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Role models in the new Kenya

Mar 13, 2005 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Once upon a time, we looked at the people around us and respected many things in them. We saw certain virtues and placed a high value on them. We had quite simple people as our role models, and we tried hard to emulate them and live up to the ideals we saw embodied in them. That time seems like a distant dream now, a vague memory of a gentler epoch.

I write of the days when a rural teacher was thought to be a noble personage, a learned fellow engaged in a vital duty. “Mwalimu” was a term of utmost respect in those days. The position commanded deference and admiration. Today, a teacher in Kenya is seen as an underachiever, a loser who can’t do anything else – and is paid accordingly.

A shopkeeper who had built up his duka over decades was once worthy of our esteem. He had quietly and diligently managed his stocks, controlled his overheads, kept his shop open for long hours, maintained an amiable relationship with his customers, and used the profits to support a family and pay for his children’s education. Today, those same children will view their father as a dinosaur from a dead age, stuck in a dead-end occupation with no growth and no potential. Something to run away from, as fast as your legs can carry you, to Canada and Australia.

The hard-working employee was once a laudable person. The one who completed all tasks with diligence, worked long hours without thought of overtime, and generally formed the heart of the company. Today, that person is a sucker to be taken advantage of by “movers and shakers” who “enable and facilitate”, who make things happen rather than do them and are “incentivised” by a bonus structure. Hard work with no thought of immediate reward? Ha! A fool’s pastime.

The village elder was an exalted and dignified being then. A wise man chosen for his years of experience and his deep insight into life, this person would provide prudent guidance in the affairs of the community. Today, village elders are merely old: a bunch of impoverished men usually in advanced stages of dementia, looking for an easy meal. These people now have nothing to offer other than the rituals and superstitions of the past. They are often trotted out by politicians to give credence to their claims of being tribal spokesmen. They are reduced to being geriatrics for hire.

All the old ways are up in smoke now, and behind that smoke are some specially positioned mirrors. Life is one big special effect in Kenya today. We are engineering a carefully designed mass delusion – anything to take our attention away from the state we’re in. Our problems are so severe that we cannot face them. We must find something else to preoccupy ourselves with. And so we need a whole new set of role models. Wise, diligent, honest, learned? Take a hike! So who exactly are the people we look up to in modern Kenya? Who sets the example we all want to follow? In whose shoes do we picture ourselves walking in our dreams? Read on.

The fast talkers: We Kenyans love a loose lip, a person who spins tales and designs dreams. Radio deejays, advertising salesmen, government spokesmen and the younger breed of government ministers tend to fall into this category. We know their stories are merely hot air, and that they are often spinning deceit. But we love their gift of the gab, and wish we had it. Even when fast talkers have done great damage to the economy and are hauled before commissions of inquiry, we find ourselves applauding their wisecracks.

The sharp dressers: Someone may be just an empty suit, but if the suit is sharp and the cloth refined, we love it! Look at how much of their income the new middle classes reserve for clothing: you’ve gotta look good! The threads must be fine, the style divine. Can’t afford books, further education, or your own home? Never mind – just get yourself some snappy outfits. You’ll get the respect of Kenyans immediately. Dressing for comfort? Dressing within your means? Those are village attitudes. The urban Kenyan dresses to kill – and often kills to dress.

The celebrities: Kenya has a new royalty – the good-looking famous people. Pop singers, actors, news anchors, beauty queens – these are the people who make our heads turn. They trade on their faces and bodies, and make every effort to ensure that you notice their assets. So the make-up must be heavy, the clothing skimpy. They strut their stuff and shake their booty all over town, in all the happening places. They are stuck firmly at the level of the body, the most basic place for a human being to be, but we love them for it and follow them everywhere. Their sleeping partners, their fights and their attire become issues of national importance. They are empty creations of the media; there is no substance attached. But we happily consume this candyfloss and can’t get enough of it.

Mr. Moneybags: Now let’s get to the heart of the matter. If you have plenty of money, you are respectable. If you’re loaded, you’re lauded. Money is a national compulsive disorder. How you made it, how it came your way so quickly – hey, who’s interested? Ripped off the taxpayer big-time? There’s no shame in that, only joy. The point is you have it, and we all want it. Observe the arrogance with which rich people conduct themselves in Kenya, and the revulsion with which they handle the poor. They are our idols. We want their cars, their swimming pools, their snooker tables and their golf clubs. You’re only something in Kenya if you’re rich, and who wants to be nothing?

So there you have it. The people we adore are precisely those most unbalanced. To remain trapped in the prisons of good looks, material belongings and personal acclaim, there actually has to be something wrong with your mental apparatus. To be money-mad, status-hungry and power-crazed, you have to have several items missing from your cerebral toolkit. These people are unhinged, and yet we adore them and follow them. Any surprise we’re not going anywhere?

We can’t feed our people, educate our children, or look after our sick. We can’t run our economy without handouts from foreigners. We can’t walk down our streets without the threat of robbery or rape following us like a malevolent shadow. We can’t supply clean water or affordable power to most Kenyans. We can’t build a road and then maintain it. You’d think we have plenty of rather serious things to think about. You’d think we have rather important skills to focus on.

But no, we’d rather watch people party. We’d rather worry about designer gear than school uniforms. We’d rather focus on nightclubs than health clinics. We’d rather read glossy magazines notable only for their vacuity, than the books that could save us. We’d rather live very, very far away from that place called Reality.

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