Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Accept nothing but the best

The Rookie Manager (@RookieKE) and the Kenyan Pundit (@kenyanpundit) abhor mediocrity and, so far as I can tell, would not trust the fate of their daughters to quacks, no matter how well-meant the quacks were. They are harbingers of what a society dedicated to the pursuit of excellence should be; they demand the best and they will reward the best when the services are on offer are indeed, the best. But the attitude, their attitude, that we should all emulate is that of demanding excellence, the very best, without apology, especially if that demand is made to a class that consumes so much national treasure and shows so little for it: the public service.

The online edition of the Daily Nation is following up on a story of a man masquerading as a doctor who participated or conducted at least eight surgeries before he was found out by the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board. He is currently being prosecuted though the charges laid against him remain difficult to discern from the coverage of the case because, as it usually is in Kenya, the sensational trumps the informative. We now know that the man scored a mean grade of C - (Minus) when he took his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education and that though he had been admitted to the University of Nairobi, he did not graduate with a degree in medicine. We also know that he has managed to survive for so long and endanger the lives of members of the public with great impunity because few public officials were willing or able to perform their public duties to the highest standard called for by the public trust.

Over the past fifteen years, Kenya has come to learn certain uncomfortable facts about itself, each one more devastating than the last. The first was that some of the heroes of the Second Liberation were not interested in the respect for the rule of law per se; when they challenged Daniel Moi's and KANU's hegemony, they didn't do so believing that his removal from power would usher in a new era of fidelity to the rule of law but their chance at the trough. When they were given a chance to forestall the outcomes of the Anglo-Leasing contracts, they not only doubled down on them, but they expanded them in ways that not even the Moi kleptocracy had anticipated. A hard lesson was learned: even heroes have feet of clay.

The second was that Kenyans' respect for each other, as peoples and as humans, only extended so far. If you were poor and your people were considered generally poor, you received short shrift when it came to public policy, public largesse and public services. The odious Kenyatta-era policy of promoting high potential areas at the expense of the rest of the country was retained; today, it manifests itself in the decision to build a dry port in Naivasha, a town that is not known for major industrial activity but for its flower industry, flamingos and tourist attractions.

The third was the most devastating revelation of all: excellence is notable by its absence in the public service. A hint was given when the University of Nairobi was first mentioned as among the best in Africa. In 2016, it is ranked at 14th position. Yet, by every measure, fewer and fewer enlightened parents wish to send their children to the University of Nairobi, an institution where the likes of Babu Owino have become almost like academic oligarchs, immune to the rules of fair play and incapable of leaving academia to those who wish to read instead using it as a stepping stone to political infamy. The tragedy is how many of our political leaders have encouraged the rise of the likes of Babu Owino and ensured that the spirit that was once responsible for novelists and intellectuals like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Micere Mugo, Grace Ogot, Phoebe Asiyo, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Okot P'Bitek, Ali Mazrui, Taban Loliyong, Wahome Mutahi and Wangari Maathai continues to be stifled and harrassed. 

The Kenyan academy is not the only institution that has come to embrace mediocrity in its every facet. The Kenya Armed Forces, long before they became the Kenya Defence Forces, had always been proud of their record of discipline especially when deployed in Blue Helmet operations for the United Nations. (This is not to say that the deployment of the army in operations in Kenya could be viewed in the same light; Wagalla, West Pokot and Mt Elgon will forever remain blemishes for which no amount of whit-washing will absolve the army.) But ever since the halcyon days of Operation: Linda Nchi, the only thing we now know the KDF for is the same mendacious kleptomania that has thoroughly infected the National Police Service, from the bribes being collected during army recruitment to the dodgy business operations of the top brass while on deployment in South Sudan and Somalia.

This rot has now infected the Kenyan medical profession. How many of you now trust the healthcare system sufficiently to risk being treated by a Kenyan doctor or a doctor who obtained their credentials in Kenya? Some of you can now link the exodus of the ailing high and mighty to the United States (cancer treatment), the United Kingdom (orthopeadic therapies), India (renal surgery) or South Africa (minor maxillofacial surgery) because of the knowledge that the doctors we train here are, in fact, untrained and are likely to cause greater harm than good should they attempt to treat anyone. Now that this mediocrity has been devolved to the counties with the devolution of the art of buck-passing as well, I shudder to think how many academic rejects have managed to obtain the precious post-nominal letters "M.D." when they have neither the intellectual nor academic capacity to even diagnose the common cold.

We demand the best in our homes and, usually, from our spouses, children, parents, siblings and friends. But we don't seem to care when the men and women for whom our taxes have become monopoly money engage in the most egregiously wanton acts of mediocrity and mendacity. We usually laugh it off and declare fatalistically that, "This is Kenya." We must get rid of this attitude. We cannot keep waiting for the Messiah of Excellence to save us from ourselves. In Bob Marley's words, "None but ourselves can free our minds" and it is time we unshackled our minds from the enslaving mindset that our problems are someone elses problems. The time to keep suffering the mediocre should end and we are the only ones who can end it by settling for nothing less than the best. You can start by doing the best for yourself.

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