“Childhood is always looked upon as the happiest time of life. Is that always true? No, only a few have a happy childhood”. This is the opening line of Leon Trotsky’s biographical book ‘My Life’.
Reading this line led me to reflect on my childhood and a recent conversation I had with a man in his fifties. He thought that my generation took a lot for granted, politically. He went on about how his generation fought against a dictatorial regime, delivering to Kenyans what is now considered one of the most progressive constitutions in Africa. He recounted how he and his colleagues suffered to secure these gains. He described how many of them were detained, tortured, some killed, while a number lost their families, as they became strangers to their spouses and children. His fear was that my generation did not know what it took to enjoy the freedoms that we have, which in his opinion, is the reason why we keep quiet as the Constitution is raped left, right and center.
I cannot argue that I did not experience any of the horrible experiences that my friend and his colleagues did, but I grew up in the 90’s, and as such I am not completely oblivious of many things that happened then. As a child it was very confusing politically, as I tried to make sense of what was happening. I read some of the stories in newspapers, of the death of Bishop Munge and Dr. Robert Ouko among others. I listened to adults trying to make sense of what was going on in hushed tones, because ‘the walls had ears’ in those days. In the same hushed tones, I heard about the Nyayo torture chambers, and of horrendous things that happened in there. As I child, I took the ‘walls have ears’ quote literary, and I cringed every time I heard my father speak negatively about the government, as I knew that the walls could cave in and take him away from us. Despite being young, I experienced the fear that came with an oppressive regime.
My favourite political figure then was Koigi wa Wamwere. In my young head, I created a hero out of the dreadlocked man who swore to never shave his hair until the day Moi ceased to be in power. I tried to follow the story of what was happening to him albeit not understanding a lot of things. My most confusing moment was when I heard that the late Prof. Wangari Maathai had led women to strip naked in protest, demanding for the release of their sons and husbands, who were in political detention. I didn’t exactly understand what that meant, but I remember getting the feeling that something was really wrong. I may have been young, but in my own way, I understood that for anyone to grow dreadlocks in protest, and for women to strip naked in protest, it meant that the war was real.
Why do I recount this now? Something about the current political situation reminds me of the 90’s. Perhaps it is the curtailing of civil society and media freedoms through recent attempts and actual passing of repressive and unconstitutional laws. Perhaps it is the personality cult that has been created by the presidency. Perhaps it was the shock that I felt when I heard Kenyans in The Hague singing ‘Tawala Kenya’ as the president attended a status conference at the ICC. I don’t know what it is, but the cloud of fear, confusion and despair that was in the air as a child, seems to be back.
Frantz Fanon stated that “Each generation, out of relative obscurity, discovers its mission, and chooses to fulfil it or betray it”. I am not sure which one it will be for my generation.