Celebrating East African Writing!

Preoperational irreversibility by Juliet Maruru

I listened with dismay as my boyfriend complained about his employer’s recent ethnocentric favoritism. I pitied him and was deeply saddened by what he was going through. My sympathy soon turned into growing irritation as the man I was planning to spend the rest of my life with, launched into his own oration of the reasons the other tribe was lesser than his own. I would like to imagine that this is just an effect of the recent events in my country, but I know better.

I assume a pose that I hope will alert my man to my displeasure about his tribal rant. He doesn’t notice. I turn to leave the room, but mid-step I pause, as a thought seemingly irrelevant to the situation crosses my mind: Preoperational irreversibility. I hover for a moment lost and a little confused at my own thought processes, and Alan looks up at me from his position kneeling, where he had been looking under his bed trying to find a pair of socks that I am sure will turn up dirty and frustrate him more. I can’t help him, so I walk away and end up in the middle of the hallway, once again staring into space trying to make sense of that one flash of thought.

I am a kindergarten teacher so a large part of my course-work towards my diploma was meant to prepare me to understand development stages in children. My studies have now been fortified by a few months working with two to six-year-old kids. Among the things I have learned is that kids develop in cognitive processes at varying, but generally similar, rates. A four-year-old may or may not understand that two glasses of different shapes may hold the same volume of liquid. However, by the time the same child is eight, he should be able to understand this abstract concept and not sulk when his friend gets some juice in a glass of a different shape than the one he gets. The difficulty he has when he is four is referred to as preoperational irreversibility.

So, I struggle to understand why my mind would bring this concept up while my man is busy recounting the ills the world metes on him. It comes to me just before Alan exclaims with relief when he finally finds a clean pair of socks, in the dirty clothes basket.

Human beings tend to find negative prejudice against them abhorrent, but will likely not even notice when they are displaying negative prejudice towards someone else. Humans will justify their actions or way of thinking by presenting the prejudice they feel in an ‘acceptable’ form. Acceptable being when they can say that they have known people from a certain group who fit the stereotype attributed to that group. Acceptable when they can find another reason to discriminate against someone, other than the fact that that person belongs to a certain group, even if that reason doesn’t quite fit the frame.

Alan is angry because his boss has been exerting a lot of pressure on him, and not recognizing his efforts. Alan is convinced that this is because his boss belongs to the ‘other’ tribe. He says he has noticed that the boss quite openly favors another team member who just happens to belong to the boss’ tribe. He even overheard the boss refer to Alan’s tribe as a “band of pretentious slackers.” Vaguely, I remember Alan saying of my tribe, (yes, we come from different tribes), as a “band of thieving, conniving, materialistic, individualistic somethings.” He was quick to turn to me and say, “Not you, babe. I think you are OK.”

Well, I will not completely disregard my man’s fears. It has been a very difficult time for him lately. And it is likely that the boss may be prejudiced. But could it be that the boss is being influenced by something other than tribe? I want to ask Alan; could it be that your boss is under pressure, too? Last year had been tough. Most companies are under pressure to devise plans that will make up for the loss or lack of profit in the last year.

Or could it be, love forbids, that Alan, himself, has been so influenced by his own tribal prejudice that he has been performing at less than par? That said, his team member from the other tribe could be performing better and earning favor on merit.

I can’t say that. Because even I know that whether it is admitted openly or not, workplaces and most communities in Kenya do function with a lot of bigotry. Alan may indeed be experiencing the negative and very painful side of this. He may have displayed his own bigotry at some other point in time. That doesn’t matter now. What matters is that I am going to go back to him and tell him that I care about him and support him. He has, after all, chosen to be with me even though I come from “another tribe.”

Still, we have to make a decision about how we are going to go forward as a community, as a nation, as Kenyans. Truth, Justice and Reconciliation programs will help to bring out all the murky mess that has been festering inside us all for so long. Perhaps we might learn to forgive each other and live with each other with a measure of civility and tolerance. But we can never forget.

So we need to find some way to live with each other without destroying each other. Worse would be if we decided to create/maintain economic systems that deliberately limit some community groups. These systems now influence workplaces, supported by nepotistic, ethnocentric favoritism. These systems influence all sectors right up to the top. Then they reek their influence all the way down to the village level.

I would think about setting up systems of education that promote integration and tolerance. I would think about setting up legislative systems that offer freedom and opportunity to all Kenyans. I would think of allowing the citizens to learn about the legal and political processes without discrimination on all levels through civic education programs. And if someone heard me, I would hope that we would all allow these systems to help us look at each other with understanding and hope rather than hate and anger.

In the meantime, I can only ask my fellow Kenyans to pause before they launch stereotypical prejudice on someone else, and ask themselves how they would feel if they were offered the same poison they handed out before, only in a different glass.

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Opinions Expressed are those the writer and not necessarily those of Storymoja.

This writer helps her boyfriend to look for his socks sometimes. Most of the time she is too busy blogging at


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