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A letter to Kenya’s youth

Dec 12, 2004 Success, Sunday Nation

Dear Young Kenyans,

It’s good to be young, isn’t it? The skin is vital and the eyes bright, and raw energy courses through your veins for 24 hours a day. Hope lights the road of life ahead, like a spectacular flare in the darkness. You can be anything, do anything!

What is it you actually do with all that vitality and energy, though? What do you actually believe in, young Kenyans, and how is your youth being spent? Many of you, whether you admit it or not, abandoned religion and spirituality a long time ago. Oh, you may still sit in churches and mosques, synagogues and temples, but are you really there? Is anything you hear there touching your soul and guiding your behaviour? For many of you, I think not.

I fear your true gods these days are not found in places of worship. They are found in nightclubs and in shopping malls. If god is that which drives the currents of your soul, then your true gods these days are sexuality, intoxication and material consumption – the unholy trinity of the modern age.

Three of you perished in last weekend’s stampede at the Carnivore grounds, and many more were injured. Why? We can talk about the management of the event all we want; the root cause of the tragedy was drunkenness and frenzy. That’s all. We can try to blame the manufacturers of alcohol all we want; the truth is no one puts a gun to your head to make you drink. What happened last week is a natural consequence of the culture of desperate excess that has become your hallmark. Many more such pointless deaths lie ahead of us.

You really don’t want to hear this, do you? No young person wants to be told about the path of virtue and hard work. I certainly didn’t, when I was one of you. No, you’d rather be left alone to live for the day, enjoy life to the full, take nothing seriously, and blow it all in a mind-numbing orgy of excess. By all means do so. But take just a few minutes to read this first. As someone who is just a little younger than our beloved Republic, I left your ranks some time ago. And I have since sat at the feet (literally and figuratively) of people older and wiser than me, to try and find out what I got wrong all those years ago. If those sages could talk directly to you, this is what they would say.

You are living your lives at the level of the five senses, and this is the most base level of existence. It does not differentiate you from the animal that also craves sensual satisfaction in all it does. It makes you a prisoner of your sensory organs, for all it takes to divert you is the smell of tasty food, the promise of sex or the allure of a nice car. If you spend your years being led everywhere by your eyes, ears, tongue and genitals, then you are in for an unfulfilling life. That is a promise. It is a waste of what it means to be human.

Sense pleasures do not last beyond a moment. As they are attained, they are gone. They do not, cannot last. They are ephemeral and meaningless, and yet many of you are ready to devote your entire existence to their pursuit. There is nothing at the end of that chase except disillusionment and frustration. So if the sum of your ambitions is to have more things to fondle: good luck, you’ll need it by the sackful.

If there is a secret to life, it lies in the control of desires. It entails training the mind to stay above the ordinary sights, sounds and smells of life. Every remarkable member of our species, from the Buddha to Jesus to Einstein to Gandhi to Mandela, knew this. It is the key to true fulfilment that lies under all our doormats, merely waiting to be discovered. All we need to do is train our minds to discover this key. After that, a life free from bondage beckons.

Skills matter. The type of skill does not. Knowing how to do a few simple things well, and then doing them with persistence and dedication, also unlocks many true treasures in life. Acquiring these skills, and then burnishing and polishing them to the best of your personal ability, is a natural and necessary preoccupation of early adulthood. Time spent away from this pursuit is time squandered. You will bear the cost for the rest of your life, and so will your country.

Earning your rewards also matters. A shilling earned through your own efforts is worth fifty stolen. Those of you who were going through the pockets of the injured at the Carnivore will soon learn this to your cost. The pleasure of the things you spend ill-gotten gains on will last a mere moment; the damage to your spirit will haunt you for a lifetime. Money stolen is a debt to life; sooner or later you will repay it many times over.

It is the fault of my generation and of those before it that no one has taught you these things. We have taught you rituals and equations and the rules of grammar, but never the simplest, most essential facts of life. We have watched you become befuddled by your senses, and never told you that there is a higher purpose, a more meaningful plane on which to expend your days. Worse, we have deceived you and hoodwinked you, for our own selfish ends.

We have designed advertisements that are crafted to keep you desiring trivial things with a burning passion. We have made sure that you cannot escape the seductive message of these ads wherever you go, so that whatever money you have in your pocket can come our way. We have produced soap operas and movies that persuade you that the pursuit of sexual excitement is the highest aim of humanity – all because we want you to keep spending more on looking attractive to the opposite sex. And when we see that the sheer frustration of the meaningless lives we have designed for you may overwhelm you and cause you to rebel – no problem! We have created a vast array of intoxicants to keep your minds feeble and your spirits enslaved.

And you youngsters, fools that you are, have fallen headlong into our trap. You buy everything we offer, you believe everything we say. Here you are now: pushing, shoving, and stealing your way towards mindless consumption of thin air. A few members of my generation are very rich because of your foolishness. Most members of yours are very poor for the same reason.

So, you choose. You can work just so you can play. You can throw all your time and money away on fleeting, self-centred pleasures. You can squander your brain cells on smoke and drink. Or you can raise your game. Which will it be?


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