Ujanja and Kenyan public morality
Perhaps the most widely read chapter in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.” Published over half a century ago, Fanon’s prophetic portrait of the betrayal of the ideals of nationalist liberation in Africa — largely informed by insights from developments in newly independent Ghana — continues to unfold across the continent, most recently in South Africa, where revelations of corruption in both the public sector and private business have seriously muddied the country’s self-conception as an exceptional state in Africa.
In this project, I am interested in the place of the trickster trope in Kenyan moral discourse; and how the concept of ujanja (‘smartness’/trickery) drawn from East/African folklore, came to shape moral regimes in Kenyan public life; and the insights it can offer into understanding mega economic scandals in Kenya such as the Goldenberg and Angloleasing scandals as well as other forms of fraud that have rocked post-independent Kenya. My project sets the trope of the trickster or ujanja — originally associated with folklore — in conversation with multi- national economic scandals in contemporary Kenya; and draws on cultural materialist thought to make sense of how trickster tropes drawn from precolonial East/African, predominantly coastal Swahili, folklore, came to shape Kenya public discourse and moral regimes, particularly where fraud is concerned. I would like to think through shifting conceptions of ujanja — from early Swahili folklore, which in turn traces its roots to the Arab peninsula — across Kenyan history. The broader project here is to make sense of ambivalent attitudes towards economic scandals and fraud as both toxic and admirable acts of trickery. Put differently, how do we explain the fetish of ‘kuwa mjanja’ – being trickster, but also with connotations of being smart — in Kenyan public life? How do we understand the festishization of ujanja, in a country whose regimes of morality are simultaneously informed by a robust blend of Christian and Islamic moral logics on one hand; and on the other, various forms of indigenous African moral discourses on right and wrong?
Fraud and other forms of corruption have been a recurrent trope in postcolonial African politics, and Kenya is no exception. Scholars and cultural producers across the disciplines have attempted to make sense of why corruption quickly became embedded in postcolonial African statecraft, despite the various countries’ stated desire for collective political and economic liberation.. In literary studies, multiple generations of writers, including Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Yvonne Owuor, and South Africa’s Zakes Mda, have used the novel to meditate on the scourge of corruption in their respective post-independent states. Along with these artistic reflections, four scholars’ work has been particularly influential in decoding the crisis of corruption in Africa: Frantz Fanon, Mahmood Mamdani, Peter Ekeh and Jean-Francois Bayart.
Fanon’s description of the sharp dichotomies between the settler town and the native quarters, and the desires this bred in the natives; coupled with the failure of the post-independent leadership to reconfigure the state as a vehicle of inclusion and service of the majority rather than an exclusionary machinery in the service of the minority, is often cited as one of the causes of corruption.
Mahmood Mamdani’s work in some respects picks up on Fanon’s framing of these exclusionary state infrastructures and the desires they create. Mamdani writes that colonial authority in many parts of Africa combined direct and indirect rule: the former in the shape of urban civil power, primarily driven towards the “exclusion of natives from civil freedoms guaranteed to citizens in civil society,” and the latter embodied in rural tribal authority’s
mandate of “incorporating natives into a state-enforced customary order” (1996:18). The result was a bifurcated state with two forms of power: “urban power spoke the language of civil society and civil rights, rural power of community and culture” (1996: 18). But this produced a third constituency: “between the rights-bearing colons and the subject peasantry was a third group: urban-based natives, mainly middle-and-working-class persons, who were exempt from the lash of customary law but not from modern, racially discriminatory civil legislation. Neither subject to custom nor exalted as rights-bearing citizens, they languished in a juridical limbo” (Mamdani 1996:19).
As the biographies of many African countries reveal, this middle constituency would become the political elite of the nascent independent states with the fall of empire. For Peter Ekeh, this is part of what precipitated the crisis of public morality that is often described in the diction of Africa’s weak institutions; the failure of modernity; patronage politics and similar symptomatic tags.
In his seminal essay “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Public Statement,” Peter Ekeh distinguishes between the logics of morality in Western and African societies. While the public and private realms have a shared moral foundation in Western societies, in Africa, Ekeh argues, there are two public realms, with distinct moral relations to the private realm: “the public realm in which primordial groupings, ties and sentiments influence and determine an individual’s public behaviour [and which] operates on the same moral imperatives as the private realm; [and] the public realm which is historically associated with the colonial administration and which has become identified with popular politics in postcolonial Africa” (Ekeh 1975: 92). Ekeh notes that this second public realm is based on civic structures such as the police, the civil service and the military; but it enjoys no moral linkages with the private realm: “the civic public of Africa is amoral and lacks the generalized moral imperatives operative in the private realm and in the primordial public” (Ibid.).
Where Jean-Francois Bayart notes that “the public administration, the school, the hospital, the trading-post, the business-place and the mission-station were nurseries in which a ‘moral subject’ was planted and tended, and whose ethical and physical practices were to become constituents of the new public culture, including the bureaucratic regulation of the state, economic activity, religious expression, cultural innovation and political mobilization” (Bayart 2000: 249), Ekeh qualifies this class’s relationship to the colonial state, by distinguishing between the African bourgeoisie’s anti-colonial ideologies and what he terms post-colonial ideologies of legitimation. Regarding the former, he cautions that anti- colonialism was not always synonymous with opposition to the ideals and principles of the Western institutions; rather, it was often a case of being anti colonial personnel but pro colonial ideals and principles (Ekeh 1975:101). Among the strategies of anti-colonial struggle was what Ekeh terms “a necessary but destructive strategy: sabotage of the administrative efforts of the colonizers” (Ekeh 1975:102), a strategy that was hard to reverse in the post- independence context.
Noting the conventional understanding of citizenship as implying a claim to certain rights, coupled with a willingness to perform certain duties, Ekeh argues that citizenship takes different shapes in the two publics in postcolonial Africa: within the primordial public sphere, the individual “sees his duties as moral obligations to benefit and sustain the primordial public” they belong to (1975:106), while the benefits are largely intangible and immaterial, often taking the shape of stability and security in the face of the “psychic turbulence” that marks their double-belonging in the two public spheres. On the other hand, the civic public is understood in terms of material gains accruing from it, with little moral compulsion to invest in it. In this sphere, “duties … are de-emphasised while rights are squeezed out of the civic public with the amorality of an artful dodger” (Ekeh 1975: 107). In Kenya, this culture is made manifest in wasteful attitudes towards public property as indexed by the phrase “Suluhu, mali ya uma” (Swahili for ‘it’s nothing, it is public property.”
Mahmood Mamdani’s colonial dichotomy between citizen and subject in African colonies in intersects with Ekeh’s ideas in illuminating ways, particularly in relation to how the African political elite navigated what he calls its juridical indeterminacy. This shares certain overlaps with Ekeh’s elite’s navigations of the psychic turbulence of double belonging. Given
Mamdani’s assertion that the colonial state was Janus-faced, on the one hand governing a racially defined citizenry with access to a cluster of rights; while ruling over subjects through coercion (Mamdani 1996: 19); and if, as both Fanon (1967) and Ekeh (1975) have argued, the native that takes over power at independence is “an envious man,” more invested in accessing the delights of the settler quarter than in radically revolutionising the infrastructure of state power; it becomes clear why nationalism — the glorious crystallization of collective hope, Fanon had in mind — becomes “an empty shell, a crude travesty” (Fanon 1967:119).
While these reflections on what Jean-Francois Bayart terms the politics of the belly, are persuasive in explaining the ways in which, in James Ogude’s terms (following Chinua Achebe), the state became a site of eating in the postcolony, I am intrigued by the manner in which the moral logics of the trickster figure drawn from precolonial cultures got to be embedded in Kenyan public life; in ways that ambivalently acknowledge and celebrate the ills of fraud and corruption. How do precolonial conceptions of the trickster figure journey and get repurposed after encountering colonial capital and its logics, as outlined by the above scholars? The project hopes to sketch out the ways in which the encounter with colonial modernity, coupled with capital and its dictum of accumulation rendered ujanja a palatable mode of accumulation. I am interested in the interface between shifts in economic values and institutions, and attendant shifts in public conceptions of morality and integrity in Kenya.
Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:
I am interested in the place of the trickster trope in Kenyan moral discourse; and how the concept of ujanja (‘smartness’/trickery) drawn from East African folklore came to shape moral regimes in Kenyan public life; and the insights it can offer into understanding multi-national economic scandals in Kenya, such as the Goldenberg and Angloleasing scandals
Provisional sketch of essay:
My project sets folklore in conversation with multi-national economic scandals in contemporary Kenya; and draws on cultural materialist thought to make sense of how trickster tropes drawn from precolonial East African, predominantly coastal Swahili folklore came to shape Kenyan moral discourses. I am drawing primarily on cultural materialism; and also thinking through the shifting conceptions of ujanja — from early Swahili folklore, which in turn traces its roots to the Arab peninsula — across Kenyan history. I hope to trace shifting conceptions of ujanja in Kenyan public life, with particular focus on Swahili folklore; and using a cultural materialist reading, use it to trace shifting moral logics across the region’s history. The broader project here is to make sense of ambivalent attitudes towards economic scandals as both contemptible and admirable acts of trickery. Put differently, how do we explain the fetish of ‘kuwa mjanja’ in Kenyan public life? I am interested in tracing how a trope that was once an object lesson on morality came to be an ambiguous signifier of ‘smartness’ in its most problematic manifestations such as high profile multinational fraud.