfered, angry at each other. There’s no better place – as we have shown – to let out all this pent-up rage than on social media platforms, most notably Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). When not being caustic towards each other online, we are engaging in online battles against the Ugandans, Tanzanians and most often, Nigerians. To be Kenyan is to realise that Kenya iko na wenyewe and that unless you are part of wenyewe or connected to wenyewe then you are no more than a money-generating machine that has to be sent abroad to toil and send back earnings so as to grow the country’s remittances. To be Kenyan is to get caught up in a cyclic love-and-hate relationship with this country. To be Kenyan is to own that ubiquitous Kenya bracelet and perhaps a Maasai shuka because these, it seems, are the last symbolic vestiges of your patriotism.

We are here because we are here

At a book launch in Nairobi in April 2006, Kenya’s most famous historian, Prof. Bethwel A. Ogot stood up and declared that Project Kenya was dead. The ideals that the nationalists had stood for were bankrupt. Kenya, he said, had never been more distant an idea than it was now at the beginning of the 21st century. Nationhood no longer existed. It had been replaced by sub-nationalism: the different ethnic groups, in effect, had eaten up the country. ~ Parselelo Kantai.

As Kenya marked its 60th anniversary, a majority of Kenyans felt that there was nothing of consequence to celebrate. In recent times, they have felt weighed down by punitive taxation, insensitive leadership and an ever-increasing feeling of hopelessness. 

Looking back through history, Kenya’s trajectory seems to be cyclic – periods of heady hopefulness followed by near bottom-of-the-barrel darkness and disillusion, then astronomical optimism and so on. Presently, we seem to be in an insurmountably dark epoch. However, what’s most peculiar about this epoch is the nuance of its finality. 

There was a somewhat positive undertone surrounding the 2022 general elections, that despite seeing same political faces for the past ten years or so, the conversation was beginning to shift – although subtly and imperceptibly – from personality politics to issues, most notably the economy. We were beginning to lose the ethnic lens (or sub-nationalism) and starting to see and imagine Kenya in its entirety. We were making progress, and that was a source of hope. However, not even two years later, in the throes of the most difficult economic times in recent history and amid the IMF’s structural adjustment exactions, all hope seems to have dissipated. If anything, the almost palpable cynicism, anger and disillusionment currently displayed by Kenyans of all walks of life are a function of this dying hope. This cynicism has not only damaged our mental psyches but also gotten to our moral disposition so much so that now anything goes – corruption and skullduggery are now part of the culture. We are slowly and surely coming to terms with the fact that it has become too difficult, too toxic, too impossible here. We are almost always just hanging on and never allowed to dream and actualise ourselves. Now a majority dream of leaving to go try life elsewhere because, as is becoming starkly apparent, hii Kenya sio yetu, we are here almost by sheer bad luck.

As I sat in the audience of that makeshift theatre watching that dress rehearsal on that December evening, I couldn’t help but think that, however much we, the common folk, blame our political elite for our Dickensian conditions, we too have been complicit. Perhaps our greatest undoing as a people is the fact that we have failed to build a national dream that we collectively aspire to. We have failed to demand more from ourselves and, in effect, from the people we elect into office. We have failed to imagine Kenya as a properly functioning nation where the dreams of each individual matter and work consciously to see to it that that becomes a reality. To quote Owaahh in one of his web posts:

My point is, there’s a difference between the Kenya on the ground and the one that we have agreed is a country. We are not bringing ourselves to the story of the nation, and we have not only accepted mediocre rule for far too long, we have actually defended the very same political class that continuously gives us reason not to.

It might never end, actually. It is a real possibility that when the nation called Kenya eventually dies, as it will inevitably, the story of its people will not exist. It will not only not have been told, it will not have been lived. Not by its people, its animals, its land, its laws, or even its own hallucinations about itself.

We are a nation actively committing suicide, and the sad part of it is that we are not only in the room, we are the ones tying the rope around our own necks.

Silver lining?

Amidst all this gloom and impending doom, perhaps we have one last remaining silver bullet – the readiness of Kenyans of different ethnicities and social classes to come together in community whenever a need is too pressing. Earlier this year, we saw thousands of Kenyans gather across various counties to protest against femicide. Often, we come together to fundraise and build churches and classrooms and bridges. Every now and then Kenyans in cities or villages across the country come together to raise money to help fund the treatment of one of their own. This sense of community is the thread that has been holding Kenya together and preventing it from coming undone at the seams. It is our last remaining chance at making Kenya possible. If we can use this sense of community to come together and organise for change in our villages, estates, counties and at the national level, then perhaps we can resuscitate Project Kenya.

Here in Kenya, where only our interactions keep us together. Now that the state is failing, we are held together by small grace, by interpersonal relationships, by trusting body language… If there is no law, no order, what keeps us together? Faith in the future? Not really. But we have built a common body language of sorts. We have to be alert and extra considerate to each other. That thread is what we hang on to. ~Binyavanga Wainaina.