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A rich person just walked in. Clap, everyone

There’s one thing you can pretty much guarantee in Kenya: if a rich person walks into a room pretty much everyone there will fall over their feet trying to greet or be noticed by the personage.

People are shameless about this. They slobber; they swoon; they hit new lows in obsequiousness. They make way for the big kahuna; they carry his bag; they salute and salivate; they laugh sycophantically at every vaguely humorous utterance he makes.

This kind of undue attention for the rich happens in pretty much every country; here, though, we take it to obscene levels.

What exactly are we applauding or celebrating? The money, not the person. The result, not the work. The score, not the game.

I have no problem with people being rich. None at all. It’s a byproduct of success, and success for one (mostly) results in success for many others. But wait: when we clap for the result and refuse to look at the game that was played, what exactly are we doing? Approving and propagating all the many unseemly, illegal and criminal ways in which people can make money.

Recently, the new sports betting phenomenon threw up its first ever big winner in this country. Some chap collected a couple of million dollars. That’s OK, that stuff happens. Good wishes to him. What was repugnant was the press report I saw shortly afterwards, telling us that the lucky fellow was lauded back home in a stadium! Every wannabe stooge gathered to sing for the newly great winner.

It was luck, people. It happens rarely, but it happens. Gambling throws up the occasional big winner, while ruining the lives of many others. There’s nothing to celebrate there. Note it and move on. But to make a gambler a returning hero shows a great sickness in us. We wish it had happened to us; and we hope that the fortunate fellow will throw a few banknotes in our direction if we ululate loudly enough in his direction.

Think about it. You didn’t know someone existed; you didn’t know a thing about his life; before his win, you couldn’t have cared less if he was reported dead. But now, all of a sudden, you are lining up to receive this person, to appreciate him, to record his merits. All because of a fluke.

That, however, is a minor example. We do much worse things. Even when we know money has been made in extremely bad ways, we still can’t stop adoring those who make it. Even a known criminal, looter and plunderer with a track record longer than his arm will get the same awe and attention wherever he goes.

Kenya is throwing up millionaires and billionaires every day. But take a hard look at what is being vomited up. Is this money that was made because of hard work, or unusual vision, or uncommon innovation, or extraordinary dedication? Or did it come from theft of public money; scamming of gullible customers; hoodwinking of unfortunate suppliers and partners; even the murder of innocents? Do you even care where it came from?

Why are we like this? Why are we worshipping the scorecard rather than the gameplan?

There are people worthy of applause and emulation all around us. Occasionally, they are rich; mostly, they are not. That’s not the point. You want to be in awe of people? Be in awe of those who are kind to people they are not related to. Be in awe of those who are wise enough to help others cope with their worries. Be in awe of those who stay humble and grounded even though life takes them to elevated stations. Be in awe of those who work hard even though no one rewards them for it.

If those people also happen to be rich, that’s fine. But applaud their qualities, not their bank accounts.

Many live lives of great meaning. They give a great deal. They build others up. They gain knowledge and give it out. They create strong families. Most never get any large financial reward for doing this, so they stay beneath our notice. Yet they are the ones we should be celebrating, not those who pick taxpayers’ pockets or run sophisticated swindles.

There is great meaning to be found in this life, but to find it we have to stop looking at wallets and purses and focus on virtues. Your wheels will rust, your threads will unravel. Only your kindnesses live on.

(Sunday Nation, 9 July 2017)

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