WARAH: How the middle class coped in Moi era

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By RASNA WARAH
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A young man, who came of age when Mr Mwai Kibaki became President in 2002, and only remembers the Daniel arap Moi regime for the free milk it provided to pupils, asked me what it was like being a young adult during the Moi era.

Like the vast majority of the country’s youth, he had little or no recollection of those days when Mr Moi strode Kenya like a colossus.

I wanted to give a standard textbook response like: “Those were the dark days of corruption in every public institution. There was no freedom of expression and opponents of the President were either jailed or tortured.”

Strangely, the first words that came out of my mouth were: “We had a lot of parties in those days.”

MIDDLE CLASS
The truth is we, or to be more specific, the middle class in Nairobi, did have a lot of parties back then.

And by parties I do not mean the large nyama choma fests or showing-off type revelries that the rich are prone to host today.

Our parties were the impromptu type where a bunch of friends would spontaneously gather, have a few beers, eat whatever was in the fridge, and dance to Tracy Chapman tapes (CDs had not entered the market then).

It was not like we were hedonistic or anything; it was just our way of coping with the times.

The truth is, if we did not have those parties, we might have gone out and started a dissident movement or something, or run naked along Kenyatta Avenue in downtown Nairobi in protest.

We didn’t want to take that route, not because we didn’t care, but it seemed so futile, and yes, also perhaps because we were not courageous enough.

Nor did we want to go into exile or seek asylum overseas as so many young Kenyans were doing at that time.

We thought that if we just lay low and had a good time, the wave of madness around us might eventually subside.

It is not like we were politically unconscious. Oh no! Our (hidden) bookshelves were filled with the revolutionary writings of Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Amilcar Cabral, Toni Morrison and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Contrary to popular belief, Ngugi’s books were not banned in Kenya even though the writer was forced into exile).

Nor were we unaware of what was going on in the country.

But the only way we could cope with the situation was to pretend that everything was the way it should be, that Kenya under an authoritarian Daniel arap Moi was still better than the neighbouring dictatorships such as Somalia and Uganda.

We congratulated ourselves for not descending into anarchy or blood-curdling genocide.

We were, as “Baba na Mama” Moi often told us, an island of peace in the midst of instability in the region.

When Moi’s ruling Kanu party was finally removed in the 2002 General Election, many of us discovered our long-suppressed talents.

Some of us became writers, others ventured into the public service.

Then the parties stopped; they were no longer necessary to kill the stifling silence.

But for some reason my desire to have parties because it is the only way I can cope with a dystopian world has resurfaced.

However, things are not the way they were under President Moi.

For one, the high cost of living has made parties prohibitively expensive; only the rich can afford them.

Two, Kenyan society has become so polarised that friendships have floundered and levels of mistrust among the people have escalated.

Conversations have become stilted and guarded; tribe-based politics has turned friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour.

I lost a lot of friends after the 2013 elections. It’s not like we had flaming rows or anything.

We just stopped talking. And when we did talk, the conversations veered towards the mundane or the frivolous.

Now I have a handful of friends who do not judge me when I rant about the state of the nation and who understand that the madness that has taken root once again is a familiar one — we lived it under Moi.

Some people have told me that I think too much, that if I took up a hobby or had faith in God, I would be a happier, more contented person.

I would like to believe this. But I also know that hobbies and religion, like having parties, are a form of escapism — they numb the pain that comes with awareness.

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