The Kenyan Way

Posted on September 27, 2011

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I have been a resident of Kenya for less than a week, and already the distinctions and anomalies of Kenyan life are beginning to come home to me. It immediately strikes me as remarkable that anything at all can get done here. Yet somehow everyone seems to muddle through and tasks are completed, though perhaps not at the level that we would expect them to be in the west.

One obstacle to a productive work and social environment is the Kenyan tendency to say “yes” to everything, regardless of the truth. When a Kenyan is asked if they have finished a job, they are liable to say “yes” when they mean “no”. It does not stop there. Ask a Kenyan if a certain landmark is on the left, and chances are they will answer in the affirmative even if the desired destination is clearly on the right. Giving the Kenyan options does not seem to help the situation either. “Do we go left or right up this street?” I heard one person ask this week. “Yes,” was the answer, “Up”.

Kenyan characteristics can also form a social barrier as well as a logistic or business one. Tribalism has always been a key issue in this country, and was perhaps exacerbated by colonialism. Kenya’s largest tribe is the Kikuyu, which accounts for approximately 22% of the population, yet there are numerous others of varying sizes, all of which apparently have varying characteristics. This causes both geographical and social divisions. The woman next to me on my flight into Nairobi assured me with a straight face that I should stay away from Kikuyus, who have a repuation for competency in business and trade, because they “steal anc cheat”. I am sure a Kikuyu would have had something equally pleasant to confide in me about her tribe, the Luo. What is dangerous is that this tribalism also polarises the nation politically, with parties and voters aligning along tribal lines. Under Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta the Kikuyu were well looked-after; it was ‘their turn to eat’, as Kenyans put it. Under his successor Daniel arap Moi his tribe, the Kalenjin, took their turn. Kenya will struggle to develop while tribal differences remain socially and politically enshrined.

Also well established within Kenyan society is Christianity, with almost as few people willing to admit to atheism as homosexuality. The same woman on the plane- a missionary, as it turned out- spent five minutes lecturing on the glory of Jesus, and seemed positively horrifed when I nervously told her that I had yet to find Christ, “at least not yet”. A source tells me that non-believers are considered to be akin to the devil by those lucky enough to have found God, though the missionary’s hate-preaching over Kikuyus would seem to confirm the same source’s next point, that though rites of religion are deeply embedded within Kenya, godly actions certainly are not. For all the religious fervour, Kenyans cheat and hurt each other to a huge extent. Perhaps we are lucky in the UK, where crimes against fellow human beings are relatively low in spite of the fact that few take part in organised religion.

Yet it must be said that it is not only these Kenyan characteristics that have held the country back. NGOs and other governments have been involved in the country for decades, with little evident progression. As Michela Wrong states in her excellent book It’s Our Turn To Eat, governments have been guilty of continuing to supply vast amounts of aid to Kenya even though it was self-evident that ministers in various governments, primarily that of Moi but also the more recent Kibaki administrations, were siphoning off money for themselves, known as ‘graft’ in Kenya. Governments routinely made promises in order to obtain aid and then went back on their word. Caught up in slogans like ‘Make Poverty History’, western governments have been willingly blind to the fact that most of this money was not benefitting the Kenyan people. The NGOs have been little better, and most observers in the country are cynical as to their achievements. After decades of minimal achievements, many organisations now appear satisfied to write reports suggesting Africa is beyone help while maintaining the comfortable existence of their workers throughout the continent. My source recounts with wide-eyed amazement one story from a few months back, when a prominent NGO invited journalists to the plush Lord Erroll restaurant in Nairobi, where dishes include Norwegian Salmon and Ostrich Tournedos, to debate the issue of ‘food security’. Having skipped this heavy serving of irony, the organisation in question was presumably ignorant of the reputation of Lord Erroll himself, a hard-drinking adulterer who accumulated great debts, cheated his wife out of her money, joined Mosley’s NUF and was later murdered. If Kenyans are to overcome their own problems, they will surely need better examples to follow than this.

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