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This young woman spoke for us all

Aug 20, 2023 Leadership, Life & Society

Well done, Mercy Tarus.

The young woman from Uasin Gishu stood up at a public meeting in Eldoret recently and said her piece, with no filter. She had every right and every reason to do so.

She was on the attack because of the county’s botched airlift education programme. Parents paid big money under the controversial scheme—and now it cannot be accounted for. It was apparently never remitted to the participating institutions in Finland and Canada. The students have therefore never benefited, nor is there any sign of their money being refunded.

Mercy’s annoyance was triggered by the very late start to the meeting—and the lack of answers forthcoming about the scandal. When she took the microphone, she pointed out that parents and youngsters had travelled long distances to attend the meeting, while the big shots causing the delay came in luxury transportation. But that was only the beginning of her onslaught.

In measured terms, she highlighted the fact that the children of leaders do not suffer the consequences of botched programmes. Some of them were Mercy’s schoolmates, and she knows exactly in which parts of the world they now study. She asked the leaders to tell the truth about what happened, rather than insincere platitudes. She underscored the very real consequences for ordinary people when they raise money to educate their children: properties sold, loans taken, dreams shattered—not to mention the medical ailments that trauma brings.

The issue is under investigation, and it is not for any of us to judge who is guilty of what. But it is absolutely fine for Mercy to express her anger and disappointment at this outrage. The video of her short speech went quickly viral. It reached me and other Kenyans in a foreign capital on the day, and we all clapped for her. 

Later, she got pushback for being disrespectful of her elders. Hey, people: it is far, far more disrespectful to treat the struggles of ordinary people with nonchalant disdain—and that is the norm in this country. I say full marks to Mercy—she said more in a few minutes than multitudes before her have been capable of.

It starts early in life, this forced obeisance. The parents of generations past could brook no disrespect from their children, no questions around their authority or decision-making, no matter how flawed. It continued in schools, where teachers were often tinpot dictators. In my time as a schoolboy, my entire class was once whipped for having the temerity to celebrate the home-time bell. And I was rebuked many times simply for asking questions in class that raised the slightest doubt, no matter how politely, of the wisdom of what we were being taught.

The consequences of timid passivity have been with us for a long time. I have wondered many times on this page: what became of our moral outrage? Collective money is routinely plundered in huge quantities, with appalling consequences. We have become a land where the poor have their health stolen from them; where their children are left uneducated for life, even though funding was provided; where men of the cloth steal from the devout; where even the dead can be looted. Should we stay polite and respectful in these circumstances?

Numbed as they are, most people look away. They view this kind of perfidy as somehow natural; and their continuing poverty and inequality as unavoidable. Let me repeat what I wrote more than a decade ago: “These problems are not visited upon us from outside. They are our own doing. We have constructed this sick society that steals from orphans and refugees, and treats the lives of poor people no better than those of dogs. We must heal ourselves. At the very least, let us not forget to feel the outrage. It’s not OK.”

Who, after all, ends injustice and tyranny? It is not those who are quiescent in the face of their own denuding. It is not those who tolerate outrages fatalistically and apathetically. It is not those who join in the plunder because that’s what everyone does. It is not those who become the handmaidens and enablers of corruption.

Progress and change have come, throughout human history, from the unquiet, the vocal, and the vehement. Those who feel injustice and incompetence acutely and personally are the ones who stand up to do something about it. All movements for change begin from a single voice. If that voice resonates, more join in until the cacophony is too loud to be silenced.

Speaking out is, of course, not for everyone. Most will not have the gumption to criticise their elders and betters. That’s OK too. But at a minimum, when we feel we have common cause with those braver than us, we should support them in whatever way we can, particularly when they are speaking out or working for the common good.

So thank you Mercy, for having the nerve to say what your elders won’t. May your generation be the one to end the silent acceptance of mediocrity and treachery. May your voices echo all over the land, until those in charge get it once and for all: we can’t be like this.

(Sunday Nation, 20 August 2023)

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Picture credit: Oleg Laptev on Unsplash