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Transformation comes from individuals

Feb 06, 2005 Success, Sunday Nation

We are all getting very excited again. Kanu’s elections, political realignments in Narc, shifting alliances, third forces…Kenya is abuzz again, just like in 2002. The air is filled with new possibilities. Can Uhuru Kenyatta now revamp and revitalise Kanu again? Can there be an emphatic change of guard, and will the youngsters finally make their mark? Will Kanu now reflect the needs of the new generation, and does it therefore deserve to win in 2007? Equally: will Narc realignments yield a new dispensation? Does a Charity-Raila-Kombo sound like a winner? Will someone now reflect truly the needs of the common man and eradicate poverty? Do all these changes mean that the “right” leaders are finally making their way to the forefront? Is there hope again for Kenya?

Whatever you put in that pipe you’re smoking, fellow Kenyans, is not good for you. It’s making you hallucinate. You are in the grip of a pre-euphoric condition. You are starting to float in the clouds again. The crash back to solid earth will be as painful as it was last time. This time you may do yourself some permanent damage if you’re not careful.

Our interest in political developments is truly amazing. The media are not wrong when they give blanket coverage to politics – it’s what the people want, after all. We take interest in the most insignificant utterances, the most arcane plots. So when a major election happens, we are all mesmerised. Why is it all so important to us? It can only be because we still believe that leaders will enable the transformation of our crumbling society. We still think that the people at the top will ultimately chart the way, and that all we have to do is follow them. Experience counts for nothing in this view. Sworn enemies can unite for the sake of the country. Looters can become reformers. Pigs can fly.

The thinker and philosopher J. Krishnamurti had some important things to say on the subject of transformation of society. To understand this man, you need to know that he himself was once hailed as a messiah and groomed to become a World Teacher by an international organisation. Remarkably, he renounced this role and the organisation that had trained and nurtured him, declaring famously that “truth is a pathless land”, and that leaders, ideologies and organisations are mere illusions. Transformation can only come from the individual. It is only when the individual has a complete change of heart that society can advance. “Truth cannot be brought down”, he said, “Rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley.”

His fundamental point is this: do not put your faith in teachers and books, in organisations and dogma, in ideologies and conferences. Focus only on yourself. If you can cleanse yourself without recourse to the ideas of others, only then can society have a chance to transform itself, for society is nothing other than a set of relationships between individuals. His words: “self-knowledge is the only foundation on which we can build. Before we can build, before we can transform, before we can condemn or destroy, we must know that which we are. If we are petty, jealous, vain, greedy – that is what we create about us, that is the society in which we live.”

We all like to think of ourselves as somehow above the fray, spotless white lotus flowers sitting on the mud and filth of a debased society but miraculously untainted by it. We have good values, good intentions and good actions; they somehow don’t. “They” are the majority in society: warped leaders and misguided followers who are jointly responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. If only “they” would see sense and reform themselves, everything would be all right. That is why we keep hoping for a New Kanu, a reformed Narc, or a surging new force. We cannot see that all these parties and organisations are merely representations of us; until we ourselves change, nothing will. The transformation of the outer cannot take place without inner revolution.

“What you are, the world is”, said Krishnamurti. “This confusion, this misery, did not come into being by itself…you and I have created it in our relationship with each another. What you are within has been projected without…and that constitutes the world. If our relationship is confused, egocentric, narrow, limited, national, we project that and bring chaos into the world.” If our relationships in society were based on love, he argues, there would be order, peace and happiness. Instead our relationships are based on envy, greed, jealousy and anger. This is the basis on which we relate to each other – we want what the other has, and are ready to push, shove, lie, cheat and even kill to get it. Is it any surprise the world is in the state it is?

To rebuild anything, we must rely on a new order, not the old one that led to the collapse in the first place. That new order can only have its source in the hearts and minds of each and every individual. Only then can relationships be transformed; only then can society be reformed. If a house collapses and we call in the same architects and builders to put it up again, somehow hoping that they’ll do a better job this time around, then we deserve what we get. The truth is that we, you and I, must build a better foundation the next time.

This is a difficult thing. Far easier to place your hopes in tried-and-tested leaders and imported ideas (the same ones that brought us where we are). It is a very, very hard process to lay oneself bare and accept that our society reflects our own thoughts and actions. But without that process, true healing and rebuilding cannot begin. We must ask ourselves the hard questions about our values that may yet trigger a transformation. Can we believe in the dignity of every individual, and therefore build basic healthcare and education for all? Can we renounce poverty as a bad and unnecessary thing, and therefore prioritise its eradication? Can we emphasise the basic qualities of hard work and thrift, and therefore construct an economic system that gives incentives and rewards to these virtues? Can we recognise corruption and patronage as evil, and therefore stamp it out? Can we embrace diversity, and therefore build a truly multi-ethnic society? Ask yourself: do you hold these values? Truly? If not, then don’t expect society to be any better.

Far fetched? Utopian? You have more power in your hands than you know. Consider this simple calculation. Imagine that you change yourself and then set an example to just 10 people around you, so that they too transform themselves. Those 10 then each undertake to set an example to 10 others. If the pattern holds, in just 9 steps one billion people will have been affected, in some measure, by positive change. And in just one further step, we will have exceeded the population of the earth.

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