Monday, December 08, 2014

The Ukubwa Syndrome

Sunny Bindra made an interesting observation when he visited a parastatal soon after visiting a famous game lodge in the Tsavo. I am surprised that he is surprised at what he found when he visited the state corporation. The phenomenon he observed - the reservation of one the lift exclusively of the Very Very Important People - pervades the public sector. It is the only way, I assure you, that the minions and underlings who earn substantially less than the Very Very Important Person will remember that they are indeed minions and underlings and will pay the required obeisance to that Very Very Important Person with the right kind of fawning, genuflecting and brown-nosing required of them.

It is not just in the allocation of posh corner offices or the designation of most preferred parking slots that this phenomenon is to be seen; take a walk around any sensitive building today, and you will be reminded of the callous disregard for the people our Very Very Important Persons have for us. My newest pet hate is the area around Parliament building and Continental House. So long as you are one of the almost two million pedestrians in Nairobi, there is a rude reminder that your comfort is not the concern of the chauffeur-driven makers of laws and their minions and underlings; you must play a rather daring game of chicken with on-coming traffic because you are no longer permitted to walk anywhere near Parliament's fences - or those of the Continental House. Nor are you permitted to take any photographs of these building where the peoples' representatives sit and deal with weighty and sensitive matters, going by the Very Large Signs in English saying so.

It is also to be seen in the hostility demonstrated by all public building - yes, building can be hostile - that has embedded spikes in its superstructure so that those that are weary cannot sit down to rest. The unlamented former Inspector-General took his hostility for the public to a rather offensive end when he decreed, or turned a blind eye to, to the effective outlawing of the general public from the benches in the sunken car park next to the Reinsurance Plaza building along Taifa Road by generously covering its benches with used motor oil. It was months before the oil wouldn't stain one's clothes when they sat down.

The private sector has gotten in on the act too. Kencom House has managed to grab for itself a security zone in the pedestrian walkway opposite Uchumi House. Uchumi House now will no longer allow one to walk through its famous tunnel. Neither too, it seems, will one be permitted to simply saunter through the Hilton Arcade without encountering officious private security with the courtesies of mafia hitmen.

The walking masses, the poor and the great unwashed are useful for only a few things: getting fleeced and turning out in large numbers to vote at elections and referenda. The rest of the time, they are to be confined on the rougher bits of town, in their hovels in Mathare Valley, Kibera or that geographical zone known as Eastlands. They should make their visits "uptown" brief and unmemorable. They shouldn't linger longer than necessary.

Our men and women who deal with weighty and sensitive matters should not be disturbed. Not by the men and women who serve under them or the people for whom they are in office to begin with. Their comfortable lives should not be disturbed. Rasna Warah points out that we "we have created an architecture of fear by building apartheid cities that are even more menacing than the ones of colonial times." "Ukubwa" in Kenya, is the prevailing ambition of all, whether they are in the public sector or the the private one. 

I look forward to Mr Bindra's prescription for next Sunday. But I wonder if he is a voice in the desert, speaking to himself. We know that ours is an unequal society, that inequality is built in. Some come through depredations that should shock the conscience and just like in George Orwell's Animal Farm, become what they sought to overcome. Are we deluding ourselves to believe that change can come to this society with the kind of men and women making decisions about our fates without truly appreciating the fear they engender? I fear not.

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