Cairo Museum’s house of the dead has an intriguing sign that reads “Silence No Talking!” At first I wondered why a room set aside with mummified bodies of ancient African kings and queens must demand silence. Once in, you won’t help it but find yourself wondering aloud: “Wow, the queens had hair braids similar to our modern women! Eh this king must have died a violent death…!” Can you imagine the amount of noise such exclamations coming from over thirty visitors speaking in different languages can produce?
My story is not about Cairo museum. It is about the noise we produce as experts, NGOs, policy makers, educators and politicians among others when we stare at poverty in Kenya and Africa. I have visited Kibera slum several times and boy, one’s ears cannot pick sounds produced by hundreds of NGOs that pitched tents in the slum.
I once accompanied a German TV crew to the Kibera slum. She enjoined me in the noise by asking: “Why do we have very poor living conditions for people in Kibera and just across the wall people stay in decent four bedroom houses?” I indicated that there were more reasons that one cannot pin down in one sentence. However in order of priority I selected the country’s education system as the main culprit. I assumed such an amorphous answer would take her back to her camera lenses to continue filming.
Instead, she stopped filming and narrated this story: She once visited Nairobi’s Giraffe Center as a tourist. At the center, there were kindergarten children on tour. Their teacher asked them over seven times; “Where are we?” and the innocent kids answered in unison “at the Giraffe Center!” Across the fence is a German school; she overheard the teacher explaining different types of colors to what she assumed were kindergarten children. Unlike the Kenya style recitation; she overheard an argument where the kids were asking their teacher; “Why is it blue?”
Since there are no signs stating “Silence in Kibera” we added to the noise of access road constructors close by. One wielding a machete joined us. He was very excited to share his slum life experience with the wazungus. “Big men have now promised new houses for us; you can see already we have roads and electricity.” I wondered silently, what are “small men” doing? As a traveler, I interact with people in various rural villages. The story is the same “big sister and big brother will do this and that for us.”
Reflecting on my answer to the German TV lady; I have decided to belatedly prioritize “surrendered leadership” as the main culprit. The culture of each individual being a leader in his or her own right has evaporated. Individuals have surrendered leadership to the educated professionals, the working class and to politicians. In a country of over 40 million, a class of less than two million is expected to carry the burden of the whole country. The ongoing economic recession together with the aspirations of many to live in similar affluence to that in the West makes it difficult for people to carry their own economic weight.
Surrendered leadership makes it easier for a society to specialize in blaming others for their woes. Kenya and by extension Africa must nurture a culture of responsibility and leadership at all levels. Thousands of NGOs have pitched their tents on the continent; the African person as if in a mummified state remains hypnotized. As 2010 knocks the door, each individual must seek to break out of the trance and claim leadership of their destiny. Where are we? Why should 2010 get us in the state we are in?
James Shikwati firstname.lastname@example.org is Director of Inter Region Economic Network.