The Top 3 Peculiarities of Kenyans
Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph is perplexed again. His company’s latest promotion has turned out disastrously. The offer of ‘free’ calls after 9.00 pm every day has clogged the network and proved a nightmare for people trying to make calls at night. Why? Because Kenyans keep piling in in droves to make their calls at precisely 9.00, rather than staggering the load.
Mr Joseph will not want to call us ‘peculiar’, but I certainly do. We are indeed a most peculiar people who spend their time doing some most peculiar things. For the benefit of businesspeople, visitors and general observers, I would like to provide another ‘free’ service: of explaining our Top 3 peculiarities as a nation.
Peculiarity No 1: We go crazy if things are ‘free’
Mr Joseph will no doubt agree: it’s not a good idea to offer free things to Kenyans. They will over-consume it to the point of madness. That has happened in the latest Safaricom offer, but has been happening for years in the company’s customer care numbers. Phoning those numbers is free; therefore no-one can ever get through. Why? Because people keep calling several times a day for the silliest of reasons!
This love of ‘free’ things is the reason why, as a business, you can’t fail with offers that say “buy-one-get-one-free”. The second item is, of course, not free – both items are marked down. But who cares? The word ‘free’ is enough!
The same thing happened in the Safaricom IPO. Small investors seemed to believe they were onto a freebie – double your money overnight, and best of all, a bank will lend you the capital to do it! Many are now nursing their wounds, having sold their trivial allocation for trivial gain – but with a bank loan to repay every month.
This love of free things is not just confined to the poor. It afflicts those in high places, too. For all these decades, we have been in love with ‘free’ donor aid. When donors line up to dish out handouts, Kenyan leaders are the first in line. Of course, donor aid is not ‘free’ at all – begging comes with huge opportunity and psychological costs attached. But hey, it sounds free, so let’s get some!
Peculiarity No 2: We don’t behave unless we are made to
Wherever you see Kenyans forming an orderly queue, you can rest assured that there is an askari or other figure of authority nearby carrying a large rungu. For Kenyans don’t form queues unless they are made to do it. Witness what happens in lifts which don’t have askaris nearby. Incoming passengers will run in before the outgoing ones have a chance to come out. What sense does that make?
This inability to queue is apparent in our traffic jams everyday. Roads naturally lend themselves to queueing – except in Kenya. Whenever you find yourself in a slow-moving line of cars, just look at your side-view mirror. Within seconds, some imbecile will rush out onto the oncoming lane to overtake the whole line – followed by half-a-dozen other imbeciles. This will cause great consternation to the oncoming vehicles, and unmitigated chaos will ensue – every day. However, where the traffic police are in attendance and dishing out fines, Kenyans will line up patiently and obediently.
Peculiarity No 3: We are professional hypocrites
Everyone is a hypocrite to some extent, but in Kenya we make a career out of it. Anyone observing us would soon conclude that we have many mouths that say many different things. Politicians promise jobs, wealth, land etc with aplomb, in the full knowledge that these things will never be delivered. CEOs talk convincingly about customer focus, people-centredness, etc – but cut customer service and make sweeping layoffs as soon as there is the smell of a market downturn. Many of us claim to be ‘above tribe’ in mixed company, but crack evil jokes once people from ‘the other tribe’ have left the scene.
The rich residents of Lake Naivasha used to wax lyrical about ‘their’ beautiful lake and complain incessantly about small fishermen and minor polluters, in years past. These days they have discovered flower farming and now see the lake as a resource to be exploited and contaminated, because there is big money in it. Beauty be damned!
Interestingly, the hypocrisy extends to more recent denizens of our peculiar land. Development partners and foreign embassies are often the loudest critics of environmental degradation. But when it’s time to build their headquarters, they will happily mow down acres of virgin forest in Karura – simply so that they have a nice sylvan setting in which to work.
So, there you are: that’s us. Well-travelled observers will know, however, that we are no more or less peculiar than anyone else. All societies have their idiosyncrasies, good and bad. The point is to know what they are, laugh about the harmless ones – and do something about the ones that hold us all back.