Chinua Achebe’s critically acclaimed memoir, “There was a country”, is a personal reflection on the Nigeria-Biafra war. The father of African literature begins with the popular idiom drawn from an Igbo proverb, “a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body”.
Every seasoned Kenyan social commentator has at least used the phrase once, “When did the rains start beating us?” as a fitting African embodiment for lament over a broken country. Half a century after her independence, Kenya in many respects, resembles the shattered dream of a prosperous Nigeria that Achebe mourns in his powerful memoirs. “There was a country but it is a country no longer”. Kenya’s most basic staple food, ugali is now an overpriced commodity. The price of maize flour has risen to unprecedented levels. It is the talk everywhere I go these days even at funerals.
There are jokes doing the rounds on social media showing how eating ugali has become a status symbol. Some are funny and worthy of a chuckle. However, the laughter is a mask for the anger repressed inside. I am well aware that for many Kenyans, humour is how we cope with the collective trauma that systemic corruption at all levels of government has visited on our personal lives. When things get bad, laughter is good medicine. Chinua Achebe captured the sentiment succinctly in his novel Arrow of God, “When suffering knocks at your door and you say, there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool”.
With a packet of refined white maize retailing above 150 kshs, the Kenyan staple has graduated into a luxury food and a privilege that the masses are struggling to afford. It is no surprise that ugali has become a key election issue and Kenyans are politely reminding their leaders that they cannot eat ‘politics on an empty stomach’. The opposition has latched onto it with popular rhetoric but to the jaded citizens weary of empty talk, politicians are all part of a ruling class and the eager puppets of big business looking out for their own self-interests.
Politics is supposed to have real relevance to the empowerment of people’s lives. We are a country that is now accustomed to operating in a parasitic relationship with its political leadership. The big quest for the Kenyan voter in the coming election is survival rather than change. Where others seek to thrive, all we ask is to survive. So in many respects, we are the architects of our own suffering. Exploitation, like any parasite cannot exist without a compliant host.
The muted protest to the ugali crisis is a good indicator of how apathetic Kenyans have become to their own suffering. The starvation of entire communities in the forgotten North does not even move us anymore.
Maize seems to be racing to the kshs 200 per packet mark and it is taking its toll. Relief we are told, is coming in form of duty free imported food from South America. During the budget speech read in March, National Treasury CS Henry Rotich proposed to zero rate bread and maize whose supply is subject to machinations of unknown food cartels and crisis profiteers angling for a windfall. The government has made a lot of noise about its interventions that are at best a band aid.
We are now pacing restlessly as we anticipate cheap maize from Mexico without a shred of irony. For a cargo ship to travel from Mexico around the Cape of Good Hope to Kenya can take up to 48 days. That Kenya’s main staple can travel 15 000 kms from Mexico and still retail cheaper than locally produced maize is the height of selling out.
In the 80s, Captain Thomas Sankara, the assassinated revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso preached that development must be rooted in fulfilling the basic needs of the people.
“What is imperialism? Look at the food on your plate when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.” Sankara told a simple truth, “He who feeds you, controls you” and in Kenya the food cartels own us.
A government that cannot relate to its people’s basic needs is akin to a greedy parent vomiting over the shoes of its own famished children. Our locally produced food is not even a central factor of our economic strategy in a country where agriculture is the most important economic sector. It is a spectacular failure of imagination for a nation in the Aquarian age.
Therefore Achebe, the grandfather of the African idiom offers us a space for deep historical reflection on the state of our nation in his memoirs on the problem with Nigeria. I find myself struck by a similar sense of frustration as I bear witness to Kenya’s potential squandered by those gifted with the sacred duty of leadership.
A country that cannot feed itself, is no longer a country.
Photo credits: (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
12 thoughts on “When Will The Rains Stop Beating Us?”
I can’t but fully agree with you. Reading your pieces in the Standard inspires me that intellectuals with a candid and ideal viewpoint of issues still exist. Enjoy your Monday Mr. Oyunga Pala.
Thank you Memba. Appreciate the kind the words.
I cry for my beloved country-We deserve the leadership we elect. Let our votes count in August.
Sobering words wish the political class could feel the mood on the ground. I thought the Galana irrigation project was supposed to meet the shortfall in maize.
True OP…if we can not feed oursleves then we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions.
I have always been reading your articles ever since I was in school during the days of The week that was.
Thanks George. That is a long time but I think The Week That Was, was done by Kwendo Opanga. I was doing Mantalk during the same period.
I buy even veges from town to take to my parents in the village. In a place where there is rain 7/12 months. Who bewitched me?
Farming used to be a rudimentary skill, like driving or typing. We need to go back to the basics.
Enjoyed this piece immensely, great piece of writing.
Like you, Pala, I lament our nation’s continued failure to connect quality-of-political-leadership with quality-of-life. I think it is former President Moi who said “Siasa mbaya maisha mbaya”, but he said it while urging people to vote him in, which was in itself siasa mbaya in the worst sense of the phrase. This Mexico-originating maize, which we have since discovered in all likelihood did not come from Mexico, is matched in ridiculousness only by that sugar which were asked to believe came from Uganda yet was actually entering the country via Mombasa. Yet another basic food matter.
It is funny only if you’re not a Kenyan.
Thanks OP for the very well written article. I can actually feel your frustration in the words. As you said, Kenya has so much potential what with the natural resources coupled with the very hardworking and very learned population. The never before seen levels of corruption just shows that we are simply our own worst enemies. When will the rain stop beating us? :'(
very informative. thank you OP