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Our diversity is our strength

You don’t need to be a biologist to know that biodiversity is a good thing. A multiplicity of species of plants and animals on our planet increases everyone’s chances of survival. Genetic variety matters a great deal: it ensures that there are always organisms on the planet that can cope with seismic or climatic upheavals. Diversity ensures that life continues on earth.

The United States of America is the world’s most consistently successful economy. It has been an economic powerhouse for as long as anyone can remember. Its economic health affects the entire globe; its currency is the economic world’s mainstay. Its ten-trillion-dollar economy is a sustained marvel of enterprise. Many analysts attribute this remarkable success to diversity: the fact that America has a huge variety of races, climates, business models and economic sectors at its disposal. It therefore does not depend on merely one or two sectors or industries for its success: its economy teems with busy people doing their thing – and, importantly, doing it differently. All those Jews and Italians, Irish and Chinese, Hispanics and Nordics and, increasingly, Indians, have been a fine thing for the USA. They have ensured that the country’s economic mosaic has a bewildering array of colours and textures. This has given the USA a remarkable resilience, where culturally more homogenous societies (such as Japan) have faltered after a period of success.

Diversity matters even within individual companies. In the modern corporate world, “one-hit wonders” are a thing of the past. Huge, successful companies that made it big with one idea, one product or one breakthrough process were eventually either consigned to history or learned to diversify. Today, the world’s leading companies hedge their bets: they provide a wide array of products and have invested deeply in selling services to complement the “boxes” they throw out at us. This diversity of outputs is maintained by managing a diversity of human capital: in ethnicity, in gender, in social background. The best companies value variety. Success is not the realm of one race, one sex, or one class. Today, management thinkers such as Gary Hamel are highlighting the economic value of diversity.

Why then have we failed to grasp this basic fact of economic life in Kenya? We, too, are blessed with great diversity. It is well known that we are host to an astonishing array of species of fauna and flora. We are known to have every type of climate and vegetation within our borders, from desert to alpine. Most crucially, we have been the destination for successive waves of immigrants for centuries, from Cushites, Nilotes and Bantus, to Arabs, South Asians and Europeans. Kenya today is a truly multi-ethnic society, home to a remarkable assortment of languages, dialects, cultural practices, cuisines and garbs.

We should rejoice! In Kenya you can witness a man in a shuka, a lady in a sari, a girl in jeans, a yuppie in a sharp suit and tie, a boy in a turban, a teenager in a lesso – all walking down one street. You can eat traditional porridge for breakfast, chow mein for lunch, muffins for tea and nyama choma for dinner. Indeed, our cuisines have mingled without our even knowing it: how many youngsters know that samosas and kachumbari are from India, and that pilau is from the Middle East? For those of us who delight in these things, our ears are constantly filled with a melody of enchanting sound: the quick-fire chatter of Gikuyu; the sombre tones of Dholuo; the clipped sentences of the Englishman; the unhurried drawl of the Coastal; the emotive cadences of the Italian; the folksy rhythms of Gujarati.

We should rejoice! We have options, alternatives and choices throughout our economy. Diversity? We have it in spades. But do we value it? Ah, now there we have a problem. Instead of using it as a source of national competitive advantage over nations less handsomely endowed, we treat diversity as a problem. To us, it is a source of difference and suspicion. We use it to put up walls in the economy, not to open the various doors that lead to prosperity.

Come clean. The first thing you want to know when introduced to someone new is his or her name and background. The reason for this is that you want to shrink into a safe and simplistic world of prejudice. If someone is a Maasai, you already feel you know a great deal about him, without making any further effort. A Luhya? Ah, that tells us so much. A Muhindi? Well, that says it all. All rubbish, all lazy bigotry that reduces honest inquiry to a collection of stereotypes. Yet we all practice it, unfazed by our own small-mindedness. Our prejudices are disproved every day; yet every counter-example is viewed as confirming the rule.

How is a modern, vibrant, diverse economy to emerge from this idiocy? We hire our own people, trade with our own people, live amongst our own people and are buried amongst our own people. Walk into most government ministries, and you will be able to tell the tribe of the minister or permanent secretary by doing an ethnicity check of civil servants. Check out a corporation, and the preferences and prejudices of the CEO will soon become apparent to you by observing the management team. What is vibrant about that? We keep our minds closed, and the economy stays closed likewise. The span of economic activity for any one type of Kenyan is unnaturally narrow.

Our political parties are tribal, our assumptions racial, and our integration nominal. We live, each and every day, in mental boxes, peering out occasionally with suspicion at our neighbours. Even those who, through education or other mental advancement, are able to discard ethnicity as a source of prejudice quickly find another: social class. People who don’t frequent their clubs and restaurants become background noise and therefore a problem.

Herman Hesse was a Nobel laureate for literature. In his classic novel “Steppenwolf” he wrote this: “…Even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications…For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need for all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again. The judge who sits over a murderer and looks into his face, and at one moment recognises all the emotions and potentialities and possibilities of the murderer in his own soul and hears the murderer’s voice as his own is at the next moment one and indivisible as the judge, and scuttles back into the shell of his cultivated self and does his duty and condemns the murderer to death.”

As the unnecessary and tragic events at Mai Mahiu are showing us, our narrowness of vision is condemning Kenya to death. We should be celebrating our differences and learning from them, not using them to divide and to kill. Underneath it all, we all flow from the same source – the timeless unity of life.

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