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This high-decibel culture is retarding our progress

“Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?” These words are attributed to Sai Baba, the celebrated saint who lived in Shirdi in India at the turn of the twentieth century.

Today in Kenya, I find myself wondering: would we have any political discourse at all if we forced our politicians to apply these four tests before ever opening their mouths? We are engulfed by a high-decibel cacophony of noise emanating from our leaders. As we struggle to hear ourselves think above this undignified racket, we must ask ourselves: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?

Let’s start with the first test: when was the last time you heard a politician say something kind? Quite the opposite. All we hear is abuse. Is it kind to attack someone on the basis of the colour of his or her skin? Is it kind to compare your opponents to barking dogs? Is it kind to recommend lynching for those who visit your home territory? Yet those are only the milder examples of what we have heard recently. Some of our leaders seem to have no problem with mouthing the sort of obscenities that would disgrace a brothel. We, the voters, have to listen to this nonsense on a daily basis alongside our children, and explain why these people are appointed to lead a country.

The second test: is any of it necessary? It sometimes seems that no fewer than half-a-dozen press conferences are called every single day by politicians. To say what? Usually, one of the following: to refute what an opponent said in a similar conference the previous day, and to attack him or her in even more vociferous terms; to claim that there is a plot to kill or destroy one’s tribesmen; to announce a new political partnership; to announce the premature death of the last such partnership and abuse one’s former partners for being devious and unreliable; to question the latest high-profile sacking of a fellow tribesman; to question why the latest high-profile appointment was not given to a fellow tribesman; and to hurl abuse at all and sundry.

Dear God above, can any of this be termed necessary? Necessary to feed the egos of these appalling individuals, perhaps, but does it do any good to the rest of us? No gathering is spared, no occasion deemed unsuitable for spouting self-centred bilge. Who said funerals are about paying one’s last respects to a fallen colleague? They are about extending one’s political agenda. Who said the meetings in which cabinet ministers receive new ambassadors are about observing diplomatic niceties? They are about warning of the chaos ahead if one’s own fellow ministers are not reined in. Who said national conferences are about discussing the issues facing the nation? They are about continuing one’s battles with political enemies in the most unbefitting terms.

The third test is about truth. To paraphrase an assisting counsel at the Goldenberg Enquiry, our leaders are all complete strangers to the truth. To them, the truth is merely what they can get away with saying. Is it true that the sickening crime wave that we are all victims of is caused by a few snuff-sniffers and newly redundant touts? Is it true that the infrastructure modernisation programme is proceeding on schedule? Is it true that Kenya is a great destination for investors? Is it true that despite the bickering, most ministers are doing the work demanded by their positions? Is it true that in Kenya public appointments are now made solely on merit? I would say that these are grotesque distortions of the merest kernels of truth. Yet they are given to us as gospel, every day!

The final test: does any of this improve on silence? Oh, how much more peaceful our lives would be if we didn’t have to listen to this horrible hullabaloo every day! We might be able to hear the birds in the trees again. We might be able to listen out for the gurgling laughter of our children. We might be able to see the problems faced by our neighbours and offer a hand of help. We might even be able to concentrate on our work and grow the economy. The silence of our politicians, even for a day, would truly be golden. “Nothing is so good for an ignorant man as silence; and if he were sensible of this he would not be ignorant.” So said Saadi, a Persian poet of the 13th century.

We have become a high-decibel country, and it deafens and diminishes us all. When our leaders behave like noisy schoolchildren, the real kids in the playground are diminished because they mimic them. In a country where noise rules, you have to shout louder and louder to be heard. When ministers behave like hecklers, heckling becomes the norm of everyday life.

Our media have joined the fray. This is perhaps why our radio presenters seem to be trying to outdo one another in setting new standards for loudness and profanity. Our TV reporters now record an insult by a politician and rush to the one insulted to get an immediate and suitably abusive response. Some of our newspapers often prefer to highlight conflict and disarray and ignore everything else. How often do you see any ‘feel-good’ stories that focus on our common humanity and our capacity for love? How often do you see reporting that highlights the people who really keep this country afloat – the busy man taking his produce to market, the rural woman who is a veritable Swiss army knife of skills and functions?

But never forget: we are the audience for all this crazed claptrap. It is we who attend the rallies, we who turn on the TV sets, we who take the radio dial to the stations where we will be immersed in the most controversial and adversarial of interviews. It is we who get carried away by the aspirants with the loudest voices and the most aggressive of messages and vote them into office.

If we can change ourselves, all the noise will go away. If we can vote for substance and not silliness, we can quieten the country and focus on the real work at hand. If we can switch off the TV or radio set when the kelele becomes too much, we can deprive the noisemakers of their necessary audience.

Hush. Let the soothing calm of life run through you. You were silent before you were born, and will return to silence when you die. Let serenity be the cornerstone of your life. Weigh your words carefully. Judge them for their kindness, their truthfulness, their usefulness and the necessity of saying them. There is a volume control of life. Reach for it and turn it down.

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