Guest Post: If You Choose To Pray, Pray Right.

Words: Rev. Canon Francis Omondi

Who can refute that Kenya is standing in the need of prayer?

Not that routine, liturgical prayer “of God guide our president. And give him your wisdoms and justice”, chanted in churches every Sunday though with some variations. We must prod for Divine intervention in our catastrophes: brought to us by our own hands, or visited on us by nature.

Time For A Thievery Guild

My mother used to say. Thieves are manner-less. In her long life, she had witnessed several audacious acts of petty thievery.  When the young men started to get restless, old ladies could not sleep properly. Rural village life, with its idyllic charm, was balanced out by its challenges. Poverty and its three ugly sisters, depression, disease and death.

During the ‘hungry days, in mid-season when food became scarce, the boys would scavenge through homesteads at night. They rarely broke into houses and avoided homesteads with well-fed mongrels. In the dead of the night, they would sneak into compounds that had been surveyed during the day, to rummage for stuff of value.

Water buckets, clothes on the line, jikos and the odd wheelbarrow. They preferred quick get-a-ways and kept identities hidden. The stolen items were exchanged for petty cash that was promptly converted into a harsh drink. It was cheaper to get high than to fill a belly with food.

Mother said, that they were not real thieves. They were just hungry. Real thieves, are manner-less. They are not afraid to show their faces. They can even cook in your kitchen. They insist on having a conversation and demand to know where everything of value is hidden. Real thieves are never in a hurry and they tend to be very meticulous.

Of Being Hard Up and Declaring your Poverty

hard up manHeadlines of CEO’s declaring their wealth and overnight billionaires popping on my TV screen with dodgy pasts have left me feeling depressed. I understand we are encouraged to celebrate wealthy individuals who have nothing to hide but somethings are best left unsaid. Declaring your financial well being only serves to remind every Kenyan trying to get by of how hard up they truly are.

To be hard up used to bearable. A man bold enough to declare he had no money to speak of was admired for his honesty. To be broke was a normal state of affairs that affected everyone. As normal as falling sick. Lack of money was not viewed as a permanent station. It was simply a passing phase of discomfort that people bore bravely. Not so much these days.

Kenyans are getting into the habit of stubbornly refusing to admit they are hard up. It is akin to the arrogance of public officials who won’t admit to financial impropriety even with overwhelming evidence to show. The declaration of poverty is often met with a chorus of disapproval. Shame! Shame! For that reason, people with no money would rather fake it as this is deemed more honourable than admitting you are broke. I was once called to speak to a group of enthusiastic university students about my ‘flourishing writing career’. The veneration was palpable until I brought up the unnecessary detail of the Volkswagen Beetle I owned and sneers popped up. Many looked visibly disappointed for I had ruined a fantasy. I have since learnt that while prosperity must be shared and celebrated, poverty is a topic one must never broach unless as a precursor to a rags to riches story.

Hard up is a subject that I am authority in. It is a town whose streets I know well. I had early training in meagre salary manoeuvres. Children of parents earning minimum wage work miracles to get their kids through school. In boarding school, I discovered that contrary to Jesus’ pronouncement, a man could live on bread alone. Children’s education was and is still viewed as an investment in many African households. It was instilled in children that the inability to excel in school amounted to economic sabotage. Children are assets and an under performing asset was a waste of money that would have been put to better use.

In the nascent years of employment, I assumed that my lack of money was a direct result of working hard as opposed to smart. Financial coaches claim that smart people invest and make their money work for them while they sleep. Hard working people spend all their money on the necessities of life and feel bad about it. Even so, not all hard up people are equal. There are varying of degrees. At the very top are the cash strapped. The only ones who say, they have run out of money and still keep a tab open. Middle class Kenyans can be classified as the ‘presently broke’, a state of inertia caused by living beyond your means in between salaries. The lower floor is occupied by the ‘ever broke’, those lower class Kenyans getting by on minimum wage. The money never stretches to meet daily obligations despite rigorous budgeting. Finally, spread liberally at the bottom of this hierarchy are the economically disadvantaged living hand to mouth, in economically depressed neighbourhoods better known as ‘Wanjiku’. Wanjiku is a Kenyan euphemism crafted by the civil society to describe the poor masses.

Yet, being broke is a state I would advise everyone to try at least once in their lives. It helps build character and puts things in perspective. One appreciates the value of money and the true worth of their possessions. Poverty is also a good reality check. Nothing puts a strain on friendship or relationships for that matter as poverty. Fair weather friends come to find your company unbearable. You will experience looks of pity and murmurs of disappointment from former school colleagues bemoaning your wasted potential. Labels such as ‘stingy’ are thrown about every time your contribution falls far short of the mark of a substantial harambee donation. The hard up do not have the luxury of being generous. Chinua Achebe called charity the opium of the privileged.

These small miseries of life have broken stronger men. Poverty can make quick work of ones’ reputation and soon there is hardly anyone left to borrow money from. The unemployed teacher loses his sheen as he wrestles with despair and destitution, growing doubtful of his daily prayer regimen.

The problem is not poverty in itself. To be labelled as poor is what many find deflating. If Chris Kirubi woke up with Mike Sonko’s money, he would slip into depression. It is this fear of humiliation that fuels corruption. We have stopped teaching children the value of moderation. That is okay to be contented with what you have. That greed is not good. That you cannot borrow yourself out of debt. Kenya is digging the national debt hole furiously and the tragedy, is the people who get to pay the price for this unchecked greed are the future generation of the perennially hard up masses.

How To Magufulify A Nation Of Professional Idlers

Magufuli push ups

Kenyans have always arrogantly held claim as the torch bearers of East African progress. Our southern neighbour Tanzania was a nation that Kenyans berated for institutionalized lethargy, until, overnight, TZ got magufulified. Hardly a month after his election, the new president John Pombe Magufuli has emerged out of oblivion to global prominence with a simple message, “Hapa ni Kazi Tu”. Kenyans have been left puzzled. How now? Concerned citizens had pondered the question of our self-sanctioned state of underdevelopment for a long time. Analysts to the last man had all claimed that corruption was the ‘cancer’ devastating the country. I submit that corruption is merely the symptom. What really ails our beloved nation is our absolute and total dedication to the art of idleness!

We are a nation of professional idlers. Idleness is a leadership character flaw that permeates the entire populace. A national leader will spend a 5 year term busy at everything else but the work he was elected to do. A public servant given of a 100 day ultimatum to work on a project will go silent to re-emerge on the 102th day with a well bound report, crafted after 5 intense hours on a Sunday night detailing the necessity of a committee of experts to deliberate and correct the defective structures that prevented any conclusive work from getting done. A Kenyan worker will avoid a deadline by finding something else that is more pressing to do because you either have time or a deadline but you cannot have both.

Kenyans are naturally talented in idleness which must not be mistaken for laziness. It is simply not possible to embrace idleness unless one has plenty of work to do. To laze around requires no talent. We are not a nation of bums who loiter about aimlessly, kicking up dust, with our hands thrust deep into our pockets. In fact, to the average outsider, Kenyans appear incredibly busy. Nonetheless, we confuse appearing busy and getting work done as the same thing. Kenyans do not merely waste time because any average person can do that without too much effort. What makes idleness a special endowment is our ability to craft elaborate schemes, which require serious thought and planning to side-step all necessary work. Corruption is merely a convoluted way of evading elected work to take care of other pressing priorities.

When one requests a Kenyan governor to fill a pothole, the easy task would be to send off a lorry with bitumen to seal the hole. But a Kenyan governor would start with a seminar of stakeholders to deliberate on the issue where a joint feasibility study and investor conference would be proposed but only after a bench marking mission that takes his delegation on a round tour through Asia, Europe and America to return with a beautifully bound proposal that reads, “The solution to potholes, is an underground rail system and several investors have expressed interest”.

As a man of letters, I can speak at great length about idleness for it pretty much defines a great part of my ‘contemplation hours’. Doing other menial work to avoid creative work is an acquired skill many an artist typify. If I could write as often as I thought, planned and talked about writing, my career would have surely have panned out differently.

But idling is an incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling pursuit when one has plenty of work to do. Nothing epitomizes idleness better than an overpaid elected official who embarks on a strenuous campaign schedule pleading with voters to give them an opportunity to work for them only to spend the next five years after winning the election avoiding getting any meaningful work. When Pope Francis visited our country, the great debate was not over the Pontiff’s ability to cajole the country’s leadership towards correctness. The burning issue over the Pope’s visit was whether a public holiday would be declared, presenting a perfect opportunity, smack in the middle of a busy week to exercise our god given talent for idleness.

Like smokers who never miss an opportunity “to step out for a quick puff”, Kenyans can be incredibly creative in the art of wasting time. The internet is the idlers’ workshop and there is no great incentive for appearing to be busy than a google search box or a social media notification. In offices all over the country, Facebooking has evolved into such a concerted distraction where gifted idlers congregate to avoid making any effort at real work. The other idling zone is traffic jams, where Kenyans derive absolute pleasure admiring stationary vehicles.

It is plainly obvious that we are a nation of idlers. Instead of taxing our minds with endless debates on how to rid the country of corruption, appearing busy pondering over a problem we have no intention of solving, I would suggest, we stop the fretting, take a deep breath and ask, “What Would Magufuli Do?”

2017 And Other Local Diseases

There are three opening lines to a bad joke.

A crocodile walks into a bar. A two men were walking down the street when they spot a penguin. I am running for President.

The problem with the third joke is that political jokes get elected and it is usually no laughing matter after that. Every Kenyan looks at Donald Trump and pities Americans. Elections are a bag full of surprises. The pitch for 2017 Kenyan General election is getting revved up and 2017 references are starting to make conversations in the pub very trying. Nothing as depressing as getting stuck in bar on an El Nino evening with a patriotic Kenyan whose passionate political analysis is drawn from three Facebook posts. With the big boys and girls shifting attention to political survival, ordinary Kenyans can only be troubled about the future for good reason.

You can tell election campaign season is here. Political talking heads are popping up at public rallies around the country hurling insults across the divide in back and forth fashion. What did one politician say to the other “I abuse you this week, you ‘twanga me’ next week, in between prayer rallies for our sponsors, we can keep the public fixated on our interests through to 2017”.

From my wary corner, I stare at the revolving news cycle and marvel at the scandals still coming through, to borrow a phrase from the JKL show, “Thick and fast”. Names are aired in public, records paraded and summarily forgotten in pursuit of the next trending corruption headline. Overnight, connected men and women in the political class, of previously modest means are enjoying boom season. Organized greed has become a major element of government business as there are no consequences for looting public coffers.

Politicians and their functionaries are banging on the billionaire club door. Corruption is so rampant that it is not a scandal worth fretting about if it is not in the billion shilling range. Auditor General Edward Ouko recently stated that up to 500billion of public funds were unaccounted for and you did not need to be a political scientist to spot the tell-tale signs of organized greed.

Organized greed is a sophisticated operation. When election deception begins all the country’s current problems are deferred to the future where the promise of change resides. Political rivalry starts to get very shallow, partisan and hypocritical during the campaign season as all pretence at decorum is thrown out the window. Political loyalties are realigned to the usual tribal arithmetic calculations and sworn enemies make up. Personal interest and survival before country. The ‘dirty’ money starts trickling down to the masses from the political benefactors and the prospective candidates lined up to give the illusion of choice. They throw money around to entice potential voters like rice at a wedding. As the elections draw nearer, politicians get progressively chummy. Six months to D-Day everyone will be kissing babies and attending funerals. Western governments, development partners, friends of Kenya and the self-appointed custodians of human rights and democracy will be heard urging Kenyans to maintain peace and order so as not to mess up with their sunshine and scare away tourists and investors.

The public relations spins will be about progressive national policies but the first consideration of leadership is still tribe. Political ideology died a still birth in this country. All we have now is the cult of personality and the disposable mob. In the case of willing buyer, willing seller, the voters mortgage their future to the highest bidder. People should know better but in our politics familiarity breeds votes.

 Elections in Kenya are becoming a game of chance. A sick twist of Russian roulette meets Stockholm syndrome. Election choices have been reduced to electing the devil you know. The lesser of the two evils. Outsiders are what voters think they want but in truth retaining the status quo feels more familiar and comforting.

In the end the verdict is never really in your hands. It was Joseph Stalin who once said, the people who cast votes decide nothing. It is the people who count the votes that decide everything.

This is the recurring national disease that occurs at all levels of political leadership and aptly diagnosed by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in the book “His Philosophy and Beliefs” compiled by the late Prof. H. Odera Oruka in 1992.

“People who are victims of seeing power as an end in itself wish to grab power but once they are in power they see their goal as fulfilled. They believe that the mere possession of power is an achievement which no other duty can equal. And so once in power they forget about the people, the masses who elected them”.

It is a frustrating state when short sighted politicians expend all their energy in winning elections. Hope of change varnishes into thin air to be replaced by a familiar sense of vulnerability that has been the curse of our generation. Perhaps, it is time to pay heed to the old saying.

If we keep doing things the same way, we are only going to keep getting the same results.