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Kenya must address basic needs first

Take a drive out of Nairobi, heading towards Naivasha. Note what you see on the sides of the road. Piles and piles of litter: the debris and detritus of a society that does not care about its cleanliness.

Don’t drive out of Nairobi at all. Take a look at once-pristine, now-shabby suburbs such as Hurlingham, Kileleshwa and Westlands. Or go to any part of historic Mombasa. You will see the same waste-paper, junk and plastic refuse collecting everywhere. People go about their business, apparently undaunted by the new sights and smells of Kenya.

What can we say of a society that is unable to keep itself clean? What, in fact, is needed to keep the streets and lanes of our country sanitised? It is surely the simplest, most basic of tasks. You do not need complicated equipment, computers or advanced degrees in management. All you need is an army of low-skilled people (readily available); some basic tools and implements (available); some funds with which to pay wages (available, but misappropriated); and a little basic management expertise with which to organise your workforce (unavailable).

If we cannot organise this simplest of tasks, what right do we have to expect better things of ourselves? High-minded people in this country walk around in the delusion that greatness awaits, that we will “leap-frog” the west and bound effortlessly into the digital age; that we will soon become a land of ubiquitous broadband access where the hum of modern commerce is a 24-hour phenomenon. Dream on. I guess it must feel nicer than staring at piles of rubbish.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a path-breaking theory in psychology: that humans need to satisfy their basic needs before they can move on to successively higher desires. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” became a famous tool for understanding human behaviour.

Maslow’s hierarchy is usually depicted as a pyramid with five levels. The four lower levels are grouped together as “deficiency” needs: those that must be met for us to function. The top level is associated with psychological aspiration. The point of the pyramid is this: higher needs in the hierarchy only come into play once all the needs lower down are satisfied.

The physiological needs of the human organism take first precedence: the need to breathe; the need for clean water; the need to eat and dispose of bodily waste; the need for sleep and rest; the need for basic hygiene. These needs are non-negotiable: they simply must be met. If they are not, an individual will de-prioritise all other desires and capacities.

When the physiological needs are met, other desires take prominence. Safety and security now becomes “front of mind” – the need to have one’s person, family, resources and income protected from aggression and usurpation. Going higher, other wants come into play: the desire to belong and feel loved; the need to be respected and valued, and to contribute to society.

Once these basic requirements are satisfied, the issue of personal growth takes prominence: humans start to focus on “self-actualisation”: the need to make the most of one’s unique abilities. Maslow put it well: “A musician must make music, the artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualisation.”

At the pinnacle of the pyramid is “self-transcendence”: the need for spiritual meaning. Experiences that transcend the individual ego, and illuminate the unity of all life, fall into this category. We all need these “peak experiences”, and are all capable of them. But some of us suppress or deny them, due to our fixation with lower-level needs that feed the personal ego.

Maslow’s work gives us many clues about what has gone wrong with Kenya. A few (but not many) of us have managed to satisfy our basic needs: we have shelter; we are clean and well-fed; we are able to protect our incomes and assets; we feel loved, needed and well-regarded. Those of us in this category, who generally hobnob together in self-satisfied little communities, have completely forgotten the harsh realities facing the majority around us.

The truth is, most Kenyans are stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. They routinely breathe foul air and drink unclean water; they are not assured of their basic food requirements; they live in degrading, unsanitary conditions; and can have their meagre assets snatched from them at any given moment.

Societies must move along together. It is of no use for a small proportion of the population to move rapidly up the pyramid. Those who get to the top will find their peace of mind short-lived. That throng you leave behind with its most basic needs unmet will make sure of that. The deprived mob has no time for the culture, advancement and philosophy that top people try to promote; their every energy is devoted to rather more basic needs. And as time passes and hope dims, that energy becomes twisted and resentful, and culminates in violence.

It is futile, therefore, for us to talk of grand ICT strategies and wireless connectivity; to think of ourselves as a space-age commercial hub for the region; to maintain grandiose ideas for our cultural and societal advancement. For as long as most of our people are unclothed, unclean and unfed, we don’t have a hope. You can be the most capable of individuals whizzing along on the fastest of career tracks: you will not achieve the space in which to enjoy your personal achievements. You can only become as accomplished as the society around you allows you to be. You can find no peace when surrounded by a seething cauldron of resentment, frustration and unhappiness.

That is why it’s time to get back to basics. That is why we must worry about the mess out there and why it’s so hard to clean it up. Why we must prevent famines from occurring. Why we must channel our resources (and incentives) into slum upgrades rather than swish apartment blocks. Why we have to prioritise rural electrification and clean-water schemes before most other things.

That’s why we have to stop the pillaging of funds that could be used for these initiatives, once and for all. Why we have to protest vociferously when we see development dollars going into luxury cars for clowns, and ludicrous daily allowances for those on shopping sprees in the name of official work.

We also have to stop imagining that all those basic unmet needs are the fault of government or of official bodies. They are an inevitable consequence of how we have chosen to structure our society and prioritise our resources. They happen because many of us remain unable to take our eyes off our computers to see what is happening around us.

Rubbish piles up when people lose pride in their surroundings, and lose hope for their futures. We must stop driving past the mounds of refuse; they are telling us something about the collective personality of the nation.

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