Independent reporting on human rights, environmental and conflict issues

Burning the Master’s House

by Onyango Oketch

Now let the blame game begin. Schools in Kenya are going up in flames, together with the ideologies they espouse. We might say nothing new in these. That the kids are at the barricades – laying waste to millions of ideological indoctrination investment centers and are being met with a ban on cell phones in educational institutions by the education minister – is a sign of high incompetence and incomprehension.

High society in Kenya bereft of knowledge of anything signaling cultural resistance and youth rebellion, resort to political innuendos and fire breathing. In a culture where high stake impunity, economic shenanigans and high incompetence reign supreme, this hand wringing and head shaking smacks of hypocrisy. In a land where mob justice, vigilante justice and sheer survival reign supreme, it is idiocy to assume that its youngster are going to turn out any different from what the national dominant cultural milieu offers.

A history in cultural resistance might help these political and high society wonks get a glimpse at the substructure of Kenyan society and its attendant myths. The long festered combination of dictatorial high handedness in the educational system – a combination of a class-based colonial educational system, the Moi era hegemony of style and ideas and the mythology imbedded in the nostalgia of the African traditional system – is meeting a fractured political system bereft of new ideas and vision. Like in every culture, the youths’ lashing out is the onset of a much larger ominous rebellion that is rumbling within our society. And I’ll bet we haven’t seen anything yet.

The underlying question is – what has contemporary Kenya got to offer to its youngsters; so far nothing. With a medieval educational system offering no creativity other than a machine system of production and consumption coupled with a dilapidated system of governance run by a team of nursery school cheerleader legislators being paid better than any other in the world to be too full of themselves, and infrastructures that are antiquated what is there to aspire to?
The public square is not even worthy of mention. It is peopled by naysayers, politically bereft dinosaurs, NGO industry-speaks flush with donor funding, fancy Africa style dressings and the same humdrum policy papers manufactured from retreats in fancy resorts.

Destruction has become the youths’ form of self expression in this environment. In the absence of a culture that is sustaining hope both at home, in school and post school, the youths are creating their own brand and merchandising wholly hinged on destroying everything their pseudo-society market sees as supreme. The pressure to be achievers, the incompetence of their political system, the poverty in their society and the emergence of a quasi-celebrity culture in this landscape has given birth to the emergence of the school as sub-culture. And it is a culture rooted in resistance. Burning and mayhem has become a badge of honor and no amount of colonial era subjugation tactics or traditional African nostalgia tidbits from the mouths of also rans, is the remedy.

What we are observing is an intricate dance of identity, attention and a subversive emergence of a salient resistance to the commodity culture that these youths are consuming and being consumed by – to try and create a victory of the imagination for an imagined victory over the system. It is the same thing we witness with the proliferation of vigilante groups and other restless youth movements that abound in this country. We are witnessing the symptoms of failure in the deliverance of services and legitimized widespread systemic inequalities.

But these kids see more oppression in more than just the authority system. It is in the family and all those do-gooders who pretend to be on your side – the school authorities, the education officials. Without knowing, these Kenyan youngsters are borrowing from the masters of self exhibitionism of the counter culture movement of the late 1960’s – the Abbie Hoffmans and Jerry Rubinses: “instead of making your own culture out of a whole clothe, it is more effective to hijack the dominant culture and make it the mouthpiece of your message”. To see the kids clown in front of the television cameras after their infernos have laid waste, they are using television news as theater for their resistance – as an ultimate weapon available to the weak. Their revolution is being televised.

As mainstream Kenya grapplse with the tools of conspicuous consumption, mis-governance and modern day capitalistic mythologies of achievement, so too has it to grapple with the price and consequences – the alienation amongst its youth. These are the kahluas we drink when we fail to provide vision and an inclusive culture to our youth and the necessities and security to life: the obligations of every legitimate state. We will not succeed by marketing state and patriarchal hegemony. Youth anywhere will always be amenable to brands because it’s a time of identity formation and brands sure do help.

When our national brand is impunity, incompetence, consumption and chest thumping, our youths are simply buying in. Any student of the nineties in Kenya would have known it would be the fire next time.


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