Friday, August 08, 2014

The Religion of Development

A version of this article was published in The Star

A month ago, despite having failed to qualify for the biggest party on earth, members of Kenya's hapless national soccer team had a reason to smile. They were, after all, joining the other 32 national squads in Brazil 2014 courtesy of the (hopefully personal) generosity of President Uhuru Kenyatta. The Stars had to settle for a seat in the stands but what the heck! It was still the closest they have ever been to joining the spectacle.

Last weekend, however, that little joyride didn't seem to have done them much good as lowly-ranked Lesotho bundled them out of the 2015 African Nations Cup. Still, painful as it may be, the spectre of Harambee Stars coming from watching the World Cup only to suffer humiliation at home is a useful metaphor for Kenya’s obsession with symbolisms and the terrible realities these symbolisms are employed to mask.

Take “development” for example. What really is it? What do we mean when we speak it? Is it having tall buildings, roads with multiple lanes and standard-gauge railways? For many, this is what it signifies. Mwai Kibaki, till recently, was regularly feted for having presided over the construction of the Thika “SuperHighway” and Kenyatta is busy promising railways, ports and laptops. But is this really, what development is? One would assume that it is about solving problems, about bettering lives. But, in a nation that primarily walks to work, or indeed to anywhere else, one must wonder about the obsession with roads but not walkways in the city. Who are they for?

Now, this is certainly not to say that we do not need roads or railways. But it is meant to question the rationale for them. Throughout much of our history as a nation, we have been treated to herds of white elephants, each one trumpeted under the banner of development and few delivering any tangible benefits to the populace. There is little public discussion about the benefits and costs of “development” and for whose benefit it is carried out. 

So when Governor Alfred Mutua rolls out 70 ambulances, we don’t bother to ask what’s in them or where they’ll be ferrying the patients to. Or why they carried under 4,000 people to hospital in 7 months - which works out, on average, to just one trip per ambulance every 4 days. What are they doing the rest of the time? Is it believable that in a county of over a million people and 264,500 households, only 520 people per month needed ambulance services? And if so, why buy 70?

Similarly, few questions are raised when the government takes a massive loan and employs 5000 foreign workers (in addition to 30,000 locals) to build a railway that the World Bank says we don’t need. Or pledges laptops to kids who have to row across crocodile and hippo-infested rivers or have to risk death on makeshift bridges to get to schools that neither have electricity, nor classrooms, nor basic furniture and where teachers are absent almost half the time.

“Development” has become some sort of religion whose creed we mindlessly regurgitate without ever seriously contemplating its meaning. It is a faith whose promises are never seriously questioned, whose dogmas are sacrosanct and which tolerates no heresy. And like most other blind faiths, it has led us unfailingly down the path of ignorance, poverty and misery.

At independence, like many newly liberated African “nations”, we rushed to acquire the symbols of nationhood and development, assuming the substance would follow. “Fake it till we make it” seemed to be the national ethos. So we got ourselves a flag and an anthem and our President got a limousine and outriders and entourage. We built monuments to the great leaders while the people starved and worshipped the growth of something called the economy and Gross Domestic Product even as that produce was stolen and its producers impoverished. 

And so we have carried on to this day. It is why our politicians fight for the right to be called “Your Excellency” or to sport a flag on their car. Why the governor of the poorest county in the republic thinks it a good idea to spend Kshs 115 million on his mansion and another Kshs 50million on “entertainment” while his subjects starve. Why the government spends Kshs 437 million on traffic lights and cameras that don’t appear to work. It is all about the symbols and not the substance.

Another example of how the superficial has pervaded our thinking is the reluctance to even question the sources of the fabulous wealth our political and business elites love to flaunt. When the media last week reported on the sale of a house for over half a billion (yes, billion with a “b”), there was little mention of the reasons for the skyrocketing property prices in the capital which have made the idea of owning a home a distant dream for most.

Few journalists bother to discuss the fact that our country is quietly turning itself into a major money laundering centre, that over the last decade, according to Global Financial Integrity, a US-based financial watchdog, “the amount of illicit money entering Kenya from faulty trade invoicing, crime, corruption and shady business activities has increased more than five-fold in a decade to equal roughly 8 percent of Kenya’s economy”. We prefer to hush up the fact that many of the people either holding the levers of power, or competing for the privilege, as well as their friends and relatives, have been implicated in the illegal activities like wildlife poaching, charcoal trading and narcotics which are not only flooding the country with dirty money, but also filling up the coffers of the Al Shabaab terror group which is responsible for the murders of hundreds of Kenyans.

We demonstrate our shallowness when an interview of the President is not taken as an opportunity to seriously challenge him on the specifics of his counter-terrorism strategy, or his mandarins interfering with the land chapter of the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, or his administration’s subversion of Article 143(4) of the constitution that expressly provides for his prosecution. In fact, much of the media nowadays behave like the elite’s Poo-Pourri, allowing them to take a dump on us and still leave the place smelling of roses.

Like the Harambee Stars, we are discovering that pretending to eat at the cool kids’ table will only get us so far. When we refuse to do the real work of thinking through and questioning what our governments tell us, when we allow our rulers to replace policy with politics and our journalists to pretend public interest is the same thing as what the public is interested in, then we are, inevitably, setting ourselves up for tragedy.

However, last week did also bring a small ray of hope. Julius Yego, who taught himself to throw the javelin by watching YouTube videos, became the first Kenyan athlete to win a Commonwealth title in a non-track event. Yego’s win demonstrated what is possible when we put in the work. When we stop faking it and actually get down to the business of making it.


kaluki said...

insightful read.....very

Anonymous said...

thought provoking!

Unknown said...


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