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Dreaming of a Kenya reborn

Apr 30, 2006 Success, Sunday Nation

This Sunday, let’s lift the clouds of gloom that threaten to cover us completely. Just for a day, let’s dare to dream again. What lies ahead for this country? What can we look forward to for our children?

Go outdoors and feel the fresh air in your lungs. Find a comfortable patch of grass on which to recline. Look up to the sky. Let the sounds of the birds and the insects recede. Stare deep into the azure, until an image starts to take shape. Can you see the pieces coming together? Do you see a picture emerging? Do we see the same thing?

I see a Kenya that is the Kenya we know. Yet it’s somewhere else. This Kenya seems to have some very interesting things happening in it. People seem happier. They seem busier. They appear to have more purpose. There is more confidence in their gait. They smile more and complain less. They seem comfortable being who they are.

Let us stare some more. What’s different? Why is there such a positive air in this Kenya, when there was such all-pervasive negativity in the one that came before? What can we discern?

Let’s examine this new Kenya’s business world. There seems to be a lot of activity. People seem confident about investing. There is a change in the air. There are many, many more enterprises around, of all shapes and sizes. There’s the Nairobi Stock Exchange – can you see it? It seems to have 500 companies listed on it- and the trading activity is frantic. Look at the airports and the city hotels: there are foreign capitalists and executives everywhere, all angling for a piece of the action. Look at the skyline: all those new buildings – malls, hotels, office blocks.

With this has come employment. All those idlers are gone. What happened to the hawkers? Look, look, at those new covered markets and business parks. They have sanitation, electricity, parking. The stalls are lockable, and traders and artisans can rent or lease them.

What’s going on here? What changed? Look carefully. Let’s get into the offices of those who regulate business in this strange new Kenya. Can you see all those busy people in well-appointed offices? This Kenya seems to have figured out how to select and reward its civil servants. Wait a minute: what happened to all the leeches and ticks that used to feed off business using threats and extortion? Hallelujah, they are no more.

Wow, the roads. Previously our potholes were visible from the moon; now I can’t see a single one. Can you? And look at all those bypasses and flyovers – where did they come from? Something strange, though – there are no cars in the city centres. What gives? Ah, look – they’re all in special underground parking lots at the outskirts. So people are walking freely into and out of shops and offices. No wonder everyone looks slimmer and fitter!

Let’s leave the cities and gaze at the rural landscape. That’s not Kenya, surely? Is that really North-Eastern Province, with a busy highway running through it all the way to Ethiopia and Sudan? Is that rural Nyanza, with all those feeder roads allowing people to grow crops and get them to market? Can that be the coastal interior, with wireless telephone base stations dotted everywhere?

Well, well. This is getting interesting. How did this Kenya do it? Let’s take a tour of the education sector. Do you see those two world-class business schools? And that elite institute of technology? Candidates seem to be queuing up to get into them from all over Africa. And what are those institutes that are spread everywhere? Ah, they teach vocational skills to small-business entrepreneurs, craftspeople and farmers all over the land.

Did this Kenya grow at the expense of its environment? No – Lake Naivasha over there seems to be flourishing again; yet the flower farms are still producing. Nobody is emptying effluent into the rivers anymore. All the plastic waste that was choking the landscape is gone altogether.

Let’s end with a look at the statistics. Is that the current Economic Survey that that smart fellow is reading? Let’s flip the pages with him. Hmmm. We’ve had ten straight years of uninterrupted annual growth. We’ve actually halved the number of people in absolute poverty. We have the second highest foreign direct investment in Africa. There are 20 computers per 100 people. Kenyans are spending an average of 10 hours per week reading. As a country, we are spending 10 per cent of our GDP on education, and another 10 per cent on health.

Before we leave, we need to check something here. Ah, yes, I thought as much: the World Bank and IMF offices are gone. There would be nothing for them to do in this Kenya.

Now, let us slowly open our eyes and come out of our reverie. Back to the Kenya of 2006. And before you dismiss this as mandazi-in-the-sky, an empty hallucination, let me assert this: nothing that we imagined here is out of our reach. Every single thing can be achieved within one generation. We have all the resources we need; there is nothing that need stop us from realising the dream. Nothing, that is, but ourselves.

What we were doing is called envisioning. It’s something that’s been beaten out of us over the years. We have ceased to imagine. Forty years of stagnation have sent the bleak, subliminal message of hopelessness to our souls: there is nothing better for us. If we allow this idea to take root any deeper than it already has, then all will truly be lost.

Learn from history, and from the world around you. Many, many societies have pulled it off: a remarkable economic transformation that took them from the brink of disaster to the cusp of sustained prosperity. We have not been ravaged by war, nor have we been devastated by disease. “We have met the enemy, and he is us”, wrote Walt Kelly. He should have been a Kenyan. We have no enemies other than those who lurk in our own hearts. Now those enemies are stifling our imaginations and killing our dreams.

If we were a corporation, we would spell out our vision, we would translate it into measurable goals, we would set our targets, we would marshal our resources – and we would go for it. It’s no more complicated than that.

But for as long as we keep voting in money-grubbers who hold the entire country to ransom until they get a few more shillings in travel allowances; as long as we keep faith in dinosaurs who think legislation on sexual offences should be handled like a bar-room joke: we are lost indeed. If we want this to be the country it could be, then we must dig out leaders who are smart, savvy, skilled and enlightened.

Does such a breed exist? Of course. Right now, it is being suffocated by the noisy and unschooled rabble we have been sending to represent us every five years. When the nation is ready, its leaders will emerge. Let’s recapture the lost art of intelligent dreaming to get ourselves ready.

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