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Time to leave the past behind

Apr 16, 2006 Success, Sunday Nation

Remember the seventies? Ah, glory days! The streets were clean, and there was always parking to be found. The town and city councils actually did what we paid them to. Nairobi had mayors who were not drawn from the criminal or professional comedian classes. There were streetlights everywhere, and they actually worked. You could walk around in Nairobi after dark. Civil servants took some pride in their work, and even smiled at you as they served you. Doctors did not kill you, and judges did not sell you out.

A bag of chips cost a couple of shillings. Chips shops were clean and hygienic, and parents went there with their children. You could eat heartily for ten bob. There were only two brands of toothpaste, and we didn’t need any more. At breakfast we chose between Cornflakes and Weetabix, and never felt deprived. All children carried the same green canvas schoolbag. You could buy twenty Black Pussycats for a shilling. And if you don’t know what a Black Pussycat is; well, you had to be there.

We had real roads. My uncle, one of those ‘flying Sikhs’, could get you to Mombasa in under five hours without involving aircraft. The Safari Rally was always held at Easter, and everyone in Kenya followed it. Tens of thousands lined the route, and top international teams flew in with helicopters to thrill us. The world loved coming to Kenya, and we loved it to come.

Everyone left their gate and their front door wide open. You dialled a number using a dial (like it says), and your line never went dead. If you called 999, someone actually answered. We looked up to, and trusted, our politicians. You could drink the water straight from the tap, and it was virtually free. Even the smallest garden contained at least two fruit trees. Dozens of children gathered in the one house with a TV set at 5.35pm every weekday, to watch the one cartoon show.

The economy was booming. We enjoyed double-digit growth, routinely. The state coffers were full, and no one stole the money. Businesses were stable. Employees were loyal to one company for most of their lives. Farmers were able to market their produce and get a fair price.

Cut! That was a movie I directed, and just like in a movie, I chose every scene very carefully. Take off those rose-tinted glasses, and take another look. Here are the scenes your director left out.

Those politicians you trusted were busy dividing the country amongst themselves, tens of thousands of acres at a time. The people who raised awkward questions were picked up at midnight, and their remains were often found at remote hillsides. Journalists lived in fear, and knew which line could not be crossed.

Children may have all had the same bags, but they also had the same teachers: teachers who beat them with sticks for not doing their homework. There was only one TV station, the one and only Voice of Kenya, and it broadcast what it was told to. Often it didn’t: the sign saying “normal service will be resumed as soon as possible” was one of the most frequent things on screen, accompanied by the same maddening tunes. The TV came to life at 5.30pm, and died after six hours.

There was no internet. To research this column, I would have had to trudge from library to library and still would not have gotten what I needed. When you sent an urgent business letter, you sat back and waited for three weeks before expecting an answer. An international telephone call could cost a serious chunk of a good salary. At one stage, you could buy any car you wanted, as long as it was a Datsun ‘Debe’ pickup. Every driving school had a fleet of them when I was passing my test – there was nothing else available.

Those legendary businesses of yore? They were monopolies, my friend. They had no competitors, and no reason to treat their customers as beggars, let alone kings. Customer service was a glare followed by studied indifference. Quality was what the company wanted it to be; prices were controlled; tariffs protected our industries. So how many decisions did a CEO have to make?

The booming economy? A few dozen people controlled everything. We were awash in coffee money, caused by an unusual series of frosts in Brazil. We squandered the takings, and built nothing for the future. We didn’t cause the good times, but we sure as hell made sure the bad times were here to stay (they never left).

We all do this. We hark back to the good old days, forgetting they didn’t feel that good at the time. We keep thinking things were better, a form of selective amnesia that allows us to remember what we choose to. The problem comes when we keep trying to recreate the conditions of yesteryear, when they really have no place in the future.

“We can draw lessons from the past”, said Lyndon Johnson, ‘but we cannot live in it.” This lesson should be heeded by many a group of Kenyans. One such group is busy trying to recreate a Kenya in which chiefs ruled with whips and when the average mwananchi knew his place. When low interest rates and high exchange rates were good for all. When monolithic marketing organisations handled all the produce of an industry, with farmers having no choice in the matter. When no one messed with cops and spooks.

Another group harks even further back, to an idyllic Kenya that was teeming with wildlife and where a settler was master of all that he could see. These are the very people today living in enclaves using high walls to shut out a harsh modernity. They are the ones who will resist even the building of a road close to their rural lands – because the traffic would become unbearable, darling.

Get over it, guys. There are thirty-million-plus Kenyans, and this is their country as much as anyone else’s. The days of keeping people in their place and rigging the rules to cater for a chosen few are long gone, and rightly so. If we don’t create an inclusive economy that gives everyone a real stake sometime soon, then a past is all we’ll have.

There is a Kenya soon-to-be of wireless broadband and virtual corporations, where a returning diaspora will bring world-class skills. A Kenya sitting amidst vicious global competition where those who blink are history. A Kenya whose future lies in the widespread acquisition of skills and knowledge, and where vast tracts of land are an irrelevance.

The world is as we see it today. There is a future we must prepare for. Looking back with faulty memories and rheumy eyes is the last thing we need. We must look at where we’re going, not at the rear-view mirror. Looking forward will take all our attention, and all our insight.

I’ll leave you with an evocative line by writer Sean Stewart: “The present is a rope stretched over the past. The secret to walking it is: you never look down.”

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