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Let us teach self-belief to our children

Aug 10, 2003 Success, Sunday Nation

Last week I wrote a mock ‘travel advisory’ for Kenyans travelling to the UK. Baiting the British in this way is great sport, particularly because they are so smug and self-righteous in their dealings with Kenyans of late. But having fun does not really take us anywhere. Every time we find ourselves turning on outsiders, we must also look closely at ourselves. Quite often, we’ll find that we are the architects of our own misfortunes.

Consider first the grim part of my travel advisory: the lamentable way in which visa applicants have been treated at the British High Commission in recent months. It is quite obvious that Kenyans queuing up for a visa have been treated no better than cattle. Would the British have designed such a process for, say, the USA, or Germany? No. It was entirely within the High Commission’s ambit to design an application process for us that was fair and humane in concept and smooth in execution. Until very recently, the Commission simply chose not to do this.

Why should this be, and why do we put up with it? Why do Kenyans still queue up in their hundreds, even after being forced to do it for nights on end and being subjected to bullying guards? Let’s be entirely frank here: many, many of those desperadoes in the queue are bogus applicants, economic refugees in the making. They are looking to run away from Kenya in search of illusory greener pastures. Many others will tell themselves that they have very important reasons for visiting western countries, but often you will find that these reasons include attending graduations or weddings, or just going shopping! Why do we not have the pride and dignity to say ‘enough!’ and simply forgo visits to countries where we are so unwelcome?

The problem is not just poverty. The problem is in our minds. We have convinced ourselves of our inferiority, and are reaping the consequences. We have accepted that our model of life is second-rate, and therefore keep yearning to experience that which we imagine is better. We have succumbed to decades of brainwashing by the west. Our inadequacy is etched onto our brain cells. And now, we are repeating the brainwashing on our own children; we are programming them to be inferior, too.

We saw this quite graphically recently when World Bank boss James Wolfensohn visited us. He was taken to a school in the company of cabinet ministers. There, he was entertained by a troupe of schoolchildren, who performed a well-rehearsed and immaculately choreographed recitation for him. All very nice, except that what they were reciting was a fervent plea: World Bank, IMF, UNICEF, please give us more money! The teachers who taught these children the words, and the ministers who accompanied the dignitary, nodded and beamed their approval. Mr. Wolfensohn, if he was embarrassed, did not show it.

We should be sickened by this. We should feel the humiliation to our very core. We are now teaching our own children, like an organ grinder teaches his monkey, to sit up and beg, cutely and sweetly. Have we no shame at all? This is our message to our children: do as we did before you. Wait for rich foreigners to land on your shores, and then follow them around pleading for funds for this and for that worthy cause. Look pathetic. Play on their consciences. Refer often to the injustices of the past. Threaten them if you must. But all the time, reinforce the damnable mind-set: they have all the money and ideas; we have no way of generating our own.

How can we live with this, and still retain any dignity? Many of you reading this are, I’m sure, confident, competent Kenyans for whom this state of affairs is a constant outrage. Yet, before we become too righteous in our indignation, let us look closely at ourselves. What do we do in our own homes? Many of us find it just too difficult to even teach our children their mother tongues. We aspire to send them to schools where British and American teachers are found. We abandon our wholesome and healthy traditional foods, and teach them the joys of the hamburger and the fizzy drink. We encourage them to dress and speak like rappers and film stars. We force even their grandparents to speak to them in English. We feel pride when they learn the clipped tone of the Englishman or the staccato delivery of the American.

The message we give our children that they are indeed unfortunate to be born African or Indian, but all is not lost: they can learn to imitate the ways of the westerner. They can absorb the culture, receive the education and deploy the economics. We think we are doing the best we can for our children; in fact, we are putting them at a perpetual disadvantage. One day, they will turn out just like our MPs, who cannot even wear African clothes in their own parliament, in their own country, without being mocked and ridiculed!

It need not be this way. The answer, however, is not to return to being ‘native’ and discard aggressively all that is western. Enlightenment about our condition lies in the recognition that all of humanity is one. Achievement has many faces, and we are all its beneficiaries. If America has given us technological advancement, Asia has given us the tools of spiritual contentment. If Europe has shown us how to establish the institutions of governance, Africa has shown us how to live at peace with nature without exploiting it to ruin. If we can see achievement as the attainment of all these excellent things, we may stop the mindless pursuit of mere material wealth. We may just be able to recognise that there are many facets of success, and many different ways of being successful.

All, however, require perseverance, creative thought, tolerance and humility. If there is an education that we must give our children, let it be one that builds these qualities in them. Let us not believe blindly in pre-packaged western solutions to everything. Let us recognise that an obsessive belief in the accumulation of wealth also brings in its train many unfortunate consequences: a smallness of mind; a lack of compassion; a deficit of generosity. And let us remember that no country on this planet has achieved sustained success by merely copying the practices of others. Our success will come from innovation, not imitation; but to innovate, you must have self-belief.

There is a new mood sweeping across this fair land these days. The winds of change are nurturing those tender buds of self-belief. More and more people are seeing that we have all the resources we need, both physical and intellectual. Louder and louder voices can be heard: we do not need to queue up for a life of beggary; we do not need to live the life of the mimic.

Let us learn to look at our own languages, our own cultures, and our own values with new eyes. Let us celebrate them, not be embarrassed by them. If we continue aping, then one thing is clear: we will keep being fed peanuts.

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