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We can’t let trust disappear from our lives

The other day I was caught in the usual Nairobi traffic jam, in a taxi with a driver I did not know. We heard an ambulance siren blaring behind us, and most cars in the gridlocked queue began making way by climbing onto the pavement.

But not everyone did this. To my surprise, even my own taxi driver held his ground until I told him to give way. When the ambulance had passed, I asked him why he was reluctant to do a good deed that might save someone’s life.

His answer? He did not believe the ambulance was involved in any emergency. He thought it was most likely just using its siren to get through rush-hour traffic. I asked him how he could possibly know that. He told me that all regular road-users know these tricks. They are too wise to fall for them!

I didn’t think about much else for the rest of that journey. I remembered a column I had written right here a while back, when lawyer Mugambi Nandi encountered the same behaviour in his taxi driver. Only the reason offered was (a little) different: in Mr Nandi’s case, the driver said he didn’t give way because few people did anymore.

We have to ask ourselves: where are we as city-dwellers when we don’t trust our ambulances? Allowing ambulances to get through should be a sacred duty – it could be the difference between life and death if someone critically ill is being rushed to the emergency room. But that only works if we trust that ambulance drivers will only use their sirens when they are indeed involved in emergency runs.

If we start suspecting that they are merely using their special powers and equipment for personal gain, the duty stops being sacred. And it seems many of Nairobi’s professional drivers, the diehards who know our roads and their users very well, no longer trust ambulance drivers. They refuse to be suckered by someone who might just be taking them for a ride.

Are you outraged? Probably not. It seems we modern Kenyans now expect the worst of everyone. We are cynical about everyone’s motives. We think everyone is in the self-gain game. We think everyone has a price.

But we should be outraged. No matter how far we have fallen, some things should be sacred. Those who save lives should be trusted and supported. Those who protect others should be beyond reproach. Those who guard the law should be on a higher calling. Those who lead us in prayer should be selfless and interested only in the greater good. Those who treat illness should be given special deference.

So where are we in our trust of our policemen, our lawyers, our judges, our priests, our doctors? Do we believe they are the great and the good of society? Do we trust that they uphold a higher duty, and deserve our respect and support? Or do we think they are all ‘ma-hustlers’ now, no better than thieves and con-men? And if can’t trust our higher-order professionals, is it any surprise that we also have our suspicions about lowly ambulance drivers?

What happened to us? We watched as our hallowed institutions were destroyed from within by parasites; and then we stopped believing in consequences. If taxi drivers don’t trust ambulance drivers, whose fault is that? I don’t think it lies with either set of drivers; they are just following what they believe to be the norms of the society they live in. The failure lies in institutions: in those that operate ambulances, who may have failed to uphold good practice; and in the traffic police, who give us no confidence that they would never allow such outrages to be perpetrated.

It’s dangerous, this breakdown in trust. It means we will allow genuine cases to die in ambulances; we will not report crimes; we will not believe priests speak for God; we will expect donations to be stolen; we will not feel any compulsion to behave properly in our own lives. This is how values are lost and societies are ruined.

If you have the power to set standards in any walk of life, I plead that you set them high and enforce them. Don’t let bad practice take root. Don’t let trust dissipate. Don’t let consequences be a laughing matter. Build, protect and nurture the trust we have in our fellow human beings. Trust is the glue of society. Without it, it’s a free for all. Don’t wait for a messiah to do it; rebuild it one drop at a time.

(Sunday Nation, 19 March 2017)

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