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Scammed? Blame yourself first!

There is much hoo-ha about the epidemic of scams that has ‘suddenly’ afflicted Kenya. Everywhere you look there is a pyramid scheme collapsing, or a big company rushing to warn customers about SMS hoaxes being conducted in its name.

Outrage fills the air. The papers are packed with calls for the government to do something about these villainous conmen who are preying on gullible poor folk. Legislation must be enacted and tightened; the police must wake up; the judiciary must mete out severe sentences. Some furious victims reportedly took matters into their own hands recently, throwing the alleged perpetrator of a pyramid scheme out of an 8th-floor window, killing him instantly.

We are angry, and we are lashing out. There is no doubt that government could do more to protect us more from cheats and swindlers. It is definitely a nasty thing that these tricksters do, deluding uneducated folk and leaving them destitute. But I am afraid my sympathy ends there. As usual, we are busy barking up all possible trees except the one in our own backyard. We heap blame on everyone except ourselves. There is a word missing in the discussion, and that word is greed.

There is something very wrong with a society when so many of its members believe that money can be made from thin air, or doubled overnight, or earned without any effort on their part. It is amazing, for example, that we buy into a scheme where all we are required to do is to find ten fools like ourselves for the riches to flow. Or that when we see the name of a large multinational company on a text message we believe unearned money is suddenly ours.

When we hear of a bank that has just opened and is offering unusually good interest rates, we take all our savings and deposit them there. When the damn thing collapses and its directors take flight, we spend the rest of our lives in futile legal battles, seeking ‘justice’.

When we receive an e-mail telling us that millions of dollars could be ours if we respond with alacrity and provide our bank account details, some of us actually jump up and do it. That particular scam has been running for decades, simply because a proportion of humanity is daft enough to believe it could be true.

This is not about education, please note: many a well-schooled achiever has had his trousers removed by tricksters. Lacking formal education is no excuse for being clueless about life. Who needs to teach you that you don’t get something for nothing, that there is no magic in economic life? When seasoned individuals who have worked, earned and saved start throwing it all away on the equivalent of a street card-game, then something has gone very wrong.

What is a casino? A place where people make voluntary contributions to the proprietors. Yet they are always full.

It should not take long for anyone with any experience of the world to discover that the only sustainable, legal and ethical way to make money is to be very good at doing something. We need skills, we need perseverance, and we need to put in years of work. If the market values the skill you develop highly, your reward may be handsome. If it does not, you may have to settle for something more modest. But to think that money can be made by the wave of someone’s hand is a dangerous hallucination.

These hallucinations persist, unfortunately, even in our society’s upper echelons. What are the scandals that have denuded this country if not scams – just elaborate ones where millions of people give away billions of shillings to a conniving few? What were Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing? Paying taxpayers’ money to ghosts for the delivery of thin air.

The belief that there is much wealth to be had simply by being in the right place at the right time in the right company is widespread. And, to our shame, we have done nothing to counter it. We have allowed Kenyans to observe the vast fortunes that have been built up by the unschooled, the unskilled and the uncouth using outright criminality. We do not convict and jail the perpetrators of fraud – big or small. There is no downside, no reckoning.

When the loss is recorded in our own pocket, we feel the pinch of justice denied and our rage can turn violent. When it is the nation that suffers, we are remarkably silent. No punishment is too great for the small-time fraudster that hoodwinked us; but when faced with the same person in a ministerial car, we stand back and applaud.

We must relearn the basics of making money: producing goods and services that fulfil genuine needs and add value to the world; learning skills needed by the economy; associating with the right people; studying track records rather than hype. Otherwise we will continue being a country of scams, little and large, and the money-for-nothing mirage will be in all our eyes.

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