Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The last kick

Only severe masochistic tendencies will drive a human person to use "comfortable" in the same sentence with "matatu". Not even the Republic of Rongai's nganyas can be considered comfy. They may have plush interiors, but they are operated along the same mercantilist lines as the Imperial British East African Company did. Their principle objective, each and every one of them, is to separate as many residents of the diaspora from the contents of their wallets, purses and MPesa accounts in the most cut-throat way possible before they fade into obscurity, supplanted by newer and shinier up-and-comers. So it is no surprise that the system that gave rise to Ongata Rongai's nganyas has spawned the 27 kilometre JKIA - James Gichuru Road elevated monstrosity that, so far we can tell, will "encroach" on bits of Nairobi's Uhuru Park.

We are getting an elevated "highway" we don't need. We are getting an elevated toll-road we don't need. We are getting a multi-billion-shilling boondoggle of doubtful economic viability for no better reason other than that the mandarins in charge of transport policy no longer make policy - they simply help well-connected movers and shakers to shake the money tree and move their profits to off-shore tax havens. Or purchase newer and shinier gas-guzzlers. Or run for high public office.

We have known for at least twenty years that more road means more cars - not lesser congestion. We have the data to prove it too. Most data shows that Nairobi's residents are not car people. The majority either walk to work or take public transport. Few Nairobians drive to work - less than thirty per cent. A coherent public policy will prioritise non-motorised transport (bicycles and footpaths) and mass transit systems that combine light rail, buses, yes, matatus, taxicabs and nduthis. Private motorists should be compelled to pay for the privilege of occupying scarce public real estate - on-street parking in the CBD and other high-traffic areas should pinch.

But instead we are getting a road used only by airport users - how many Nairobians work at JKIA or need to get there in a hurry on a daily basis? It is therefore, unsurprising that a system that has eschewed the basic tenets of public policy-making will rope in boosters who think that things like Uhuru Park and Nairobi National Park have no economic value and, therefore, do not deserve governmental protection. 

The proposed elevated highway is proof that we are no longer thinking about the majority of the people. When it comes it housing, "leafy suburbs" have successfully resisted cost-effective high-rise buildings that can accommodate more people and preserve the natural environment at the same time. Without a proactive people-driven public policy on the built environment, in thirty years we shall be demolishing the elevated highway and paving over Muthaiga, Runda, Kitisuru and Spring Valley at the barrel of the metaphorical gun of an exploding population in need of accommodation and clean air. Lavington, Kilimani and Kileleshwa are the harbingers of the change that is coming. The elevated highway is the last kick of a corrupt dying horse. Sooner or later, a restive people will demand, and get, what they need if not what they deserve.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dead letter constitutional principles

Some Kenyans believe that part of the solution lies with amending the Constitution. The proposed popular initiatives reinforce and seek to tap into this public sentiment. However, the economic woes cited are due to poor leadership, weak governance structures and helpless constitutional bodies. In fact, the Constitution is yet to be fully implemented (emphasis mine). - Mugambi Laibuta (Popular initiatives to amend Kenya’s constitution: A misdiagnosis of the problem?)
To my knowledge, no constitution is immune to criticisms of inadequacy. Even brand-new constitutions suffer from political demands that almost always lead to calls for amendment. Kenya's Independence Constitution was amended within one year of Uhuru. The US Bill of Rights is made up entirely of constitutional amendments which were adopted a mere two years after the effective date of the US constitution. Therefore, there is nothing unusual about the demands to amend the Constitution of Kenya a mere nine years since it was promulgated.

Public sentiment in Kenya on matters of public importance tends to be shaped by political activity, especially the activities of leading national politicians. It has been so since the establishment of the republic in 1964. At every critical political turn, national political voices have shaped how Kenyans thought, what they did about it and when they did. Over the past seventeen years, the public policy question du jour has been constitutional reform "that accommodates all stakeholders". And over the past five years, the constitutional lament has been that the "constitution has not been fully implemented". Combined, these two things have shaped and reshaped politics in Kenya since August 2010 in one form or another.

Punguza Mzigo, the Thirdway Alliance proposal for constitutional amendments by popular initiative, is the polar opposite of the received political wisdom of accommodating all stakeholders. It flies in the face of what all leading national politicians have been campaigning for ever since it became clear that Raila Odinga's chances of presidential glory are all but dashed forever. It refuses to acknowledge that while many individuals want a reduced tax burden, increased "development", better employment prospects and peaceful electoral contests, few of them really object to "mtu wetu" being a member of the executive, legislature or judiciary. It is why the only people who murmured disapprovingly about the appointment of Chief Administrative Secretaries were the ones who laboured under the un-Kenyan delusion that "Government must be lean" in order to save public funds and deliver effective public services. They are the ones who constantly remind us that the constitution has not been "fully implemented" as if full implementation is an end in and of itself.

There are many constitutional values and principles that are notable because of the short shrift they have received from the three arms of Government, none more valuable, in my opinion, than meeting the two-thirds gender principle. In the appointment of the Cabinet, the principle has been flouted. The same is true of the Supreme Court, the upper levels of the public service, the management of state corporations and constitutional commissions, and, of course, both Houses of Parliament. Various arguments have been advanced as to why it has not been possible to do so, none of which is persuasive. Punguza Mizigo offers a solution though it is a solution that comes at a heavy price, one which few Kenyans are willing to pay.

Full implementation, in my opinion, remains a mirage so long as the constitutional culture fails to hold people to account, especially leaders in the executive, parliament or the judiciary, when they fail to live up to their constitutional obligation as they try and balance competing political interests. For example, there is no reason why the Chief Justice of Kenya must be a man or why men must form the majority on the Supreme Court. There is no reason why the Cabinet should not be split 50/50 between men and women or why women PSs should only land "soft" departments. Parliament's persistent failure (refusal?) to push through the only constitutional amendment with broad support to raise the representation of women is an indictment of its particular insular retrogressive culture.

There are no easy solutions. Whatever we choose to do to bring all constitutional principles and values to fruition will require great sacrifice. But so long as we believe what the politicians tell us, that they alone have the answers, and that the answers require no pain, full implementation will not happen. Once we recognise this truth, perhaps we can hold all of them to account. Mr Justice Maraga and his Judicial Service Commission, Mr Speaker Muturi and his Parliamentary Service Commission, and H.E. President Kenyatta and his Government have in their hands the power to lead the political changes we need. Their political cowardice is the reason why the two-thirds gender principle is dead letter law today.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Ni uchawi ama nini?

Last month, in an inexplicable act of generosity, my employer decided that it would be a fine idea for me to carry on my official duties in Zanzibar. So, as is wont with these sorts of things, the procurement manager swung into action and secured a return air ticket for yours truly. It would be four days of "work" in one of the more desirable destinations in East Africa and I was prepared to enjoy every second of it. Outbound, I was flying a Dash-8 aircraft operated by Precision Air (which was owned lock, stock and barrel by Kenya Airways). Inbound, it was one of KQ's rather enjoyable Embraers.

Flying, I had forgotten, especially flying with KQ, requires the forbearance of a saint.

I am renown for arriving at the airport before time. Way, way before time. Three hours before. I am not missing my flight because of Nairobi's spectacularly bad traffic. So, kama kawaida, I checked in three hours early, checked in my sanduku, obtained my boarding pass and moseyed on to the departure lounge (Gate 14) and prepared to wait. By now I am so used to the security checks that I don't pay them any mind any more, even though they happen to be the stupidest procedures bar, maybe, the ones at Bagram Air Base. What I didn't know, and what the nice KQ person didn't tell me, was that Dash-8s are small and that there is always a chance your sanduku will not travel in the same flight as you.

Terminal 1-A used to be a wonderful place to wait for your flight when it was new. It is no longer new. It is no longer nice unless you are one of those "priority" passengers or have access to the Business Class or First Class lounges. Those of us who fly Cattle Class must contend with uncomfortable seats, harsh lighting, bad food, and a mysterious smell that seems to pervade the entire building. It is a strong, persistent and nausea-inducing smell. The kind of smell that lingers long after you've escaped the confines of the smelly place.

There was no drama with boarding, even though at one point one of those hi-vis-jacketed KQ people couldn't seem to understand why the plane wasn't parked where it should be and he took a perverse pleasure in yelling at whoever he was yelling at on the phone that "Kama ni kulipa ni wewe utalipa!" The flight was uneventful: bad food, turbulence, a smell, kama kawaida. Landing was no biggie. Customs? Smooth as snot. Baggage claim? Yeah, all of you who were sitting to the right of the plane, your bags are in Nairobi! Or Dar es Salaam. Or lost.

It took me an hour of bugging the bored-looking security guy to find out that you report your missing baggage to that other guy who will fill out a form, take down your accommodation details (if you can even remember them) and arrange for the bags to be delivered wherever you are. Yaani it is so kawaida for Precision/KQ to leave bags behind in Nairobi that the "baggage services" guy has developed a super-thick skin from all the unhappily loud travellers he has had to deal with over the years.

My hotel was marvellous (save for the food and the fact that on the third night, I shit you not, the restaurant caught fire when they were fiddling with the wiring - it happened to be the only night I went in for a meal. It was my last. But the suite was perfect. Large without being cavernous; small without being claustrophobic. And cable TV. Boy did I laugh at the very madnesses of the talking heads of Fox News. Hannity is particularly hilarious.

As in Nairobi, so too in Zanzibar. My flight back was scheduled for 9:00 am. So obviously I was at the airport at 6:00 am. Once more, security, baggage-check and check-in were smooth as greased lightning. 9 came and passed. Then 9:30. Then 10:00. No KQ. No explanation. At 10:30, with the lounge now packed full of sweating travellers, destined for all points of the globe, the KQ rep finally showed up with a bunch of vouchers - for snacks. Then, and only then, did he go into this long-ass soliloquy about a passenger who had been stricken on the KQ plane so that it to had to divert to Mombasa and that the passenger had kicked the bucket and that...he went on and on and nobody cared. I swear if it had been a rugby match and he was playing for the other side, someone would have kneed him in his jewels. The plane eventually arrived at 12:15 pm. Like a Forward Travellers Sacco matatu - without an apology or an explanation.

The worst was yet to come. We landed in Nairobi on time, more or less. We cleared immigration swiftly, more or less. Then we got to baggage claim and the bags were nowhere to be seen. For forty-five minutes we stood there like idiots watching as one mechanic after another entered the hidden places of the conveyor belt and hammered things into place while swearing at each other. Yeah, even the "priority" passengers na wengineo wenye mienendo kama hayo were forced to wait, and wait, and wait. The final humiliation was the single x-ray machine operated by the nice fellow from the Customs Department - for checked in bags, not hand luggage - where another queue of fuming humanity formed. When we finally burst out into the sunlight, it was trending towards 4:00 pm. When the day began, I was going to get  home at 11:00 am.

I don't know how KQ is still in business. It must be some kind of uchawi, I swear, because the shit it is doing these days to its customers defy reason or explanation.

Saturday, October 12, 2019


Eliud Kipchoge has built a legacy that is almost unassailable. He is truly the King of the Marathon, the greatest there has ever been. Kenyans are justifiably proud of him. We admire his discipline, focus, sacrifice and determination. Many of us pour ourselves into our goals with the same sense of purpose and destiny; many of us are hamstrung from the get-go, but we forge on because we have faith in ourselves, our abilities and the vision of our lives.

We can no longer say the same with a straight face about the men and women who sit atop the tower of power - ministers of government have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, or their pants down, or both; ministers of religion have perfected the art of separating Kenyans from the contents of her wallets as well as the love and trust of their families; education administrators are guilty of failing in the basic principle of educating and are no longer in expanding the realms of knowledge because of their race to the bottomline of ever-fatter profits from their "customers". Our faith in a just and proper government has been shattered and now we stand alone to face the future with few positive prospects. And yet, as Mr Kipchoge demonstrates, we can still change the world.

Maybe we are not yet lost. Maybe we can still be inspired to do great things. Maybe we can still rebuild that which has been rendered asunder. Maybe we can seize the future that is rightfully ours. Maybe, just maybe, Mr Kipchoge is not the only one to show us what can be achieved despite the challenges that are strewn across our paths.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Moi's hashtag warriors

"MOI was a serious political adult; fully in charge of the national homestead he headed. He genuinely cared for National Unity, running a Govt largely representative of the face of Kenya. He fully protected our territorial borders. History will judge this man kindly. #MoiDay" - Linus Kaikai
I am part of the generation that came of age during the Nyayo Era. We mouthed the Nyayo Philosophy of "Peace, Love and Unity" and recited the "Loyalty Pledge" (whose words escape me today) with fervour. I quaffed down "Maziwa ya Nyayo" without a care in the world and I performed in the national celebrations of "10 Years of Nyayo Era" with thousands of the members of my age group. The one constant back then was Baba Moi - after all, Voice of Kenya dedicated fully two-thirds of its news broadcast to Baba Moi. He was everywhere, all the time. He was, indeed, a "serious political adult".

Mr Kaikai elides a few details, however, when he declares that "MOI...genuinely cared for National Unity, running a Govt largely representative of the face of Kenya". Take the manner in which Moi was "fully in charge". Along Kenyatta Avenue is Nyayo House and along Loita Street is Nyati House. Both are infamous for the number of Kenyans who passed through their basements, especially those that never saw the light of day. "Wagalla" and "Wajir Airstrip" are names of places that cemented Moi's reputation of being "fully in charge". "Land clashes" and "ethnic cleansing" gathered political currency because Moi was so determined to forge a Government that represented the "face of Kenya" at all costs.

Mr Kaikai, and many of the Kenyans singing Baba Moi's praises, confuse a lack of civil war in the 24 years of Moi's rule with peace. Murders of dissidents and rivals were a small price to pay for peace and stability. Corruption on an industrial scale - whose effects are felt 17 years after Moi left office - was a price worth paying for a Government that reflected the face of Kenya. Territorial integrity guaranteed a crumbling public education and public health systems whose coffins, the Jubilation is nailing the final nails into. Baba Moi's shadow looms long over our collective national fate - the outlook is bleak.

Moi's Government represented the face of Kenya only if the face of Kenya was one characterised by an avarice that was almost comical. To be fair, when Moi said that he was going to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, he did exactly that when it came to land. But this grab-as-much-as-you-can philosophy came at a high cost: millions of landless Kenyans have passed on their hardships down to the third generation with very few escaping the poverty trap Moi's land policies built for their parents and grandparents.

When history writes Moi's obituary, it will only be kind to him if it only states, "He ruled Kenya for twenty-four years" and left it at that. The truth, while "complicated", is not that difficult to recall. The Nyayo Philosophy of "Peace, Love and Unity" was not so much about national unity but about self-preservation at all costs. The footsteps that Moi was following were laid by Kenya's first, and only, president for life. The philosophy called for a massive security apparatus to control what the people said, what they read, what they wrote and what they thought, and when that failed, it exacted punishments that ranged from low-degree harassment to more permanent solutions for which proof has always proven elusive. Linus Kaikai's #MoiDay call to arms is a reminder that though many Kenyans paid a high price for the Nyayo Philosophy, a small cohort became fat off of it.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

I just hope

Before my current bailiwick, I worked for an amazing committee. I was green. I was...obvious. But it was an amazing experience. I got to travel. All over Kenya.  The only places we never visited during my time with them were the troubled bits of Turkana, West Pokot and Wajir.

My first trip was to Kisumu - KisumCity.  My per diem was a pittance - 2,500 only. Because I was an unpaid intern at the time. But Josie and Kate were the kindest they could ever have been - they picked my tab. I still don’t know why. Of course, Makoloo sorted everyone else out on meals and drinks. I have never worked with more generous people since.

We went everywhere. We met so many interesting people. It’s hard to imagine now that that committee laid the foundation for my current post. They taught me so much, especially about duty and service. They taught me to be less me, and I miss them dearly.

I have traveled more since then. Australia. The USA. Rwanda. South Africa. Tanzania. Zanzibar. But all my foreign travels pale in significance to the trips we took to Lamu, Isebania/Sirare, Meru, Kwale, Kitui...all those towns, villages...places that are what they made me. I’d give an arm to relive those years. But life is lived going forward. I can’t wait. I just hope.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Give the SGR a pass?

I haven’t been on the SGR yet. Given the, shall we be generous?, flip-flopping of the Kenya Railways Corporation about food and drink “from outside”, I am not sure that I ever will...but let’s keep hope alive, shall we? I have been on trains before. And planes. And boats. And lots of cars. For long journeys. But I shall always remember my first ride on the Shatabdi Express (well, not really, but it was in India so...)

It was all of thirty-four hours, from Nee Delhi to Pune to Sangli and finally to Kolhapur, where Chattrapati Shivaji has a university named after him. Second Class Sleeper Car. At the height of summer. Eight bunks to the sleeper. Me and Johnson. Riding the rails as Black men in Hindu India.

We had a stash of chapatis that Elizabeth had made for us. Three litres of water each. We shouldn’t have bothered. We rode with this Army captain and his family...wife, son and two daughters. He’d spent time in Dar es Salaam in the eighties. Spoke passable English. Generous to fault the moment he heard we were from Kenya. They shared with us their rotis, aloo gobi, masala chai and the wisdom of the rails.

I remember pulling into Agra Station in the dead of night. An eerie silence in a busy train station. Rushing for the public loos and backing out equally as quickly because of the remarkable stench. I remember cut chai sold in clay kulhas by the tea vendors on the train. I remember the Hijras in their colourful saris demanding - yes, demanding - alms or they would embarrass you till your green to the gills. I remember the midnight ride through the eastern bits of Gujarat when the train slowed down because of the threat of militants attacking the train. And armed guards on the roof, keeping vigil.

The heat was oppressive at first. But Johnson and I had acclimatised to the oppressive heat of South Delhi. Soon enough, we had also acclimatised to the heat in those super-crowded sleeper cars. And the smell. Because it reeked! Of course, our three-litre rations of water - and the chapatis - were spent within the first twelve hours but the Bisleri vendors were always at hand and our rupees went the distance. But Captain Surinder and his family made sure we were well provisioned by the time the journey ended. I still can’t figure out how they packed so much food in such small-looking baggage. Their many kindnesses will stay with me till the day I die.

The last time I travelled properly was to Zanzibar. I hated the journey. I loved the place. I simply hated getting there. Kenya Airways and Precision Airlines made the trip a nightmare. Outbound, they lost my bag. Inbound, the flight was delayed for five hours. The inflight meal was shit. The seats didn’t recline. Legroom was a rumour. Turbulence for the one hour hop was incessant. And when did they stop offering those tiny Coke cans on flights? KQ’s cost-cutting has turned the Pride of Africa into a pale shadow of Air Bujumbura! While I loved Zanzibar, especially Ali my cabbie, I hated getting there. The journey had nothing on the beauty of my first Indian train ride that went on and on and on. If KQ is a reflection of how we treat travellers, and KR is bullying passengers over their pilau and Coca-Cola, maybe I’ll just give the SGR a pass.

When the bough breaks

If given the opportunity, would you throw your hat in the ring and put yourself forward for elective office in Kenya? Would you raise your hand if the chance arose for you to turn around an iconic brand like Uchumi Supermarket or Kenya Airways? If you saw it happening, would you confront your minister of faith when he became a bully, gaslit the congregation about it and threatened spiritual damnation for the naysayers among you?

It isn't easy leading. It isn't easy leading when the people have little faith in leadership of any kind. It is almost damnedly impossible to lead when people have no faith in the institutions that form their communities, whether political corporate, spiritual, academic or social. It takes a Herculean effort to stand in the breach when inspiration is hard to come by because of the cynicism that now pervades everywhere.

Twitter has gifted us the meme and there is something frightening about how easily it is to memify our leaders these days because of their vacuousness. Look at our political classes: they are the typification of memification. They are caricatures; men and women of doubtful repute. They are incorrigibly irredeemable. Seeing what they have become and witnessing what they have failed to achieve, few want to become them. At a personal level, many of us think of ourselves as honest and trustworthy. We don't always lie. We don't always steal. We don't always cheat. When we do, we have handy excuses for it,  it we think of ourselves as decent folk, simply trying to make a life for ourselves and our loved ones.

And because of our self-image, we almost always shun the spotlight regardless of the fame that it may bring. Few of us want the onerous duty of leading, making decisions, championing causes. Those of us who do, those of us who have the urge to serve, almost always do it with a clean heart - in the beginning anyway. But there are among us whose desire for positions of leadership has nothing to do with service but a desire for self-aggrandisement. Their motives are almost always self-serving. They are as plain as the nose on your face.

We have suffered these people for decades. They have lied, cheated and stolen. They have caused civil strife and suborned murder. And they have become very, very wealthy off of the sweat of our brows. They are unapologetic. They are nowadays, suave, urbane and polished. They have silky-smooth tongues. They are Mephistopheles to our Faust, and our bargain with them has led us to this sorry plane. Bank accounts where they are to be had are shrinking. Job prospects for the young, eager and unemployed, are mirages. Home-ownership is a burden that sometimes cripples entire families.

One day the bough will break and the cradle will fall. I shudder to imagine what will happen on that dark day. So should you.

Listen to what Gen Z is saying. Hear them.

Kenyan Gen Z seized the moment that was made for them and threw down the gauntlet at the feet of the Kenyan State. With the memory of the bi...