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What the census already revealed

So we completed our national census exercise, and now we sit back to await the results. Kenyans will, of course, be very eager to know the numbers. But part of me wonders: do we really need to wait for the final tallies? Just the manner in which we ran this momentous exercise tells us a great deal about ourselves as a nation.

For one thing, the census told us that we still don’t know how to plan. I realise the vast scope and scale of this exercise – the complexities, the intricacies, the sensitivities. But it is not the first time we have done such a thing. Why on earth was the President coming on TV at 4.00 pm on Sunday 23 August – the day before the official census day – to declare Tuesday a public holiday?

Did they only realise that weekend that a holiday was needed? And having declared the holiday, why did we not make full use of it? Most people seemed to get counted on the days after the holiday.

What is this thing we have with sudden and unnecessary holidays anyway? I have written here before: we can’t afford them. There are only two types of people who love unexpected public holidays: schoolchildren and those employees who hate their jobs. The former do not know what is best for them, since they would take a year-long holiday just as willingly. The latter, I concede, may be a large group: it is hard to find employees in Kenya who seem to love their work.

But the vast majority of those in productive employment are working for themselves, or are in informal jobs. These are precisely the people who suffer the most when a holiday is declared at a moment’s notice. For most businesspeople – the heartthrob of this country – it’s straight off the bottom line. For casual workers it’s income that has evaporated. These are expensive holidays.

Secondly, the census revealed how fearful many of us are in our country. Because it was happening at a time of rampant insecurity, many Kenyans were petrified by the census exercise. Many from the well-shod classes even refused to open their gates to census officials. And the police force should note: the declaration that police officers might accompany the enumerators evoked no comfort whatsoever. That is an indicator of the sort of society we have become: ruled by fear and mistrust, where the law-keepers are feared the most.

A third revelation: Kenyans love to be counted! There was genuine pride on the faces of those who had received the enumerators, and anxiety on the part of those who hadn’t been counted until late in the week. Why so? The positive spin is that we all feel a sense of belonging to the society we’re in and want to be counted. If that was what it was about, I am delighted.

But talking to people reveals more fearful motives. There is real apprehension at a tribal level of numbers being linked to future resources. So if you’re not counted, and your tribe is diminished, there is a raw sense of “my people might suffer.” That is very depressing indeed, and shows two bad things: how connected we still are to tribal identities; and how backward we are in terms of thinking about numbers and entitlements. The idea that your future wealth will come from your individual efforts rather than our tribal numbers has not taken root widely.

Some Kenyans also let themselves down badly in this exercise. There was allowance for “elders” to accompany the enumerators, to guide them and reassure citizens. I have always had grave reservations about “elders” in Kenya, and watching TV during census week doubled my cynicism. I saw a bunch of twenty- and thirty-somethings in some location calling themselves “elders” and wanting to be paid the same allowance as enumerators – or else they would not allow any counting to be done in their area. National spirit of unity, indeed…

The final revelation is perhaps yet to come. There is great disquiet about the tallying of the final census numbers. After the total fiasco of the last general election, suspicion about post-count “cooking” of the numbers runs very high in the population. When retired President Moi (who presided over a remarkable increase in the numbers of his own tribe during the last such count) started issuing grim warnings, I began to think he probably knows what may be about to happen.

The exercise itself was quite professionally conducted, and the civil servants in charge seem to have done their best to do a good job in trying circumstances (though large pockets reportedly remain uncounted). But this thing is politically charged, and all the good work would be undone if anyone messes with the numbers after the event. It would also undermine all faith Kenyans still have in standing up to be counted. Let us all demand a true and accurate reflection of Kenya and its people.

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