At the end of my first term in high school, I watched a screening of Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, the tale of an ordinary family unknowingly living in a house built over a graveyard without the bother of moving the bodies. Of course, this does not go down well with the spirits of the dead, who make their displeasure known by slowly torturing the family into madness. In one of the scenes, a man stares in horror at a mirror as fingers tear away at his reflection’s decomposing face till it falls into the bathroom sink. Needless to say, I have never looked at bathroom mirrors in quite the same way since. Last week, it was Kenya’s turn to look into the mirror.
Elections provide opportunities for national self-examination and renewal, for the country to take a long, hard look at itself, assess it achievements, reorient its priorities. However, like I have done too many times since I watched that movie, we chose to turn away, afraid of what we might see.
Fear can make people do strange things.
We had already normalized the abnormal, making it seem perfectly acceptable to have two ICC-indicted politicians on the ballot. At the first presidential debate, moderator Linus Kaikai had been more concerned with how Uhuru Kenyatta would “govern if elected president and at the same time attend trial as a crimes against humanity subject” and not whether he should be running at all. Any suggestion of consequences for Uhuru’s and William Ruto’s candidature had been rebuffed with allegations of neo-colonialism, interference and an implied racism. People who had spent their adult lives fighting for Kenyans’ justice and human rights were vilified as stooges for the imperialistic West for suggesting that the duo should first clear their names before running for the highest office in the land.
As the elections approached we were assailed with unceasing calls for peace and appeals to a nationalism we knew to be to all too elusive. We voted and celebrated our patience and patriotism, brandishing purple fingers as medals for enduring the long queues. And we heaved a collective sigh of relief when it was all over. We afterwards wore our devotion to Kenya on our sleeves and on our Facebook pages and Twitter icons even as we were presented with the evidence of our parochial and tribal voting patterns which fulfilled Mutahi Ngunyi’s now prophetic Tyranny of Numbers.
By now, a compact had developed between the media and the public. Kenya would have a peaceful and credible poll no matter what. The narrative would be propagated by a few privileged voices and it would countenance no challenge. The media would sooth our dangerous passions with 24-hour entertainment shows masquerading as election coverage. We would laugh the uncomfortable laughs, and plead and pray that politicians would not awaken the monster we recognised in each other. Let sleeping ogres lie, seemed to be the national motto. Meanwhile, those who could stocked up on canned food and filled up the fridges and stayed away from work. As food prices quadrupled we desperately clung to the belief that all would be well if we kept our end of the bargain and didn’t ask uncomfortable questions.
When nearly all the measures the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission deployed to ensure transparency during the election failed, this was not allowed to intrude into the reverie. Instead the media continued to put on a show and we applauded them for it. Uncomfortable moments were photoshopped out of the familial picture. Foreign correspondents who dared to question our commitment to peace were publicly humiliated and had their integrity impugned. I played my part in this. When the New York Times dared to suggest that if Raila Odinga contested the outcome “many fear [it] could lead to the…violence that erupted in 2007 court challenge,” it didn’t take long for the reactions to come. “Foreign press haven’t given up [on the possibility of violence],” I tweeted. Others quickly joined in, some suggesting that the writer was stuck in 2007.
However, if we are honest, it is us who were stuck in the narratives born of the last five years. It was not, as suggested by the New York Times in a later piece, a renewed self confidence that drove us. Quite the opposite. It was a fear, a terror, a recognition that we were not as mature as we were claiming to be; that underneath our veneer of civility lay an unspeakable horror just waiting to break out and devour our children. We were afraid to look into the mirror lest our face fall in the sink.
It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. In this case the war was internal, hidden from all prying eyes. Who cares about the veracity of the poll result? So what if not all votes were counted? We had peace. “The peace lobotomy,” one tweet called it. “Disconnect brain, don’t ask questions, don’t criticize. Just nod quietly.”
Yet we should care. Our terror and the frantic attempts to mask it were a terrible indictment. As another tweet put it, it “reveals how hollow the transformation wrought by the new constitution.” Instead of being a moment for national introspection, the election had become something to be endured. The IEBC was expected to provide a quick fix to help us through it but was never meant to expose the deeper malady of fear, violence and mistrust which we have spent five years trying to paper over with our constitutions and coalitions and MoUs and codes of conduct. The fact is we do not believe the words in those documents, the narratives inscribed on paper but not in our hearts. And this is why we do not care whether an election springing from them documents is itself a credible exercise.
What maturity is this that trembles at the first sign of disagreement or challenge? What peace lives in the perpetual shadow of a self-annihilating violence?
Cowards die many times before their deaths and we have been granted a new lease of life. However, if we carry on as we have done over the last five years, if we continue to lack the courage to exhume the bodies and clean out the foundations of our nationhood, we shouldn’t be surprised if in 2017 we are still terrified by the monsters under the house.
* Patrick Gathara is a political cartoonist and blogger.