When I got back from England, I was relieved to learn that after much delay and yet more uncertainty, a new ‘Grand Coalition Cabinet’ had finally been settled on by the two leaders Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. After much brave talk of ‘pairing down’ the number of Ministers posts to fifteen, it transpires that forty ministers and fifty assistants have been appointed (that is 90 members of Parliament), making it appear to be simply a case of creating well remunerated ‘jobs for the boys’ in order to keep everyone happy. If this is the only peaceful way forward for Kenya then so be it, but the local press coverage have called it a ‘bloated’ cabinet and there is an underlying disappointment over the way things have turned out but that now is the time to buckle down and hope it works. A commentary in yesterday’s Standard was entitled: ‘Cabinet is an anti-climax, but for peace it will suffice.’
Strangely enough, a conversation that I had in England with a very wise old Nigerian taxi driver who collected me from Heathrow and has been resident in the UK for thirty six years, shed some light on perhaps why it would have been so tough for Kibaki and Raila to deliver a ‘lean, clean Cabinet.’ The subject of Kenya came up and I said that it was a lovely place to live, but the recent elections have upset the country deeply. He replied:
‘But everywhere has its problems, every country. I should know because I listen to the news on the radio a lot. What is important is the way you handle it the experiences personally. I think it is very interesting for a person like you to be living in Africa and you can learn a lot if you always keep an open mind.’
‘You see the problem is that the West sees Africa and her problems from a Western point of view. They will not be able to help or understand at all until they learn to see things from the point of view of the African people because the two places are completely different.’
I guess you could interpret looking at Africa from a Western point of view like trying to learn a foreign language by translating words literally from one language to another in the same order. It never works because to learn, you have to forget your own language and lose yourself in the new one, picking up colloquial expressions that make no sense when translated literally.
I said to the taxi driver that perhaps things will get better for Kenya soon and that the Government will sort itself out and free itself from corruption by the time the next generation comes along? Interestingly he said he didn’t think this was likely, in his view a more realistic estimate would be four to six generations from now. He said:
‘Thanks to the social system that the Western Governments have created where financial support is provided for the sick, for pensioners and for those who are unemployed, the state has created a population who are ‘independent’. They do not have to answer to others; children are encouraged to question their parents. You might be poor in the UK but you will never starve, so therefore you have the power to ask questions. In the West, when you become successful you can enjoy it all for yourself as an individual, you don’t have to share because you are ‘independent’. In Africa, people are necessarily ‘dependent’ mainly due to lack of choice being a consequence of extreme poverty and the lack of a Government social system for support. People are not in a position to question.’
‘In Africa, if you are a bread winner it is expected that you will provide for those in your community. Through doing this you gain respect, become a leader and nobody will question you. A lowly member of the family who receives twenty shillings from the breadwinner every day will be loyal and do as they are told as they have no other choice. It is easy to manipulate someone to do something for you when they are hungry, even if their heart tells them that it is wrong. In small communities allegiances become close. If you grow up with someone in Africa you would come to call them ‘father’ or ‘brother’, ‘mother’ or ‘sister’ when you are not literally blood relations and by doing this you are then tied to one another, accepting mutual responsibility. The concept of defining family in a precise way and calling them ‘uncles’ or ‘cousins’ or ‘grandchildren’ is entirely Western and foreign to an African. I even know Western people who visit London and prefer to stay in a hotel, when they have relatives here with large four bedroom houses. An African would always stay with family, no matter what.’
It seems that for an African your success is defined by your ability to provide for to your extended ‘family’ i.e. your family/friends/community. When you are seen to have attained wealth ‘family’ members will approach you for financial help and you are expected to contribute as it is your unquestionable duty. If there is a funeral or wedding to pay for or medical costs to be met, everyone who earns a salary will be expected to chip in without fail, it’s called ‘Harambee’ here in Kenya or ‘pulling together’. This is why it is so impossible for those in lower paid jobs to save money. There are always these tight family circles whose bonds cannot be broken. Similarly, if somebody has helped you reach a position of power or a certain level of success then you must find a way to repay them.
I know this because when I read about young people in local newspapers and magazines, who have excelled in Africa as successful fashion models, air hostesses, doctors or Olympic athletes, they always say that they will use their new found wealth to pay for their siblings’ education or medical treatment for a family member. Meanwhile a fickle Westerner might answer: ‘Good for me! I’d like to buy some designer clothes or a penthouse.’ For an expat, the number of mothers/fathers/brothers and sisters people seem to have can be bewildering and it can also be heartbreaking to loan out money or even give bonuses that will always be entirely swallowed up by the extended family and will never go towards improving the lot of the person you are directly making the payment to.
After this enlightening chat with the taxi driver, I can clearly see why the only choice for the Kenyan leaders was to appoint almost everyone involved in their parties into positions of power, creating new Ministries left, right and centre to accommodate this. To disrespect a supporter would be too difficult in a place where people work as teams in order to survive. The taxi driver agreed that the new middle class Africans are becoming more independent from strong family ties than ever before and more like their contemporaries in the West. ‘But’ he said: ‘the corruption will not go away because those in positions of power are under so much pressure to share out their good fortune and that is the way that things have always been done.’