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Dependency culture is crippling many

We don’t have a welfare state in Kenya. Or do we?

Look at it this way. Of our 35-plus million people, only around 2 million are in any form of ‘formal’ or ‘modern’ employment. Kenya as a country offers proper employment to fewer people than Wal-Mart does. It is these few people who form most of the tax base in the country; it is these people who have sustained paychecks and proper rights and benefits. The rest are ‘jua kali’ workers; living off the land; too young to work – or idlers expecting others to support them.

And so we do have a welfare state: one person in employment may be sustaining twenty others. Is this just a natural consequence of poverty? Is it caused by a skewed demographic profile in which more than half of Kenyans are underaged? Or is it a cultural thing – in Africa we believe in extended families and the spirit of sharing?

None of the above, I want to argue. This informal welfare state is not caused by factors beyond our control, nor is it a desirable thing that reflects the charitable instincts of the average Kenyan. It has simply become a way of thinking, and a way of life. And a very bad one, at that.

I once visited the business office of a former MP, now departed (known as “mheshimiwa” until his death, as all former parliamentarians in Kenya are). In his small reception area we found thirty or forty people, many of whom leaped up in excitement on catching sight of their target. They surrounded the famous man, shouting out pleas of supplication and trying to push CVs into his hand.

Annoyed, he pushed through the throng shouting at the people to wait. After we had managed to seat ourselves in his office, he muttered an expletive and told me this was a daily occurrence. All the people were from his home area, all were looking for handouts or job opportunities. After an hour or so when our meeting was done, I watched him peer out of his door, gather a bundle of hundred-shilling notes from a drawer, and walk out. The assembled swarmed around him; he dished out handfuls of notes at random and clutched the CVs given to him. He then said a hasty goodbye to me and beat a retreat into his office.

And that is the lot of anyone who has any material advancement to his or her name. There will be a perpetual stream of relatives, idlers and leeches waiting to feed off you. Visit any large company and count the number of ‘visitors’ waiting in the reception. Or hanging around the gate, since many companies bar those without appointments from entering the premises. Spend time with any well-to-do Kenyan, and note how nervous he will be in taking calls on his mobile phone. Who are these visitors and callers? The would-be dependants, of course. The people who want you, because of some nebulous connection, to pay their school fees, their rents, their fares and their medical bills.

Call me a cynic, but I fail to see any positives in this state of affairs. For one thing, it promotes corruption. It is the reason that MPs and managers are incessantly clamouring for higher pay, and incessantly looking for ways of increasing what they earn, by fair means or foul. For another, it breeds ill-will, not gratitude. The relationship between giver and recipient, between donor and dependant, is only superficially positive. Deep down, resentments and feelings of injustice are harboured, which often turn ugly.

A friend told me how she had been paying the school fees for an employee’s daughter for many years. After the daughter completed high school, this charitable soul thought she was off the hook. Far from it. A request to cover university fees soon arrived. When my friend declined, she sparked outrage in the employee who seemed to think it was a lifetime commitment. The relationship ended in bitterness and acrimony.

But the most debilitating effect is on the mind of the dependant. Once you think someone else owes you a living, you are finished. You will never develop the mindset needed for personal success. Once you think it is OK to hound and harass other people to give you a helping hand, you are never really going to be able to help yourself.

Personal success is about personal endeavour. You need to be extremely determined and extremely focused on your goal if you’re ever going to make it. That focus will be utterly lost if you imagine that success comes from other people helping you. We all need a helping hand once in a while, sure; life is full of the unexpected. But to imagine that help from friends and relatives should be perpetual is to imagine your own prison.

A spirit of self-help and self-sufficiency is a vital ingredient in national success, and literally millions need to wake up to this reality in Kenya.

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