Kenya at 50: Pamoja twasonga mbele – maybe, maybe not

I’ve been back home almost a month now, and reverse culture shock comes in different forms. It’s not all horrible, there are funny moments, like when the woman at the Safaricom unleashes a rehearsed twang. I really enjoyed our conversation, listening to her ‘tarlking like theat’ because only Kenyans fake accents.

Re-entry shock started to hit me when I inevitably started to compare home to the past 2 years away. I couldn’t help compare the cost of living with Pakistan, Pakistan with its many problems is so much cheaper than Kenya. Fine, I lived in a questionable apartment block, and our water was delivered by a bored white donkey every 3 days, but for the stipend that I was earning, I had a pretty good life. That money would go nowhere in Nairobi. Off course there are some things that work for Pakistan – they have huge deposits of CNG (compressed natural gas) make it cheap so that even street food vendors use it instead of makaa, and many cars use CNG too instead of petrol. But having resources does not make something cheap, the price of fuel in Nigeria for example is not cheap, and the 2 countries are comparable when it comes to corruption.


CNG mtungi fueling the truck

CNG mtungi fueling the truck- Karachi 2011

Reverse culture shock also happens in conversations. I met with some friends and we speculated, reminisced, philosophised and talked about apparently crazy past girlfriends (not mine). In that conversation I was also reminded of the reality of Kenyan politics. We talked about the media bill, the ruling family keen to dominate dairy in East Africa, with an interesting steak in media and banking and other not so influential industries. It was just observations, not judgment…maybe…then there was the conversation about the VAT bill, I heard about it from afar, and it really disappointed and alarmed me when it was first proposed. Yes we have a bigger government, and it’s more expensive to run, but surely, there are other ways to finance former vice presidents’ homes than making the people at the bottom of the pyramid pay for it, aren’t there?  I know bread and flour are still exempt but I know they are still unaffordable to someone, say a watchman, who earns 4k a month in NAIROBI. You and I reading this, probably just think it unpleasant, and something being unpleasant isn’t a matter of survival.

Reverse culture shock hit me when I compared the difference between the rich and the poor in Kenya to the UK. That gap, will always exist ANYWHERE in the world, the only difference is in how the poor live. Safety nets are meant to cushion the poor, they are meant to ensure a decent minimum standard of living. Safety nets don’t come cheap though, but neither are proper tax systems. In France for example, everything you earn over a million euros is taxed 50% per annum, that’s bloody painful. But then I consider a French friend who moved there to start his business, he gets  €800 from the state for the time that he won’t have an income.

Driven by our conversation and the re-entry shock, I decided to start a photo-project. I was going to take 50 pictures of 50 Kenyans and their thoughts about Kenya’s 50th Anniversary – or general life. I started the project on a Tuesday, and 8 people I spoke to had nothing positive to say. They spoke of the price of food, of the increased rent they had to pay. Kenya is for the rich, some of them said, poor people are trash to leaders another said.

The conversations honestly depressed naive me because they forcibly reminded me of  the gap between the rich and the poor. It depressed me because they asked me what I was going to do with their views and opinions, and I had nothing to say about that. It depressed me because the people I spoke to were all self-employed and with income, and that there are millions of people far worse off than they claimed to be. It depressed me because citizens of a country shouldn’t be so detached from each others’ reality. It depressed me that because of this detachment, we are indifferent to whatever happens in Garissa or Moyale, but we pay attention to Westgate. Let’s not excuse such indifference as human nature, we can rise  above  human nature.

Statistically though, 10 people is not enough to be depressed about. So, determined to finish the photo-project, I went back on Saturday. This time, literally nobody had time to speak to me, they were too busy making money. The cobbler had 5 people sitting in-line outside his narrow mabati/paper stall, the kinyozi who doubled up his business by charging people’s phones had nothing positive to say, but also mentioned he was too tired as he had just arrived from his first job, the shoe guy had to rush off to deliver someone’s shoes, and left me with the other guy who was too busy trying to serve a customer, the popcorn lady thought ‘hivyo ni vizuri‘ but had no time to speak to me as she was too busy packing popcorn into bags for collection. Only the fruit guy spoke to me, amidst frequent interruption. Business was booming, at least on a Saturday, there was no time for talk. My photo-project suddenly had no direction.

It is not lost on me, that consumerism is increasing alarmingly- at least in Nairobi, and not around the usual spots. Perhaps yet another mall in Westlands is no big deal. But literally everywhere I have been, new malls/shopping centres have cropped up: Kangemi, Donholm, Mlolongo, Ronga, Westlands, Loresho, Karen.  A street I knew in Kawangware is literally about to disappear because the market has expanded. Capitalism says consumer culture makes the world (and economy) go round. Even Naivasha is now set for a 22,000 sq.feet mall (Sarit is 30,000).

It’s always difficult for me to end such reflective posts. It’s difficult because there’s no conclusion, there’s no end of the story, it’s always a work-in-progress. The 1000 words is not enough to change Kenya, but I think it’s realistic to hope that this post also starts a  work-in-progress for you. That if Westgate touched a nerve, that you will remember Kenyans far removed from our reality that face the same terror frequently. I hope that if you are an employer, you will consider paying your workers (that watchie and that housie) an amount that will allow them to appreciate Kenya’s 50 years of independence, I hope that you who can afford private schools for your kids will push in whatever way possible for more effective free primary education, I hope that you entrepreneur, will consider social impact as part of your goal.

Here are the pictures and comments from my incomplete project.

ps your views as comments on this post, highly encouraged

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5 thoughts on “Kenya at 50: Pamoja twasonga mbele – maybe, maybe not

  1. Waithaka says:

    Amen. Think – then – Act

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think you should finish what you started,sometimes digging through the mud and slime you find a gem.In your case it might be a an inspiring story.Everyone needs inspiration especially at the bottom of the pyramid.

  3. Njenga says:

    yeah, this gap is a time bomb. I dont think our enemies lie outside our borders….we are more likely to have an implosion based on class…not ethnic divides. Its scary. It got me thinking of the time you ask a watchman to carry the large paperbags of goodies you bought from Nakumatt, your fellow human being who also desires to have nice things for himself, or the maid who takes careof your children and sees the excesses in our lives. Sad.

  4. waywardfoe says:

    what happens in other countries at other times when economic equality has been this much of an issue? i agree with most of your sentiments, pure capitalism always fails someone and it leads to bad things this much desire with no way to satisfy it. hopefully we will find a way out but there is such a lack of political will since they are already rich that sometimes it seems their hands will have to be forced which is what makes it such a time bomb. on this i don’t even have the beginning of an answer

  5. Merceline Okwara says:

    On your list you should add the filth. Have you noticed how Nairobi is becoming an eyesore?Other towns are following suit.
    Our education system is also kind of messed up.
    The moral fibre that we could once boast of is a thing of the past
    This list could go on. Nevertheless there are a few things that we as Kenyans can be proud of but then again that’s a story fo another day right?
    Good note .brings to lights our frustrations

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