Common Sense in Mbembe and Petals of Blood

Reading Achille Mbembe’s “Provisional Notes on the Postcolony”, I was especially intrigued by a few offhand mentions near the beginning to the idea of “common sense,” especially as it relates for Mbembe to laws, customs, and other tools used by the state to oppress and control. As others have pointed out, “common sense” is frequently just “cultural sense,” and I think Mbembe rightly suggests that it can be used by a dominant culture as a weapon towards those it seeks to oppress, whether during colonialism itself, or in the development of various autocratic postcolonial states. Mbembe cites many different examples, mostly from Cameroon, and I think we also see it playing a role in postcolonial Kenya during Petals of Blood. The state, church, school, and other institutions of power can wield common sense like a hammer to beat people into submission, largely by reorienting their understanding of what’s normal, and changing (or disregarding) any sense of justice or proportionality.

As I understood it, to Mbembe the primary defense one has against this “common sense” is through mockery, ribaldry, laughter, and, ultimately, ambiguity – all things the state discourages. However, as he points out, this takes a specific kind of person, a postcolonial figure capable of splintering his or her identity to play different parts in different arenas. What Mbembe doesn’t directly address is what might happen to someone incapable of or unskilled at inhabiting multiple roles, or embracing this ambiguity. I think the answer is probably dehumanization. In other words, a confrontation with the state and ruling party’s malformed “common sense” is actually deeply dehumanizing, without the defense of ridicule or laughter.

It’s this struggle that I see occurring for Munira, Karega, and Wanja in Petals of Blood – namely, their inability to inhabit different roles, to successfully splinter their own identities in order to flourish in a postcolonial world. This lack of fluidity is illustrated nicely in Ilmorog’s pilgrimage to the city in Part 1, a city in which they find themselves immediately lost and preyed upon, lacking the common sense to protect themselves (with Munira, Karega, and Wanja equally as vulnerable as the others). Interestingly, this section also introduces a figure who perhaps illustrates the successful navigation of postcolonialism: the lawyer who saves them. He seems at the time to be living more fruitfully in the city, and (while he doesn’t demonstrate any of Mbembe’s humor) I viewed him as successfully inhabiting these multiple identities. He is even described as such when defending them in court: “And on the day of the trial they witnessed a different face of the lawyer: not the jovial host, not the concerned social analyst but a hard fierce defence lawyer,” (184). Perhaps his abilities come precisely from this, his ability to wear different “faces” in different situations, a skill that Munira, Karega, and Wanja arguably lack.

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