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February 17, 2019

We Pretend Tragedy Is Triumph

The government and media paint events like Westgate,
Garissa varsity and El Adde as the triumph of the ‘Kenyan
spirit’ over adversity. In short, we won every time we lost
The government and media paint events like Westgate, Garissa varsity and El Adde as the triumph of the ‘Kenyan spirit’ over adversity. In short, we won every time we lost

As is the case with other nations, the Kenyan memorial landscape is littered with moments of heroic triumph and unspeakable horror. Within its topography, one will find the anniversaries of murders and massacres as well as achievement and acclaim.

Today marks the three-month anniversary of a terrible tragedy — the slaughter of nearly 200 Kenyan soldiers by the al Shabaab terror group at El Adde in southern Somalia. Two weeks ago, we observed another tearful memorial for a remarkably similar atrocity — the slaughter of nearly 150 people in another al Shabaab attack, this time on the Garissa University College. These two horrors are united by more than the fact that they were committed by the same terror group, the large numbers of casualties involved and the unspeakable grief they brought to our shores. For the last three years, there has been a remarkably successful attempt to dress up nearly all major Shabaab atrocities as Kenyan glories.

From President Uhuru Kenyatta declaring the defeat and “shaming” of our enemies at Westgate to KTN speaking of the triumph at Garissa and the ubiquitous reference to the heroism at El Adde, we have appeared to be a society determined to turn tragedies on their heads and to snatch victory from the jaws of disaster.

This is more than the celebration of individual heroic behaviour as the tragedies unfolded. While there has been some articulation of this, most notably at Westgate, the main thrust has been to paint the events themselves as showcasing the triumph of the ‘Kenyan spirit’ over adversity. In short, we won every time we lost.

But in these contexts, what do words like ‘victory’, ‘triumph’ and ‘heroes’ mean? What work do they do?

I think it is clear that such double-talk is meant to obscure more than it illuminates. It is remarkably similar to the doublethink in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. As in Oceania, today’s doublethink is created and perpetuated by official newspeak and designed to make all other modes of thought traitorous and shameful if not impossible.

In this brave new world, those who today insist on truth and accountability for the failures at Westgate and Mpeketoni are accused of being Shabaab sympathisers; or of indulging morbid fantasies when they demand to know the actual number of “heroes” being feted at El Adde and details of what actually happened. This official discourse pretends to honour ‘sacrifice’ while devaluing the lives that have been sacrificed by the official negligence and incompetence it is trying to cover up.

Today’s newspeak goes beyond describing tragedies as triumphs. It is constantly being deployed in the service of an empty, unthinking and unquestioning ‘positivity’. The government and its lackeys in the press and on social media are fond of categorising criticism as either positive or negative. These categories respectively roughly follow the contours of what they are willing to admit and respond to, and what they are not. ‘Negative’ criticism is demonised as soul-destroying. In this scheme of things, it was not the government’s inability to provide lucid answers to questions about how it spent the Sh275 billion it borrowed via a Eurobond two years ago that causes investor jitters. Rather it is the very fact that these ‘negative’ queries are raised in the first place that is the problem.

Similarly, it is not official laxity and ineptitude that expose us to terrorist attack; it is the demand to audit and fix such laxity and ineptitude that emboldens the enemy. It is thinking that seeks silver linings but ignores the cloud. But why do so many Kenyans buy into it? Because it is comforting. Those hiding the truth are running away from accountability. The rest of us are running away from vulnerability. It is, after all, a profoundly scary thing to admit that those we have charged to protect us are failing. It is much more comforting to insist we are feeling safer even as loud noises routinely terrify students into leaping out of windows and soldiers into firing aimlessly.


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