[I wrote this article in June 1999. Initially titled 'Beggar, my neighbour', it was published by Expression Today issue of July 2000 under the title 'Do you see what I see?' The characters have changes somewhat, but the issues are still very relevant.]
Do you see what I see?
Sister, look yonder into the horizon, where hope once dwelt; what do you see?
I see a country, once a great nation, an erstwhile land of promise, now down on her knees. I see the seat of her government, once the pride of the land, an erstwhile beauty to behold, now a den of thieves.
Den of thieves? What are they stealing?
Bread, bread from the mouths of babes… a mother holds a dying infant; she cannot get medicine from the hospital. It was delivered a month ago – a whole year’s supply, in fact – but only on paper. The money actually ended up in a numbered account belonging to a cabinet minister.
But surely the child’s parents can buy some medicine…
Parent. She is on her own now, at least since last month. Her husband was killed in a road accident in Naivasha – head-on collision as the bus tried to avoid a pot-hole. They say his life might have been spared had money to maintain that road not gone missing.
Is she all alone then?
No, I see her brother. He graduated recently from university and was one of the lucky few; he was able to obtain employment after just eight months.
He ought to do something, then.
The spirit is willing, but the pocket is weak. He was laid off a month ago. He worked for Bata Shoe Company, you see.
Bata? Are you saying that Bata has shut down? Why, when we were growing up we thought that Bata was the only shoe brand in the world. What happened?
The government will tell you it fell on hard economic times. But those in the know say that, together with the entire textile industry, it was overwhelmed by imported second-hand wares whose chief importer is the president’s own son.
Have another look at the horizon, sister. Surely there must be some change now. How is the infant doing?
Doesn’t look too good. But neither does the country. It is bleeding… hemorrhaging in fact. Have you read the papers these last few days? It reads like the roll call of shame. Saitoti and Biwott – 850 million between them; Moi’s son – evaded duty on six luxury cars; Moi’s daughter – forced a parastatal to buy bicycles at exorbitant prices; Wako, Lotodo and a host of other worthies – unworthily stole public land. And this is just a tip of the iceberg.
And where is the big man himself? Can you see him?
Yes, the septuagenarian retired school teacher who has presided over this disaster for 21 years has just returned from witnessing a smooth transfer of power to a new generation by a man whose people would have begged to stay for a little longer. And the teacher has the audacity to say that if he could find someone who could unite the people, he would retire. What pathetic arrogance! You spend a lifetime dividing the people and undermining their democratic institutions and then blame them for not being prepared to go on without you! What utter conceit!
Anything else? Can you see anything else?
It is getting dark now… very dark…. Thick clouds are gathering over the skies….The child dies, the mother cries…darkness falls across the land. The kleptocrats reign supreme… the nation recoils in a whimper…
But why, why can’t the people rise and say ‘enough is enough’?
They don’t know any better. They feel the pain but can’t really point out where it hurts. And if they can, they are so anaesthetized by short-term solutions that they cannot bear the thought of a total overhaul. What’s more they themselves are not ready to pay the price; they want to replace the faces of the tyrants as long as it doesn’t stop them from bribing policemen on the road, buying their passports and drivers licenses, and evading taxes. The men want to continue abusing the women behind closed doors and Matatu operators want to continue mistreating commuters, only threatening to go on strike when their personal interests are threatened. Nor can the people unite because the teacher has so divided them over the years that they no longer regard themselves as belonging to
and as being bound together by their common humanity. ‘It is our turn to eat!’ proclaims one group. ‘Our own must now preside over the lootocracy!’ declares another. Kenya
But did I not hear something about a new constitution?
Yes, but what good will that be if the whole country has become a nation of beggars and thieves? A piece of paper, however well written will not exorcise the ghosts currently haunting this land. In the current climate where all have become so baneful and corrupt, a constitution will merely be a name full of sound and fury but signifying nothing!.
So what are you saying? Surely you are not suggesting that this beloved country be left to remain steeped in the miry clay…
Certainly not. I am merely saying that it needs to do something more drastic than merely adopt a new constitution. Something has to happen to break the inertia. How is it that the same generation that took over the reigns of power 40 years ago is still running the show today? Don’t Kenyan women give birth to daughters and sons anymore? How is it that people approaching their sixties are called ‘young turks’ while those who became ministers and permanent secretaries in their late twenties and early thirties bid them to wait their turn? Why have young people agreed to be relegated to the position of youth-wingers to an old guard that is going blind with age and leading the entire country down the pit?!?
And the opposition? Surely there must be some hope there.
I don’t think so.
is a one party state, whatever else you hear out there. All the so-called opposition parties are extensions of the ruling party even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves. Their membership is drawn from the ruling party’s disgruntled ranks; and they really haven’t had the time or space to develop an alternative agenda for serving the people. In any case, the country is so balkanized into tribal ghettos that the current parties cannot but reflect the country in microcosm. And that cannot be where the answer lies. Kenya
So what do you suggest as the way forward?
That is another story for another day. But
will change. Let’s start from there. It will change. It’s not a question of whether, but when. It is like apartheid in Kenya . The teacher can either choose to be a PW Botha and cling to a fading nightmare, or an FW De Klerk and start managing a smooth transition. What he does now will determine whether that grieving mother wipes her tears away with the garment of revenge or the cloth of reconciliation. And let those who delight in causing so much pain today not delude themselves: Every last inch of stolen land shall be returned to the people. Every last cent stolen from our common chest shall be recovered with interest. Those who delight in killing and maiming our people under the pretext of maintaining law and order shall be called to account. And it matters not who you are today; tomorrow you shall be subject to the people, for the people shall govern… South Africa
Amkeni Ndugu Zetu!
22 June 1999.