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October 4th, 2008:

I Need the Others

In the early months of this year, young people I knew and had previously taught the basic principles of Christianity were going around in Riruta, brandishing slashers and chanting hate slogans against certain people they perceived as belonging to a different community. It was unfortunately a common sight in Nairobi, especially in the poorer neighbourhoods, where an irresponsible and vicious campaign against “them” found fertile ground in the widespread lack of hope for a better future, and sometimes outright desperation. A very legitimate aspiration and request for social justice had been manipulated and turned into hatred for the “others”.

Now, normality seems to be back. Dozens of meetings, celebrations and festivals have been held around the theme of peace, headlined with such slogans as “Youth for Peace” and “Nyama Choma for Peace”. Yet today, we cannot pretend: there are too many desperate young people who are still ready to return to the streets, to loot, to kill and be killed, as long as they find somebody to incite them or promise a reward. They are culprits and victims – both at the same time – of a society where law and order are too often allied with injustice and corruption, and we are scared of the evil forces they have inside them. We know that given the chance, the same demons could be unleashed again. We are even more afraid because we are fully aware that the same negative forces are also present within each one of us. This is obviously not simply a Kenyan issue, it is a human issue. We have seen foreign workers being targeted in South Africa, while in Europe, especially in Italy, public opinion has been manipulated into seeing the foreign immigrants as the root cause of all problems of insecurity and crime.

We are all susceptible to manipulation, especially in cases where the “others” are depicted as a threat to “me”, “my identity” and “my possessions”. The “others”, we are told, want “my home”, “my land”, and “my women”. They want to crush my very “self”, taking from me the values that give consistency and certainty to “my life”.

We are all very sensitive to this kind of talk, and vulnerable because it touches us at the deepest, innermost self, and can elicit an instinctive, unreasoned reaction.

This is the basic “clash of civilizations” that we face today: either we choose to close ourselves into our personal, tribal, cultural, national or religious identities, rejectin interreaction with the others, or we make a conscious effort to open up to new ways of reciprocal acceptance, tolerance  and collaboration. It is a choice between a civilization of exclusion or a vision of inclusion, based on all that is common to human beings.

Kenya has more than its fair share of bigots and fanatics, but the proof that this is a universal problem is in the fact that the two opposite visions have been clearly summarized by two European intellectuals, both French. They looked at their own society a few decades back, and while  Jean-Paul Sartre in his play No Exit wrote the famous line “L’enfer, c’est les autres”, or “Hell is other people”, the theologian Michel de Certeau wrote: “The other is the one without whom living is no life”.

There is no need for me to say that I agree with de Certeau. My Christian faith teaches me what I have been trying to teach to the youngsters of Riruta, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and in the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus tells me that a positive, loving relationship with the “others” is the only path to reach and see God. How could I ever live without the “others” and the “Other”?

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