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Three words to banish from our tongues

If you want to go up Nairobi’s Museum Hill, you have to turn in from Uhuru Highway. There is usually a policeman stationed at the roundabout to make sure that only cars using the extreme right lane do this. Many a driver gets into trouble trying to turn in from the highway’s middle lane.

The other day, as I was obediently negotiating the roundabout in the correct lane, a ‘GK’ vehicle impudently overtook me using the wrong lane – and was waved on by the policeman on duty! What standard do we set if those in charge don’t want to follow their own rules?

As I drove up the hill thinking about this, I joined an unexpected traffic jam. Caused by the fact that somebody had dug a trench across the road overnight, and then just filled it in with dirt and stones and taken off! And it remains that way today. No-one has ever bothered to come back and do the road properly, so the traffic slows to a crawl at that point, every single day.

The road workers clearly didn’t care two hoots about messing up the road or inconveniencing drivers. But neither did their supervisors. Not to mention the public servants who are meant to oversee these things. What about the company that commissioned this work? Also doesn’t give a damn. And I have just read a newspaper report that a similar trench dug on the more dangerous Valley Road has caused a multiple accident.

Why does no-one care about these awful standards we are setting? The answer lies in three words: “This is Africa”. Somehow, everything is understandable and forgivable because we live in Africa! This continent is apparently so uniquely challenged that we should all just understand that low standards are our lot and there is really no point in complaining.

And so, if your employees mess up some simple tasks and instructions, you are meant to shrug your shoulders and say “This is Africa”. If someone doesn’t show up for a meeting and sends no apologies, you do something else and forget about it. If it takes you months to get your telephone repaired, if shop assistants can offer no assistance, you know what to say.

If a simple road takes years to complete rather than weeks, that’s OK because this is Africa, after all. If public leaders refuse to resign after creating a mess, there is nothing that can be done. If a prestigious hotel smack in the middle of Nairobi is sold for a song to shadows using a highly dubious process, then we can all sing together: “This is Africa”.

And if an apparently highly educated president turns into a sadistic despot who throws his once affluent country into the dustbin, creates immense poverty, and steals an election with impunity, we are supposed to all smile wryly and say: “This is Zimbabwe, which is in Africa”. So what do you expect?

Expatriates working here, by the way, don’t even say the three words in full. They just grin knowingly at one another and say:”T.I.A”.

Isn’t it time to say enough is enough? Do we want Africa to be a respected part of the world or don’t we? Do we want to walk around and say with heartfelt pride: “I come from Africa”? Do we want to be associated with a place where things work, where people do what they say, where standards are high, where shoddiness is not accepted? Do we want to produce organisations and institutions that are the envy of the world, rather than a standing joke?

If we want all of that then every single one of us has to step forward. We all have to stop accepting mediocrity and raise the bar, for ourselves as well as all those around us. Whether it is making a stool, writing a report, repairing a road, or holding an election – we have to do it right. Just good enough must stop being good enough. Our standards have to be world standards if we are to have a viable future.

The African Union this week set the lowest of standards at the highest of levels. By accepting the presence of Robert Mugabe as the ‘duly elected’ president of Zimbabwe, it sent a very clear message to the people of Africa and the world: we have no standards here. We accept economic ruin, we accept ego-maniacs who value the gun over the pen, we accept lifetime dictators. And if you don’t like that, you can go hang. This is Africa.

We will not get anywhere like this. We will remain the world’s problem area populated by its poor cousins. We need to be ashamed of that status, and then take that shame into our daily work and discourse. We have to collectively insist on a better Africa. Let the words “This is Africa” be sung with joy and pride, not whispered in shame.

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