Eunice Songa, a Kenyan medical doctor, died on January 27, 2017, aged 34. Shortly before her passing she had published a long blog post expressing her deepest frustrations about the miserable living conditions of most Kenyans. She attributed the situation to the political apathy of the middle and upper classes who should champion change. Will Kenyans listen to Eunice’s trenchant voice and heed her impassioned call to revolutionary struggle?
Let me take a few minutes of your time.
Kenya is a beautiful place, isn’t it? Opportunities abound for those willing to work hard; the land where you can be born in a small village, work hard and enjoy your lifetime in the lush suburbs of Nairobi.
But we get caught up in that rat race, don’t we? The never-ending pursuit to get a bigger, flatter TV, a smarter phone, a more expensive car and holidays to those exotic destinations we see on our friends’ timelines. While we make sure our children are in elite private school “A”, that our houses are on the right side of the CBD, while we are sipping our 500 shilling mojitos with colleagues at the hottest after-work watering holes in the city, our beloved Kenya, our land of opportunity is crumbling right around us.
We the lucky few in this country, who don’t earn anywhere near a dollar a day, who have running water in our three-bedroom apartments, who can line up for Terrific Tuesdays and fill our bellies with pizza, we have become consumed by distractions. We are distracted by the authenticity of Kim K’s derriere, by the attention seeking empty “debes” on Nairobi Dairies, with odds and bets of Sportpesa, with the ever juicy udaku on Kilimani Mums and with hash-tagging our picture perfect lives on Instagram. But while we have been obsessed with these diversions, we have allowed our country to be governed, dare I say dictated, by a select few. The people we have entrusted with power have decided to treat our beloved Republic as their own personal playground.
Do you middle and upper class Kenyans really know your leaders? Sure we know who our president is, deputy president, governor, senator….those are easy; they are on TV every other day. But do you know what their ideologies are, as men and women or Kenyans or even as leaders? Do you know what issues they stand for and what they fight for? Do you know who your MCA [Member of County Assembly] is? Do you know what an MCA does? Do you know what the job description of your women’s representative is, or what the governor in your county is supposed to do? Have you thought about the devolution we voted for, that was supposed to create county governments to decentralize power and give that power to the people, but instead has only given a good section of our leaders more opportunities to take what they have not earned?
Let us look at the leaders we freely elected. My mind tries to remember a time in my adult life where corruption has been this blatant, this audacious, this frequent and on such a massive scale. Millions, billions, yes that’s Billion with a “B” disappeared seemingly into thin air, in what we like to call scandals. People, that’s your money, that’s my money! P.A.Y.E, V.A.T, road levies, your hard earned salary, money from that chocolate bar you hurriedly pick up at the supermarket, money from that new Toyota you just imported from Japan, money from the cold beers your enjoy at your local nyama joint. We pay tax and you the middle class and the upper class pay the largest part of it. You actually pay so much tax that the Kenya Revenue Authority collected a record Sh1.001 Trillion…yes that’s Trillion with a T, in the financial year 2014/2015. Yes…a trillion shillings.
Yet somehow our potholes get bigger with every rainy season; our biggest national referral hospital has patients with broken limbs sleeping under the bed; our public primary schools are still waiting for laptops that were promised and millions of Kenyans, even in urban areas, have no access to clean running water.
But, hey, we know these problems right? They are plastered across the dailies: “Doctors strike again!” “ 2.5 Bn shillings scandal in Ministry of “take your pick”” “KCSE exams leaked!” “Security at all time low in Kenya!”
What do you really feel when you read those headlines? I won’t lie. I am guilty of it as well. You mumble that this country is going to the dogs; you skim the article to keep informed and have something to say during polite conversation and continue flipping through the newspaper. So when billions of shillings disappear, money that we break our backs to earn, why aren’t we up in arms about it? Why aren’t we outraged, enraged by these scandals? Why isn’t there a fire burning inside of you when you realize the people you put in charge of the well being of your beloved Kenya do not measure up and are in fact draining us of the little we have?
Why is it that countries like Denmark, Canada and Sweden are ranked the least corrupt in the world, while Kenya always seems to make it to the top 20 or top 50 most corrupt, in good company of failed states and dictatorships?
If 2.5 billion dollars went missing in Canada, there would be a strong public outcry with demonstrators demanding answers and those responsible would be swiftly brought to justice. Are the Canadians or the Danes better than Kenyans in anyway? Are they more honest or are they more moral than we are? That’s definitely not the case. They simply hold their leaders to a much higher standard. Because if you decide to take a job as a public servant, your moral character must be incorruptible.
But in Kenya we brush off corruption as another day in Kenyan politics. Or worse still we blame the 40% of Kenyans living on less than a dollar a day. It’s them…the poor who are many, right? They are the ones who vote for these corrupt individuals based on tribal lines or because they were bribed. It’s them, the uneducated masses who elect these rotten leaders.
Why don’t we try and put ourselves in their shoes for just an instant, shall we? Less than a dollar a day, that’s less than 100 bob a day; just try and imagine that. Your KFC 3 piece meal is what they earn in a week to feed a family of four. Mama Mboga [neighbourhood vegetable vendors) and the roast maize guy will go hungry on most days. They share a one-bedroom mabati house in Kibera with their spouse and kids. It’s a house that has no running water or indoor plumbing. Mama Mboga stands for hours in a queue to fill her mtungis with water from the pump in the middle of the plot. When her kids are sick, she stands in line for hours at Mbagathi or Kenyatta National Hospital if she has the matatu fare to get there. Her kids go to the public school squeezing two or three to a desk in tattered uniforms trying to understand what Teacher Grace is saying above a din of 50 other students chatting and giggling. The roast maize guy works 7 days a week, rain or shine, Christmas, Idd, Mashujaa Day, he works to take home that one dollar every day.
So do you think this guy and the millions like him will turn down the 500 or 1000 shillings thrown around during the election season to persuade voters? Or fail to hang on every lie that the corrupt official from his hometown spews at the rallies in his area? In fact that 1000 shillings will feed his family for a month and he will even be able to buy more maize to roast. He lives day by day and the future is a luxury for him and his family. How can you and I blame him for picking corrupt leaders, when all he can think about is how to feed his children? How can we call him backward and part of the uneducated masses that elect rotten apples when he starves so that his children can go to the hospital?
So what about the guy who is a little better off, the one who earns 100 dollars a month like your house-help, the supermarket attendant or even the Kenyan police? They may not be literally starving, but they are living hand to mouth every single month. They give birth in KNH and share the blood stained single bed with two other women because maternity care was made free by the government but the hospital didn’t get more beds. They can’t afford secondary school for their teenagers. They may not be able to make rent this month because Cucu’s arthritis was flaring up again and so they had to send money back home. Then we ask how it is that the policeman asks for a bribe or the public school teacher gives illegal tuition.
Then there’s you and me; we sip our French vanilla lattes on the Art Caffé terrace or cheer our favourite Premier League team while enjoying cold beers at our local neighbourhood joint. Our children in perfectly pressed uniforms get on the school bus. And we complain about the one hour wait at Gertrude’s or Aga Khan because little Kevo has a stuffy nose for the third time this year. We enjoy our weekends at Garden City, T-mall, Sarit Centre and Westgate filling our bellies and our Nakumatt baskets.
So what excuse do WE have to give? We voted too! What’s our excuse for tolerating ineptitude, corruption and outright malevolence in the name of leadership? Our stomachs are full; when we are sick we see a doctor in an hour; our children learn music, ballet and karate in their free time; we spend Easter at the coast and we have people working in our homes at our beck and call…. What’s our excuse?
Why are we, the middle- and upper-class so apathetic when it comes to politics and governance? The point is not to feel guilty about having a good life. I don’t feel bad about it, so why should you? You wake up at the crack of dawn, fight through Nairobi traffic, deal with bills and bosses, deadlines and proposals, loans and losses. Why shouldn’t you enjoy the trappings of success? Those fun idle distractions are necessary but they shouldn’t blind you to what goes on in the real world. That enjoyment and celebration should not make you complacent to issues affecting your country. Many of us say: so what am I supposed to do about it? How can I change what is happening? I don’t have any power!
The first step out of complacency is to give a crap. Put down your caramel mocha latte macchiato, turn off the latest episode of Empire or the Real Basketball Housewives of Hoesville or Game of Thrones, stop scrolling down those funny cat memes on Instagram and actually give a damn. If you don’t care that patients in the biggest referral hospital in East and Central Africa has 26 ICU beds for a population 40 million, then what change can you really bring about? If you don’t care that there are parts of our country where people are literally starving to death or the doctors are still on strike after 2 months or that there are schools without desks or chairs, then how can you change anything?
The second step is to be informed. You cannot attack a problem that you don’t know about or understand. Who can name all the Kardashians but can’t your name the MCA of your area? Who follows Huddah and Vera on social media but couldn’t pull the Principal Secretary of Health or the Environment out of a line up? Don’t be ashamed, that’s a good number of us. Do you know what an MP does? Do you know the difference between the Parliament and the Senate? Do you know the candidates vying for governor of your county? What’s their track record? What are their successes? What are their failures? Do they have scandals attached to their names? Google is your new friend.
We should stop voting for leaders because they are our tribesman, or because they come from a certain region in the country. Start small with your ward, your constituency and find out who are the leaders of the area and the problems affecting where you live. Find out where the candidates in your area stand on the issues that affect you. And then read up on national problems, from those perpetual scandals where a technocrat wanders off with 5 billion shillings and doesn’t see the inside of a court room, to the drought, famine, HIV prevalence, land grabbing, insecurity, gender inequality and illiteracy affecting millions of Kenyans.
The third step is to figure out what you are passionate about. What’s going to be your cause? What is your fight about? This I feel is where I’ve reached in the “get my head out of my rear end” program for middle- and upper-class Kenyans.
I want to inspire and motivate those who are cosily wrapped in the blanket of comfort of “it’s not my fight” of “what can I do?” and tell them to get up! You have a post-secondary education, you have a job and you have internet access…start there! If you want to know why condoms are free in public institutions but disadvantaged girls in your constituency or anywhere in Kenya for that matter don’t go to school because they have no sanitary pads then put your Women’s Rep to task via social media and ask why she and her 46 elected counterparts in almost five years were not able to offer a program of free sanitary pads or the equivalent for girls and women in their counties.
“Kenyans on Twitter/KOT” is a well-known phenomenon; remember CNN’s “Hotbed of Terror”, we even got an apology for that. So “hash tag” the hell out of your cause, until the MCA, the Senator, and the Women’s Rep has no choice but address your issue.
#AskYourGovernor: Why are Nairobi doctors on strike because they haven’t been paid for 6 months?
#AskMCA Ann: Why is the huge, dangerous pothole at the roundabout near X Shopping Centre not been fixed yet, when Y amount was set aside this year by the county to fix roads.
#AskMrPresident: Why haven’t the culprits who stole 2 billion of our hard earned tax money, not been identified and prosecuted?
Now imagine 10,000 hash tags a day, to a 100,000 hash tags a day, our causes, our issues and our problems remain at the forefront, in the conscious minds of everyone. Serious problems won’t become yesterday’s news because each problem has a champion or a group of champions making sure that we all remember that somewhere in our country people are suffering.
This is important because we who can, we who have a lot, can help those who have nothing. We can no longer blame the ones who are broken and down trodden. We can no longer blame the ones who live each day as it comes. We must use our hard earned privilege to fight for them and fight for us. If we had a government that put its people first, there wouldn’t be a need for “their Mbagathi” and “my Nairobi Hospital” or “their matatu” and “my Uber”.
Life isn’t easy, even with our corporate jobs, our side hustles, the nice apartment, trips to Dubai; life is hard. But if you won’t tolerate stealing in your home or where you work, why do we sit back and allow our leaders to take what you break your back to earn and allow them to go scot free? And worse still, spend it and use it to run for even higher political office so they can come back for seconds!
We, the middle- and upper-class pay most of the tax but why don’t we demand quality service? In advanced countries the poor, the middle class and the rich use public transportation and use publicly funded hospitals. Instead of KNH or Mbagathi, we go to Coptic or Metropolitan or MP Shah. Instead of demanding for quality education in our public schools, our kids go to private ones. Instead of raising hell why our water quality is poor, we spend thousands on bottled water. We should demand better use of our taxes.
The last step is to go and do something. You don’t have to be the next Boniface Mwangi dodging tear gas canisters. You just go and make a well-educated, well researched vote. You convince your spouse, your neighbour, your co-worker to go out and make an educated decision. Find an expert in your cause, or a champion who has fought for that cause longer than you have. Ask them what can I do to help, what can I do to leave my mark? We can inspire a generation of “do-ers”. And perhaps from that generation can come leaders who know their people inside and out. Leaders who are compassionate, well informed with realistic ideas for long lasting solutions to our problems.
So it’s true that hash tags, “KOT” and Facebook posts alone won’t solve our problems in a day; but it’s a start. We may not have the courage to march to parliament, or fight riot police and physically protest for a better country, but we can still fight. We can stop being accomplices in the systemic pillaging and destruction of our beloved country. If our leaders fail to perform, we will highlight their shortcomings and be their judge, jury and executioner on Election Day. We are after all the privileged masses; because never has Kenya been more educated, more tech savvy and with more potential than right now. Don’t waste it.
Stand up and be counted in a new revolution. A new Mau Mau movement, not to fight a foreign master who enslaved us, but to fight the inequality, the injustice and oppression that a few Kenyans enforce on us in the name of totalitarian leadership. The new Mau Mau revolution will take our country back from the men and women who fear neither retribution nor repercussions to their actions.
And finally to our dear leaders, who too are part of the middle, upper and their self-made “Upper Upper” class. Consider this your notice. We are tired of impunity, nepotism, the ransacking of our resources, and your indifference to your fellow citizens’ suffering. We say “No more!” We want leaders who put our interests and well-being first and their pockets second. We want leaders who take pride in their positions and use their power to inspire and create rather than trample on and destroy. You are after all civil servants; you work for us. Our taxes pay your salary. And just like any job, you are accountable to your employers. If you want our vote, give us facts and figures and show us your track record. Do not woo us with the usual tribal rhetoric and empty promises of a better tomorrow. Just because I am from your tribe, even your village, does not automatically mean you deserve my vote.
Give us informative political debates where you discuss the issues that affect our country instead of the mudslinging and cock strutting that invades our TV screens on the nightly news. We will not fall for the sweet nothings you preach to us during election season, which you conveniently forget when you get elected.
For the old guard…your time is up. Evolve and mature into the leaders the Kenyan people deserve. If you don’t, it will be at your own peril, because the new Mau Mau revolution is coming and we have our eyes firmly set on the enemy.