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A guide to Kenyan vocabulary

Feb 05, 2006 Humour, Sunday Nation

Much confusion is caused in this country by the fact that many words do not possess their common meaning. A great number of people out there have an enduring interest in the affairs and enterprises of this land: from investors to development partners; students to learned professors: tourists to journalists. All of these people face the daunting prospect that as soon as they pass through Immigration Control, certain English words cease to mean what they used to. So, as a public service to all our friends out there, I thought I should offer a quick guide to Kenyan vocabulary.

Road lanes: The first item to grapple with is what you see on the roads. There are no ‘road lanes’ in Kenya; those yellow lines you see on the roads exist merely to provide a pastime for large gangs of painters, and as a means of official support for our paint companies. Road lanes in Kenya do not demarcate anything at all. You are permitted to drive in (or on) any lane you wish. You may do this while shouting on two mobile phones, flicking FM radio channels, beating a small child and simultaneously sipping a Sprite. You may also change your mind as to your preferred lane at any time, without the need to warn others. Indeed you will soon realise that unless you know how to weave in and out of lanes at high speed, you could spend your remaining days stuck behind a huge truck belching toxic smoke into your lungs in the ‘fast’ lane.

Rush hour: Still on the subject of our world-famous roads, “rush hour” refers to the time of day in which gangs of painters rush to our busiest highways to paint the road lanes (see above). It is traditional that this activity can only be conducted when there are most vehicles on a road, for maximum impact. So, when you find yourself seething in a hot car at five o’clock on a Friday, rest assured that you will eventually discover twenty or so painters painting a single line (crookedly), having blocked all lanes bar one. Try not to be in a hurry; it doesn’t help anyone.

Idler: You could be forgiven for imagining that this word refers to the armies of the unemployed you see on the streets and public parks, whose only known pastime is to await a mugging so that a quick lynching can liven up an otherwise dreary day. But idlers are not just the unemployed in Kenya. We have plenty of idlers in seemingly gainful employment, particularly in high public office. Many view their duties with idle curiosity and professional disdain, and have no intention of ever breaking a sweat in the name of responsibility. MPs, mayors and assorted mandarins tend to inhabit the professional idler class. Look out for them.

Investor: Some of you may describe yourselves using this common word, meaning that you are someone who places money into ventures with a view to making a profit. In Kenya, however, you will find yourself in unseemly company. We attract the world’s detritus here. As an ‘investor’ you may find yourself rubbing shoulders with: ghostly figures hiding behind phantom companies creating scandals that never were; Mafiosi types trying to recreate microcosms of their own lands here, only with sunshine attached; landowners who own fifty-thousand-acre farms that their grandfathers bought for a few beads, and who want to be allowed to shoot animals in sport to sustain their properties; and people who shout “investment!” when they buy a new chair (second-hand) for their office. All of these investors like to think that the country is carried on their shoulders, and that they should receive tax breaks and ethics holidays. Be prepared to lobby loudly alongside them.

Aware: This is an odd word in Kenya, for it means the opposite of its dictionary definition. “I am not aware” is the most common expression, by far, used by public officials; yet it means this: “I know damn well what you’re talking about, and yes, I did it and you know I did it and I know I did it and my children know I did it, but I will maintain a glazed expression in the face of all questioning, until the questions go away.” So be aware of “aware”.

Leadership: Here’s an interesting one. You might imagine that a leader is one who sets an example, shows the way, takes the initiative, or does many other good things. Nope, not in Kenya. A leader, quite simply, is anyone who has a large expensive car. There is no other qualification required. Without a swank Mercedes or a plush 4X4, you cannot lead. So if you already have one of these vehicles, lead on Bwana! We will all follow in your tread marks.

Famine: This word has a particular technical meaning in Kenya. It refers to an annual event whereby millions go hungry and thousands die for the cameras. This event is famous worldwide, and attracts swarms of onlookers: media types, rock stars, economists, aid workers, politicians, corporate donors with large dummy cheques, and rich housewives carrying a few bags of flour that they bought from their social-club kitty. The event has also lately started attracting the attentions of dog-food makers. The famine is the time of year we all feel good about ourselves and demonstrate our community spirit. Except those dying, of course. But they’re OK, they know it’s all for a good cause. Book early.

Resign: A word that you will be hard put to find in Kenya. No one resigns from high office. People are sacked, fired, dropped, transferred, reshuffled and redeployed. They are shown the door and escorted to the gate. Once in a while, somebody will be forced to quit under pressure, or will go to pre-empt a sacking, usually after much elbowing by donors. A few may quit in a huff after being sidelined. Others might make a dramatic departure to create a political crisis. But resign on principle? Resign to take responsibility? Step aside to allow investigations to take place? Not really. Psychologists will tell you that most ministers start to demonstrate the symptoms of obsessive love for their cars and offices. Most have to be dragged from their desks kicking and screaming. Crowbars and strong solvents are needed to separate their beloved seats from their posteriors.

Hope: And finally, a word that means what you think it does. And how! For whatever happens here, we don’t lose hope. We are amongst the poorest nations on earth, but we aim for the stars. Everything can be in disarray, but we will not forget to smile and look forward. That is one of the defining features of Kenyans: we believe things will get better. We may be led by those who denude us, but that’s no reason to be down. Amidst all the car-jackings and collapsing buildings, we see a better future. This belief is what sustains us. And when a leadership emerges that can channel this unique energy, we will make the leap into sustained prosperity. We will. In the Kenyan breast, hope does spring eternal.

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