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The folly of making the rich our idols

Sep 28, 2003 Success, Sunday Nation

Why does everyone in Kenya want to be rich? Why do we look at rich men and women and envy them? Why do tycoons and magnates hold us in their thrall? Why do we fall at the feet of the wealthy and hang on their every word? The value that we place on material wealth is exactly what is leading us astray.

It seems to be everyone’s wish: to have more. More clothes, more houses, more cars, more toys. From the man pulling the mkokoteni cart to the manager working at his desk into the night, the clarion call from the soul is the same: get more! Material gain is the credo of our society, the bell that awakens us and takes us to our daily toil.

Because we worship at the altar of wealth, our gods and prophets are the rich. They have already made it. They have what we want. Why not sit at their feet and learn their tricks? Why not follow them around and wait to catch the crumbs of wisdom they throw at us?

The rich are our true leaders, for we do not respect our leaders unless they are rich. Unless a leader has a large farm or two, several mansions, a stake in many companies and a fleet of limousines, he is not worth following. We do not care for impoverished, poorly dressed and landless leaders, no matter how clean their hearts. They are fools. They must be, for they have nothing to show for their lives. But a leader who can point to several hundred head of cattle, a hotel, an insurance firm? Ah, a man of substance!

The balance sheets of our lives contain only shilling and dollar signs. The folly of this way of thinking is immense. Armed with these values, we have ceded leadership to a very dubious breed. For if you could put Kenya’s richest people in one room, and had the tools with which to measure their inner qualities, I wager you would find the following: little or no concern for the world around them; gross levels of venality and avarice; and a frighteningly high incidence of mental disease. We make these people our torchbearers at our peril.

There are two main reasons for this. The first concerns our recent history. Have you ever seen one of those excellent documentaries about life in the oceans? You may have come across the gruesome spectacle that ensues when a large, slow-moving whale is attacked by a school of voracious little sharks. Hundreds of the vicious fish will make systematic attacks on the flesh of the huge whale. The whale is large enough to be unperturbed by the attack of any one shark, but it cannot cope with the sustained assault of hundreds. It gets weaker and weaker. A feeding frenzy ensues, ending in a grotesque bloodbath where the sharks, maddened by their bloodlust, engorge themselves on the flesh of the helpless beast, often to the point of killing themselves from overeating.

From the 1970s to the present day, Kenya’s economy has been like this watery battlefield. Our Treasury was the hulking whale, the greed-crazed men who surrounded it were the rapacious sharks. They made one foray after another into the national coffers. They constructed cunning schemes and elaborate scams. They made the gatekeepers their fellow poachers. They could not be sated; time after time they attacked the helpless beast and brought it down.

This feeding frenzy damaged all of us. It sent our currency plummeting and our interest rates soaring. It took once-healthy businesses to the wall. It created rampant inflation and chronic unemployment. We are still a basket case today. It will take many years of sustained growth for us to recover from this frenzy. The unrestrained greed of a few impoverished the many. The few sit pretty now, atop mountains of wealth that could last several generations. And we, fools that we are, make these avaricious sharks our icons.

The legality of their wealth aside, there is a second reason to be wary of rich men. It is that they are very likely to be mentally unbalanced. Wise men have told us for centuries: the happy man is the man of balance. He that is able to give all the things in his life their rightful importance, and no more, will find fulfilment. He who makes one element an obsession, overwhelming all others, will die unhappy. The message of the sages is clear: to find happiness, we must give importance to all of life’s treasures: family life, friendship, compassion for others, spirituality, health, the joy of nature.

The rich have no time for any of that. They have only one goal in life, and time for only one thing: making more money. They are always busy, always preoccupied. They will talk on their mobile phones late into the night, sealing deals. They will shower their children with ridiculous amounts of money, but will have no time to spend with them teaching them to love. The family is a necessary evil, a distraction from the main task. Nature is a resource to be exploited. Religion is a pretence. Other people are interesting only if they control wealth. A social life is a non-stop, tawdry exhibition in which to display the trappings of wealth.

Why do we make these diseased people our idols? They hold ridiculously extravagant weddings, and we attend them, our mouths agape. They spend hundreds of thousands on a single item of clothing, and we hold it admiringly in our hands and feel the quality, not the irony. They give to charity amounts that are but loose change to them, and we applaud. They collect cars worth tens of millions, and we gaze upon them with naked envy. We see not the disease, only the glittering wealth. How blind have we made ourselves? People who have made a life out of unmitigated gluttony have nothing to teach us. They are, in fact, on the path to self-destruction.

Wealth itself does not corrupt; our attitude to wealth does. There are many rich men and women who view wealth as a blessing, to be used to do good deeds and good works wherever they go. There are many who acquire wealth through honest toil and dedicated development of skills, and remain humble in its possession. There are those that create riches effortlessly, but remain unattached to their seductive lustre. There are very few such people. It is they we would do well to study. It is they who can point us to sustained happiness and well-being as our economy starts to grow again.

To understand the true value of material wealth and its place in the world, we need not look very far. All the wisdom we need has been given to us, time and time again. It is contained in the ancient texts of all the world’s religions. For more on that, see you here next week.

In the meantime, reflect on the statistic that we live in a world where the richest three men have more wealth than the 28 poorest countries.

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