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I do not know much about my mother’s childhood, or my grandmother’s. They did tell me stories from their past, but those stories were not long in the telling; that side of my family has always been reticent. The stories that were told were always about significant character traits – my grandmother’s resoluteness when she refused to use a car that my grandfather had bought because she thought it was a bad investment, or my aunt’s bravery when she jumped from a moving vehicle when the driver refused to stop at her school gate after offering her a lift. These stories were told over and over again, and always in the same way: someone would recount the story, and the story’s main character would smile sheepishly in acknowledgement. That is also how I react to people talking about me: shrink and hide.

I am not sure how we came to be like this, although our Catholic faith that insisted on individual piety and humility might have played a role. Ithuĩ tũtirĩ ta andũ a kamũtaratara. We are not like the bashful Protestants. On a daily? Do your work, and pray to God. In the face of suffering? Pray to God, leave it to God. Happy? Thank God, then go about the rest of your day. But as reserved and as withdrawn my friends would insist I am, I have always been quick to defy this approach, something that has been a great source of tension between me and my family.

I was the questioning one, the stubborn one, traits that I was expected to eventually grow out of, that marked a phase of my life rather than who I was. I was still in many ways salvageable and malleable before I came to the city. I didn’t know then that there were other ways of existing outside of the world I was brought up in. I latched on to my family’s vernaculars, bending them to my world rather than rejecting them outright. But I cannot blame my family, for that was what they knew. Recently, I could feel myself growing impatient during a phone call with my mum; I was telling her how happy I was to get a research role in a project I was super excited about. The cause of my impatience? She had assumed that I had finally heeded her advice and found gainful employment and I had had to once again explain to her that I am a freelancer, that I am not seeking permanent and pensionable employment. Noting the impatience in my voice, my mother asked me not to be angry, reminding me that the only kind of work she and andũ ao (her people) had known were jobs like teaching, nursing, policing and engineering. 

These feelings of impatience, exhaustion, and even anxiety have marked my relationship with the older generations of my family since I completed a BSc in a field in which I refused to practise once I graduated. I had thought my family would be proud of the work I do as a writer and cultural worker within the Kenyan social justice movement. I especially anticipated my grandmother’s positive reaction, considering she had lived through the struggle for Kenya’s independence. You see, as a high-performing student in rural Nyeri, for my parents and me, to be smart was to be in the sciences. And so, I duly took a degree in quantity surveying. But somewhere along the way, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the choice; a life of quantity surveying would be repetition, doing the same thing over and over, ever narrowing my focus. Yet I had felt an insatiable intellectual appetite all my life, always grasping at little nuggets of knowledge across all fields. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic just as I was going into my third year of university offered me the chance to explore what a life driven by this enquiring nature would look like. I had time, and suddenly, I was finding reading interesting again, and before I knew it, I was even writing. The pandemic itself offered me an insight into how the world was skewed towards protecting capital at the expense of people, and directed me to the Kenyan social justice movement founded in Nairobi’s Mathare. In this space, I found a community of people who shared in imagining and advocating for counter-realities rather than just negotiating within the established vernaculars. I knew then the work I wanted to do – co-creating counter-narratives to mould the world I wanted to live in. After all, what was the use of relying on the same narratives that had placed my mother in the midst of the initial round of structural adjustment programmes soon after she completed college, only to do the same to me a few decades later?

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic just as I was going into my third year of university offered me the chance to explore what a life driven by this enquiring nature would look like. 

Anyway. My grandmother. My work as a writer rooted in the Kenyan social justice movement has inevitably brought me back to history – a subject I refused to take in high school because all the smart girls were STEM baddies. Reading about British brutality towards the Kikuyu during Operation Anvil, I found myself thinking that it was one thing to read about the atrocities, but quite another to hear about it from my own grandmother. I called her one evening to catch up and maybe tell her about the “exciting” work I was doing for a research project I was involved in. We didn’t catch up, nor did I get to tell her the “exciting” news, which I thought would be a source of pride for her. The conversation basically went: “Have you found a permanent job?” “Yes,” I lied. “Ah! We thank God then.” I felt my heart deflate as I lost interest in the conversation. 

And that is how it is. Like home, like Nyeri, where we all grew up understanding that to succeed is to pass exams, get a good job, and leave. Leave Nyeri in the past. That is how I feel my family perceives the past. That it should be left precisely where it is, in the past. Look always towards the future. Leave the past to God. Once, in a conversation with my grandmother, she said to me: “Arĩa monire matunda ma wĩyathi nĩ arĩa marũire mbara ya mabuku, ti arĩa marĩ mũtitũ, na nĩkĩo niĩ itendaga kũigwa mũndũ wĩtainwo na niĩ agĩthakĩra mabuku, weh!” – Those who saw the fruits of independence are those who fought through education, not those who went to the forest, and that is why I do not like to hear of anyone related to me taking education lightly! 

I have always wondered how I am meant to build a future without looking into the past. Writing about the fashioning of a collective future, Constant de Saint-Laurent observes,

“The way we imagine collective futures – a form of political imagination – is of tremendous importance to understand how we act as members of society and how we represent the future… We do not imagine where we may be going solely based on inferences made from the present; we build on past experiences to construct a plausible image of what the future might hold. In the case of collective futures, this implies that how we represent history – our collective memory – plays a fundamental role in how we can imagine the future.” 

Maybe then it is not that the older generations in my family refuse to explore the past, but that our interpretations of the past are so fundamentally different that whatever we infer from it about the present and the future will also be different. 

History is everywhere in our everyday lives; it is in Gachagua calling himself a son of the Mau Mau, in Ruto’s and Gachagua’s references to former President Uhuru’s “dynasty” background. Gachagua’s claimed family history is, well … debatable; their depiction of Uhuru, accurate. But the past is also about Gachagua’s and Ruto’s close relationship with former President Moi and the patronage they enjoyed from the authoritarian dictator. 

The political elites’ selective use of collective memory is barely shocking. Collective memory is an important political tool that politicians have long used to justify their positions, influence how we see the world, and impose a specific vision of the future. We saw this in last year’s “hustlers vs dynasties” election campaign. The truth presented to us was that Kenya’s political elites have largely been the same since independence and that their use of power to amass wealth was the reason the economy was in shambles. Both are objective truths. But then, we were also expected to believe that to overcome this state, the government must be purged of (some) members of the political elites so that our saviours, who relate better to the mwananchi, would ascend to power and empower the citizens from the bottom up. 

This version of our collective memory presented by Ruto and Gachagua was simply a political tool to garner votes. Facing no sanctions for their lies, politicians have full latitude to invent the past that suits them best.

But at a time when truth is threatened, remembering what happened becomes an act of resistance. It is only from a truthful reading of the past that we can fashion new worlds. This is why the work of collectives such as the Kenya Organic Intellectual Network – which challenges the vague way in which the country’s elites interact with the past – is important. In offering counter-readings of the past, we can think of counter-futures, of more joyous and liberated worlds where a president has better answers than “mnataka nifanye nini?” – what do you want me to do? – in response to an ongoing economic crisis. There can and must be alternative stories, alternative futures.