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Without values all will be lost

Watching Kenyan television news is a depressing pastime these days. After a few days’ continuous intake, thoughts of hibernation, or worse, migration, tend to grip the sensitive soul. Why is the country in such a pathetic state? Who is at fault? Why do we all seem to hate each other? Why are we all shouting? Whatever happened to virtue? Who has the answers?

Last week the good residents of Machakos found an appealing way to spend a day. They killed a witch. Or rather, this is what reportedly transpired: accusations began flying that a middle-aged woman was practicing witchcraft in her home. The evidence? That a young girl had been “bewitched” by the woman’s potions and forced to part with some money. This, clearly, was an event too heinous for the residents of that dusty town to tolerate. They gathered in a mob, marched to the woman’s house, flushed her out, stripped the aging lady naked, dragged her through the town and then began to rain blows on her. Not a few mild slaps with which to chastise her, mind you: kicks to the head and blows using large stones was the preferred style.

All the while the woman lay writhing naked on the ground. After several hours of this sport, it was decided that the woman should be burned alive. She was doused in kerosene, awaiting the match that would consign her to fiery oblivion. At this point the police, who according to the woman’s stricken family, had been summoned a full five hours earlier, arrived to take charge. They bundled the woman into the back of their van to take her to hospital. Battered, bleeding, maimed beyond repair, she succumbed to her wounds.

Does anyone, I repeat anyone, deserve a death like that, no matter what it is he or she is supposed to have done? Is this what we modern Kenyans are reduced to these days? We not only feel able to rush to instant judgement, but also to deliver the most grotesque and savage “justice” with our own hands, immediately. The most alarming thing about the event was not the faces of the thuggish youths who were leading the violence: those idlers and desperadoes are always available for a spot of mob justice, always ready to land the first kick at the slightest whiff of a lynching. No, the most disquieting thing was to observe ordinary housewives and young children jeering and joining in, their faces masks of barbaric fury, as the lady squirmed in agony and humiliation. From the reports I saw, not one person stepped forward to save her. This was an event all of Machakos took part in, and by extension, all of Kenya.

The dead woman’s family deny any accusations of witchcraft. The police have apparently arrested a few members of the mob. The facts of the case have not yet to come to light, and it is not for me to comment on them. But do they even matter? Whether that woman was a “witch” or not, are we wild animals that we should tear her from limb to limb? Press coverage has been subdued, as has subsequent comment. What do we want, to just forget the matter and let it go? Forgive me for not allowing you to move on, but we have unfinished business here.

What has happened to us? Is civilisation such a thin skin we wear, slipping away at the first sign of some “cause” that gives us free reign to indulge our most base passions? Lest you wish to reassure yourself so, this was no isolated case. Our media are full to choking point with reports of the most vicious and degrading violence being enacted in homes, streets and communities every single day. Parents are killing their own children and men are maiming their own elderly parents, all for the most remarkable of reasons: a failed exam, a disappointing meal, a conflict of faith, a disagreement over money. What should be grounds for a mild argument has become a reason to kill and crucify.

What shall we blame, our poverty? Is it poverty alone that explains why people descend on a dead hippo near the Nairobi-Thika highway with pangas to satisfy a craving for flesh? Is it deprivation that makes those people attack and injure each other as each one tries to hack off a bigger piece for himself? And what do we say when the same thing happens again in nearby Kiambu district, this time to a dead buffalo? I have not felt that poverty nor that hunger in my life, so I feel reluctant to comment; yet that is not a part of Kenya notable for famine or scarcity. What community are you part of when your neighbour becomes a beast to beat down while you satisfy your stomach?

Who should do something about any of this? In normal circumstances a society looks to its leaders to step forward and shine the light of reason and virtue when things go awry. For reasons well known to Kenyans, that is not going to happen here. For there is a direct and symbiotic relationship between those who plunder at the level of the exchequer and those who pillage at the level of the street. Those who kill their neighbours are the children of those who teach intolerance at political rallies. One type of self-obsessed fanatic feeds the other. One sets the example, the other follows. The political leaders we have known have nothing to offer in exemplifying virtue and extolling righteousness. They have no standing in that arena.

But where is everyone else? Where are the clergymen and clerics, the priests and the mullahs? Why is the example of Jesus, the model of Mohammed, the message of the Buddha missing from our analysis of this degradation that runs through our society like a cancer? Or is it no longer appropriate? Is there nothing to be said about mutual tolerance, acceptance and kinship anymore? What are our religious leaders waiting for, when a full-blown crisis of violent greed is upon us like a demon?

And where are all the community leaders, teachers, social workers, activists and civil society do-gooders? Everyone lost their voice? This is the time for the message of forbearance and comradeship to be ring clearly and strongly across the land. Yet we are quiet, acquiescent, timid and cowardly. We might as well have picked up the first stone in Machakos ourselves.

Economic development? Without decent values in our society, forget about it. Values underpin everything. We cannot grow if we do not know how to share. We cannot provide if we do not know how to care. There is no economic advancement without a foundation of human values holding it up. Recovery plans, constitutions, foreign aid, commissions of inquiry – these are the things we want to talk about incessantly. We are whistling into a void. If you think things are not right in the family, street, town, country and world in which you live, there never was a better time to say so. And to stand up and do something about it.

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