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We need to feel the tremors in our heads

We were all shaking this week. Some were shaking because the earth actually trembled under their feet; others shook because of the fear of the earth shaking in future; and most were shaking just because of the uncommonly cold weather.

If, like me, you left your abode en famille in the early hours of Wednesday morning and stood in the cold waiting for an earthquake, you may have had some time to reflect on life in Kenya. And indeed, the tremors have much to teach us.

The first thing to ponder is why certain letters of the alphabet, such as ‘UN’, ‘US’, ‘BBC’ and ‘CNN’ have such a magical effect on us. All that needs to happen is for those letters to be inserted in a text message or e-mail for us to believe the contents without question. When they are appended to something that says “major earthquake to hit Kenya in next few minutes”, most of us will not stay in bed to question the validity of the proposition.

Next question: why are our own institutions so woeful that we can’t trust them, and think we have to look to foreigners to tell us about events taking place in our own country? Why did the government take so long to understand the problem and issue some sensible advice to the country, so that panic did not ensue? In fact, a day before the panic, the Official Government Jokesperson was heard asking for an official written report from university experts. Thank goodness he didn’t ask for an official commission of inquiry to be formed to look into the tremors and report within two years…

The ‘experts’ themselves seemed to enjoy thoroughly their two days of fame, and proceeded to lose themselves in a fog of terminology. I wonder just how much the common Kenyan understood about ‘plate tectonics’, ‘seismic waves’, ‘aftershocks’ and ‘epicentres’ during the dons’ discourses. Particularly when their answer to the question “will an earthquake occur”, after much pontificating, was “we have no idea”.

Senior ministers then tried to outdo each other in demonstrating deep ignorance. Gentlemen, if you actually paid even a little attention to your official duties (leadership, guidance, planning, performance, etc) instead of counting and recounting tribes and constituencies all day and night, you might know what to say to your people when it matters.

Even more worrying was the revelation by some experts that most of the equipment Kenya uses to measure seismic activity may not actually be working. So we REALLY have no idea. I heard a view that spending money on maintaining and updating equipment like this is not a priority for Kenya, because the risk of a major earthquake is so low. We forget that when a big earthquake hits a poorly prepared city, the death toll can run into hundreds of thousands. The infrastructural damage would be unthinkable.

And of course, we are so exceedingly well prepared for events that we can predict and that do occur very frequently – such as fires, droughts and famines – are we not?

Add to this the news from architectural experts that up to 80 per cent of our buildings would have no hope of staying up if a big earthquake hit us, and it becomes apparent why so many people were shivering in the dark.

The tremors shook some more thoughts out of our heads. Such as this one: what is life all about, when everything you live for and value can be wiped out in one chance event over which you have no control? We buy investment plans for our old age, polish our cars lovingly, and map out our careers with great precision. For what, when it could all be buried in rubble after five seconds of mayhem? As is usually the case, most of us only allowed that question to flash very briefly in our conscious minds. It’s too difficult to deal with, and best buried for another day.

Our leaders are now assuring us that they are making sure that our disaster preparedness is up to scratch, just in case. The riskiest buildings are being examined, emergency drills being conducted by all the response services. We can only hope so. But will we keep doing it? Contingency planning only makes sense when it happens routinely and mundanely, and becomes an everyday thing.

The point about disaster preparedness is this: it is about the possible, not the probable. Earthquakes, bombs, tsunamis, computer meltdowns and all the rest don’t happen all the time. But when they do, they wreak complete havoc. To prepare, you have to think the unthinkable.

By the time you read this, one of two things may have happened: a major earthquake might have hit Kenya (unlikely), in which case we will be blaming the heavens and asking why August came in July this year; or the tremors will have gone away (likely), in which case we will have gone back to sleep and forgotten about the whole thing. Both responses are equally pointless.

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