Sunday, September 1, 2013

We need a Kenyan narrative to ensure unity

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 01 September 2013

This past week, during a training workshop organised by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, we explored the theme that conflict is often a product of dysfunctional communal narratives that magnify the role of “others” in causing trauma or “marginalisation” of the community.

A common narrative is a key prerequisite for the maintenance of a cohesive community. Each community creates such a narrative based on real events, exaggerations of actual events or even mythical events that never really happened.

In our case, each of the ethnic communities that make up the country has a narrative that magnifies all the good things about them and has something negative to say about all neighbouring and some distant communities. This is not unique to our country, and is a common feature of communities everywhere.

These narratives are the source of the ethnic stereotypes we carry around, and most members of a community never question their community narrative. They accept it and use it to make important decisions about their own lives, and to decide who to interact with in important areas of their lives. Unfortunately, this is often also the driving force behind the many conflicts we have in this country.

To understand this concept of community narratives and their impact on conflict, one needs only look at how different communities explain the 2008 post-election violence. Having interacted with many members of different communities affected by this violence in the North Rift, I came across several different, often opposing explanations.

Some members of one community argue that they are a chosen people who will prosper no matter what. They liken themselves to the biblical Israelites who underwent much suffering on their way to the Promised Land. The 2008 violence is conceptualised as part of this narrative, and envy among other “lazy” communities is thought to be the main motivation for the supposed ethnic targeting.

Others have argued that since before independence, their land and property has been systematically alienated and given to “foreigners” while the rightful owners suffer with the little land they have been left. According to them, successive governments have conspired with these “outsider” communities to continue with this unfair system, and any legitimate attempt at reclaiming the land has failed. They argue that eviction of these “outsiders” is therefore justified in order for the community to reclaim their land.

An alternative narrative argues that post-election violence was a spontaneous reaction to a “stolen” election. According to them, there is nothing more to be read from the event, and any claims that the violence was pre-planned are derisively dismissed.

Of course it is not possible that all these and other opposing narratives about the same event are equally true. What is however surprising is the confidence and tenacity with which these beliefs are held and expressed. Every narrator expects that the listener is aware of the “obvious” facts he states!

The missing link in all these, therefore, is the Kenyan narrative. What is the “Kenyan” perspective in all this? Was it a temporary stop on our journey towards a more cohesive nationhood, or is it evidence of failure of the project? Creation and maintenance of a national narrative is the task that nation-building institutions must tackle urgently if we are to have any hope of peaceful co-existence in our time. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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