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My 1000th column: the ride so far

Today marks my 1000th column on this page. That’s quite a ride. 

I still recall my first few columns in early 2003. I had finally left paid employment, and was ready to let my opinions rip, without fear or favour. I was uncertain of my focus, though, and tentative in my approach. With encouragement from the editors of the day, I kept going. Slowly, I found my voice.

It was a special time. A new government was in play in Kenya, and there was genuine hope in the air that we would experience a fresh dawn in our politics and governance. I, too, was enthusiastic and forceful on this page, offering up ideas and criticisms in equal measure.

President Kibaki is no longer with us, and he has been feted as the man who led Kenya’s economic renaissance. To me, his legacy is something deeper. He allowed many more Kenyans to find their voices, to express themselves, to be vehement and even vituperative—without repercussions. Our open national dialogue was born in that time, after years of suppressed opinions and muted whispers.

The Kibaki government soon ran into problems, and I, too, was stinging in my rebukes. But not once was I asked to rein it in or be more measured. Quite the contrary: to my surprise, I received word that the president followed my work, and encouraged me to carry on. I recount this today because it displays the late Mwai Kibaki’s special gentlemanly mien: tolerance of contrarians and dissenters, and a lack of ego in his dealings with all and sundry. That was what allowed this column to arrive, and to keep going.

Did the country really cover itself in glory in the years after, though? It would be hard to argue that it did. Our politics remains tribal and infantile. Corruption was not only never tamed, it has become a way of life. Our economy sputters along fitfully, never quite taking off as we all know it can. Leadership has been reduced to jeering and sloganeering. Naked self-interest reigns supreme, and is applauded.

Halfway through these 1000 columns, a close friend asked me: why do you continue to write every Sunday? What good does it do? What changes as a result? That gave me pause. Could I continue to tell myself that I wrote in the national interest or to help businesses become better, when there was no visible evidence of any meaningful impact? I pondered that question for a long time.

My answer, when I found it, was this: that I write not for immediate impact, but because I must. I write to influence, not to direct. I create a point of view, and it is for others to make  of it what they wish. I write because writing is as important as results are. 

In this, I encountered an unlikely ally. I was once teaching a strategy class at Strathmore University Business School, and found myself seated at lunch next to a visiting American professor. He had been doing a tour of Nairobi and meeting a wide range of people. He told me he was very positive, very optimistic about Kenya’s future. I asked him why—had he seen the entrenched inequality and poverty, did he know how bad the corruption problem was?

His answer threw me. He saw it all, he said—he remained positive despite that knowledge. He reminded me that only a few decades ago, his country, the USA, was in the hands of organized crime. The Mafia ran the show. It took huge personal and institutional effort to change this situation. You guys will do it too, he told me, when the time is right. History is measured in decades and centuries, and in long cycles—not in years and moods. 

I came away enlightened, ready to keep writing, but also to give my work as an advisor and educator a longer timeframe. I began to understand that any impact this generation will have will not be for itself, but for the generations that follow. We are forebears, not beneficiaries. We must set the tone and the example and then fade away. We will not be the result; we may not even see it. And that is just fine.

My thanks then, to my many editors over the years. This column is positioned in the business pages of the newspaper, and purportedly offers business opinions. But it has never been just that. I am grateful for the freedom to roam. I write about business and strategy and leadership, yes; but also about matters more philosophical and spiritual, and often matters more everyday and earthy.

Allow me to continue this moment of millenary reflection next week, when I will recount some personal lessons gathered in the journey thus far.

(Sunday Nation, 5 June 2022)

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