Monday, December 15, 2008

Their dream died at independence

Daily Nation Friday, December 12, 2008, Page 11

Today, Kenyans are celebrating the day when Kenya officially became independent under majority rule. Prior to this date 45 years ago, the country had been under white minority rule for 69 years.

History tells us that before the 19th century Scramble for Africa, the territory now known as Kenya was populated by various ethnic communities under different forms of rule, from monarchies to councils of elders.

Prior to the advent of independence in 1963, there was a decade and a half of an armed insurrection culminating in the declaration of a state of emergency in 1952. Thousands of freedom fighters were killed in the struggle, and many more were incarcerated in concentration camps all over the country.

Hundreds of thousands were compulsorily ‘‘villagised’’ in an attempt by the colonial government to control movement and crush the rebellion.

Two years ago, we carried out a study that found out that almost a third of the survivors of those concentration camps suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and a large proportion suffer from other psychological problems, including depression and anxiety disorders.

Many of the veterans interviewed were bitter that the freedom they sacrificed for had been ‘‘grabbed’’ by those that stood by and collaborated with the ‘‘enemy’’.

Many colonial administrators — chiefs, district officers and junior police officers — at independence became senior government officers with power to allocate resources to the burgeoning middle class. Freedom fighters were shunted aside or advised to band together, purchase land, and start their lives afresh.

In Nairobi and other urban centres, one will today find groups of demoralised old men and women with multiple physical and psychological scars of the freedom struggle. They are now grandparents and great grandparents many times over, but they still eke out a living in conditions of near absolute poverty.

Their children have fanned out across the country and try to make a living from hawking and doing other businesses. They in turn started their own families and in the cycle of poverty they live in, shared stories of how their parents lost everything during the ‘‘Mau Mau’’ war and had nothing to show for it under successive governments.

The grandchildren of the freedom veterans, disillusioned with a hopeless existence and condemned to a life that is Hobbesian — solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short — were seduced by the hopeful religion of liberation by facing back to the past. Thus, Mungiki was born.

Current urban thuggery can thus, at least partially, be traced to a Government policy that deliberately ignored the past and sought to build a future based on a spineless vision of ‘‘forgive and forget’’.

If this nation is built on the foundations of the freedom-struggle narrative, then it is a shaky foundation indeed, given the sense of betrayal one sees in the tired eyes of these men and women and their offspring.

In developed societies, there are dedicated veterans’ administrations to cater for the needs of the men and women who take up arms in defence of the state.

As part of our acknowledgement of our past errors, we must start thinking of setting up a similar structure to serve, not only the veterans, but all the soldiers who have fought for this country and now live in humble retirement, suffering nightmares due to their war experience.

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine.

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