AS A data and news explainer site, we at Africapedia try to present good, solid data on African trends, the kind that can stand up to scientific scrutiny.
But we also love to explore hunches and whispers; smoke signals that eschew methodological purity, but give us a hint on the quiet currents that shape our continent.
Language is one of the richest places to search for these whiffs of insight, especially in what Kenyan scholar Keguro Macharia calls political vernaculars – the common words and phrases we use in conversation, often uncritically, because like words in our mother tongue, they are self-evident and self-explanatory.
You don’t need to explain to anyone why a goat is called mbuzi in your vernacular. It just is.
The word “peasant” to describe a rural subsistence farmer is one such political vernacular that as a Kenyan I find very jarring, yet I find my Ugandan friends use it quite casually.
To my Kenyan ears, “peasant” is not interchangeable with “farmer”; peasant has an unpleasant, derogatory sheen to it.
It could be, as my Ugandan friend said, that Kenyans just “like to avoid the language of class struggle.”
So I decided to put that theory to the test, through a totally unscientific survey of the word “peasants” in newspaper articles – purposefully in the plural to reduce the use of the word as an abstract adjective, and focus on its use as a noun.
The Nation Media Group has daily newspapers circulating in both Kenya and Uganda.
A quick online search reveals the word “peasants” appears 575 times on the Kenya-based Daily Nation. Interestingly, a number of the search results on the first page are actually links to stories about Uganda, or by Ugandan writers.
But “peasants” appears 701 times in Uganda’s Daily Monitor.
The chronology of the link results also gives us a hint on how frequently people reach for it as a political vernacular: the top 20 results on the Daily Nation picks up the use of “peasants” all the way back to November 2015.
On the Monitor website, the top 20 results only go back to April 2016, which suggests it is a word that features in the public consciousness more often.
Kenya is the only country in the region – and one of the very few in Africa, barring Malawi and South Africa – that has never had a socialist government or even formally dabbled in a socialist-leaning political ideology.
It means that the vocabulary of revolution has never made it to the Kenyan political consciousness, except among radical nationalists and small group of leftists.
By contrast, peasants (and the mythology of peasant revolution) are beloved by revolutionist movements everywhere, such as Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986.
Peasant is an unpleasant word to my Kenyan ears possibly because of its connotations of class, and thus permanency; this is antithetical to a Kenyan political elite that benefits from denying its privilege.
Being an officially capitalist country means adopting the conservative idea that everyone can be successful in life, you just need to work hard enough.
The unspoken flip side of this capitalist worldview is the idea that people who are successful have made it because they deserve success; poor people are so because they haven’t worked hard enough.
Maintaining this worldview requires denying marginalisation, systemic discrimination – and class.
But there may also be a historical angle to it. Historically, pre-colonial Kenyan societies were classless, decentralised, and led by non-hereditary rulers.
The political elite that has come to power finds the roots of its privilege in the dying years of colonialism. They had the connections and education to seamlessly take the place of the departing colonialists.
The 1950s Mau Mau uprising was largely put down with the help of African collaborators/colonial police, known as “home guards” – who then filled the ranks of the country’s post-independence government.
It is not a coincidence that Kenya is the only country in Africa that banned its liberation movement once coming to power – the Mau Mau remained a proscribed society until 2003, a full forty years after independence.
In a 1963 speech, founding president Jomo Kenyatta memorably said: “We are determined to have independence in peace, and we shall not allow hooligans to rule Kenya… Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”
Supressing the liberators – and so, the ideological idea of the peasant – worked in favour of the new elite, of course.
But Uganda, with its many historical kingdoms and their aristocratic ways, is more comfortable with confronting the idea of class. It was, and continues to be, a political vernacular.