Monday, September 16, 2019

Well, someone better do something about it.

We need to look for unique combinations of brains and empathy when we choose our leaders, and look beyond the smooth-talking aggressors who have been our undoing. - Why do people keep selecting bad leaders? Sunny Bindra
Let's approach this problem from the other end, sir. How many times do we sit and think about the kinds of leaders we want, what kinds of qualities they should possess, how many of the people we know or are familiar with would make good leaders and, crucially, follow through on choosing them to lead? Be honest, please, because it is almost certain that you and I have thought long and hard about these things without following through. In the abstract, we have the perfect woman or man for the job. When it comes to making the choice, the litany of excuses about why we "went another way" is spectacular.

One of the outcomes of this intellectual/practical dichotomy is that we become frustrated. As a people, we spend goodly amounts of time relitigating the same case: what Kenya needs to do to succeed; what our employers need to do in order to be profitable; what our houses of worship need to do to reclaim the moral high ground; what "government" needs to do to root out impunity and corruption. The list of things we need to do, and the qualities of those we need to do them, and the saviours we believe have those qualities, is long and depressing if only because the list of excuses we have advanced again and again for why things didn't go the way we expected is even longer - and more detailed. If the International Olympics Committee ever admitted excuse-making as a competitive sport, Kenyans would rank up there with marathon gold medalists.

In my opinion, our habit is not inexplicable. It has everything to do with human nature. Meta-problems are never solved at the individual level; meta-problem-makers, on the other hand, have an outsize influence on individual behaviour. Think of it this way: if Mr Bindra suggests that reading fifty books in a year is a worthy goal, we are most likely to believe him and, in many cases, attempt the feat (or pretend to). But if Mr Maundu made the same suggestion, a man about whom little is known, we'd think of it as an interesting proposition and go back to more important things like who Natalie actually is.

The opposite is true as well. If Mr Maundu suggests, whether by word or deed, that it is OK to park his not-yet-existent humongous V8-powered SUV in such a manner as to obstruct a handicaps-only parking bay, the frothing-at-the-mouth members of the Cast-The-First-Stone Association, #KOT Chapter, would pull out all the stops to name-and-shame. But if an elected or nominated member of one of Kenya's less-than-august legislative chambers does so, and finds a persuasive or, as is often the case, a not-so-persuasive reason why it is OK for her to do so, there will be one or two desultory squeaks from the fair-play rule-of-law true believers. But for the rest of us we will think of the legislator as a boor and "Someone better do something about it" and go back to our mission to track down Natalie and ask her if she called someone a pejorative word.

When personal responsibility lies on all of us, then it lies on none of us. We have found comfort in saying, "We should..." because it has proven much harder to say "I shall..." We have become our own alibis for our inaction. It is always someone else's problem. It is why ministers of government and ministers of faith, and all the other leadership classes in-between, have become insurmountable challenges, year in, year out. It is easier to point at my neighbour and accuse him of electing the Worst Person to govern. It exculpates me from responsibility. It absolves me of my civic sin of going-along-to-get-along. I will never accuse myself. Ever. Neither will you. Until I - and that means you too - can look in the mirror and admit that I haven't changed, that I have refused to change, that I know I must change, and that even if I stand alone I am doing the right thing - until that day, it is almost certain that a year from now, when Mr Bindra rouses himself to think on this matter, he will right the same exact piece. New words, maybe. But exactly the same.

I know what I shall do. And I know what I shall not do. The question is obvious, then, isn't it?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

How rude!

"I'll know it when I see it." So said an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court when ruling on a case that involved pornography and obscenity. The same is true for the most of us when it comes to the question of whether or not someone is being rude when the rudeness is not overt. Body language. Gestures. Facial tics. Intonation. Context. Nine times out of ten, our instincts are correct. It makes for fascinating interactions, right?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


A girl killed herself yesterday. She was a student. She was humiliated by her teacher. Her teacher humiliated her for having her period and not having a pad. I don't know what kind of world it is where teachers are gratuitously cruel like this. It would have cost the teacher nothing to be supportive and offer to help the girl find clean clothes and a pad. It would have cost the teacher nothing at all. But that teacher is part of a system that sees children as the enemy, to be controlled with bullying, coercion, emotional manipulation and violence. Yet, the future of the nation, as the political classes repeatedly remind us, includes children who need us more than ever to nurture, encourage, support and protect in ever greater and deeper ways. When we fail basic empathy tests it is almost certain that the children we brutalise will one day come after us with pitchforks. Then we will truly be sorry.