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Kenya at 40: let us celebrate with maturity

When I first heard of the government’s plans to celebrate 40 years of independence by indulging in 12 days of pomp and pageantry, I reacted as most of you did: with outrage.

Celebrate what? What does the government think we have to show for our 40 years of self-determination? Are we celebrating the fact that we have moved not an inch since independence in raising the living standards of the average Kenyan, while enriching 20 or so families beyond imagination?

Maybe we can commemorate our success in managing our natural resources? That we have fouled our waters and decimated our wildlife, the gifts that divinity granted us? That we have used our 40 years to denude our forests down to a horrifying 1.7 per cent of forest cover – a mere fig leaf with which to hide our nakedness?

Or shall we perhaps fete our leaders? That unique breed that purports to stand up for the common Kenyan when its only interest is self-aggrandisement and personal economic gain? Should we celebrate our good fortune in having leaders who divide their time equally between political scheming and rabble rousing, with not a minute left over for real work? Who have kept this nation dependent on handouts from foreigners even as a forty-year-old?

We are now told that the government intends to spend an astonishing Shs 100 million on this celebration. All because our leaders want to gain political mileage by enjoining us in empty show and ceremony. And that too from a fund meant for national emergencies! It is easy to feel anger. We are not fools, and should not accept being treated as such.

Picture this: you are walking along, minding your own business, when some ragged fellow accosts you with a hard-luck tale: starving children, sick mother, etc. Moved, you dig deep and give him all you have in your pocket. After an hour, you stroll back to find the same fellow using your money to host a rumbustious party: buying rounds and toasting his own achievements! What would you feel about the ingrate? What will our donors feel about us?

But wait a minute, wait a minute. Are anger, cynicism and outrage all we have left? Can all our achievements as a nation really be summarised in the vitriolic paragraphs above? Can we not look at ourselves with a clear eye and a positive heart, and think about what we can really applaud after 40 years? Of course, we can, and shall. For my part, I have thought long and hard, and have a form of celebration to suggest. I recommend 4 days of festivity to mark our first 40 years. Read on.

On the first day, we will celebrate our diversity. We have scores of ethnic and tribal groups in this land. We are a nation of migrants: the Cushitic groups who came here from the fifteenth century onwards; the Nilotics who drifted in during the seventeenth century; the Bantu who came in from the Congo region, mostly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; all the way to the Asians who sailed in at the close of the nineteenth century; and the Europeans who began settling here in the early twentieth.

By and large, this vast, multi-coloured, multi-skilled community has lived in harmony and mutual acceptance. On the first day of our celebration, we will pay homage to the strength that comes from this diversity. We will recognise that it is biodiversity that gives Planet Earth its resilience, that a multiplicity of species improves the chances of survival. We will recognise that the world’s most successful and vibrant economy, America, is founded on diversity: its colourful mosaic of peoples has given richness and variety to its national development.

So on that first day, we will commemorate our diversity and appreciate our differences. We will all go to a place of worship or community centre that is not our own, and will sit in silent appreciation of the customs and rituals of our brethren. We will shake hands and make new friends. We will understand the fact that all tribes, races and religions have a place in Kenya and a valuable role to play.

On the second day of festivity, we will celebrate the spirit of giving, the generosity and concern for others that is so deeply embedded in us as a nation. The spirit of harambee, before it was hijacked by politicians, came from deep within us. It is a national trait. The Kenyan spirit of pulling together is self-evident. It is what has seen us through the most turbulent periods in our history. It is something to treasure and to cherish.

On that day, we will each contribute to the welfare of others. We will pick an initiative in which we have no personal material interest, and will offer our time, effort, or resources to make it a success. It may involve planting a tree, sponsoring a child or cleaning a slum. It matters not what it is. What matters is that we will extend a helping hand to complete strangers, and be richer for it.

On the third day, we will celebrate the spirit of entrepreneurship that can be found in every corner of the land. Kenyans do not wait for the government to sort them out (if they did, they would be extinct by now!); they raise capital, plant crops for sale, open a kiosk, learn a trade. That instinct is at the heart of our resilience as a people. It has kept us going even as our rulers have plundered our coffers. If harnessed properly, it will transform our nation and take us to a different economic league.

On that third day, we will devote all our purchases to the informal sector. We will buy everything we can from the little people who offer modest products and services in ramshackle settings. We will offer them our custom and commend their initiative. We will not worry about whether they have the correct licenses to trade or title to the land on which they operate. We will pray that our leaders will have the foresight to organise these entrepreneurs and grant them legitimacy in their endeavours.

On the fourth and final day, we will pay homage to the rural Kenyan woman. For it is she that is the engine that powers this country, she that ploughs the land even as she raises the children, she that grows the food and runs the home with prudence and good sense. On that day, we will all give recognition and honour to this unsung heroine. We will do something, no matter how small, to lighten her load. And we will try to focus the attention of our leaders on the projects that will improve her lot: rural roads, water purification, electrification and medical services.

Four days, then, of celebrating that which is truly worthy of commemoration. No feasting, no wasteful expenditure of public funds, no politicians, no self-delusion, no drunken debauchery, no painful hangover.

A very happy fortieth birthday to all Kenyans!

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