There’s an interesting passage in Peter Kimani’s Dance of the Jakaranda about the conspiracy of silence between those who are abused, and their abusers:
One unspoken rule about warfare—some Indian traders instantly recognized this as warfare—is that neither the victim nor the villain is willing to tell what truly happened afterward; the motivation for the former being to minimize the degree of hurt and loss, which intensiﬁes at every bout of recollection; the explanation for the latter being to disguise the full extent to which one’s humanity is diminished by brutalizing others. So the trail of blood left on shop ﬂoors was wiped away silently by the women who had lain there spread-eagle—the stream of tears sufﬁcient to wash the drops of blood away—while traders who had lost entire life savings kept under the mattress denied losing more than the day’s collection. Either way, the books were balanced: in one strike, lifetime gains were wiped out, while the inﬂicted pain left scars that would last a lifetime.
When I interviewed Peter earlier this year I asked him about this. That part of our discussion never made it into the final edit of the interview, so I thought I would publish an edited transcript here.
Re-reading it as I post, I should make clear that Peter does not draw moral equivalence between the actions the abused and abuser. Nor does Peter say that effects of the abuse on each party are comparable. But I think it is important to remind ourselves how taking on the role of an abuser (or, in the geopolitical context, the role of coloniser) brings its own long term harms. And is also worth considering how the mental corruption that comes when an abused person engages in ‘complicity’ can cause further damage, in a way that we might not be able to percieve or understand. By Peter’s reckoning, modern Kenyan leaders are rebuilding the abusive structures of colonialism in a land that is now ostensibly independent.
ROBERT: One observation I had about Dance of the Jakaranda is that all the way through you note injustices: people being denied freedom of religion, people being denied habeas corpus, people working in servitude and slavery. There is a marvellous passage about the complicity between the abuser and the abused, about how it is in everyone’s interest not to describe the full extent of the abuse. Can you talk to me about that?
PETER: Think of bank heists such as the Great Train Robbery. The insurance people, the bankers and the authorities tend to be very careful about full revelations of what is stolen!
In dealing with trauma – and colonialism is a trauma – it is a very painful thing to recall. All the interactions, and the people who are hurt or simply mistreated by the oppressive system, it can be a very depressing story.
But what about the person who is dispensing the injustice, how do they live with themselves ? They are are also damaged. The policemen who have been sent in to punish a community, they might in their heart of hearts be hurting. They might feel it… they might not express it but they certainly feel it: what kind of animal am I to be able to do this?
So there is complicity here: those who are on the receiving end cannot fully recall what has been done to them because it it truly humiliating; and those who have dispensed the punishment truly do not want to remind themselves of their own inadequacies as humans. So we become complicit in this conspiracy of silence.
The guy who typifies this injustice in Dance of the Jakaranda is Babu, who is uprooted from his own land and totally mishandled by the system. Sometimes enjoys the adventure – he comes to a land where he finds meaning and he finds commitment to the place and its future. But then when the possibility arises for him to be remembered as an important person in the construction of the new nation, he is denied that.
However, he makes a key statement that I think is the crux of the story: ‘Not being heard isn’t the same as not being there’. He not acknowledged at all, he doesn’t enter the history books, he is denied that honour. But he is there.
This is similar to the story of Africa. Even if Africans are not telling their own story, that doesn’t mean those stories aren’t there. If those stories are not being heard, that does not delegitimise their presence. So Babu becomes a powerful metaphor for these abstract constructions, of colonialism and the way stories are produced, and without giving away the plot, one can say even the Jakaranda, upon its destruction, the new political elite say they want to build a replica of the original thing. Som, a reconstruction of colonialism. And we have entrenched, we have actually perfected the colony now, because it is the people themselves who are complicit in colonising their own.
ROBERT: Hold on are you talking about the Kenya of Dance of the Jakaranada, or are you talking about the real Kenya?
PK – The Kenya of today! And I should quote James Baldwin who says that history is not the past, it is the present.